What resources do you have for understanding contention and hatred in the world? What stories help you understand what is going on? How do you see God at work in the world, despite its deep threats and hostilities? With such large questions we are reading the story of Esther. We hope it is helpful and meaningful to you. If you are reading the text of Esther, the following comments are based on 2:19 to 3:15. In this portion of the story we learn of the emerging struggle between Haman and Mordecai, and the plot to eliminate the Persian Jews.
Haman is, at heart, an overly proud man. He is what one might call egomaniacal, a person who cannot be happy working for the common good, a person who must somehow assert himself “above the herd”. Such people, such ways of thinking, are inherently dangerous as we see in the story. It is, in fact, Haman’s pride that becomes the seed-bed for a great evil thought.
Having been honored by Xerxes to “chief among the nobles”, it greatly bothers Haman that Mordecai will not bow to him. The reasons for this refusal are not stated, but it could be rooted in Mordecai’s faith; as a Jew, he will bow to no one but God (hinted in 3:4). But Haman doesn’t care about such things. He doesn’t care about the common good. What motivates Haman, as we see through the story, is recognition, adulation, and the glory of power. So, realizing that Mordecai the Jew will not bow to him, and that neither will his people, he hatches an evil plot. He will rid the land of Jews so that everyone will pay homage to him. The dice (purim) are thrown (3:7); the day is selected when the Jews will be eliminated. The calendar now begins its countdown.
Let’s dial back a bit. At the heart of this struggle between Haman and Mordecai are two visions of life. On the one hand there is the “zero-sum” worldview of Haman, the belief that in order for one person or group to do well, there must be a corresponding loss or diminishment somewhere else. In other words, there are winners and there are losers, and that this must be so, a highly competitive and inevitably violent way of looking at the world. On the other hand there is the common-good worldview of Mordecai, who, although being a Jew in exile, sees the well-being of the empire as something all should strive for. He actually uncovers a plot to overthrow Xerxes and reports it (2:21ff), a point that will become relevant to the story later on.
And then there is this: how evil often hides itself behind the impersonal, how it tends towards abstraction, towards systems or collectives rather than people with names and faces. The reason king Xerxes falls for Haman’s plot to eliminate the Jews is that he doesn’t attach the collective to the persons in the group. He doesn’t think that he knows a Jew, or would love one if he did (remember who Esther is? I said last week that this story was deeply ironic). Knowing what we know about Mordecai’s loyal goodness and Esther’s relationship to the king, the threat, as most evil threats, makes little sense. The king, for some reason swayed by Haman’s twisted logic, has lost his reason.
The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered. (3:15).
What can be done? That part of the story now awaits us.
See you Sunday for Esther part 3.
Questions for reflection:
- How do you understand human pride? Why is it dangerous? What is the nature of humility and how does it add to the common good? Reflect on the character of Jesus.
- How do you understand the idea of zero-sum thinking (look up “zero-sum game” on Wikipedia). How do we practice zero-sum thinking in our economics, in our relationships, in our culture? Is there another way?
- When the evil plot is hatched, the dice are thrown to select a day. This might be thought of as chance versus providence (see last week’s discussion). Discuss the perspective that comes from knowing our lives are held in the sovereign hands of God, versus the perspective that our lives are ruled by chance. How do you see things?
- Why do you think the city of Susa was bewildered (3:15)? What was non-sensical about the evil plot hatched by Haman? How is evil non-sensical?