Purim Revealed The story of Purim is found in the Book of Esther. Apart from the name of the king, neither the main characters of the account nor the holiday itself are mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. The holiday of Purim is a man-made festival that originated out of the decrees of Mordecai and Queen Esther (Est. 9:29–32). Although Purim was founded in biblical times, it is not a holiday commanded by God, as are the holy convocations mentioned in Leviticus 23. The events surrounding the story took place roughly between 483 to 471 B.C. The narrative is well known.
Joyously Celebrating the Faithfulness of God
by Bruce Scott
Imagine that you are watching a huge celebration take place. There are throngs of people milling about, young and old alike. Everyone is having a wonderful time. But you are unaware of the purpose of the occasion.
Nearby you see a large group of people twirling noisemakers, making as much commotion as they possibly can. Some are imbibing alcohol quite heavily. You conclude that it must be New Year’s Eve. But your conclusion would be wrong.
Then you see other people masquerading around in all sorts of costumes. You spy a clown, someone with a false beard, a king, and a lovely queen. You then assume the occasion must be Halloween. But you would again be mistaken. Suddenly you see a parade coming down the street. There are floats and marching bands. It must be Thanksgiving, you surmise. Sorry, wrong again.
Finally you observe friends and family exchanging food baskets and other people giving monetary gifts to the poor. “Aha!” you exclaim. “It’s Christmas!” But once more your conclusion is wrong. Give up? The celebration you would be watching is the holiday of Purim, the happiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Origin and Description of Purim
The story of Purim is found in the Book of Esther. Apart from the name of the king, neither the main characters of the account nor the holiday itself are mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. The holiday of Purim is a man-made festival that originated out of the decrees of Mordecai and Queen Esther (Est. 9:29–32). Although Purim was founded in biblical times, it is not a holiday commanded by God, as are the holy convocations mentioned in Leviticus 23. The events surrounding the story took place roughly between 483 to 471 B.C. The narrative is well known.
As the tale begins, King Ahasuerus is the king of Persia. In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus decided to celebrate his sovereignty by giving a lavish party that would last more than six months. After a considerable amount of drinking, the king decided to display his most prized possession, his wife Vashti. Ahasuerus commanded her to come and appear before his royal guests. Jewish tradition says that he instructed her to appear nude. Queen Vashti rejected the idea of exposing herself so immodestly and spurned her husband’s order.
King Ahasuerus was incensed and retreated to his counselors for advice. The counselors advised him to depose Vashti as queen, send out an edict commanding all wives in the empire to obey their husbands, and institute a search for the most beautiful maiden in the empire, who would then take Vashti’s place. King Ahasuerus listened to his counselors and did as they suggested. Vashti lost her crown (Jewish tradition says that she was executed), and a search began for the next queen.
Meanwhile, King Ahasuerus sent his armies to do battle against an old nemesis, Greece. But in 480 B.C., at the naval battle of Salamis, Ahasuerus, otherwise known to historians as Xerxes, was soundly defeated. The beauty search continued, nevertheless, and a young Jewish girl was selected to participate in the contest. Her name was Hadassah (meaning Myrtle), but she later came to be known by her Persian name, Esther.
Esther was an orphan who was raised by her cousin Mordecai. Mordecai was of the tribe of Benjamin and possibly from the house of Saul (Est. 2:5). When Esther was taken to the palace, Mordecai instructed her not to reveal her ethnic background, most likely out of concern that it would be held against her. The Jews were a subservient people to the Persians at that time and therefore would have been considered members of a lower class, an order of commoners and peasants. Eventually the search came to an end and, in God’s sovereignty, Esther was chosen to be the new queen of Persia. Mordecai was also given an official position sitting at the king’s gate.
One day Mordecai uncovered an assassination plot against the king. Political intrigue and assassinations were not uncommon in the ancient world. In fact, King Ahasuerus did eventually perish at the hands of assassins. In this instance, however, the conspirators were revealed. Through Esther, Mordecai informed the king of the plot, and the perpetrators were executed. A record of Mordecai’s assistance was duly noted, but he received no reward.
