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The Ethical Dilemma of Esther Nine

Esther nine, in many ways, is an obscene and primitive text to the modern reader. It includes the mandated killing of 75,000 Persians (Esth. 9:16), 800 citizens in Susa (9:6,15), and the impaling of Haman’s sons' dead bodies (9:14). To make matters worse and more difficult for the biblical interpreter, the actions are mandated and motivated by the narrative’s protagonists—Esther and Mordecai. The two characters, who appeared patient and gracious, now seem tyrannical and bloodthirsty. This is most apparent after the killing of 500 Persians in Susa when the King asks, “‘And what further is your request?’ And Esther said, ‘If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman [who were already dead at that time] be hanged on the gallows’” (9:12-13). These are startling words from the book's namesake. Apparently, the first day of killing was not enough for Esther and she needed one more day to deal with her enemies. With these actions, comes a moral dilemma for Christians; are the actions and events of Esther nine justified? And if not, what does this say about the character of God who commissioned these events to occur? It is here, that these questions will be answered.

A Sympathetic Reading with Reservations

An important principle for reading the biblical narrative is sympathy. Often, modern readers (I included) will approach the text with cynical and condescending lenses. There are many reasons for this, but two of the most prominent appear to be a lack of humility for understanding the experiences of the biblical characters and a failure to be aware of the character’s place in the biblical narrative, which will be addressed later. As for a lack of sympathy and humility when reading the Bible, this can lead interpreters to make quick judgments upon the actions of characters before attempting to understand why a character might have committed an act. This can lead to faulty interpretations that impose moral assessments upon narratives that were never imagined by the author. To avoid this fault, the reader should seek to recognize the experiences of the biblical characters to understand their reasoning for actions that may seem morally reprehensible. Notice, this is not instructing to exonerate or justify the wrong done by someone, but to understand their motives.

Esther and Mordecai are then two characters who should not promptly be judged but understood. To start, Esther and Mordecai are Israelites living in a foreign, pagan land. Undoubtedly, this caused a great deal of cultural confusion for them, as their families were exiled from their homes to a people who at best, tolerated, if not despised their cultural traditions (Esth. 2:5; 3:7-8). Making matters worse, the entire Israelite nation became subject to potential genocide (3:9-10), if there was something that would anger a nation this would be it. On a more personal note, Mordecai was number one on the royal hit list (5:14), and Esther had to put her life in death’s way to save her people (4:16). At the least, these are traumatic experiences. Understanding human nature as well, these events would cause a great deal of resentment of one people for another if not hatred. This background allows the reader to sympathize with why chapter nine is as horrific as it is. Esther and Mordecai’s decree did not happen in a vacuum but as the outcome of an already ghastly train of events. Esther and Mordecai are human beings, and the reader must ask themselves, “if I was in this position, would I act any different?” And the answer can only be found through the outcome of these specific events. Notice, this is not an attempt to justify or condemn, but to understand.

Sympathy is a wonderful principle for reading the Bible, but its dividends do run out. The interpreter is still left with the moral dilemma of applying this text to the Christian life. This is where the Old Testament narrative meets with the New Testament ethic. The famous words of Jesus read, “But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Paul on a similar note, exhorts the church at Rome to “repay no one evil for evil, but give and to do what is honorable in the sight of God…Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:17,19). Both verses make clear, Christians are not to retaliate with violence or reciprocate the wrong done to them. Instead, Christians are called to love their enemies even in the face of persecution—potential murder or genocide. This clashes with the narrative of Esther, as this ethic is far from the character’s response. Therefore, it is difficult to acquit Esther and Mordecai’s actions in the face of the new testament. To apply Esther nine, it must be noted that their response is not prescribed or justified for Christians. Instead, it must be met with the reservation of love for your enemy.

While the events of Esther nine are immoral for Christians, this does not mean we disregard a sympathetic understanding of the characters. If a sympathetic reading of the text and a moral reservation are merged, it can be determined that Esther and Mordecai’s actions should not be justified or met with cynicism at the same time. Admittedly, this approach to reading the biblical narrative provokes ambiguity and allows for a gray area when understanding the book of Esther. This may be problematic to some extent, but it seems to be where the author leaves the reader, as there is no one moral assessment made by the narrator in chapter nine. Therefore, the interpreter should be hesitant to draw more moral conclusions from the text than the author does, which leads to the next topic, authorial intent.

Authorial Intent

The author of Esther intends to record the actions and events in the citadel of Susa in Persia from 483-474 B.C. Not once, as far as I know, does he attempt to interpret or define the actions in the book, he is a pure chronicler. At the same time, he is aware of the Old Testament narrative leading up to his day, as he records abbreviated genealogies and character’s ethnic lineages (Esth. 2:5; 3:1). Therefore, to understand the author’s purpose for recording Esther nine, it is necessary to understand the character’s ancestries.

Mordecai and Haman are two of the most prominent characters in Esther. Yet, their story can be traced back to Exodus 17 and 1 Samuel 15, it is the latter that is significant for understanding Esther nine. In 1 Samuel 15, King Saul of Israel, Mordecai’s ancestor, is commanded to “strike Amalek (Haman’s ancestors) and devote to destruction all that they have” (1 Sam. 15:3). Saul defeats the Amalekites but only obeys part of the Lord’s command, it is recorded, “Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them” (15:9). In allowing Agag, Haman’s ancestor, and the Amalekite’s livestock to live, Saul violated God’s command which inevitably led to his death at the hands of the Philistines, who hung him on their temple wall (31:2,10).

These details may appear arbitrary but when they are set as the backdrop of Esther nine, they make sense of the author’s intent. Notice in Esther, Mordecai takes it upon himself to bring fruition to the Lord’s command by destroying all the Jew’s enemies (Esth. 8:11; 1 Sam. 15:3). Further, the author repeatedly tells the reader, “but they laid no hands on the plunder”, the very mistake Saul made after defeating Amalek (Esth. 9:10,15,16; 1 Sam. 15:9). To top it off, Haman’s dead sons undergo the same embarrassment Saul did after death, being impaled for the city to witness (Esth. 9:14; 1 Sam. 31:10). In reflecting upon Mordecai’s relationship to Saul, there is a much greater purpose at hand than the destruction of Israelite enemies. Instead, Mordecai is acting as a faithful Saul who should have brought complete annihilation to the Amalekites and their gods. The author is then intending for the reader to recognize that there is a much greater narrative at play here than just in the book of Esther. The story of God’s redemptive plan for the Israelites, and ultimately for the world, is on display. The former failures of Saul are being corrected for the salvation of God’s people. It is then not the intent of the author to be concerned with the ethical dilemma of chapter nine but to disclose God’s unthwartable plan to the reader.

This also answers the second ethical dilemma raised about chapter nine, what does this say about God who commissioned these events to occur? It tells us that God’s story of redemption surpasses what we see in the book of Esther. It is not that God's plan excludes Esther, it just tells us that God providentially works through the book of Esther to bring about his redemptive plan for his people, even in the horror of chapter nine.

Praise be to God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will”. (Eph. 1:11)

Grace and Peace,

Robert Rosa

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