THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD TRANSFORMS DESPERATION INTO DELIGHT IN SURPRISING WAYS
The personal deliverance of Esther and Mordecai was certainly significant. But the larger issue remains = the fate of the Jewish people as a whole. God’s promises about blessing those who bless His covenant people and cursing those who curse them certainly prove out in this context. The ironic reversals of fortune continue as the working of divine providence leads to some surprising developments.
Duguid: It was that great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra who came up with the memorable slogan, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It was, perhaps, Yogi’s own version of the more highbrow saying, “The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings”—which anyone who has ever endured a full-length Wagnerian opera will recognize as a fairly accurate plot summary.
So too, this biblical soap opera, The Days of Esther’s Life, is not yet at its conclusion. Many issues have been resolved already. The villainous Haman has met his comeuppance—literally, with the aid of his own seventy-five foot pole. Esther and Mordecai also receive their reward at the beginning of Esther 8, in the shape of Haman’s confiscated estate and a promotion for Mordecai. . . However, Haman’s edict to exterminate the Jews had not yet been reversed: it was still hanging over their heads like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Perhaps it would yet turn out that the laws of the Medes and the Persians really could not be changed, and all of Esther’s efforts would have been wasted. Much still hangs in the balance at this point in the story.
Breneman: With Haman out of the way, Esther requested that the Jews be spared of the approaching massacre. Since the king was unable to overturn an official edict, he made another edict authorizing the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who would attack them. Because of Esther, the Jews now had hope for deliverance.
Constable: Even though Haman was now dead, the Jews were not yet safe. This section of the text records what Esther and Mordecai did to ensure the preservation of the Jews who then lived throughout the vast Persian Empire. The death of Haman is not the major climax of the book.
[Outline of 4 major points inspired by breakdown by David Strain]
I. (:1-2) THE SURPRISING REWARDS BESTOWED BY THE KING
A. (:1a) Surprising Reward of Property — Ownership of Haman’s Property Granted to Esther
“On that day King Ahasuerus gave the house of Haman,
the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther;”
Tomasino: In ancient Persia, betrayal of the king meant not only loss of life, but loss of property. . . So with Haman dead, the ownership of his estate would have been transferred to Xerxes, who could dispose of it however he saw fit. In a rare case of personal initiative, the king decides to bestow it on Esther, either to compensate her for her grief, or to demonstrate his royal favor.
B. (:1b-2) Surprising Reward of Power — Leadership Authority Granted to Mordecai
“and Mordecai came before the king,
for Esther had disclosed what he was to her.
And the king took off his signet ring which he had taken away from
Haman, and gave it to Mordecai.”
Tomasino: Mordecai’s promotion here might support the theory presented above regarding Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman (see commentary on 3:1)—that Mordecai refused to bow because he felt Haman had received the promotion unjustly, and that it should have been his. In that case, Xerxes’ elevation of Mordecai would simply be righting the wrong that had led to all the unpleasantness in the first place.
C. (:2b) Surprising Reward of Prestige — Stewardship of Haman’s Property Granted to Mordecai
“And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.”
Tomasino: In yet another interesting reversal, Esther bestows mastery of Haman’s property on Mordecai. The act demonstrates her growth as a character: when she is introduced to the audience, she is an orphan, taken in by Mordecai. Now, she serves as his benefactor.
Frederic Bush: She begins by informing the king of all that Mordecai is to her (v lb), which probably implies not just the fact of their blood relationship but the quality of that relationship (cf. 2:7, 10–11, 20) and of Mordecai’s character. As a result, Mordecai fully assumes Haman’s position as the grand vizier. First, like Haman (6:4), he is admitted to the status of those who have access to the king without a specific summons (v 1b). Then the king gives him his signet ring, which he had taken away from Haman (v 2a; cf. 3:10), thus transferring to him the power to act with the king’s full authority that was previously Haman’s (cf. 3:12c; 8:8). Finally, Esther appoints him to be the administrator of Haman’s property (v 2b), thus giving him the resources appropriate to his new status. It is important to note that this is all effected by Esther. It is because she informs the king of all that Mordecai is to her that he is admitted into the royal presence and made vizier in Haman’s place (he had already been rewarded for saving the king’s life, 6:1–11). It is she who appoints him over Haman’s estate. This, then, is all part of her preparations for dealing with Haman’s edict, for Mordecai’s position and power as vizier will play a critical role in nullifying that threat.