Around that time, the king promoted a man who eventually became one of Israel’s all-time worst enemies. His name was Haman, and he is described as the “son of Hammedatha, the Agagite” (Est. 3:1).
Haman’s lineage is significant to the story of Purim. He was a descendant of Agag, who was king of the Amalekites in the days of Saul and Samuel. Saul defeated Agag but disobeyed the Lord by allowing him to live. The Prophet Samuel rebuked King Saul for his disobedience then “hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD” (1 Sam. 15:33).
Being an Amalekite, Agag was part of the group of people who were long-term enemies of Israel. Because of their treatment of the children of Israel in the days of Moses, God declared war on Amalek “from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). In Jewish teaching, Amalek is seen as the epitome of anti-Semitism. As one Jewish author wrote, “The very essence of Amalek is hatred of Israel; without prospect of self gain; hatred without cause or motive; hatred for the sake of hatred alone; a hatred which never ceases.”
Haman therefore had a heritage of enmity toward the Jewish people. As the story of Esther unfolds, we can see how Haman exhibited his own type of evil hatred.
Haman was elevated by King Ahasuerus to a position above everyone else in the kingdom but the king himself. Everyone who saw Haman was required to bow down and pay him homage. Everyone obeyed the king’s command except one man—Mordecai. He stubbornly refused to bow before Haman, perhaps because Haman was an Amalekite or perhaps because, as a Jew, Mordecai did not want to appear to be worshiping anyone other than God. Whatever the reason, Mordecai’s behavior infuriated Haman.
Having learned that Mordecai was a Jew, Haman determined to kill him. But not satisfied with the murder of one single Jew, he plotted to wipe out all of the Jewish people in the empire. The Bible records that during the first month of the Jewish calendar, Nisan, Haman sat down and rolled the dice, so to speak, on the Jewish people. Through the use of some sort of tokens called “lots,” Haman tried to determine the right date to seal Israel’s fate. Each lot was known as a “Pur,” from which the name of the holiday was eventually derived. Most likely using Persian astrology to project a good date, Haman decided upon the 13th day of the month Adar (the 12th month on the Jewish calendar) as the luckiest time for carrying out his diabolical scheme.
Haman then laid out his request before the king. Depicting the mind-set of every anti-Semite that has ever lived, Haman pointed out that there was “a certain people” different from the rest of the king’s subjects. These people were so odd, he convinced the king, that they deserved to die. Haman was even willing to cover the cost of this genocidal operation. The king irresponsibly gave Haman permission to implement his plan, and shortly thereafter Haman issued the edict. The declaration advised of the forthcoming mandated destruction of all Jewish people in the empire. The official document specified the date the event was to occur, and it also stated that everyone who participated in the killing could help themselves to the spoils left behind. The edict was final. It was a Persian law that once the king had issued a decree, it could not be rescinded. Satisfied, Haman smugly sat down to eat and drink with the king, anticipating his revenge upon Mordecai and all the Jews.
When the news of their impending destruction reached the Jewish community, they were devastated. Throughout the empire the Jewish people mourned, fasted, and wept. All hope seemed lost. Even Mordecai walked around in sackcloth and ashes, distraught over what was about to happen to him and his people. Queen Esther, upon hearing of the sad condition of her beloved foster parent, sent gifts to cheer him. But Mordecai sent word to her describing the evil plot of wicked Haman. He implored Esther to act on behalf of her people and plead for their lives before the king.
Esther responded by informing Mordecai that anyone who came uninvited into the king’s chambers could suffer immediate death. History records that there were guards stationed near the king at all times. Each guard bore an ax that he would bring down upon anyone who approached the king without an invitation. The only way a person was spared was if the king stretched out his golden scepter, indicating his acceptance of his or her unannounced entrance.
