Purim: Still Relevant Today

“These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by each family in every province and town. These days of Purim should not be neglected by the Jewish people, and that they should not be forgotten by their descendants.”

— Esther 9:28, ISV

by Dr. Steve Elwart
This week we are celebrating the Feast of Purim. Purim falls on the Hebrew calendar date of Adar 14. This year, the coinciding secular dates for 2015 are from sundown March 4 – to sundown March 15.

The Jewish holiday of Purim — a celebration of Queen Esther and Mordecai overcoming a plot to kill the Jews in Persia — dates to the 5th century B.C., but its message is as relevant as today’s headlines.

There are few books of the Old Testament more relevant to life in a society hostile to the gospel than the Book of Esther. Believers are scattered throughout the world, awaiting the Lord’s return. Although He is present and active now as much as ever, He is usually “hidden” behind the events of life that He is directing for His own glory and the benefit of His children.

Although unbelievers can refuse to acknowledge Him, those “who have eyes to see” are able to recognize His hand at work in the affairs of life. “In a world in which hostility to the household of faith seems to flourish naturally, and indeed in which atheistic explanations of the universe grow more strident, ‘scientific’ and apparently convincing, it belongs to faith to ‘hold fast’ nevertheless to our hope—now specifically in Christ—‘for the one who made the promise is faithful’ (Heb. 10:23 ISV).”

The Book of Esther
Although no one knows who wrote the Book of Esther, it was apparently written by a Jew who was familiar with Susa, the royal palace, and Persian customs. The Jewish Talmud attributes Esther to the “men of the Great Synagogue,” anonymous teachers who lived in the period between the last prophets and the earliest rabbinic scholars. Early Christian Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, as well as Jewish authorities like Josephus, ascribed the book to Mordecai.

The date of the book’s composition is also unknown. The events described in the story occurred during the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus, whose name was rendered in Greek histories as Xerxes and who reigned 486–465 B.C. Although some scholars date its composition as late as the first century B.C., there is evidence to indicate the book was written shortly after the events it narrates and before the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. The Hebrew of Esther is similar to that of the books of Chronicles and Daniel, which suggests that these three books were composed during the same period. The author’s knowledge of Persian court life and customs and the book’s linguistic evidence point to the late fifth century B.C.

The Story of Esther
The story of Esther occurs during the Achaemenid period of biblical history (559–330 B.C.). This places the events of the story at least fifty years after the decree of Cyrus (538 B.C.), which announced that the exiled Jews could return to Jerusalem and about twenty-five years before Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.

Esther and Mordecai were living in the royal city of Susa. Susa had been an important political, cultural, and religious center for centuries. At the time of Esther, the city was one of the capital cities of a vast empire stretching from what is now India in the east to Turkey and Ethiopia in the west. The ruins of Susa are in Iran near its border with Iraq.

As traditionally understood, the purpose of the book is to explain the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim as a celebration of deliverance. From the Second-Temple Period until now, the Megillat Ester (“scroll of Esther”) in its entirety is read in the assemblies of the Jews as the central rite of the observance of Purim. Although women are normally exempt from mandatory attendance at worship, they are required to be present for the reading of Esther.

The story has provided encouragement and hope for the Jews, who from that day until this, like Esther and Mordecai, have lived far from Jerusalem.

The story of Esther is similar to that of Joseph in the court of the Egyptian pharaoh (Gen. 37–50) and of Daniel in the court at Babylon (Dan. 1–2). Each of these stories is about a Jew who was delivered from a death plot and rose to a high position in a pagan government.

The book as Christian Scripture is part of God’s saving work in history that culminated in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. It reminds Christians that God is never absent, even though those living in a world hostile to the Christian faith may not always be aware of His presence.

Who the book was written for
The events recorded concern the well-being of the Jews in Persia. Certainly Jews were the original audience, but the book was also written for Jews facing a similar situation elsewhere at other times.

The major theme of the book is God’s sovereign power to work, even though pagans, in order to preserve and deliver His people. The enemies of God’s people, portrayed possibly as Amalekites in the Book of Esther, cannot prevail over His purposes, even when God Himself seems absent.

Esther, a Jewish girl raised by her cousin Mordecai, became the second wife of King Ahasuerus of ancient Persia. Tradition says that Mordecai, an adviser to the king, refused to bow down to Haman, another of the king’s advisers. In anger, Haman hatched a plot to kill the Jews of Shushan and built a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. Haman drew numbers (lots) to decide on what day the Jews would die. The word “purim” means “lots”, hence the holiday’s name. Mordecai discovered the plot and asked Esther to intervene with the king to save her people. Haman was hanged instead.

Purim celebrates the Jews deliverance.

