Oh man. Esther in 45 minutes. At least give me 2 sessions! There are so many types of salvation in this story which we couldn't get into.
The Troublesome Greeks, Esther 1
The Persians appointed satraps (governors) over the many provinces of the empire. The Greeks were particularly troublesome, as they had numerous city states, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes rebelling against Medo-Persian rule. Some Greek cities accepted Persian rule, others sought independence.
As our story begins, Xerxes has spent the first 3 years of his rule finishing the preparations for a massive invasion of Greece begun by his father. Herodotus lists 2,641,610 soldiers, which with support personel would make an army of 5 million. (Other sources list as "few" as 2 million.) The final planning session lasts 6 months, and involves all the generals from at least 46 provinces of the empire. The book of Esther opens with this extended strategy session described as a 180 day "feast". At the end of the session, there is a 7 day celebration.
While Xerxes is in conference (or feasting) with his generals, Vashti his loyal queen has the wives of the governors and generals at the women's palace. In addition to having their own party, they are effectively hostages against any assasination attempts on Xerxes.
On the last day of the 7 day celebration, Xerxes has too much to drink, and orders Vashti to appear before the men wearing [only] her royal crown. For Vashti to obey, in addition to the personal humiliation, would put Xerxes life at risk. She refuses.
Having the queen refuse a direct order on the eve of battle is a very bad start for the invasion of Greece. His advisors have him banish Vashti (a permanent restraining order). Now the king is depressed - an even worse start for the invasion of Greece.
The invasion sets off for Greece with millions, and returns with 10,000, and only marginal success in putting the troublesome Greeks in their place. The expense of the invasion was enormous, the loss of life staggering, and this setback is a national disaster. The popular (and very violent) movie "300" depicts the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans hold back tens of thousands of Persian troops (from every part of the empire), before finally succumbing to exhaustion on the 3rd day.
Introducing Esther, Esther 2
After losing his Queen, and only technically winning the war, Xerxes is really in a bad way. His advisors advise him to find new love in a beauty contest with involuntary contestants from all over the empire. He chooses Hadassah (hidden) as his new Queen, but he knows her as Esther (after the goddess Ishtar, the namesake of Easter), for her uncle Mordecai has instructed her to keep her heritage hidden.
Introducing Mordecai, Esther 2:21-23
When David flees the rebellion of his son Absalom, Shimei, descendent of Saul, throws stones at David and curses him. His men go to execute Shimei, but David commands that he be spared. Centuries later, Mordecai, a descendent of Shimei, is instrumental in saving all Israel. [2 Samuel 16]
Mordecai "sits in the kings gate", which means he was a government clerk or lawyer. The "gate" was the ancient version of the courthouse or DMV.
After nearly bankrupting the empire, Xerxes is hated by many citizens, and there are many assassination plots. In fact, he is eventually assassinated. In August 465 BC, Artabanus assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. Greek historians give contradicting accounts of events. According to Ctesias (in Persica 20), Artabanus then accused the Crown Prince Darius, Xerxes's eldest son, of the murder and persuaded another of Xerxes's sons, Artaxerxes, to avenge the patricide by killing Darius. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then killed Xerxes. After Artaxerxes discovered the murder, he killed Artabanus and his sons.
Mordecai overhears one such plot, and reports it to the king. The matter is investigated, and found to be true, and the conspirators executed. There is no reward for Mordecai - it will come at the perfect time.
Introducing Haman, Esther 3
In Exodus 17, Israel is attacked by the Amalekites. God says he will "wipe out their name". 1 Samuel 15, God tells Saul to wipe out the Amalekites. He mostly does so - except for king Agag and his family. Good thinking Saul - it's not like the survivors are going to carry a generational grudge against Israel or anything. Samuel executes Agag, but his sons escape. But the survivors are no longer called Amalekites in fulfillment of prophecy - they become the Agagites.
Centuries later, Haman, a descendent of Agag, is instrumental in nearly destroying all Israel.
Descendent of Saul versus descendent of Agag - the rematch!
Haman is promoted to prime minister. Everyone on the street bows to him - except that miserable clerk Mordecai. This is against the kings command, and Haman looks into the matter to see what punishment is in order for Mordecai. To his consternation, he discovers a 100 year old decree from Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:29 - the Jewish Religious Freedom Protection Act. "Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed–nego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort." (We covered Daniel 3 on December 13 in sunday school - sadly, I forgot to make this connection in class today.)
