Esther: The Rest of the Story
Last weekend was the feast of Purim, the annual
celebration of the salvation of the Jews from destruction that is described
in the book of Esther. It is the story of how Esther and her uncle Mordecai
saved the Jewish people in about 500 BC in Persia. In the story, an advisor
to the king, Haman, was angered by the fact that Mordecai would not bow
down to him, so he convinced the king to issue an edict calling for the
destruction of the entire Jewish people. Esther saved the Jews by risking
her life to plead to the king to annul the edict, and by exposing Haman's
plot against them.
Interestingly, the name of God is not mentioned
in the story even once, although his hand is clearly present in every
event. A tradition that celebrates this is to dress up in costumes and
masks on Purim, to celebrate that sometimes even God wears a "mask"
- that he is present even when he doesn't seem to be. The feast is often
celebrated with silly plays ("shpiels") based on the story of
Esther, and is lighthearted to celebrate God's care for his people even
when he doesn't seem to be present.
The Longer Epic of this Story
The story of Esther is interesting because
it is actually the culmination of a much longer saga that stretches over
1300 years in the life of Israel. A key to the story is the identity of
Haman, who is described as an "Agagite". Agag was the king of
the Amalekites in Saul's time, so Haman is an Amalekite. While we hear
about so many "ite" groups in the Old Testament that they all
seem to be the same, the Amalekites have the distinction of being thought
of by Jews as Israel's worst enemy of all time.
The Amalekites were the first nation that
ever attacked Israel, and they did this almost immediately after Israel
had left Egypt, when they first entered the wilderness (Exodus 17). Being
the first to attack, they became symbolic of all of the nations that want
to destroy Israel. The Amalekites also chose a particularly cowardly and
brutal way to attack, by coming from the rear and killing the elderly
and weaker Israelites that were straggling behind. As a result, God was
furious with the Amalekites, and singled them out for divine judgment:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write
this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly
blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." Moses built an
altar and named it The LORD is My Banner; and he said, "The LORD
has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to
The words seem contradictory - that God will
be continually at war with Amalek, and yet he will blot them out. How
can both be true? But oddly they are. The Amalekites continually plagued
the Israelites throughout their history. When Israel first tried to enter
the promised land but lost faith in God, the Amalekites were there to
attack them. Later, Saul was given the command to destroy them and leave
nothing alive, even children or animals (1 Sam. 15:7-9). But he disobeyed
God and kept some of the best animals for himself, and let King Agag live.
According to Jewish thought, a demonic hatred of Israel was associated
with that nation, and by taking any booty that was contaminated by that
spirit, or letting anything of theirs escape, Saul allowed this spirit
of destruction to come back to terrorize Israel again. King David and
King Hezekiah also fought against them during their reigns, and they were
back again during the time of Esther.
In the story of Esther there are several motifs
that hint that finally the Amalekites are back to try once again to destroy
Israel. Often when the text speaks of Haman as an enemy of the Jews, it
specifically emphasizes his nationality as an "Agagite", a descent
of the Amalekite king:
Then the king took his signet ring from
his hand and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the
enemy of the Jews. Esth. 3:10
For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the
Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews
to destroy them and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and
destroy them. Esth. 9:24
There are more parallels between this story
and that of Saul that hint that this is the completion of Saul's unfinished
work. The narrator is explicit in showing that Mordecai and Esther are
from the family of Saul, fellow Benjaminites and descendants of his line
(Esth. 2:5-6). And, while Saul kept some of the booty for himself, the
story of Esther points out repeatedly that the Jews took none of the plunder
after they were allowed to kill Haman and his descendants. By not committing
Saul's sin, they finally had victory.
Help for Hard Passages
This story actually has been a help to me
to understand some of the difficult commands of God. God had said to Saul,
Now go and strike Amalek and utterly
destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both
man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1
And after Saul disobeyed God, not by showing
mercy to the people, but by keeping some of the best livestock for himself,
God said that he had regretted making Saul king, and decided to remove
him from the throne. It shocks us that God could give such a horrible
command and be so angry to see it not carried out. God's harsh command
to Saul to destroy every living thing of the Amalekites was because this
was a nation bent on the destruction of Israel, without whom the world
would have no Savior. Israel was nearly annihilated in Esther's time because
of Saul's disobedience. Sometimes God's commands are incomprehensible,
but if we had his perspective, we would see his logic.
The Epic Goes On
Interestingly, in Jewish thought, even though
the Amalekites are no more, the demonic spirit of Amalek has lived from
ancient times even until today. The forefather of the nation, Amalek,
was Esau's grandson. According to legend, when Esau was old, he said to
his grandson Amalek: "I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I
am entrusting you and your descendents with the mission of annihilating
Jacob's descendents -- the Jewish people. Carry out this deed for me.
Be relentless and do not show mercy." (This isn't biblical, but it
shows their attitude toward the Amalekites.) Throughout history, there
has been relentless anti-Semitism, persecution and attempts by other nations
to annihilate the Jewish people. Hitler was considered to be a spiritual
"descendant" of Haman. God has been continually at war with
the spirit of Amalek from generation to generation, and only in the final
judgment will this spirit of hatred be blotted out.
(1) Alfred Edersheim, Bible History:
Old Testament, 1890. Chapter 9, available at this link.
(2) JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, by Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication
Society, 1996, p 236.
(3) E. E. Halevy, Amalekites, Encyclopedia
Judaica CD-ROM, Version 1.0, 1997
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Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.