Let me begin, once again, with a reminder that these are not intended for notes to help teachers, though they may also serve that purpose. I write them for people who want to study the lesson materials more thoroughly. So you’ll find explanatory notes and study questions (fewer for this lesson than for most), but few answers.
There is considerable material in the readings for this lesson, so I am going to focus the study questions on the book of Esther (the entire book rather than only the parts assigned for Sunday School). I want to focus on Esther because it is one of the books of the Old Testament with which I believe Latter-day Saints are least familiar. That lack of familiarity is ironic, given that Esther is perhaps the Old Testament book best known among the Jews outside the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Esther is the only book that is still usually read from a scroll on ceremonial occasions, and Jews often publish beautiful editions of it.
Esther is the last of five books gathered together as a collection and called “The Five Megilloth,” meaning “The Five Scrolls.” These books—Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther—are a sub-collection within that part of the Old Testament called “The Writings.” These are books read at each of the Jewish religious feasts:
Song of Songs at Passover (approximately the same time as Easter, a celebration of the angel of death passing over the children of Israel in Egypt)
Ruth at Pentecost (an agricultural festival held fifty days after Passover, in May or June)
Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab (commemorating the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar on the ninth day of the fifth month—July or August on our calendar)
Ecclesiastes at the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles (in Hebrew, sukkoth—a feast, usually in October, commemorating the Exodus: people built huts of branches and lived in them for five days)
Esther at Purim (a celebration of Esther saving Israel from annihilation in Babylon, in April or March)
What do you make of the fact that four of the five Jewish religious feasts have something to do with destruction or exile? Why would a people put those events at the heart of their worship? What might it say about their self-understanding? About their relation to God? Does that suggest anything about our religious practices, our self-understanding, or our relation to God? Why do you think the book of Esther and the event that it commemorates is so important to the Jews? What does it mean to them? How might its meaning for them be relevant to us? What event or events in our history might be comparable in meaning? Is there a danger in comparing their experience and ours?
One of the most striking things about the book of Esther is that it never uses any of the names of divinity, though it is clearly about how God saves his people: an entire book of scripture that never mentions God. In fact, in places the book seems to go out of its way not to do so. (See, for example, Esther 4:14.) Since that can hardly be an accident, what do you think the best explanation for the omission would be?
In the material that follows, I give an outline of the story, with some comments about the material, and I give some study questions. I have put the study questions in italics so that they are easier to find.
Verses 1-8: We learn about the festivals of Ahasueras (485-464 B.C.). His Greek name is “Ataxerxes,” and he was the king of Persia. Since “Ataxerxes” is easier to remember and say, I will use that name in the rest of these materials.
We are not sure who this king was. The ancient historian Josephus identifies him with Cyrus. Eusebius, a later ancient historian argues that he must have been king after Darius. The word translated “feast” means, literally, “a drinking,” since that was the main activity at the feast.
We know that the king was drunk (see verse 10), but there is a good chance that everyone else was also drunk, including Vashti, the king’s wife who is overseeing another feast at the same time.
Verses 9-12: Vashti refuses to leave the feast she is overseeing to appear at the king’s feast. Many argue that the command in verse 11, “to bring the queen before the king with the crown royal” means “wearing only the crown.” Whether or not that is true, since the king had absolute power, Vashti’s refusal was dangerous.
Verses 13-22: Ataxerxes consults with his wise men—those who know the law (“the times,” verse 13)—about how to deal with Vashti’s refusal. One of them, Memucan, suggests that Vashti has not only insulted the king with her disobedience, he has insulted the whole country. She has set a dangerous precedent, he argues, for if the king allows her to get away with her refusal, then other wives will also refuse to do what their husbands tell them to do. Memucan advises Ataxerxes to exile Vashti permanently, and he does.
This tells us a great deal about how the Persians thought of their wives. Can you think of anything in our own culture that is comparable to the way that Memucan thinks of women and, in particular of wives? What does the story of Esther tell us about attitudes like Mumucan’s? As you read the story of Esther, ask yourself what the story teaches about the role of women.
Given that this is such a petty matter, do you think the writer is making fun of the Persians when he refers to the wise men in verse 13 or when he speaks of the rebellion that may arise as a result in verse 18?
