The book of Esther records events that took place in the sixty years that came in between the work of Zerubbabel and that of Ezra. These events, of which we have no account save that supplied by our book, form a story that has nothing to do with Jerusalem or with those that had returned there under Zerubbabel and Joshua but with those that had refused to return of which there were many.
Ahasuerus, the well-known Xerxes of profane history, in the third year of his reign entertains at his court the aristocracy of his realm for an hundred and eighty days and all the common people in Shushan for seven days, which is the usual proportion. In this feast he displays to his subjects the wealth and splendor of his kingdom. When on the seventh day the king, whose heart is now merry with wine, would place on exhibition also the beauty of his wife, Vashti, she declines to appear before him and his guests, and the consequence is that he puts her away and gives her royal estate to Esther, whom he prefers before all other virgins. At the same time Mordecai, her uncle, from whom she has been separated in consequence of her elevation, remains near the court. She makes a secret of her Jewish origin and Mordecai makes the king his debtor by uncovering a plot against his life. Haman, who is a heathen and an enemy of the Jews, is set by the king “above all the princes that were with him.” Embittered by Mordecai’s disrespectful attitude—the king had commanded that he be reverenced by all the court personnel—Haman easily gets the king to have published a decree which, so far as human foresight can predict, must result in the complete extirpation of the Jewish race. Letters are sent by posts “into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day—and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” In every province, withersoever the king’s commandment and decree comes there is “great mourning among the Jews, and fasting and weeping, and wailing; and many in sackcloth and ashes.” Conspicuous among them is Mordecai, who stands, crying aloud with a loud and bitter cry, in the street that is before the king’s gate, so as to draw the attention of the attendants of queen Esther. She is prevailed upon to dare the utmost for the salvation of her people. She is even ready to perish in the attempt. But she obtains favor in the king’s sight, whom she approaches without previously being called; yet she thinks it advisable to ask the king to dine with her once or twice and this in company with Haman, who does not perceive that this distinction is the beginning of his end. Having received a second invitation, he goes forth from Esther’s banquet joyful and with a glad heart. But when he sees Mordecai again sitting in the king’s gate and refusing to give him the required homage, he is full of indignation. Finding that the only blot on his great good fortune is this impudence of the hated Jew, he consults with his wife and friends and resolves to remove this proud Mordecai out of the way the next morning, in order that he may recline at the next banquet with unmixed joy. He orders a gallows to be built of seventy-five feet high for Mordecai to be hanged thereon in order that the punishment might be the more terrifying and disgraceful. But that night could not the king sleep. In consequence he has read to him from the records of the kingdom. The scribe reads precisely that passage which narrates how Mordecai saved the king’s life through disclosing the conspiracy against him. This raises the question, since Mordecai hitherto has not been rewarded for having made himself so deserving, what honor and dignity should be done to him. Hence, just as Haman has come in the early morning with the purpose of gaining permission for the execution of Mordecai, the question is put to him. As the question is indefinite, namely, what should be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor; and as the self-conceited Haman has no doubt that the king has in mind him, it so happens that in the same moment in which he thinks to destroy his mortal enemy, he both seals his own humiliation and raises his enemy to the highest honor. He is instructed to execute his own counsel. This first blow, which to his wife and friends presages his downfall, is immediately followed by a second. In a second banquet he is exposed by Esther, and the incensed king orders him hung on the same gallows which he had caused to be contracted for Mordecai. Esther now entreats the king for her people. The king assigns the matter to Mordecai, who adopts such measures as render the regal decree, which ordered the destruction of the Jews, ineffective, in spite of the irrevocableness which it has as the king’s decree.
The Jews receive permission from Mordecai to gather themselves together and stand for their lives in the day selected for their destruction. In consequence they turn the calamity away from themselves and throw it upon the adversaries. So successful are they that the day in which their destruction was apprehended is made a day of feasting and gladness; and Mordecai, as well as Esther, by means of letters and ordinances established among them that they should annually keep this day as a day of feasting and joy, “and of sending portions one to another and gifts to the poor.” Ahasuerus rules with a mighty hand over land and sea, and Mordecai, now second in the kingdom, and great among the Jews, seeks the wealth of his people, and speaks peace to all his seed. Such is the story.
