The festival Purim is a Jewish holiday traditionally celebrated in the Jewish month of Adar, falling in March or April. The biblical holiday is not a mandated festival, but Purim is a rousing event marked by storytelling and costumes, giving and feasting. Why is it important for us to celebrate Purim as Christians? Why is it a celebration anyway?
The book of Esther tells the riveting tale of Esther and Mordecai, two Jews who saved the Jewish people from annihilation in the Persian Empire. Read a synopsis of the story here. The Purim story is fascinating and gives a unique account of the events that transpired when the Jews were exiles from their homeland around 480 BC. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of the people who God providentially uses to rescue his people from being wiped out. Watch a video on the story of Esther here.
Esther is a young Jewish girl who unexpectedly rises to power as the Queen of the Persian Empire. The King’s Prime Minister Haman created a plot to annihilate the Jewish people. Esther and her cousin Mordecai bravely use their political stance and cunning to bring the evil Haman to justice and save an entire people group from extinction. The book is political, dramatic, artfully written, and the arc of the story shows the writer of Esther to be truly brilliant in his portrayal of details and climactic themes. So what are the themes of the book and why should we celebrate the holiday as Christians?
THE THEME OF GOD NEVER MENTIONED
The first thing a reader notices when they read the story of Esther is that God is never mentioned. No reference to the God of the Israelites is ever noticed, although there are a few implications given when Esther and Mordecai pray. The author strategically wrote the book in this way to reveal the main theme of the story: God is never absent from his people, even when we don’t see him. The author of Esther told the story through “behind the scenes coincidences” and the work of people in “just the right place in the right time” situations. Every perfect situation and happenstance moment cannot be just mere coincidence, but points very clearly to the God who orchestrates the entire story. We can be encouraged by this as Christians, because we know that God is always working, even when we don’t see him.
This theme is most present when we observe the many times the Jewish and Christian people have been persecuted throughout the centuries. We still know that God has proved himself faithful to his people no matter what. The story of Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish people who revolted against the Greek empire 400 years before Jesus. During the Holocaust, many Jews died at the hands of Hitler, but God proved his faithfulness to his people again in the death of Hitler and the miraculous redemption of the Jews from death camps. God performed another miracle when the State of Israel began in 1945, offering a safe place for the Jewish people. Joseph Stalin died on Purim in 1953, which ended his brutal slaughter of the Russian Jews. These were not mere coincidences, but the guiding hand of the God of Israel.
THE THEME OF REVERSAL OF ROLES
The Purim story is told in sections, beginning with a party, leading into a face-off between Haman and Mordecai, a turn into the frightening plot of Haman, and then arcing in a complete reversal of the story. The story arcs in what is called a “chiasm”, which is a storytelling technique in which a story is told in a repetition of a reverse sequence of events. Essentially the events are structured in an A-B-C-B-A sequence with the climax being the turning point in the story to reverse the details. The reversal incidence in this story is the banquet scene when Esther reveals herself as a Jew. The evil Haman who plotted against Mordecai is hung on the very gallows he meant for Mordecai. The destruction of the Jews turns into a day where the Jews destroy their enemies. We see a reversal of roles as Haman, the most powerful man in the empire next to the King, reverses roles with Mordecai and the victory meant for Haman goes to Mordecai. The story, which should have ended with Haman celebrating his victory, instead ends with a banquet and party as the Jewish people celebrate their victory over Haman. The story is so artfully written that we see this chiasm unfolding before our eyes and our minds are blown by the purposes of God. What man meant for evil, God will turn into good.
THE THEME OF GOD USING ANYONE FOR HIS PURPOSES
In addition, the book of Esther powerfully shows that God can use anybody to accomplish his purposes. Most of the story of Esther is told in a world of power-plays, political hierarchy, murder and drinking. Many of the characters are morally ambiguous and even Esther and Mordecai are not following the laws of the Torah (Such as marrying non-Jews and eating unclean foods). Yet, God displays his glory and power through Esther and Mordecai even though they are not portrayed as law-following Jews themselves.
The Purim story is meant to give us pause and consider the sovereignty of God, even when we don’t necessarily see God working. It causes us to stop and consider where we see God working in our lives in the mundane and seemingly hopeless situations of life. As Christians, the book is meant to give us hope and faith in the God we serve. We can better trust that God will work powerfully for those who hide in the shadow of his wing.