Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Roll Of The Dice

The Jewish celebration of Purim is March 1-5, 2007. It is derived from a Persian word, Pur, or "lot," describing how a day was chosen to destroy a people. Our pastor gave a sermon on this today and I felt moved to share it.

The events leading to this holiday are explained in the Book of Esther; a short, beautiful story of the Persian Queen Esther and her intervention in the attempt of Haman, a powerful prince, to slaughter the Jews.

Let's set the historical stage for the Book of Esther, for she was placed in the middle of a series of conflicts between the Persian Empire and Athens known as the Persian Wars.

In 722 B.C. the Assyrians conquer the northern Jewish tribes (Israel) and carry them off into captivity. This is the Assyrian exile.

In 587 B.C. the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar defeat the Assyrians and then invade the southern Jewish tribes (Judah), destroying Solomon's Temple, much of Jerusalem's defensive walls and carry Judah off into captivity. This is the Babylonian exile.

In 538 B.C. the Persians under Cyrus conquer the Babylonians. Since the area now called Palestine was on the outer fringes of the Persian Empire, it was probably not completely assimilated until the reign of Cambyses (Cyrus' son) between 530 and 522 B.C.

Queen Esther is married to Ahasuerus (Xerxes is his title), the son of Darius the Great; Ahasuerus' mother was Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great (580-529 B.C.) - the king who founded the Achaemenian Empire of Persia in approximately 648 B.C. When Cyrus' son, Cambyses II, died after a short, seven-year reign, Darius became the third King of Persia after murdering the impostor Gaum√Ęta in 522 B.C.

Trouble between the Greeks and Persians had been brewing since 546 BC when the Persians defeated King Croesus of Lydia. Lydia had controlled the Greek city-states of Asia Minor until then. Under a series of corrupt governors and harsh taxation the Greeks learned to hate Persian rule and started rebelling about 500 B.C. In 498 B.C. the Athenians sacked the city of Sardis, the capital of Lydia.

To settle matters, Darius the Great sent an army into Attica in eastern Greece and was soundly defeated by Athenian hopelites at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Legend has it that a soldier ran 25 miles to inform the Athenians of the victory and died immediately thereafter, hence the word marathon became immortalized. Persian control of the area was eventually restored but the Persian kings wanted to teach Athens a lesson.

Darius' son, Ahasuerus, who became king in 485 B.C., reigned for twenty years until his murder in 465 B.C. by his vizar (high ranking minister or advisor) who installed Artaxerxes I (another title, his real name was as the new king.

The Book of Esther opens in approximately 483 B.C. as Ahasuerus is preparing his nobles and vassal states to support him in his military venture against Athens (it was actually launched around 481 B.C.). Raising an army is an expensive and thirsty business so Ahasuerus starts the ball rolling by holding a six month long feast followed immediately by a week long drinking binge.

Esther 1:1- Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this is Ahasuerus who reigned from India even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces) that in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace, in the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him; when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honor of his excellent majesty many days, even a hundred and fourscore days.

Esther 1:7-8 And they gave them drink in vessels of gold (the vessels being diverse one from another), and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king. And the drinking was according to the law; none could compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.

So it's partay, partay for six months and drink 'til you puke for a week with indiscriminate, non-stop wenching thrown in for good measure. The Hebrew word for drink in verse 7 can also be used to mean drown. Maybe there was a Shushan Chapter of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club in ancient Persia.

Ahasuerus gets blasted along with his buddies and does something stupid. He calls for his beautiful wife, Vashti, to show her off before his drinking pals. Some intrepretors say that this meant she was to dance or even appear naked before them. This was beyond an impolite request; the king went over the top on this one. But,hey, he's king. It is also thought that she might have been pregnant at the time.

Bear this in mind, Vashti was the daughter of King Belshazzar of Babylon and the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar. She had some street creds, but it didn't help her.

