Remembering Esther and the Ancient Holocaust That Wasn’t

If you’re a conscientious, self-distancing citizen experiencing the outside word primarily through news and social media, you probably saw photos of college kids not self-distancing but rather flocking to Florida’s beaches and bars last week. While most people canceled or postponed trips, others threw caution to the wind, either because they weren’t about to miss their long-awaited spring break trip or because bargain basement airfares put their dream vacation within reach. NBCNews quoted several young people talking about their high-risk, high-reward travel decisions. “I don't plan on putting my life on hold because something is going around,” said Jack Mulligan of Manchester, England.

The article was titled, “Young people capitalize on cheap coronavirus flights: 'If I die, I die,'” and it ran on March 10th. Ironically, March 10th also happened to be the concluding day of the Jewish festival of Purim. What is Purim? you ask. And, what does this have to do with people travelling against advisement during a pandemic? I’m glad you asked.

Purim commemorates a truly epic series of events that took place in 4th century BC Persia. The Old Testament book of Esther records how King Xerxes (also called Ahasuerus) had a spat with his wife Vashti and held the equivalent of a beauty contest to find a replacement queen. Now, Esther (also called Hadassah), a young Jewish orphan who had been raised by her uncle, Mordecai, lived in the capital city, and she was very beautiful. She was taken to be a contestant, and Xerxes chose her as his new queen. No one knew she was a Jew.

After some time passed, a man named Haman was appointed to be the king’s high official. Now, Haman was an arrogant man, and as arrogant men tend to be, he was also insecure. He became singularly enraged with Mordecai, because Mordecai, faithful God-fearing Jew that he was, would not bow before him or pay him homage. Murderously incensed, Haman then plotted to have, not just Mordecai, but all the Jews throughout all of Xerxes’s realm put to death. A lot was cast (the ‘pur’ from which Purim got its name) to determine the day of destruction, and the order was issued, sealed by Haman with the king’s permission and signet ring. With that, all of Jewry was consigned to death, and a clock started ticking.

Mordecai sent word to Esther, who apparently was not even aware of the decree, urging her to approach the king and plead for the lives of her people. This was easier said than done, though, because the law required that anyone who approached the king unsummoned was to be put to death. Only if the king extended his scepter would the intruder’s life be spared. Esther had not been summoned for some time. To approach the king was to risk her life.

Nevertheless, Mordecai, a man who knew the God he worshipped, appealed to her to use her position for the benefit of her people:

“Do not imagine that because you are in the king's palace you alone will escape the fate of all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows but that you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther took courage and sent her reply:

“Go and assemble all the Jews who can be found in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink day or night for three days, and I and my maidens will fast as you do. After that, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

“If I die, I die.” “If I perish, I perish.” Now, do you see the connection? Actually, you might call it an anti-connection. Here’s what I mean by that. To travel against advisement, placing yourself and others at risk, saying “If I die, I die,” reveals a temporal, self-oriented perspective on life. Life consists in doing those things that make me happy, so let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Esther used the same phrase, but with a completely opposite valuation of human life. Life is a gift of God, and it is meant to be lived in service to him and to the people he made. With this take on life, Esther put her own life on the line in the hope that others’ lives would be spared. Same phrase. Completely opposite belief system about the meaning of life.

One interesting fact about the book of Esther is that God’s name never appears in it. But his fingerprints are all over it, and the events that play out are the epitome of poetic justice. Read it when you get a chance, and I bet you’ll find yourself wanting Mordecai’s and Esther’s God to be your God too. We’re navigating a time of crisis right now, and for many God seems absent. I can’t think of a better time to recall the events of the past and reflect on which life ethic (and God) we will choose.   

The photo pictured above shows the traditional tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, Iran.

has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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