Lesson: Esther 3:1-6, 4:12-14, 7:1-6, 9:20-22
The book of Esther is edgy, funny, and strange. Many commentators think it’s intended to be a farce – a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, ludicrously improbable situations and people behaving badly. This makes more sense if you read the whole book. In the first chapter, we meet the king of the Persian Empire, an ineffectual, pompous buffoon, surrounded by a cadre of advisers who pander to his ego. He throws a preposterously lavish, six-months-long party. The party ends when the drunken king summons his queen, Vashti, to parade in front of his guests wearing nothing but her crown. She refuses. Score one point for Queen Vashti. The king banishes her in a fit of rage, but soon he’s petulant and lonely.
His advisers suggest that perhaps a harem of the most beautiful young virgins might brighten things up a bit. Our heroine, Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her Uncle Mordecai, is selected for this dubious honor. Each of the young women is put through a beauty-and-perfume regimen for an entire year, and then, the one who pleases the king most gets to be queen. And the winner is – you guessed it – Esther.
The whole story would be infuriating if it weren’t so over the top. The book of Esther is poking fun at the Persian elite, mocking the decadence of empire and the absurdity of human pretensions. And of course, every story needs a villain. That’s Haman, a prince who’s elevated to high rank for no particular reason but who takes himself very seriously. When Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, won’t bow down to Haman, he responds by convincing the king to annihilate every Jew, young and old, on a day Haman will choose by casting lots. The king casually agrees to this, which makes no sense, but then – since when did people in power have to make sense?
Concerned for the fate of his people, Mordecai asks Esther to talk to the king. She’s reluctant, because if you go into the king’s chamber without being summoned, you’re put to death. The only chance you have is if the king holds out his “golden scepter” toward you. Esther says the king hasn’t summoned her to his chamber for a whole month, so the golden scepter may not be likely to point in her direction. And yes, this is intended as bawdy humor, setting a comic rather than a tragic tone.