Partying Like It’s 4th Century BCE
Our story begins with a party. Doesn’t it always? It is the third year of King Achashverosh’s rule. Achashverosh is king over the Persians and the Medes. His empire is huge, spanning over 127 provinces. The party is a six month extravaganza, filled with lots of drinking. Achashverosh orders his wife, Queen Vashti, to come before his guests and show off her beauty. Vashti refuses. Ego bruised and embarrassed before his dignitaries, the King orders that Vashti be killed. Hell hath no fury like a king scorned.
The Bachelorette, Persian Edition
The king sends out a decree that all beautiful girls be brought to him so he can choose his replacement queen. Enter Esther, a beautiful Jewish orphan being raised by her cousin, Mordecai. The King is impressed by her and chooses her to be his new queen. Esther keeps her Jewish identity hidden.
Bigtan and Littletan
Just kidding. Bigthan and Teresh, two courtiers, plot to assassinate King Achashverosh. Mordecai overhears them and thwarts their plans. Bigthan and Teresh are killed, and Mordecai’s actions are recorded in the King’s official records. Foreshadow alert!
3 Days of Fasting, 2 Lavish Feasts, 1 Evil Plot
Haman gets a promotion and fancies himself very important. But then Mordecai refuses to bow before him, and there goes that. To exact his revenge, Haman gets permission from Achashverosh to not only kill Mordecai, but to kill all of the Jews. Seems reasonable. Haman casts a lot (pur!) and the thirteenth of Adar is chosen to be the day of doom. When Mordecai hears this news, he and the Jews begin to mourn. He informs Esther and implores her to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people. Typically, a queen could not go before the king without being summoned on punishment of death, so Esther is afraid to do as Mordecai asks. She institutes a three day fast for herself and all of the Jews. On the third day, she approaches Achashverosh and he accepts her happily. Phew. Esther invites the king and Haman to a feast, presumably just to build up our suspense since all she does at that feast is invite them to another feast to take place the next night.
Achashverosh The Insomniac & The Mordecai Parade
Back to Mordecai….Haman is offended by Mordecai (again) and at his wife’s Zeresh’s suggestion, he decides to build a gallows upon which to hang him. True love. That night, Achashverosh can’t sleep. His official records are read to him and he sees Mordecai has not been rewarded for saving his life. Haman appears (in the middle of the night?!) to get permission to hang Mordecai (guess he can’t wait until Adar 13…) but before he can make his request, the King says “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman thinks the King is referring to himself (of course) and answers that the man should be treated as royal: dress him in royal clothes and parade him around on the king’s horse while someone announces, “This is how the king treats a man he wishes to honor!” Achashverosh likes this idea, and commands Haman to do all of this for Mordecai. Ouch. The parade ensues, Haman is humiliated, and begins to recognize that this is the beginning of the end.
At Esther’s second banquet, she reveals to Achashverosh and Haman that she is Jewish and Haman’s plan would exterminate herself and her people. Achashverosh is enraged and orders that Haman be hanged on the gallows and, waddaya know, gallows have already been set up by Haman himself. Talk about irony.
Yes- there is a war in the Purim story. Achashverosh cannot annul the previous decree, but he allows the Jews to send out a new decree stating that they may defend themselves. Gee, thanks. But the Jews are successful and on the 13th of Adar they kill 500 attackers in Shushan, Haman’s ten sons, and 75,000 of their enemies throughout the empire. Jews in Shushan fought on both the 13th and 14th and rested on the 15th- this is where Shushan Purim comes from. (It is still celebrated in Jerusalem today.)
The Jews rested on the 14th day and made it a day of feast and merriment. Mordecai recorded all of these events and sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, charging them to observe the 14th (and 15th in walled cities) of Adar. Queen Esther sends out another letter confirming it, and thus the holiday of Purim began. Achashverosh continues his powerful reign and gives Mordecai a distinguished position in his court.