This did not dissuade Mordecai, however. He replied to Queen Esther that she should nevertheless go before the king and incur the risk. Courageously, Esther followed his instructions. She asked only that the Jewish community pray and fast on her behalf for three days. She then would go before the king. She solemnly declared, “And if I perish, I perish” (Est. 4:16).
Archaeologists have unearthed the winter palace of King Ahasuerus in the city of Shushan, or Susa. The royal palace (Est. 5:1–2) had three courts. “The walls were of sun-dried brick covered with whitewash on the inside, and the paving was coated throughout with polished red ochre.” It was through these royal halls that Esther must have walked three days later, not knowing if her life would shortly be taken from her. But as the king beheld Esther standing in the court, his heart was moved with her beauty. He stretched out his golden scepter, receiving her into his presence. When the king asked her request, Queen Esther invited him and Haman to a banquet she planned to give in their honor. Quickly the arrangements were made, and the banquet was held. During the party Esther made a second request. She asked the king and Haman to attend another banquet on the following day.
Haman returned home, his proud heart was lifted up. He rehearsed all of his glories and achievements to his family and friends, particularly his status as the sole guest at the king and queen’s banquet. But none of this satisfied Haman because Mordecai the Jew still refused to pay him the respect he demanded. Haman’s wife then offered a suggestion. Why not hang Mordecai on a gallows? In fact, why not make it a particularly visible gallows, about 50 cubits (approximately 75 feet) high? The thought pleased Haman, and he commanded that work on the gallows begin immediately. He decided to petition the king the next morning for Mordecai’s life, after which he would go rejoicing to Queen Esther’s banquet.
Unknown to Haman, however, the king was struck with insomnia that very night. Seeking relief, he had the chronicles of his kingdom read aloud to him. Hearing the account of Mordecai’s saving his life, Ahasuerus asked what had been done for Mordecai to reward him for his loyalty. The answer was nothing. At that very moment, Haman arrived to ask for Mordecai’s execution. Before he could speak, the king asked him what he thought should be done for a man whom the king desired to honor. Bloated with pride and conceit, Haman assumed that the king was referring to him. Thinking this an opportune time to acquire glory for himself, Haman laid out an elaborate honorarium, not the least part of which was having a prince lead the dignitary through the streets of the capital on horseback heralding his greatness.
Haman was pleased when the king agreed to his suggested laurels, but he must have been stunned when the king bestowed those laurels on Mordecai. Worse than that, the herald leading Mordecai through the streets of the capital would be Haman himself. Chagrined and humiliated, Haman obeyed the king’s command and finally gave Mordecai the honor he was due.
After glorifying Mordecai, Haman hurried home and poured out his troubles to his family and friends. They were not very comforting, however. They told him that if Mordecai was a Jew, he would not prevail against him but would cause his own ruin. Just then messengers came and whisked Haman away to the queen’s banquet. Then Esther finally revealed her motives for appearing before the king. She wanted to plead for the lives of her countrymen who were about to be wiped out. Shocked, the king asked who would do such a thing. Dramatically, the queen revealed the truth. “The adversary and enemy,” she said, “is this wicked Haman” (Est. 7:6).
The king, realizing that he had been tricked by his top cabinet member, left the room in anger and retreated to the palace garden. Meanwhile, Haman desperately sought the queen’s mercy. Not thinking of appearances, Haman flung himself on Esther’s bed and begged for his life. Suddenly the king returned and saw Haman in this compromising position. Assuming that he was attempting to molest his wife, the king asked what should be done to such a vile person. One of his chamberlains suggested that Haman be hung on the same gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. And so it was done. The king then installed Mordecai in the place of Haman.
But the Jews still faced certain death. Esther appeared before the king again, and again he extended the golden scepter of acceptance to her. Begging for the lives of her people, Esther pleaded with the king to do something about the destructive edict that Haman had formulated. The problem was that under Persian law it could not be rescinded. Therefore, King Ahasuerus instructed Esther and Mordecai to prepare their own edict, giving the Jews throughout the kingdom permission to defend themselves against anyone who attacked them on the 13th of Adar. The king also gave the Jewish community permission to take as spoils any of their defeated enemies’ possessions.
