The Ironic Reversal: When Evil is Turned for Good
Centuries ago, in the vast Persian empire, lived a powerful king named Ahasuerus and his beautiful queen named Esther… But this story is far from a fairytale.
The Book of Esther tells the story of Purim. The holiday is all about fun. In Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, people dress up and host parades and costume parties.
If you think this sounds like the Jewish equivalent to Halloween, think again. The idea to dress in disguise is all about symbolizing the allusion of God’s hand in the story of Purim. It is the only book in the Bible where God’s name is never mentioned.
A Bit of History
In the 4th century BC, the Jewish people were subject to the Persian empire, a considerable kingdom stretching from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1:1). At this time in history the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. By the 4th century BC, the Persians took center stage in their quest for prominence.
This is where the story of Esther takes place and how the story of Purim begins.
A young Jewish woman named Hadassa, later renamed Esther, became queen in the house of King Ahasuerus after winning a beauty contest. Together with her cousin, Mordecai, Esther uncovered the evil plot of Haman, one of the king’s closest advisors. Haman intended to exterminate the Jews in Persia, but he didn’t know that the king’s wife, Esther, herself was Jewish.
Though it was not permitted to appear before the king unannounced, Esther knew she had to do something to spare her people from destruction. Clothed in courage, she said,
“I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
Queen Esther found favor in the eyes of the king, and suddenly a great story of reversal started unfolding. On the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, all the Jews in the Persian provinces were to be killed, as instructed by Haman.
Instead, thanks to Esther’s intervention, that was the date of victory for the Jewish people.
The king ordered Haman to be hanged on the very gallows intended for Mordecai. And with Haman gone, Mordecai was promoted to be the king’s closest advisor and his first decree was to introduce the holiday of Purim.
There is another element of irony to the story of Purim.
Haman, a descendent of the Amalekites, opposed Mordecai, a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin. Historically, the Amalekites were enemies of Israel because they attacked the Israelites from the rear when they were coming up from Egypt. God told King Saul, a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin, to wipe out the Amalekites. However, Saul spared King Agag the Amalekite and failed to obey God (1 Samuel 15:9).
Nevertheless, God still had the final word in this story. Centuries later He turned the tables on this situation using Mordecai, a descendant of the same tribe as King Saul, to defeat Haman, a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites.
Mandate to Rejoice
Esther stands among the great women of the Bible who played a role in protecting the Jewish people. The history and the story of Purim celebrates both her bravery and the Jewish people being spared from destruction.
Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar and the name of the festival comes from the term pur meaning lot (Esther 9:26).
If you know a little Hebrew, you know that -im is the masculine plural suffix, so purim literally means lots after the lots that Haman cast in selecting the date the Jews would be annihilated.
To this day Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, which usually falls around late February or early March. In Jerusalem, however, Purim is observed on the 15th of Adar in observance of the additional day of battle that took place in the Persian capital of Susa (Esther 9:18).
Traditionally, the Book of Esther is read in the synagogues, where you’ll likely hear people interacting with the reading of the text. They jeer when Haman’s name is mentioned and cheer when Mordecai’s name is heard.
The holiday is a big celebration. It is also typical to give donations to the poor or gift baskets to friends. Bakeries in Israel are filled with a special treat called oznei haman (Hebrew for Haman’s ears) or hamantaschen (Yiddish for Haman’s pockets), filled usually with poppy seeds, chocolate and other flavors.
God the Defender
Purim is one of my favorite Jewish festivals, not only because it involves so much celebration, with lots of food and lots of fun, but it reminds us that God is not far from His people, even in distant lands.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from the Book of Esther and the story of Purim is that God is interested in His people. He does not forget His promises. Though it may appear the enemy has the upper hand, God has the last word, and, in His sovereignty, He alone has the power to redeem the situation for His glory.
The story of Purim is one of God’s provision and how He allowed a situation intended for evil to be turned around for good.
Like Esther who approached the king’s throne without fear, Hebrews 4:16 encourages us to approach God’s throne with that same confidence and boldness that we might obtain mercy and find His favor in time of need.