II. (:3-8) THE SURPRISING REQUEST GRANTED BY THE KING
A. (:3-6) Critical Appeal to the King
1. (:3) Emotional Appeal
“Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept, and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews.”
Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship: Despite this massive power shift and the acquisition of wealth unimaginable, Esther does not lose her focus or forget the reason she was brought to the palace in the first place. Esther knows that there is still a death warrant standing for her whole people. And she falls to her knees in desperation and humility:
Tomasino: Apparently, however, Esther is not actually seeking another audience; she never left the king’s presence in the first place. The text does not say that she “came before” the king, but merely “spoke before” the king. The plea she presents here occurs on the same day as her banquet with the king and Haman. Very likely, there has been a change of location back to the throne room; it seems unlikely that the king would have taken his golden scepter to the queen’s banquet. But there is no reason not to assume this episode is a continuation of the appeal made at the banquet.
2. (:4) Favorable Appeal
“And the king extended the golden scepter to Esther.
So Esther arose and stood before the king.”
F. B. Huey Jr.: Some commentators (e.g. Paton) assume that Esther risked her life a second time to come uninvited into the king’s presence, because the king again extended his scepter to her (cf. 4:11; 5:1-2). However, the scepter was extended only after her emotional plea and not at the moment of her entrance before the king. Therefore his gesture was intended to encourage her to rise from her prostate position before continuing to speak.
3. (:5) Legal Appeal
“Then she said, ‘If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces.’”
Duguid: Esther prefaced her request with a long preamble in four parts . . . Two of these clauses dealt with whether the matter to be discussed was acceptable to the king, while the other two asked whether Esther herself was acceptable. These two themes were inextricably linked, for the only real reason for the king to grant her request was his favor toward her. Esther made no reference to right and wrong, justice and injustice. Those were not categories that registered with the empire. All she could do was to appeal to Ahasuerus’s own self-interest, as it related to her.
4. (:6) Personal Appeal
“For how can I endure to see the calamity which shall befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?”
Tomasino: Should the legal appeal fail, Esther adds a personal appeal. The destruction of her people would be an unbearable tragedy for the queen herself. If the king truly loves her, would he not desire to spare her such heartache? He has already stated by his actions that she has “found favor in his eyes.” Even if he cares nothing for the Jews, he cannot deny that he cares for her.
B. (:7-8) Calculated Approval Granted by the King
1. (:7) Direct Action — Haven’t I Done Enough Already?
“So King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, ‘Behold, I have given the house of Haman to Esther, and him they have hanged on the gallows because he had stretched out his hands against the Jews.’”
2. (:8) Delegated Action — You and Mordecai Complete What is Necessary
“Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.”
Tomasino: King Xerxes, as usual, is unwilling to take any action personally. The use of the personal pronoun “you” (אַתֶּם, ʾattem) here is redundant, and certainly emphatic. The king is definitively washing his hands of the matter, delegating it to his queen and new prime minister. One frequently suggested explanation for his reluctance to be involved is that he does not want to be forced into a situation where he will be required to override his own orders. This explanation seems unlikely, however, since the king allows the decree to be written in his own name. A more likely scenario, it seems, is that he simply does not want to be bothered with the problem of reversing an irrevocable decree. I have noted several times that this Xerxes is unable to make a decision on his own, depending on his counselors and even his attendants (as in 7:9) to help determine his course of action. Berlin (75) further observes that Esther and Mordecai are cast fully in the role of the heroes. It is they who deliver the Jews, not the Persian king.
McConville: Esther now pleads as only she can. The king shows that he is basically well disposed to whatever she might ask by extending the sceptre, perhaps simply indicating this time that she need not prostrate herself to address him (as she has done, v. 3). Yet, knowing that she asks the unaskable, she goes on to stir a mix of flattery and coyness (v. 5) which must have been irresistible. (Notice the alternation of phrases which emphasize the king’s right to do as he wishes with phrases which draw attention to Esther’s desire to please him, v. 5a.) She then comes to the point (vv. 5b, 6) and secures what the king evidently regards as the best deal he can offer. The decree cannot be revoked. Esther and Mordecai—now recognized as a “team”, since the “you” in verse 8 is plural and thus addressed to them both—may devise a further decree “as they please”. (This sweeping permission corresponds to that originally given to Haman, 3:11.) And so the stage is set for a great turning of the tables.