When the new decree was announced, the Jewish people rejoiced. Their darkness had turned to light. Seeing that the Jewish people were now in a position of blessing, many of the Persian people converted to Judaism out of fear. Then came the fateful day—the 13th of Adar. The Jewish people were ready for their attackers. Fear of Mordecai had already permeated the ranks of the anti-Semites, and they were afraid that they would be thoroughly defeated, which they were. The Jewish community’s victory celebration lasted for two days in the winter capital of Susa and included the hanging of Haman’s ten sons. Interestingly, the biblical text records three times that even though the Jewish people successfully defended themselves, they did not take any spoils. This indicates that their actions were not motivated by greed.
Mordecai and Esther prescribed that the Jewish people should keep the 14th and 15th of Adar as an annual celebration, through their generations, to commemorate their great deliverance.
Purim is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. The majority of modern Jewish people do not observe it, and those who do, do so primarily for the sake of their children.
Observance of Purim
Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar (February-March). In Jerusalem it is also celebrated on the 15th, as it was in the ancient city of Susa. When the Jewish calendar has a leap year, a second month of Adar is added, and the observance of Purim is postponed until this second date.
The central activity on Purim is reading the Book of Esther. A Megillah or scroll is taken out and folded like a letter. The entire story of Esther is read from this scroll. This is done in the synagogue. Based on the command to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Dt. 25:19), an unusual custom developed and has long been practiced. As the Megillah is read, every time the name of Haman is mentioned the listeners boo, hiss, stomp their feet, whistle, pound plastic, air-filled hammers, or spin noisemakers called greggers. The idea is to make so much noise that the memory of Haman, an Amalekite, is blotted out from under heaven.
In the home, a special holiday meal is eaten in the afternoon. This meal must be plentiful and festive. Hamantashen, a three-corner pastry filled with poppy seeds, prunes, or other fruits and said to resemble Haman’s hat, is a holiday favorite. It is also customary to give small baskets full of cooked foods to friends on Purim. And a few coins are handed out to the poor.
The underlying theme of every Purim activity is fun. It is the most joyous of all Jewish holidays. Happiness and good cheer are the highlights of this day’s celebration. There is singing, dancing, and an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Children and even some adults dress in costumes. Purim plays are presented. People who are usually held in high esteem, such as rabbis, are good-naturedly parodied and made the brunt of jokes. In Israel, there are Purim parades with large floats and marching bands.
The most controversial aspect of the Purim celebration is found in the Talmud, which states, “It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’ ” The phrases “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai” are found in a prayer that follows the reading of the Megillah. The idea is that on Purim it is permissible to drink alcoholic beverages to such a degree that people find it difficult to distinguish between the cursing and blessing of this prayer. Some people in the Jewish community do imbibe a great deal of alcohol on Purim. Others feel that getting drunk on Purim is excessive. They interpret the Talmudic injunction to simply mean lie down to rest from the exhaustion of the celebration. Unfortunately, however, heavy drinking has become a part of the fun-making traditions of Purim.
Prophecy and Purim
Being a man-made holiday, there is no direct correlation between Purim and biblical prophecy. Nor is there any clear typology between this festival and the person of Jesus the Messiah.
Jewish tradition however believes that Purim will be one of the few Jewish festivals to continue in the days of the Messiah and his kingdom. At that time, Purim will serve as a memorial. It will be a remembrance of the beginning of the annihilation of Amalek during the days of Mordecai and Esther and their final annihilation at the coming of the Messiah.
Bruce Scott holds a B.A. in Bible from Grace College of the Bible, Omaha, Nebraska and a M.Div. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota. He is a Bible teacher and preacher with The Friends of Israel in Minnesota.
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