Theology in 3D

The Providence of Purim

Ken Casillas | February 27, 2018
Old Testament

Today I return to the series on Israel’s feasts because the 2018 celebration of Purim is right around the corner. Depending on one’s location, Purim will be held on the fourteenth of Adar—from sunset on Wednesday, February 28, to sunset on Thursday, March 1—or the following day.

Purim is known as the funnest of Jewish holidays, featuring a number of enjoyable rituals for young and old alike. Why the festivities? Because of the joy of the deliverance that Purim commemorates!

CELEBRATORY TRADITIONS

The Hebrew word purim means “lots,” recalling the lots Haman used to determine the date on which his pogrom would exterminate Jews throughout the Persian empire in the fifth century B.C. This is explained in the ninth chapter of Esther, after the book recounts Yahweh’s amazing work to rescue his people from Haman’s plot. The Lord did not command the observance of Purim but, like Hanukkah, Purim is a humanly devised celebration that parallels the feasts God had ordained in the Pentateuch.

Jewish people fast on the day before Purim, remembering the fasting of their forefathers as they prayed that Esther would succeed in intervening with King Xerxes on their behalf (Esth 4:16). Then a bountiful Purim meal celebrates Yahweh’s definitive granting of their requests. Purim also includes an emphasis on the unity of the Jewish people. Each one is asked to give two charitable gifts to the poor as well as a package of food to a Jewish friend (reflecting Esth 9:22).

During Purim the book of Esther is read twice in synagogue services. Whenever the name of Haman is uttered in the story, listeners stamp their feet or twirl a ratchet noisemaker known as a gragger. The jarring sounds symbolically blot out Haman’s name in disgrace (cf. Deut 25:19). Similarly, on Purim many Jews eat hamentaschen, three-cornered cookies associated with Haman.

DIVINE PROTECTION AND PRESERVATION

The events memorialized by Purim teach us a great deal about God and his ways. Most specifically, they powerfully demonstrate that he is committed to his people Israel and is well able—against all odds—to do whatever is necessary to accomplish his purposes for them. The book of Esther combines with a host of biblical passages to assure the Jews that in his time Yahweh will crush all anti-Semitism and lavish his people with every blessing he has covenanted to give them. What a bracing truth in the midst of a world where the spirit of Haman rages on two and a half millenia later!

DIVINE PROVIDENCE

But we also need to consider the more general theological message of Esther. The book stands as a testimony to the comprehensive providence of God. Some have questioned the canonicity of Esther because it never mentions the name of God. Yet this feature is part of the book’s genius. The whole point is that while God is constantly at work to achieve his purposes, his work is not always apparent to onlooking humans.

Though God invincibly superintends all people and all circumstances toward the accomplishment of his will, his work is typically “silent”—behind-the-scenes, mysterious, not evident until after the fact. That’s usually what we have in mind with the word providence. Providence may explain another Purim tradition. Jewish people dress up in costumes, and some argue that this is because God’s sovereign work is “disguised” in the story of Esther. That connection is disputed, but it effectively illustrates the emphasis of the book.

DIGGING DEEPER

Multiple aspects of Esther underscore the providence of God. Consider the many “coincidences” in the book. Esther is replete with unexpected but perfectly timed, interconnected events that cannot be explained apart from divine orchestration. Following are some prominent examples (taken from Mark Lehman, “The Literary Study of Esther,” Biblical Viewpoint 26 [1992]: 90).

  • Xerxes deposes Vashti and chooses Esther as queen.
  • Mordecai discovers the plot against Xerxes.
  • Using the lot, Haman chooses a far-off date for the Jewish pogrom.
  • Xerxes decides to accept Esther’s unrequested visit favorably.
  • Xerxes cannot sleep and asks for the court records to be read.
  • The reader chooses the record of what Mordecai had done.
  • Haman comes to see the king just as he is thinking about how to honor Mordecai.
  • A gallows is readily available to hang Haman, and Xerxes’ servants know about it.
  • The Jews are able to defeat their enemies.

Most striking are the ironic reversals of circumstances that threaten God’s people. Consider these selected contrasts (adapted from Karen Jobes, Esther, 156):

Xerxes gives Haman his ring (3:10)Xerxes gives Mordecai his ring (8:2)
The Jews to be killed in one day (3:13)The Jews’ enemies to be killed in one day (8:11)
Haman’s decree published (3:14)Mordecai’s decree published (8:13)
Susa bewildered (3:15)Susa rejoices (8:15)
Mordecai wears sackcloth and ashes (4:1)Mordecai wears royal robes (3:11; 8:15); Haman’s head is covered (6:12; 7:8)
Zeresh advises Mordecai’s death (5:14)Zeresh predicts Haman’s ruin (6:13)
Haman builds gallows for Mordecai (5:14)Haman is hung on the gallows made for Mordecai (7:10)

Note as well that scholars have proposed various chiastic outlines for Esther. The following approach has been popularized by Joyce Baldwin (Esther, 30):

Opening and background (1)

The king’s first decree (2–3)

The clash between Haman and Mordecai (4–5)

“On that night the king could not sleep” (6:1)

Mordecai’s triumph over Haman (6–7)

The king’s second decree (8–9)

Epilogue (10)

The turning point of the story—what prompts the exaltation of Mordecai and his eventual victory—is something as insignificant and humanly unintended as a sleepless night (see further, Karen Jobes, Esther, 158).

Finally, don’t miss the significance of the name chosen to commemorate the events of Esther: purim, lots. How fittingly ironic that God’s providential work should be forever associated with the seemingly random throwing of dice! “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov 16:33).

GOD WORKS THROUGH MEANS

We dare not think, however, that God’s sovereignty somehow excludes human responsibility and decision. It’s true, the overthrow of Haman shows that human beings cannot thwart the purposes of God. Yet Esther also emphasizes that God works throughthe choices of human beings. In fact, he can employ even the sinful choices of people like Haman to advance the divine will—without the Lord himself sinning.

But what has especially inspired believers is how Yahweh used the faith and courage of Mordecai and Esther to deliver his people. Esther’s memorable line, “If I perish, I perish,” reflects a noble willingness to take risks in promoting divine interests (4:16). And the closing description of Mordecai’s greatness suggests that he is being divinely rewarded for his efforts on behalf of Israel (10:2-3).

APPLYING PURIM

Even if Christians don’t celebrate the Feast of Purim, the occasion assures us of the trustworthiness of promises like Romans 8:28. The story behind Purim generates confidence that our Lord is accomplishing his redemptive purposes in our lives despite any appearances to the contrary. No one can stamp out God’s plan, and all forces that oppose Christ and his people will ultimately be turned on their heads. But what if believers end up killed for their faith? Even that is not the end of the story. On that point, the resurrection of Jesus—the reversal to top all reversals—is so much more dramatic than the defeat of Haman!

So we should expect that the Lord has a surprise “up his sleeve” when our situation is at its bleakest. And we must learn to discern his leading and use to full advantage the opportunities he gives us to advance his cause in the world!

Photo credit: eran Menashri, freeimages.com


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