Since the Jewish religion forbade bowing to anyone except their God (who didn't even have a statue to bow to), and decrees of the kings of the Babylonian and Persian (and even Greek until Antiochus IV) empires could not be repealed, and no one wanted to be cut in pieces, the commandent to bow before Haman had an exception clause for Jews. Clearly, the only way to remove this affront to Haman's dignity is to exterminate all the Jews, as their ancestors had done to his.
Haman makes his pitch to Xerxes by describing the Jews as a troublesome lot that did not keep his laws and should be exterminated. But the best part? It would be paid for by Haman personally, and by confiscating the property of the Jews killed. Still paying off the disastrous invasion of Greece, a self financed operation seems like a great feature, and getting rid of a troublesome people so cheaply would help people forget the Greek disaster. Xerxes issues the decree. The citizens are not so happy. This Jewish genocide seems senseless to most - especially after the Greek disaster.
If I Perish, I Perish!
We read Esther 4 aloud in class, as I guessed this was the part from the official lesson. Mordecai informs Esther of the decree and the gravity of the situation. Esther agrees to see the king uninvited at the risk of her life after 3 days prayer and fasting. Notably, Esther's male (eunuch) and female attendents pray along with Esther, Mordecai, and Mordecai's friends. What has Esther been doing in that harem?
Verse 4:14 is of special note: "Deliverance will arise from another place." God has prepared ahead of time a response to every possible human choice, and will always accomplish His will.
The Long Day: Esther 5-7
Everything in these chapters takes place over 24 hours, which I summarized in class. Esther is accepted by the king, and invites Xerxes and Haman to a private dinner. At the banquet, Xerxes, knowing full well that Esther did not risk her life to invite him to dinner, asks her what her request is. Esther asks him to a lunch, at which she will reveal her request.
On his way home, Haman sees Mordecai, and orders a gallows built for Modecai (Persian gallows were a high platform from which you fell onto a bed of sharpened wooden spikes). The king can't sleep - maybe he was still agonizing over the Greek war disaster, maybe he was wondering what Esther could possibly want. He has a clerk read court records to put him to sleep, he hears about Mordecai saving his life, and asks how he was rewarded. He wasn't.
Early in the morning Haman comes to ask permission to execute Mordecai, but the king interrupts, and excitedly asks what should be done for one the king delights to honor. Haman, thinking he is the one, describes an elaborate ceremony, and the king tells him to do so to Mordecai. Haman decides it's not a good time to ask about executing Modecai.
Haman runs home to his family in shame, and his advisors prophecy that "since Mordecai is a Jew, once you have begun to fall before him, you will surely fall." Then the eunuchs arrive (with a litter? chariot?) to take him to the luncheon. The king asks Esther what her request is. "Save me and my people from this wicked Haman, who has sold us for slaughter." The king steps onto the balcony to calm down, and Haman throws himself on Esther to beg for mercy. As the attendents pull him off, the king comes back in saying, "Will you even assault my Queen in my presence?" The attendents cover Haman's eyes (to show he is marked for execution) and helpfully inform the king of the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai. Haman gets to test drive his gallows.
One of the boys in the class pipes up, "Now that is irony!"
The Decree Which Cannot be Repealed, Estern 8-10
The decree to exterminate the Jews was still on the books, and could not be repealed. I asked the class what could be done. One of the boys piped up and says, "let them defend themselves!" Good job parents! The defense was successful, and Purim is celebrated to this day.
Esther completes the work of Saul, Esther 9:13,14
Then said Esther, If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews which are in Shushan to do tomorrow also according unto this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows. And the king commanded it so to be done: and the decree was given at Shushan; and they hanged Haman’s ten sons. Unlike the sons of Agag, they did not escape.
In a speech on January 30, 1944, Hitler declared that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate a second Purim. Hitler said in Mein Kampf, "I am embarked on a struggle to the death with the Jews for the hearts and minds of men. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind. Circumcision for the body, and conscience for the soul. I am come to free mankind from their bondage." And again in Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, p. 234, "The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews. All else is facade and illusion."
On October 16, 1946, 10 Germans were hanged to death (11 were to be hanged, but one committed suicide). The court specifically prescribed hanging, as in Esther's original request.
"Only Julius Streicher went without dignity. He had to be pushed across the floor, wild eyed and screaming "heil hitler". Mounting the steps he cried out: "And now I go to God." He stared at the witnesses facing the gallows and shouted "Purimfest, 1946" Newsweek Oct 28, 1946.