III. (:9-14) THE SURPRISING REVERSALS OF THE PREVIOUS EDICT
A. (:9) Scripting of the New Edict
“So the king’s scribes were called at that time in the third month (that is, the month Sivan), on the twenty-third day; and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces which extended from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces, to every province according to its script, and to every people according to their language, as well as to the Jews according to their script and their language.”
Tomasino: As many scholars have noted, the time span could itself be significant: two months and ten days is the equivalent of seventy days. Seventy is a significant biblical number, being the product of two numbers that represent completion, seven and ten. The importance of the number is illustrated in numerous Bible passages: Jacob took seventy Israelites to Egypt (Gen 46:27); the Egyptians mourned Jacob seventy days (Gen 50:3); seventy elders presided over Israel (Exod 24:1; Num 11:16–25); seventy years was considered a full life span (Psa 90:10). Clines (316) sees a reference here to the seventy years of the Babylonian exile: in his understanding, the time between the threat of annihilation and the issuance of reprieve represents the time between Judah’s downfall and its return. It is difficult, however, to see much similarity between the joy the Jews felt at the death of Haman and promotion of Mordecai and the despair they would have felt at the destruction of Jerusalem. Nor is it altogether obvious that the return from the Babylonian exile figured prominently in this narrator’s thinking. As a Jew of the Diaspora, Cyrus’ decree may have meant little to him.
B. (:10a) Sealing of the New Edict
“And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus,
and sealed it with the king’s signet ring,”
C. (:10b) Sending of the New Edict
“and sent letters by couriers on horses,
riding on steeds sired by the royal stud.”
D. (:11) Substance of the New Edict
“In them the king granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate the entire army of any people or province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil,”
Breneman: To whom were they to do this? The object of the verbs is “any armed force … that might attack them.” But the end of the sentence appears to give the Jews the right to plunder any of their enemies. Many ask why the decree was so harsh. Moore says it was the wisdom doctrine of retributive justice that the author was showing here, for that was what the edict of Haman proclaimed against the Jews. Haman’s followers were to reap what they had sown. Crucial at this point, however, is the fact that the Jews would act in self-defense.
Tomasino: Several scholars (e.g., Jobes, 184; Laniak, 253; Levenson, 110–11) see the slaughter of the women and children as a completion of the destruction of the Amalekites. In that case, the issue of morality is shifted back from Mordecai’s decree to God’s decree for the destruction of the Amalekites (Exod 17:14; 1 Sam 15:3). Since the extermination of the Amalekites is treated as a matter of divine judgment, the destruction of the Jews’ enemies in Esther—women and children included—must then be viewed in the same light. While this explanation is appealing because of its literary symmetry, it is difficult to imagine that all the Jews’ enemies were considered to be Amalekites.
One consideration that has received little attention is that the destruction of women and children prescribed by Mordecai’s decree—and Yahweh’s earlier decrees—must be understood in light of the corporate responsibility characteristic of OT thought. The idea of “corporate personality,” once prominent in biblical studies, has been largely abandoned in current scholarship, but the notion of “corporate responsibility” is well-recognized. Essentially, it means that an entire family or ethnic group could be held responsible for the actions of an individual or individuals within the group. When Achan stole some of the plunder of Jericho, God proclaimed, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant” (Josh 7:11). All Israel suffered because of his guilt when Israel was defeated at Ai (7:1–5), and Achan’s entire family was executed for the sins of this one man (7:24–25). Similarly, when David sinned by conducting a census of Israel, God sent a plague that destroyed 70,000 men (2 Sam 24:1–25). The entire nation was punished for one man’s transgression. In a similar manner, in the book of Esther the women and children of Israel’s enemies bore the same guilt as the men. While this concept may be repugnant to us—indeed, the OT itself seems at times to repudiate it (Jer 31:29–30; Ezek 18:1–3)—there are positive elements to the idea of corporate responsibility, because it goes hand-in-hand with corporate election.
Deffinbaugh: This new law is just what Esther pled for—a reversal of the decree made law by Haman. And that is precisely what bothers me. I believe the author intended for the wording of the new law of Mordecai to bother us. Revenge is getting even or getting back. The new law of Mordecai does not merely grant the Jews permission to defend themselves; it grants them permission to avenge themselves. Self defense would involve granting the Jews the right to assemble and to fight back if attacked. But the words of Mordecai’s law go much farther. They go every bit as far as Haman’s law, only in reverse. The Jews are given license to “kill, destroy, and to annihilate,” not just those who did attack them, but “the entire army of any people who might attack them.” And those whom they could kill included women and children. I may be reading between the lines, but it seems the Jews were granted to kill virtually anyone they perceived to be a threat—or even a potential threat.
