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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I have always had difficulties reading the book of Esther and understanding why the Jews, under the leadership of Esther and Mordecai, had to massacre so many people. They seemed to have been controlled by a spirit of hatred and vengeance. Am I reading the story properly?
The moral content of the book of Esther has disturbed scholars for centuries, and I will not pretend to completely solve this difficult problem. I will only suggest that the problem is not as serious as some believe. I offer the following observations:
1. The Jews did not hate the Gentiles. An indiscriminate massacre of Gentiles would have indicated that the Jews hated them, but that is not the case. Those who died are described as the enemies of the Jews. The Jews did not consider Gentiles to be natural enemies whom they should exterminate. In general, the relationship between the two groups during this period was peaceful.
2. Mordecai sought a nonviolent solution. When he became aware of Haman’s intentions, Mordecai spoke to Esther, asking her to seek the intervention of the king and thereby bring about a peaceful solution to a life-threatening situation (Esther 4:8).
3. Esther did not request the lives of her enemies. During her audience with the king, Esther asked only that her life and that of her people be preserved (Esther 7:3). She merely expected the king to annul Haman’s decree (Esther 8:5). She was not asking for license to massacre the Gentiles.
4. The first and second decrees allowed only for self-defense. The Jews were legally empowered to defend themselves against those who actually attacked them (Esther 8:11; 9:2). There is no evidence that the Jews took the initiative and began an indiscriminate massacre of the Gentiles.
5. God began to defeat the Gentiles before their military attack. According to Esther 8:17, God put fear of the Jews in the hearts of the Gentiles, and many of them became Jews. This was God’s peaceful solution to the threat against His people. Bloodshed was unnecessary. Unfortunately, many Persians kept alive Haman’s spirit of hatred against the Jews.
6. The Jews showed restraint during the battle. We are informed several times that after defeating their enemies the Jews did not take the plunder (Esther 9:10,15). They eliminated only those who attacked them (Esther 9:2, 5, 10, 16). One scholar has suggested that Esther 8:11 should be translated: “The king permitted the Jews in every city to gather and defend themselves, to destroy, kill, and wipe out every armed force of a people or a province attacking them, their children, and their wives” (emphasis supplied). The Jews, however, did not kill the wives and children of their enemies. The element of vengeance is absent from the narrative.
7. A legal basis for a second day of conflict. Apparently Esther was informed that the enemies of the Jews in Susa were planning a second day of attack, intending to go beyond what was allowed in Haman’s decree. Esther acted within the boundaries of Persian law and asked the king to extend the provisions of the decree one more day. The authorization was limited to self-defense only in the city of Susa. Had she intended revenge, Esther would have included other cities throughout the empire.
8. Esther requested that Haman’s sons be impaled as a deterrent. The fact that Esther made this request to the king in conjunction with the one for the extension of the decree suggests that she was trying to discourage others from attacking the Jews. Haman’s sons had died during the first attack against the Jews. Their corpses were impaled during the second day to serve as a deterrent and prevent more bloodshed.
These elements, taken together, show that the book is not promoting hatred and vengeance against non-Jews. The Jews defended themselves with the full support of the Persian legal system, and God gave them victory (Esther 9:1).
Throughout history God has used different ways to liberate His people from their enemies. Soon the forces of evil will be defeated once and for all. Once more the nations will arise against the people of God, but they will not have to defend themselves. At that time Michael will stand up and fight for His people (Rev. 17:14).