The first question that confronts us is: With what have we to do in our book? Is its content history or fiction or a commingling of the two? History is a record of past events. It is solely concerned in the presentation of facts. Fiction, from fictio to form, invent, treats of imaginary events. Christ made use of fiction in making His disciples know the mysteries of the Kingdom. His collective discourses contains several parables. “Now a parable is a brief narrative of imaginary incidents for the purpose of inculcating some moral or religious truth.”
The view that predominates among interpreters in general is that the book of Esther is a medley of fact and fiction, a story not historical but only standing on a historical basis and the design of which is to demonstrate that God will certainly cause His believing people to triumph over their adversaries.
The reason why interpreters have their doubts as to the strictly historical character of this book is the following.
In the real turning-point of the whole story, as if in order to raise the interest of the reader to a high pitch, and also to make a satisfactory conclusion as regards Mordecai and the Jews, the timely and fitting nature of many of the incidents seems to translate the reader involuntarily from the world of reality to that of ideality. Haman, it is said, must take revenge upon Mordecai in the moment of his anger, and cause the gallows upon which he himself should be hung in the morning to be erected over night. But in the very night, when Mordecai has so much at stake, the king is made to have a disturbed sleep, and thereupon cause the state documents to be read to him, by means of which he is reminded of the desert of Mordecai. The question of the king, which is quite indefinite, is accordingly misunderstood by Haman, and thus misleads him, so that he applies it to himself, and in consequence of this self-deception, awards to his mortal enemy the highest distinction, and that too in the very moment when he is intent upon his destruction. It is said that, however intent God may be in a plan where the salvation or protection of His own people depend upon it; and though at times He may bring about occurrences in their favor, nevertheless the facts are not usually so artistically arranged by Him as appears here.
Such is the reasoning of Fr. W. Schultz in his introduction to his exposition of the Book of Esther. And such in substance is the reasoning of all the interpreters whose view it is that the story in our book is fiction, a religious romance.
What to think of this reasoning? It is purely subjective and therefore without worth. It comes down to this that the working of God’s Providence, as presented in our book, is too wonderful to be true. Rightly considered the argument is deeply sinful. It is equivalent to saying that there are things which are too hard for the Lord. Now what is man to tell God what thing is too hard for Him to perform? What is there to prevent one, who takes this stand, from disbelieving the working of the divine providence as presented in all the other historical books of the Bible? Nothing but personal whim, humor, sinful fancy. But should sinful whim be allowed to set itself up as judge over Holy Writ? Apart from any other consideration, such a method of dealing with the sacred Scriptures is thoroughly unscholarly. We should understand that the working of God in favor of His people is always uncommon, marvelous, extraordinary, new, unheard of. It is the newness of this working that spells the salvation of His people. So, to disbelieve the working of Providence, as narrated in the book of Esther, on the ground of its being too wonderful, is to open for oneself the door to the rejection of the whole plan of redemption.
Before the thesis that the story in our book is fiction can be pronounced true, it shall have to be made to repose on a ground other than the one under consideration. The only ground that will do here is a statement of the author to the effect that in penning his book he was writing not history but fiction. All the parables of Christ, incorporated in the Gospel narratives, are said to be parables by some such statement as, “And he spoke to them this parable.” No such, statement occurs in our book. But there is found in the book indisputable evidence that its story is history. At ch. 10:2 the statement occurs, “And all the acts of his (the king’s) power and his might, and the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai, whereunto the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” Here the author tells us that the incidents which he narrated are also found in the archives of the empire, the chronicles of the kings. Now a chronicle is a register of facts in the order of time in which they occurred. The implication of this notice may even be that the writer of our book derived all his data from these “chronicles of the kings.”
All attempts to disprove the historical character of our book have not only failed, as they were bound to, but have resulted in establishing its historical accuracy to the most minute details. It has been found that the character of Ahasuerus is drawn to the life; that point after point in it may be matched in the Xerxes of Herodotus.
Those interpreters who held that the story of our book, at least in its real turning point, is pure fiction, nevertheless maintain that its manifest design is to promote a revival of the Jewish faith in the persistent salutary ruling of Divine Providence in behalf of the Jews. But it should be clear that, if the story of our book is fictitious, like the incidents in a parable, its design cannot be to promote such faith. For faith in a benevolent Providence cannot possibly be promoted by a narration of a specific working of this Providence, if the narration must be held to be fictitious and if the working must be held not to have taken place. So, if the story of our book is not history pure and accurate, it is sheer folly to maintain that its design is to strengthen faith in Divine Providence.