In Word Biblical Commentary (9:355), Frederic W. Bush quotes one writer:
[T]he opening chapter has set a tone that cannot be forgotten, conditioning the reader not to take the king, his princes, or his law at their face value, and alerting the reader to keep his eyes open for ironies that will doubtless be implicit in the story that is yet to unfold. Without the rather obvious satire of the first chapter we might well be in more doubt over the propriety of ironic readings in the body of the book. Chapter 1 licenses a hermeneutic of suspicion (Clines, The Esther Scroll, 33).
Of what things might we be suspicious as we read the book?
Verses 1-4: It seems that Ataxerxes was remorseful. (That he “remembered Vashti” cannot simply mean that he had forgotten about her.) But since his decree had been made into law, it was irrevocable.
Why would an ancient kingdom have a practice that made the legal decrees of the king irrevocable? What was being avoided with the decree of such a law? What might the revocation of a decree suggest about a king?
Since he cannot revoke his decree, his ministers suggest that he search the kingdom for someone to replace Vashti.
What does this suggest about the general status of women in Ataxerxes’s kingdom?
The phrasing of the language in verses 3 and 4 is very similar to the phrasing of Genesis 41:34-37. The person who wrote the book of Esther may be trying to draw a parallel between the story of Joseph and the story of Esther.
What kinds of parallels can you think of between Joseph and Esther? Why would the writer of Esther want to make the stories parallel? What does Esther teach us that we may also see in the story of Joseph?
Though Mordecai is a Benjamite, he is described as a Jew. Why?
Mordecai has raised the orphan daughter of his uncle whose Hebrew name seems to be Hadassah (“Myrtle”) and whose Persian name was Esther (either “Star” or a variation of the name of Persian goddess, Ishtar).
Verses 8-11: Esther is one of those chosen as a candidate for the king’s wife. Some believe that when verse 8 says that she was “taken” it means that she was taken by force, against the wishes of Mordecai. Esther conceals the fact that she is a Jew from the king because Mordecai told her to do so, and Mordecai paces back and forth in front of the king’s harem trying to find out how Esther is doing.
Verses 12-14: Each of the women chosen is taken to sleep with Ataxerxes by turns. If the king sends her back to the harem, she remains his wife, but will not see him again unless the king calls her by name to come back to the palace. In all probability, she will spend the rest of her life in the harem, a concubine (a wife with secondary status) of the king living as if she were a widow.
Verses 15-18: When Esther’s turn comes, the king falls in love with her and makes her his queen (his primary wife).
Verses 19-23: Still Esther does not reveal to the king that she is a Jew because Mordecai has told her not to do so.
Compare Esther’s behavior to that of Daniel and his companions. They live in the court of the king, but they refuse not to do the things that Jews do, so they are immediately noticed as different and those differences create problems for them. In contrast, Esther is married to the king and no one has yet noticed that she is any different than other Persians. It seems that she was not living any differently than those around her. There are times when it is important that we insist on our differences from others, as with Daniel, and there are times when it is important that we not insist on them, as with Esther. How do we differentiate those times?
Mordecai learns of a plot to assassinate the king and tells Esther of the plot. In turn, she tells the king and tells him that she has learned this from Mordecai. The king’s scribes record what Mordecai has done in the royal chronicles.
Verses 1-5: The king chooses Haman, a descendent of Agag, king of Amelek (see 1 Samuel 15:9) as his prime minister. Mordecai and Haman are from families that have traditionally been enemies. When the other servants bow down to Haman, Mordecai refuses to do so and Haman becomes angry with him.
Verse 4 tells us that Mordecai had told the other servants that he was a Jew, presumably as his explanation for why he wouldn’t bow down. But it wasn’t forbidden for the Jews to bow down to a ruler (see Genesis 42:6 and 43:28, for example), so why do you think Mordecai refused to do so? If he is willing for the other servants to know that he is a Jew, why did he tell Esther that she ought not to reveal that she is a Jew?
Verses 6-11: Haman knows that it will look bad if he merely takes revenge on Mordecai. He will obviously be acting arbitrarily and he doesn’t want to seem arbitrary. So, he plots to have all Jews in Persia killed!