Queen Vashti tells the the old boy "no," thus infuriating Ahasuerus and putting into play the following chain of events that place a young Jewish girl near the seat of power of the most powerful empire on the planet. Remember, Xerxes ruled 127 other nations.

Vashti is voted off the island and Ahasuerus starts his version of Persian Virgin Idol.

In Chapter 2, Ahasuerus looks for another queen and the world's fairest maidens are brought before him. A beautiful Jewish orphan is one of the lucky ones. But the name she uses, Esther, is a Persian name; her real name is Hadassah. Later this will be important as it appears that she and her family have tried to hide the fact that they are Jewish. Upon her parents' death, Esther was brought up by her Uncle Mordecai. He also served in the palace, possibly as a eunuch.

She befriends one of the king's eunuchs, Hegai, and enters into the year long purification and beautification program before she is fit to be presented to the king. Ahasuerus favors Esther above all the other maidens and selects her as his Queen.

Sometime after the wedding Mordecai overhears two other eunuchs plotting against the King. He informs Esther and the perpetrators are arrested and executed. Mordecai, however, receives no credit for his actions.

In Chapter 3 we are introduced to Haman the Agagite. Haman is a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king who was captured by the Isreali King Saul and executed by the prophet Samuel. Haman has just been promoted by Ahasuerus above all other Persian princes. And Mordecai proceeds to royally piss him off.

Esther 3:2-5 And all the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, bowed down, and did reverence to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not down, nor did him reverence. Then the king's servants, that were in the king's gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king's commandment? Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, 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. And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not down, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath.

Here is where the pur of Purim comes into play.

Esther 2:6-10 But he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai. In the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, which is the month Adar. And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries. And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews' enemy.

It's a done deal. The Persian Jews are toast.

The King's proclamation is sent throughout the empire.

Esther 3:12 Then were the king's scribes called in the first month, on the thirteenth day thereof; and there was written according to all that Haman commanded unto the king's satraps, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the princes of every people, to every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and it was sealed with the king's ring.

Chapter 4
Mordecai freaks when he reads the King's proclamation; he transitions immediately into sackcloth-and-ashes mode and heads for the central business district for a bit of lamenting. Esther finds out that Mordecai is raising a fuss and sends another eunuch to find out why. Mordecai fills in the eunuch and asks Esther to intercede for her people.

Esther replies that it is against the law for anyone to approach the King without an invitation (this is an executive protection measure) and that the penalty is death. Also, he has not summoned her for a month. Mordecai responds in wonderful fashion:

Esther 4:13-14 Then Mordecai bade them return answer unto Esther, 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 will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father's house will perish: and who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

The reply of Mordecai echoes through the ages. Examine and compare the words of German pastor Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

Mordecai's words come down to us through 2,500 years of mankind's inhumanity to man, a dark, fearsome legacy. And God's provenance shines through brightly.

and who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Since the beginning, God has placed individuals where He has purposed. The problem is that not everyone has always responded correctly to His prompting.

Look at Esther's life and see how God can use people even under the most trying circumstances.

Her uncle was most likely a eunuch. He hung with them, worked with them and she sent them to speak to him.
Both Mordecai and Esther denied their religion, their heritage and their culture.
Esther married Darius, a Zoroastrian, a pagan by her religion's standards.
Darius was also a murderous serial polygamist hell bent on punishing another people for daring to defy him (the Athenians).

Then consider Esther's next words:
Esther 4:15-17 Then Esther bade them return answer unto Mordecai, Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish. So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.

Esther took charge.

Chapter 5
Esther does approach the king and he is delighted to see her. She has devised a plan to save her people and begins to put it into play. The King says that she may have anything she wants up to half the kingdom. Instead of asking for a new Mercedes, she invites the King and Haman to a private soiree' at her digs later that day. At the soiree', wine is served and the King repeats his offer. Esther bides her time and asks the King and Haman to return tomorrow for a feast where she will declare her wishes.

