purim

Why Do We Give Gifts at Purim?

The book of Esther tells the tale of Esther and Mordecai, two Jews who saved the Jewish people from annihilation in the Persian Empire. During the holiday, many who celebrate the holiday dress up in fun costumes, hold fun traditions and give gifts to others in celebration of God’s redemption.

But why gifts?

GIVING GIFTS FOR UNITY

Chapter nine of the book of Esther speaks to the 14th of Adar, the day Purim is celebrated. The people of Israel are beckoned to partake in “gladness and feasting and sending gifts of food to one another.” In traditional Judaism, this giving is called mishloach manot. 

At the time, the Jewish people were a people not in their own land. When Babylon captured Israel, the exiles were sent to Persian cities like Susa as a way to assimilate them into the culture. Thus, Israel became a “scattered and divided nation.” For the Jews living in Persia, the events of Purim called for action, and the people united to protect their culture and tradition.

That’s where the gifts come in.

The purpose of gift-giving then was two-fold. First, the Jewish people sent gifts to encourage a sense of resolve and unity. No matter their physical whereabouts in the empire, gifts affirmed their Jewish heritage. The ability to stand together in conviction and faith in God has preserved the Jewish people through every period of history.

GIVING GIFTS TO CARE FOR THE POOR

Secondly, gifts were used to bless people who were struggling. Looking out for the poor and marginalized is so important to God, that He commands His people to practice a lifestyle of looking out for the poor in Deuteronomy 15:11. Giving gifts to each other during the holidays such as Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Purim were normal occurrences. Giving gifts, especially food, ensured that everyone had the ability to celebrate the holiday, regardless of income. Every Jewish person was provided for because of the community coming together to fulfill the mandate of God. In this way, the poor and rich alike were brought together and given a chance to experience the redemptive power of God through Purim.

GIVING GIFTS TODAY

Think giving gifts at Purim is outdated? Or just for the Jewish community? Thank again!

We have the same opportunity today to come together in unity with our Christian brothers and sisters. The New Testament also speaks of providing for those in need. Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 19:21 to give up their possessions to those in need so that they would “store up treasures in heaven.” In Philippians 2:4, we are called to “look to the interests of others.” During Purim, we can remember the words of Jesus and generously extend our hands to those who are in need.

So as you prepare for Purim, ask yourself this question: how am I considering those in need around me? Take time with your family to recognize the needs of those around you and brainstorm some ways you can help. Do you know a single mom who needs money to pay her rent? Send her an anonymous gift of cash. Is there a family who needs a good meal on the table? A grocery gift card or a basket of food would mean a lot. Is there someone who is single and alone who just needs time in community? Invite them over for a good dinner and a Purim celebration. There are so many ways to show some love.

Giving gifts isn’t just for Hanukkah or Tabernacles, and it certainly doesn’t go out of style. May you be blessed this season as you open your arms and hearts to Jesus and those around you.

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The Themes of Purim

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.

IN CONCLUSION

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.

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