What I am about to say is not popular, but I believe it should be said. The Jews, from the days of Esther to the present, celebrate Purim, and thus the defeat of the “enemies of the Jews.” I think the law which permitted the Jews to kill their Persian enemies was no less a permit to practice genocide than were the German laws or principles which permitted their attempt to annihilate the Jewish race. Genocide is genocide, regardless of whether it is practiced against Jews or by Jews. I find it strangely inconsistent for Jews to fiercely protest against the brutality of the Germans and yet to celebrate the slaughter of Persians. The magnitude of these two atrocities may have been different, but the essence seems similar. The law of Mordecai made it legal for the Jews to practice the same brutality against the Persians as Haman had made legal against Jews.
E. (:12) Scope of the New Edict in Terms of its One Day Duration
“on one day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month Adar).”
Joyce Baldwin: Such killing was liable to escalate into an ongoing vendetta, but by specifying the date, limits were set and the bloodshed contained.
F. (:13) Significance of the New Edict
“A copy of the edict to be issued as law in each and every province,
was published to all the peoples, so that the Jews should be ready for this day
to avenge themselves on their enemies.”
Tomasino: The word “vengeance” (נָקַם, nāqam) is very significant in this context. For Baldwin (98), this word provides the moral imperative for the slaughter: “This was justice, not revenge.” As Fox notes, “NQM never refers to a simple defense or rescue, but everywhere designates a punitive action and presupposes a prior wrong, that is, some offense to which the avenging party is responding.” In this initial decree, at least, the Jews are not simply given carte blanche to do away with anyone they do not like. It is possible that the decree could be understood broadly to refer to anyone who has afflicted the Jews in the past. It is apparent throughout the narrative that there is some stigma attached to being Jewish, since Mordecai wished to conceal Esther’s Jewishness. The Jews might well have been subject to prejudice, and this vengeance might have included anyone who had insulted or abused the Jews in the past. More likely, however, it specifically empowered the Jews to respond to anyone who followed Haman’s decree and attacked them on the thirteenth of Adar.
G. (:14) Circulation of the New Edict
“The couriers, hastened and impelled by the king’s command, went out,
riding on the royal steeds; and the decree was given out in Susa the capital.”
Breneman: The verbs “riding,” “raced out,” and “spurred” heighten the urgency of the narrative. The edict also was issued in the area of the palace, no doubt to confirm Mordecai’s position before the king.
Tomasino: Though the day of attack is still nine months away, Mordecai’s decree (like Haman’s edict; 3:14) goes forth in great haste. Indeed, there is even more urgency attached to this edict than Haman’s. Some commentators have expressed puzzlement over the need for speed: as Berlin (78) notes, Herodotus claimed that due to the great efficiency of the Persian postal system, it took only three months for a message to circulate through the entire empire (Hist. 5.52–3). Nonetheless, it would take some time to assemble, equip, and train the Jews into an army, so the haste is understandable on purely pragmatic grounds.
There are also literary considerations at play. Each detail shows how Mordecai and his decree do not merely parallel Haman and his decree, but go it one better: Xerxes gives Haman the signet ring only when he needs to authorize a decree (3:10), but Mordecai receives it from the start; Haman’s decree goes forth by couriers (3:13), while Mordecai’s goes forth by couriers mounted on special royal steeds; Haman’s decree goes out in “haste” (3:15), but Mordecai’s decree goes out with “urgent haste.” Mordecai has triumphed over Haman in every particular.
Whitcomb: Four main ideas seem to be set forth in Mordecai’s decree:
(a) the Jews were to gather into groups by the thirteenth of Adar;
(b) they were to defend their lives;
(c) they were to kill those who attacked them; and
(d) they were to take the spoil of their attackers
IV. (:15-17) THE SURPRISING RESPONSES OF EXALTATION, JOY AND FEAR
A. (:15a) Surprising Response of Exaltation of Mordecai
“Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a large crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple;”
Tomasino: Mordecai’s new clothes illustrate his new status. As noted earlier, a change of clothing in this narrative typically indicates a change of position. This motif is not unique to the book of Esther: both Joseph (Gen 41:42) and Daniel (Dan 5:7, 29) also received stately robes to accompany their promotion to high status by foreign monarchs. What is more, Xerxes’ command to clothe Mordecai in Xerxes’ own robe in 6:11 now seems almost prophetic. The honor he received at that time foreshadowed the honor he now receives from the king.