Haman is on Cloud Nine. He is in the good graces of the King and he is the only man the Queen invites to her parties besides the King. Nothing can mar his mellow, nothing can bring him down. Except for a ratty old Jew who still refuses to honor him.

Esther 5:9 -10 Then went Haman forth that day joyful and glad of heart: but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king's gate, that he stood not up nor moved for him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai. Nevertheless Haman refrained himself, and went home...

To prepare the death of Mordecai. He special orders a 75' gibbet made for Mordecai's neck. He will seek the King's permission to hang Mordecai on the morrow.

Chapter 6
The King can't sleep that night. His doctor told him to take it easy on the Margarita's so instead he has his clerks bring in the official records of the Persian empire and has the clerks read to him. For the first time he is the official account of how Mordecai saved his hash. He asks what was done for Mordecai in appreciation and he is told, "nada."

The next day the King is looking for advice on how to reward Mordecai. He asks the first person in the court, who happens to be Haman (looking for Mordecai's scalp) how he should honor someone that he delights in. Haman, being the self deprecating person that he is, thinks the King refers to him and gushes forth with a whole list of delightful perks.

Es 6:8-9 let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on the head of which a crown royal is set: and let the apparel and the horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man therewith whom the king delighteth to honor, and cause him to ride on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him, Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor.

The King says thank you very much, go and do this for Mordecai. Every. Single. One.

Talk about a kick in the ass. Haman is humiliated.

Chapter 7
Now Haman has to prepare for the Queen's soiree'. He hastens over to Esther's crib and wishes he wore Depends because the Queen tells Ahasuerus what Haman has done to the Jews, to her.

Esther 7:3 -6 Then Esther the queen answered and said, If I have found favor in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request: for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my peace, although the adversary could not have compensated for the king's damage. Then spake the king Ahasuerus and said unto Esther the queen, Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so? And Esther said, An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman. Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen.

Someone Haman manages to make it worse. The King stalks off and Haman approaches the Queen to beg for his life. Wrong move. He stumbles and falls on top of the Queen and the King re-enters to find Haman sprawled across his wife. Haman finds himself swinging at the end of Mordecai's rope.

Chapter 8
Mordecai is given Haman's cushy gig as well as his estate. But the King's word may not be recalled so another tack must be taken. Another proclamation is issued authorizing all Jews in the Empire to defend themselves:

Esther 8:11 wherein the king granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey...

Whereas the first proclamation condemning the Jews went out by Snail Mail, this one goes out via Pony Express.

Esther 8:14 So the posts that rode upon swift steeds that were used in the king's service went out, being hastened and pressed on by the king's commandment; and the decree was given out in Shushan the palace.

Chapter 9
The date of the attack comes and the Jews across the empire are aided by Persians who fear the proclamation.

Esther 9:3-4 And all the princes of the provinces, and the satraps, and the governors, and they that did the king's business, helped the Jews; because the fear of Mordecai was fallen upon them. For Mordecai was great in the king's house, and his fame went forth throughout all the provinces; for the man Mordecai waxed greater and greater.

And the Jews kicked some butt too.

Esther 9:5-6 And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them. And in Shushan the palace the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men.

Esther 9:15-17 And the Jews that were in Shushan gathered themselves together on the fourteenth day also of the month Adar, and slew three hundred men in Shushan; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. And the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand; but on the spoil they laid not their hand. This was done on the thirteenth day of the month Adar; and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.

To make the whole deal sweeter, all of Haman's sons are hanged. All ten of them.

Esther 9:26-28 Wherefore they called these days Purim, after the name of Pur. Therefore because of all the words of this letter, and of that which they had seen concerning this matter, and that which had come unto them, the Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so that it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to the writing thereof, and according to the appointed time thereof, every year; and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the remembrance of them perish from their seed.

What Mordecai and Esther did, as human and prone to sin, mistakes and failure as any one of us, will be remembered for eternity.

No comments: