Esther and the Spirit of Amalek
By: Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
The festival of Purim, one of the most joyful holidays in Israel, is based on the story of Esther. The events of the book or “scroll” of Esther took place back during the Jewish exile in Persia under King Ahasuerus (Xerxes / 486-465 BC). The spiritual roots of the story, however, date back to the time when Saul first reigned as king over Israel and even further back to when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.
In the days of Saul, he was put through a challenge to prove himself as Israel’s leader in battle over their worst enemies, the Amalekites, and so establish his kingship over Israel. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin and his family were Kishites, a little-known community at the time. The prophet Samuel declared the time to establish his rule had come (1 Samuel 15:1), but it required strict obedience. Saul was commanded to engage in a battle of great historic and spiritual significance for Israel, by dealing a final blow to their ancient archenemy – the Amalekites.
During the time of the Exodus, this desert tribe had attacked the children of Israel on the way out of Egypt and they did so in a most despicable manner. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18) Amalek was viscous, attacking the faint and weary at the rear of the column. Since then, this people became the archetype of enmity for Israel, with even God declaring: “The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
The book of First Samuel tells us that Saul readily engaged the enemy, yet he did not finish the mission whole-heartedly. He kept the best of the sheep for himself and even worse, he spared Agag, king of the Amalekites. It was Samuel who executed Agag for the death of many in Israel. And because of Saul’s indecisiveness and disobedience in this battle, the kingship over Israel was ultimately removed from the House of Kish and given to the House of David.
And in a real sense, the lingering rivalry between the House of Kish and the House of Agag is then replayed in the story of Esther more than 600 years later.
Besides Esther, the other main Jewish character in the story is described as follows: “Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite.” (Esther 2:5) Mordechai was from the deposed royal clan of Saul (see 1 Samuel 9:1; 2 Samuel 16:5). He also served at the gate of Susa, meaning he was a high ranking official in Perisa. Finally, he was the foster father of Esther, a young orphan girl and relative of Mordechai.
Divine circumstances suddenly propelled Esther to the throne of Persia, as she became the wife of the ruler Ahasuerus. It was truly a fairy tale of a beautiful Jewish refugee girl becoming queen of an empire which ruled the world.
The other main figure in the story of Esther was another refugee from the same region named Haman. The Bible refers to him as an Agagite (Esther 3:1), which means he also was of royal descent – from the Amalekite kings. It is a lineage which dates back even to the time of Moses (Numbers 24:7, 20; 1 Samuel 15:7, 32). He, too, had reached the pinnacle of the empire as King Ahasuerus made him prime minister, bestowed with almost unlimited powers. All the other ministerial officers who sat in the gate of Susa, capital of Persia, needed to show respect to Haman by bowing down before him. And everyone did so, except for one man – Mordechai. This made Haman furious, especially when he heard Mordechai was a Jew (Esther 3:6).
Like his Amalekite ancestors, Haman manifested an ancient, demonic hatred of the Jews. He sought revenge, and killing Mordechai was not enough. Rather, he schemed to destroy all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Haman went to the king with a request which is one of the earliest recorded instances of antisemitism:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business…” (Esther 3:8)
For Haman, this was not just a breach of court protocol but a personal matter that was worth investing his own wealth. He saw it as the moment when the conflict between Israel and Amalek could enter its final chapter – the total annihilation of the Jewish people. Tragically, the king approved the plot. Only one other time in history has a similar decree been passed, and that was in 1942 when senior Nazi officials, under Hitler’s directions, met in the Villa Wannsee outside Berlin and plotted to annihilate the eleven million Jews of Europe.
Unlike the fate of European Jewry, when six million Jews were brutally murdered by Nazi Germany, the book of Esther turned into a story of miraculous deliverance.
A Day of Deliverance
When the Jews of Persia heard about the plot to kill them, they immediately called a national fast among all Jews living in Persia. Mordechai could see the hand of God with his cousin Esther now being queen of the empire. He thus made a dramatic appeal to Esther that now was the time for action (Esther 4:13ff):
“Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Mordechai challenged her with a statement that personally gripped my heart years ago when I read it: He said that the survival of the Jews is not dependent upon her; if she remained silent someone else would rise up and deliver them. What a powerful profession of faith!
Mordechai understood that neither Haman nor anyone else could frustrate God’s purposes with Israel. He knew Israel’s destiny was not over, but that God had promised to bring them back to their land and even promised to send them the Messiah. So, if Esther remained silent, another deliverer would arise to save God’s people. “But,” he added, “you and your father’s house will perish.”
We do not know for sure, but maybe Mordechai saw this as the opportunity to redeem the half-heartedness of his ancestor Saul. In any event, he was certain that Esther’s silence would have catastrophic consequences for her and her “father’s house.”
To put this in a modern context, we see forces rising today that also seek with evil determination the ruin of the Jewish people. They want to harm Jews, and to weaken or destroy the nation of Israel.
We see this at the United Nations, where Israel – the only functioning democracy in the region – is irrationally singled out every year for condemnation while the worst tyrants of this world are treated as innocents. We also saw this just a few weeks ago at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where Israel is being unfairly investigated for alleged war crimes while other nations massacring their own people are routinely given a pass.
Indeed, the spirit of Amalek is waging war against Israel even in our generation. And here we are called to action. This brings to mind the words of Martin Niemöller, a pastor of the confessing church during Hitler’s time, who stated:
“First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
While he sadly avoided mentioning the Jews, who needed intervention more than anyone else, we should take these words to heart and be ready to speak up in the face of unrighteousness, and in particular with regard to God’s chosen people – the Jews. The warning which Mordechai issued to Esther was already given to Abraham, the first Jew: “I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse!” (Genesis 12:3)
As we celebrate Purim, let us renew our commitment to stand unashamedly with God’s people. God sees it and He will bless it.
The story of Esther is one of total reversal. In Esther 9:1 it says: “… on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.”
As the king reversed the situation for the Jews, he allowed and encouraged them to defend themselves and the very day that was appointed for their destruction became a day of great victory and deliverance. Not only were Haman and his ten sons hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordechai, but also hundreds of the ‘enemies of the Jews’ fell with him.
Our Duty to Act
Ironically, when the Nuremberg trials ended in October 1946 and ten senior Nazi officials were hanged, an American journalist heard one of their ranks – Julius Streicher – cry out with his last words: “Purim fest!”
History does tend repeat itself, but it is up to us to do all we can to ensure it will not happen in our lifetime.
We should not ignore that Amalek represents a spirit which has operated throughout history. Both Moses in Exodus 17 and Mordechai in the scroll of Esther understood that prayer and fasting were needed tools to combat this evil spirit of antisemitism. Yet, we also need to be a people of action and visibly show whose side we are on. May God bless us as we do so!
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