What is it about the Jews that offends Haman? What is comparable today to having a large group of people living spread throughout the country with a different culture? What does Haman’s reasoning tell us about his character? Though few of us would be as evil as Haman, do we ever do what he did here, try to avoid appearing to do some smaller evil by doing a great evil? Is taking revenge against a whole group because of a problem with one person something that we see in our own day? Is it something that is sometimes done to us? Is it something that we sometimes do to others? How do we avoid falling into this behavior unconsciously?
Haman tells the king that there are people in the kingdom who have their own laws (which is true) and who do not obey the laws of the land (which is probably not generally true, for it would be contrary to the teachings of Jeremiah; see Jeremiah 29:7). Haman adds a bribe to his lie about the Jews: 10,000 talents of silver. The weight of a talent varied, but in the late Old Testament period, it seems to have been about 20.4 kg. So, if the number recorded is accurate and not exaggerated (and it may be exaggerated to make a point), Haman offered the king 204,000 kilograms (448,800 pounds) of silver! Verse 11 may seem to suggest that the king did not accept the bribe or that he paid Haman instead. However, Esther 4:7 tells us that King Ataxerxes accepted the bribe. Ataxerxes tells Haman to do what he wants to with these people and he gives him his seal as a sign of the king’s authority.
Verses 12-15: The decree is made in the city and, immediately, letters go out to all of the provinces of the Persian empire instructing officials there to kill all the Jews and to seize their property and assigning a particular date on which the slaughter was to occur.
Notice the literary power of verse 15: Haman orders the slaughter of tens of thousands of people and then he and the king sit down to feast; the people of the city of Shushan are perplexed by the decree, and perhaps the verse also means that they were perplexed by the nonchalance with which Haman and the king could order such a thing.
Verses 1-3: On hearing of the decree, Mordecai and all of the Jews go into deep mourning.
Verses 4-8: In the palace, Esther is unaware of the decree and seems to be unaware that the Jews as a whole are mourning. But she does hear of Mordecai’s mourning and she sends him clothing, for when he is wearing the sackcloth of mourning he cannot enter into the palace to talk with her. Mordecai won’t accept the clothing, so he cannot come into the palace. She sends a servant, Hathach, to ask Mordecai why he is mourning. Mordecai tells Hathach everything, including telling him about the bribe, and he gives Hathach a copy of the decree. Mordecai tells Hathach to tell Esther that she must go to the king and beg him for the lives of his people.
Verses 9-12: When Esther hears Mordecai’s demand, she responds by reminding him that if she appears before the king without being summoned, she will be executed unless the king chooses to spare her—and she hasn’t been summoned to the king for a month.
Verses 12-17: Mordecai reminds Esther that, because of the decree, she will be killed if she does not appear before the king. Esther asks Mordecai to have all of the Jews of the city to fast with her and her maidens. Then she will appear before the king.
What does Esther mean when she says, “If I perish, I perish”? Compare this to Daniel 3:17-18. What kind of attitude does this reveal and how can we emulate that attitude? Should we emulate it? If not, why not? If so, when?
Ambrose (337 A.D – 497 A.D.) points out that we see a number of unusual acts in this story:
1. Esther exposed herself to death when she could have avoided it.
2. Ataxerxes honored Mordecai, though Mordecai had revealed the weakness of his kingdom.
3. Ataxerxes had the second most powerful person in his kingdom executed, probably his best friend, because he had given him bad counsel.
What things might we learn from these aspects of the story?
Verses 1-4: Esther appears before the king in her royal robes. Notice the parallel between Vashti and Esther: Vashti refused to appear when she was summoned to appear naked and Esther appeared clothed when she was not summoned.
What do you think this parallel suggests (though it is reversed)?
The king not only spares Esther’s life, he offers her anything she wants, up to half of the kingdom (which is probably not a serious possibility, but a formal exaggeration intended to let her know that she can ask for a great deal).
Verses 5-8: Esther asks only that the king and Haman come to a banquet that she has prepared. In verse 6, at the banquet, the king repeats his offer. He seems to know that she hadn’t risked her life only to invite him to a banquet. But Esther requests the same thing again: let Haman and the king come to another banquet.
The king wants to know what Esther’s request is and she keeps putting him off. Why? What is the point of this elaborate plan? Mordecai has instructed her to tell the king that she is a Jew so that he will not kill her people, but she goes far beyond merely doing that, inventing an ingenious plan for saving them. What does her ingenuity teach us?
