The Jewish festival of Purim begins at sunset tomorrow (Saturday 11th March). Purim commemorates the intervention of Queen Esther to prevent the mass murder of Jewish people under the rule of the Persian king Xerxes. The king’s vizier, Haman, required complete subservience from subjects under Persian rule and objected to Esther’s uncle Mordecai’s refusal to prostrate himself before Haman. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to grant permission for him to exterminate the local Jewish population.
Esther used her role as queen to intervene with Xerxes – she risked her life by approaching the king without his express invitation or permission. She persuaded him to recognise the loyalty of her uncle Mordecai and question his vizier’s motives, and as a result of her intervention the local Jewish population was spared massacre; Haman was hanged from the gallows he constructed in order to execute Mordecai.
The full poetic justice of the story of Esther is contained in the Book of Esther, and is worth reading in full. It is an adventure story, a story of conquest, outrage, and xenophobia. Amongst the Jewish traditions for Purim are hecking over the name of Haman when the scripture is read in the Synagogue, and eating pastries known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears”), to dishonour him for his racism and violence. At the same time, Jewish families send food parcels to friends and increase their charitable giving to remind themselves that their survival is not guaranteed and that it’s vital to stand alongside those who might not. And then, they celebrate with bright costumes (or fancy dress) and rejoice in a time in history when the Jewish people triumphed. (Want to try your own Hamantaschen? Here’s a recipe.)
The story of Esther reminds me of all the times Christian leaders have stood on the side of Haman throughout our shared history; through expulsions, propaganda, or collaboration. I also know that Jewish communities are not the only ones whom we as a church have demonised and feared. As we travel through Lent it points to a particular form of human frailty; our tendency to fear people who are not like us. In the story of Esther I find a challenge to stand up for oppressed peoples everywhere.
Esther stood alone because the Jewish people were isolated from power; let’s seek out where Esther stands alone today, and seek to amplify her voice and stand alongside her.