The book of Esther is a microcosm of a common theme in the Old Testament: something evil done by others is instead just when done by the Israelites.
Esther, ironically, is not the main character in Esther. She is an orphan, first described to us as having “a lovely figure” and being “beautiful” (Esther 2:7). Her beauty gets her called to King Xerxes of Persia’s palace, where he had all “beautiful young virgins” in his realm assembled to replace his former queen, Vashti. Vashti refused to enter a room when Xerxes called her and was banished, leading Xerxes to decree that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” (Esther 1:20). A sentiment the Israelites can rally around, even if spoken by a foreign king.
Esther becomes the new queen, where she enters into an intermediary role between the two real players in this book: Mordecai and Haman. The former is Esther’s cousin, who raised her when her parents died. The latter is a noble in Xerxes court who wants to destroy the Jewish population in Persia.
Haman asks Xerxes to let him set a day on which every Jew will be killed and their goods plundered. Xerxes agrees, the date is set and the word spreads. Mordecai tears his clothes in mourning, covering himself with a sackcloth and ashes. Esther sends a messenger to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. Mordecai sends a copy of the edict to kill the Jews back to Esther and asks her to help. Haman, meanwhile, begins plotting Mordecai’s murder (Esther 4).
Before moving further, I want to reflect on Esther’s role. Esther, like nearly all women in the Old Testament, is to do as she’s told. She is, for all intents and purposes, Mordecai’s mouthpiece to speak to Xerxes with. Esther hides the fact that she is a Jew from Xerxes “as Mordecai had told her to do” (Esther 2:20). In fairness, Esther provides the link Mordecai needs to get his plan to Xerxes, but she rejects this plan at first, claiming Xerxes will kill her if she approaches him without being summoned. Esther is able to convince Xerxes to reverse his previous order and save the Jews of Persia in the end, but only by relaying Mordecai’s wishes and with Xerxes’ permission. It’s a far cry from Moses saving the Jews with plagues and ultimatums.
Perhaps being a gateway to Xerxes is the role Esther was meant to play, and no more. But even that strikes me as odd. She became queen because of her beauty. Does this imply that God made her beautiful, so that she could become queen? Does God make people ugly? David was lauded as being handsome, as was Solomon, so is beauty synonymous with ruling in the Old Testament? Why then can’t a beautiful woman be a queen who rules on her own? Save for a few female prophets, the ultimate role of a woman is to bear children and, as a bonus, be beautiful.
Now to the crux of the story: Xerxes reversing the order he gave to Haman to kill all Jews on a specific day. When Esther reveals the plot and pleads with Xerxes to intervene, he responds “‘Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?’ Esther said, ‘An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!'” (Esther 7:5-6). Xerxes orders Haman’s execution by impaling. He then signs a new edict that allowed the Jews “to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies” (Esther 7:11).
The first interesting thing regarding Xerxes’ pivot is that Xerxes himself gave Haman permission to purge the Jews. “‘Keep the money,’ the king said to Haman, ‘and do with the people as you please'” (Esther 3:11). The second is that instead of simply canceling the original order, Xerxes reverses it so that the Jews can kill their enemies on the day originally slated for their enemies to kill them. And the Jews do indeed kill their enemies. “The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them” (Esther 9:5). By sundown, the Jews “killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder” (Esther 9:16). By the book’s end, the Jews are safe and Mordecai has risen to Xerxes’ second in command.
There’s a certain irony in an “evil plan” designed to bring bloodshed to the Jews in Persia becoming a slaughter of 75,000 non-Jews, later celebrated in Jewish culture as Purim. A Jewish army killing tens of thousands is nothing new in the Old Testament, but this story differs from most previous stories in that there was no opposing army, simply “enemies” who also lived in Persia. And 75,000 killed in a single day is horrific even by Biblical standards.
A kill-or-be-killed mentality permeates all of the Old Testament, and it justifies the Israelites’ destruction of any threat. That mindset, coupled with the idea that God approves of the destruction of any “others” (or even disobedient Jews), is perfectly summarized in Esther. To ordain a day to kill as many Jews as possible is evil, but to use that same day to kill as many of the Jews’ enemies is just.
Thank you for reading,