It is considered a mitzvah to listen as the Purim story is read aloud from the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, in synagogue. It is also traditional to come to synagogue dressed as the characters in the Purim story and to make noise—stomp feet and shake gragers—each time Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading. The idea is to drown out his evil name so that it is never heard again. Triangular-shaped cookies, called hamantashen, are a Purim treat.

As part of the hilarity of the holiday, people often dress up and put on short humorous skits called Purim-spiels. It is also customary to deliver shalach manot—gifts of fruit, hamantashen, and candy—to friends and neighbors. Synagogues often sponsor Purim carnivals, with games, prizes, and entertainment for children. In the State of Israel, children in costumes go from house to house, delivering shalach manot and collecting treats for themselves in return.

A Letter from Mordicai
Mordecai wrote these instructions and sent letters to all the Jewish people in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, establishing that they should celebrate the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar every year, as the days on which the Jewish people enjoyed relief from their enemies. It was a month when things turned around for them, from sorrow to joy and from mourning to a holiday. They were to celebrate these days as days of feasting and joy, and they were to send presents to one another and gifts to the poor. So the Jewish people made a tradition out of what they had begun to do and of what Mordecai had written to them.

— Esther 9:20–23, ISV

Esther chapter 9 concludes with statements authorizing the festival of Purim. This passage provides an etiology for the holiday: in narrative form, it explains Purim’s origin for future generations.

The authorization begins with a letter from Mordecai. He instructs all Jews to keep Adar 14–15 as a holiday year by year (Esther 9:21). In connection with these dates, what Purim celebrates is not the battles and the violence. If that were the case, the festival would be Adar 13–14. Instead, Purim is in remembrance of the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies. The gift-giving mentioned in Esther 9:19 is expanded in Mordecai’s instruction to include presents to the poor (Esther 9:22).

Among the values which contribute to the significance of Esther and which give the story contemporary relevance is its explanation for anti-Semitism. According to the book, Haman’s attitude toward the Jews emerged out of an antipathy for a single Jew, Mordecai (Esther 3:6). Mordecai’s refusal to bow in the presence of Haman was related to another factor, namely, the separatism practiced by the Jews (Esther 3:8).

There is no doubt that anti-Semitism is a grim and scurrilous reality. Haman is representative of a line of leaders who have persecuted and assaulted the Jews. The extermination of six million Jews during World War II is a shocking reminder of this criminal and inhuman disposition.

The Pesach (Passover) Seder reminds us that in every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy the Jews, but God saves them. In the time of the Book of Esther, Haman was the one who tried to destroy the Jews. In modern times, there have been two significant figures who have threatened the Jewish people, and there are echoes of Purim in their stories.

Many have noted the echoes of Purim in the Nuremberg war crime trials. In the Book of Esther, Haman’s ten sons were hanged (Esther 9:13); in 1946, ten of Hitler’s top associates were put to death by hanging for their war crimes.

As reported in the New York Herald Tribune on October 16, 1946:

He (Julius Streicher, the Nazi editor of the anti-Semitic Das Strumer newspaper) glared at the Allied officers and the eight Allied correspondents representing the world’s press who were lined up against the wall behind small tables directly facing the gallows. With burning hatred in his eyes, Streicher looked down upon the witnesses and then screamed:

— “Purim Fest 1946!”

Another echo of Purim is found in the Soviet Union a few years later. In early 1953, Stalin was planning to deport most of the Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberia, but just before his plans came to fruition, he suffered a stroke and died a few days later. He suffered that stroke on the night of March 1, 1953: the night after Purim. The plan to deport Jews was not carried out.

A story is told in Chabad of that 1953 Purim: the Lubavitcher Rebbe led a Purim gathering and was asked to give a blessing for the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were known to be in great danger. The Rebbe instead told a cryptic story about a man who was voting in the Soviet Union and heard people cheering for the candidate, “Hoorah! Hoorah!” The man did not want to cheer, but was afraid to not cheer, so he said “hoorah,” but in his heart, he meant it in Hebrew: hu ra, which means, “He is evil”!

The crowd at the Rebbe’s 1953 gathering began chanting “hu ra!” regarding Stalin, and that night, Stalin suffered the stroke that lead to his death a few days later.

At Purim the Scroll of Esther is read and we are reminded of Esther’s heroism and that of her uncle Mordecai. We also remember that in every age the Jewish people have had enemies, from the time of Haman to the time of Ahmadinejad.

Ironically, Israel’s most dangerous enemy today is from the very same place as Haman, the enemy of the Jews from the Purim story — Persia, or modern day Iran.

Purim is a celebration of the triumph of justice — the Jews of Persia lived, and their would-be murderer, Haman, did not. Esther and Mordecai are role models who stood up for their Jewish community.

Today, too, it is critical to stand together and against a modern-day Haman, who threatens Israel and the entire Middle East with annihilation while busily arming his country with nuclear capability.

March 02, 2015 | Original Source: khouse.org 

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