Verses 9-14: Haman is happy to be invited, but his happiness turns to anger when, once again, he feels that Mordecai is slighting him. He tells his wife and friends how he has been elevated in the kingdom and he is rich and he has been invited to the queen’s special banquet for only Haman and the king, but none of that is enough as long as Mordecai is sitting at the king’s gate.
In what ways are we sometimes like Haman?
His wife and friends tell him that he should build a gallows and hang Mordecai on the gallows before the banquet.
Verses 1-11: Unable to sleep, the king has his servants read from the royal chronicles. They read to him about how Mordecai saved him from assassination by reporting the plot. When the king asks what reward Mordecai was given, he discovers that he was given no reward. Asking who was available in the court, the king was told that Haman was. Haman, waiting outside to visit the king in order to arrange for Mordecai’s execution, is summoned before the king and asked what the king should do for someone he wants to honor. Thinking that the king wants to honor him, Mordecai suggests that the king should honor such a person by putting royal clothing on him, mounting him on the royal horse, and parading him through the city as if he were the king. The king thinks this is an excellent idea and commands that Haman, Mordecai’s enemy, clothe Mordecai in royal clothing, put him on the king’s horse, and parade him through Shushan saying “Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honor.”
What can we learn from this story? Why do you think this part of the story is so popular with those who read it?
Verses 12-14: Humiliated, Haman returns to his house where his wife and friends tell him that, because Mordecai is a Jew, Haman cannot win against him.
What do they mean by what they say? Is what they say true in spite of what they mean?
With that advice, Haman leaves for the banquet.
Verses 1-6: The king once again repeats his bequest: “name what you want and it is yours.” She says, “Spare me, spare my people.” Angry at the idea that someone would threaten his wife and her people, Ataxerxes demands to know who it is and Esther tells him: wicked Haman.
Verses 7-10: In a fury, the king goes into the garden. Terrified, Haman throws himself on the queen’s couch (like the Greeks and others, the Persians ate lying on couches rather than sitting in chairs), but when the king comes back in and sees Haman on Esther’s couch he thinks that Haman is trying to rape her, and he has Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai.
Verses 1-2: Esther is given Haman’s property (it was normal for the property of an executed criminal to become the property of the king). The king makes Mordecai the prime minister and Esther makes him the steward over Haman’s property.
Verses 3-7: Esther asks the king to revoke the decree calling for the extermination of the Jews.
Verses 8-14: Ataxerxes tells Esther and Haman to decree whatever they wish concerning the Jews, though we know already that they cannot reverse the previous decree. They have to find a way of saving the Jews with a decree that doesn’t reverse the previous decree.
This is the second time that the irrevocability of the king’s decrees has been a problem in this story. Do we learn anything by comparing the two instances and how they were dealt with?
Mordecai sends out a decree granting the Jews in Shushan and all of the provinces the right to defend themselves against attack on the day that they are to be slaughtered. They are only granted the right of self-defense, not the right of attack, but as was customary, they are granted the right to seize the property of all those whom they destroy.
What does this show us about Mordecai?
Verses 15-17: The Jews rejoice at this turn of events by feasting, and many who were not Jews are converted.
Verses 1-10: The Jews slay those who sought to destroy them (their understanding of self-defense didn’t require that the other person attack first, only that he be someone whom one expects to attack), and they are aided by many of those in the Persian government. They kill 500 people in the capital, Shushan, as well as Haman and his ten sons. But they do not take any of the property of those they kill.
Verses 11-17: The king once more tells Esther that she can asks for whatever she wishes and he will give it to her. She asks for one more day for the Jews to be able to kill their enemies and he grants her request. She also asks that the ten sons of Haman be hanged. Since they had been executed by hanging earlier in the day, this seems to be a request that the sons (or their heads) be impaled publicly, a common way of continuing punishment after death and making an example of wrong-doers. The Jews kill 300 more of their enemies in Shushan on the next day. We learn that in the provinces they slew 75,000 of their enemies. Again, the Jews refrained from taking the property of those they killed.
Why would they refrain from taking the property when it was legal and customary to do so? What do they show by not taking it? Is there anything comparable to this in our own lives?
Verses 18-19: The Jews celebrate their salvation with a feast.
Verses 20-23: Mordecai institutes the feast as an official feast: Purim (“Lots”—see Esther 3:7).
Verses 24-28: The writer gives a summary of the story.
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