In ascertaining the place of the book of Esther in the Canaan, it must be noticed that this book is wanting in the religious spirit which we find in the other Old Testament historical books. As to Mordecai, the view that, however passionately devoted he may be to his people, he is a person devoid of true faith—this view is not at all unlikely. Mordecai was a Benjamite. Carried to Babylon in the person of his forebears, he was born in captivity. Instead of returning with his people to Jerusalem in obedience to God, here in captivity he had remained. That he truly loved Esther his cousin, whom he had taken for his own daughter, she being an orphan; that he was bent on seeking her true welfare, may be questioned. Did he not charge her that she should not shew her people nor her kindred as being one of the captive and despised Jews? Does this not imply that, had she revealed her nationality, she would not have been brought to the king’s harem, or that, had she been brought to this house, she would soon have been sent back? Mordecai, at least, must have been of this conviction. Otherwise he would not have charged her to make a secret of her people. So then, Esther’s removal to the king’s harem, her marrying the king, her elevation to a place formerly occupied by Vashti, the repudiated wife, are events in her life for which Mordecai must evidently be held responsible. He wanted it so. But how could he? A harem, filled with pagan women, was no place for Esther. The king was no husband for her. He was a heathen, a godless man; she was a child of the covenant. Such marriages the Lord had strictly forbidden. Yet how eager Mordecai was that the royal crown be set upon her head! During the time that she was being prepared to meet the king, “he walked every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what should become of her.”
Mordecai refused to reverence Haman, though the king had commanded it. So determined was he that it was all in vain that the king’s servants daily urged him. Why this refusal on the part of Mordecai? The reason is not given. But our author does say this: “Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him—Mordecai—and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew.” It is not certain that the implication of this notice is this that Mordecai had told the king’s servants that, because he was a Jew he could not reverence Haman. If is doing this scripture no violence if we take it to mean that Mordecai had already revealed his nationality to the servants prior to Hainan’s exaltation and thus not as a result of their urging him to give to Haman the required homage. All that with fairness can be gotten out of this notice is that the king’s servants, having learned from Mordecai at some time in the past that he was a Jew and eager to know whether he, a despised Jew, could continue to flout Haman to his face with impunity revealed to Haman both Mordecai’s conduct and nationality. If this scripture brings us under the necessity of ascribing his refusal to bow before Haman to his being a Jew, the question still remains whether he was being restrained by Jewish pride or right principle, fear of Jehovah. If the latter, this bowing before Haman stood out in his mind as an action that would involve him in idolatry. But if so, why then did he not, after the example of Daniel and his friends, boldly confess this to these servants? Besides though he refused to reverence Haman, he later on accepted, apparently without a murmur, the homage given him by the inhabitants of Shushan in the first hours of his elevation. This shows, it would seem, that in refusing to honor his enemy he acted from pride, stubbornness and personal enmity.
When Mordecai perceived the great mischief that had been devised against the Jews by his enemy Haman, he was frantic. And well might he be, seeing that the blame was so largely his. He rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry. This reaction of his bespeaks no piety certainly. To rend one’s clothes in grief was as much a Persian as a Jewish practice. What is more, it is not said that he cried unto the Lord. He cried out in the street before the gate of the king. His object was solely to draw the attention of Esther’s women-servants and eunuchs, i.e., such as were assigned her for her exclusive service. They delayed not to inform the queen. He now required of her that she put her life in her own hands and go in unto the king to make supplication to him. She hesitated, and he said to her, “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”
Especially these words are seized by interpreters to show that there flowered in Mordecai’s soul a true faith in God. Here, it is said, he manifests a precious sense of trust. It may be. Yet it should be observed that, instead of pointing to the Lord as the almighty Protector and Avenger of His people, he merely contented himself with saying that if she refused to act, deliverance would come from another place. All that this language may reveal is that Mordecai had implicit faith not in God but in the destiny of his people and this solely on account of their being Jews. And his statement, “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this,” is a kind of language that the world also employs with reference to its heroes in times of national crises. The hero in such times is “the man of the hour,” thus a man who, as Esther, is come to the kingdom, that is, to power, just for such a time as this.
(To be continued)