Purim: Christian reflection on a Jewish holiday

Is the Book of Esther repeating itself?

Originally appeared at the Washington Times on March 22, 2024 and Christian Post on March 23, 2024.

Purim, which begins on Saturday March 23, is a Jewish holiday, not a public holiday. And yet it should be remembered by others — especially this year — and especially by Christians.

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Purim, also called the Festival of Lots, recalls a riveting story found in The Hebrew Scroll of Esther, or what Christians call the Book of Esther. It’s about the near genocide of the Jews in 6th century BC Persia (current day Iran) when that empire spanned all the way from Egypt to India.

The story begins with King Ahasuerus’s search for a new queen. One of the women he abducted to his harem was a Jewish girl named Hadassah, or Esther, who was being raised by her cousin Mordechai. Although Esther at first hid her identity as a Jew, she was the one chosen by the king to be his new queen. While trying to get control of his empire, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman to become his prime minister and eradicate all dissent in the court. Haman was an evil man, an Agagite, a descendent of the Amalekites, sworn enemies of the Jews.

As Haman rose to power he demanded a god-like loyalty of a state religion. But one man, Mordechai, would not bow down in his presence. Haman was furious and decided to take his hatred of the Jews to a new level. He prepared a gallows to execute Mordechai, and he asked the king to issue a decree “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews in the empire, young and old, women and children, in one day.” Haman even cast lots to determine the best time for this genocide.

Through an extraordinary turn of events, Haman’s plot was discovered by Mordechai who persuaded Esther to bring the matter before the king. Exhibiting extraordinary courage and shrewd political wisdom, Esther did just that. When he learned of the plot, the king was furious and ordered that Haman be hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordechai! He also reversed his decree and allowed the Jews to defend their lives from those who were their avowed enemies. When the Jews read the king’s revised decree “there was gladness and joy…a feast and a holiday” — which we now know as Purim — to be “remembered and kept throughout every generation.”

But the big question is “why?” Why retell it? And why should not only Jews, but Christians retell it?

To begin with, it is in our Bibles and there for a purpose. It is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God’s name! But this silence reminds us that God is providentially at work in hidden ways. He worked through Esther and Mordechai to save Israel. Of course, for Christians, Esther is part of a much larger story that runs from Abraham to Jesus Christ. If Haman succeeded and the Jews were destroyed, God’s saving work through Abraham and his seed would be blocked.

Add to that the fact that this book speaks to antisemitism in our time. It reminds us that we are dealing not just with a contemporary events, but with “the world’s oldest hatred.” The university chants of “from the river to the sea,” the crowds chanting “gas the Jews,” the physical assaults, the bomb threats, and yes the United Nations workers that joined Hamas on the day of attack all remind us that Haman and his crowd are alive and well. The events of October 7 were not just a one-time deal, but part of an old pattern. The times of Esther are repeated. We should alert our friends and families to this horrific fact.

This story also lifts up the need for Esthers and Mordechais today. They exhibited shrewd political wisdom. They did not sit back as quietists, but risked everything for the sake of right and truth. Mordechai said to Esther, “who knows but that you were born for such a time as this.”

Here the Bible gives a vivid account of the Jews defending themselves from those who hoped to slaughter them. In a situation not unlike the one that Israel finds itself in today, we see that sometimes preemptive action is necessary. The end of the book recounts how the Jews of Esther’s day took decisive action and gained mastery over their enemies. Had they not, those same people would have continued to plot against them.

What should we do with this year’s feast of Purim? The day is often celebrated with traditions such as festive meals, plays, pranks, gift giving, and street parties. My rabbi friend tells me that too often Jews trivialize this holiday.

My advice to Jews and Christians this year is to read and re-read the book of Esther. Remember what happened. Memorialize it so that we do not forget. And be awake to what is still happening. Take it with deep seriousness. Celebrate the miracle of Esther and her people and do not be silent.

Categories: Antisemitism, Bible, Culture, Global History and Events, Politics | Comments

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