Though Mordecai undoubtedly received new garments when he was promoted to vizier, the narrative withholds the description until this point. There is a reason for the delay: once again, reversal is at work. When Mordecai had heard of Haman’s decree, he had taken off his garments and clothed himself in sackcloth (4:1). So attired, he could not enter into the king’s gate (4:2). Now, when he issues his own decree, he is clothed in splendor. He can stand in the very presence of the king.
Upon Mordecai’s head is a golden headdress (עֲטֶרֶת, ʿăṭeret, typically translated “crown”). The noun comes from a root meaning “to surround,” and may refer to any ornament that is worn on the head. The term is used to designate the royal crown in 2 Sam 12:30, but merely some kind of jewelry in Ezek 23:42. It is uncertain what Mordecai was wearing, but it is somewhat misleading to refer to it as a “crown,” which in English usually implies kingship.
B. (:15b-17a) Surprising Response of Joy – Both by the City of Susa and the Jews
1. (:15b) By the City of Susa
“and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced.”
2. (:16-17a) By the Jews
a. (:16) Response of Happiness and Honor
“For the Jews there was light and gladness and joy and honor.”
Laniak: There were two primary responses to Mordecai’s edict and his promotion: happiness and honor. “Light” is synonymous here with “honor”; “joy” (sason) is synonymous with “gladness” (Jer. 31:13). These terms are arranged in chiasm. The happiness of the Jews replaces the happiness of Haman when he was honored (by the queen’s invitation in 5:9) and when a plan was in place to eliminate his enemy (5:14). Jewish “feasting and celebrating” (v. 17) mark the reversal of the fasting and mourning of 4:2–3 (both being the response to Mordecai’s appearance). Mordecai is the barometer for the security and status of the Jewish people.
b. (:17a) Response of Celebration
“And in each and every province, and in each and every city, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree arrived, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a feast and a holiday.”
C. (:17b) Surprising Response of Fear – Leading to Greater Jewish Influence
“And many among the peoples of the land became Jews,
for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.”
Frederic Bush: The enemies of the Jews might have been aware of an unnamed power ranged on the side of the Jews, but in the context it can hardly be some sense of the numinous that prompts the non-Jewish peoples to profess to be Jews, let alone a religious awe of the God of the Jews. It is surely, rather, the dread of the superior political and military power now wielded by Mordecai and the Jewish community that prompts their profession. . .
Clearly our story has reached its resolution. But that resolution is not yet complete. The crisis that set the story in motion was Haman’s having written into immutable Persian law the edict that all the peoples of the empire were to be ready to annihilate all the Jews and to plunder their goods on one day, the thirteenth of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. Given the immutability of Persian law, it has not been possible simply to rescind Haman’s edict. What Mordecai has been able to do is write and promulgate a counteredict that gives the Jews specific royal permission to defend themselves by destroying any and all who attack them. Hence, even though the Jews are now in the ascendancy with Esther as queen and Mordecai as grand vizier, the Jewish community is not yet safe, for Haman’s edict still holds legal sway. It can in no way be taken for granted that, when 13 Adar comes, no one will rise against the Jews and seek to put the edict into effect. The crisis that set our story in motion still waits to be fully resolved, for 13 Adar still looms in the future as a day in which countervailing edicts and those that support them will yet face one another. Victory may seem secured, as the Jews’ joy and celebrations affirm, but it is yet to be realized (cf. Fox, Redaction, 110–12).
John Martin: Their rise to power caused many Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes. God’s good hand was then becoming obvious to the world at large. No longer were these events being viewed simply as happenstance; now people were beginning to realize that the God of the Jews was protecting them.
Duguid: How ironic! No sooner had Esther conquered her fear and revealed her true identity with respect to her Jewishness than many of the pagans around her apparently chose to pretend to be Jewish, motivated by precisely the same type of fear. Some may indeed have been genuinely converted, motivated to join God’s people by the fear of the Lord. But others were motivated more by their fear of the Jews.