This lesson discusses four of the most powerful stories in the Old Testament of triumph over great adversity and oppression in a foriegn court. In each story, the hero is a Hebrew slave, a person in a position nearly powerless by earthly standards. An evil figure seeks to obliterate the hero because of his religious beliefs. In the end, the righteous hero gains equivalent or greater political power than his nemesis. Mighty retribution is meted out upon the evildoers.
“The responsibility of showing to the world that the gospel of Jesus Christ will solve its problems rests upon the men who make the claim" (President David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953, p. 5).
"I found a classic example in the Old Testament of one who lived “in the world” and influenced it through his righteous living. The birth of this young man came at a time in history when it was improbable that anyone from Israel could make much of a contribution in the world.
"After the death of King Solomon in 975 b.c., the Ten Tribes revolted and separated themselves from the Tribe of Judah. A divided Israel was not able to hold its own against the other powers of that region. Egypt and Assyria would take turns overrunning the land of Israel. In the year 607 b.c., Assyria proper and the northern provinces fell into the hands of the Medes, while Syria lay open to be seized by the Babylonians.
"While this struggle was going on, it seemed an appropriate time for Egypt to attack Palestine. The king of the Babylonians sent his son, Nebuchadnezzar, to drive the Egyptians back. While the battle raged against the Egyptians, the king passed away and Nebuchadnezzar became the ruler of Babylon. He was successful against the Egyptians and became ruler over all of Syria to the Egyptian border. He ruled by terror, crushing his enemies by fire and sword, and weakening them with deportations to other parts of his empire.
"It was in the midst of this battle-torn era that Daniel was born. As a youth, he and certain other Hebrews were taken into the court of Nebuchadnezzar for service. They were chosen because of their wisdom and knowledge and ability to learn. Thus, Daniel was brought into a strange land with strange customs, a strange environment, and a very different religious heritage.
"Daniel’s first test in being 'in the world' came when the servant of Nebuchadnezzar ordered him to drink of his wine and eat of the 'king’s meat.' Daniel 'purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank.'
"The servant argued that the king had made him responsible for training these young men, and had commanded they should eat and drink the same as the others. If they did not, the king would see that they were growing weak and thin, and would surely have the servant killed. Then Daniel begged that he and his friends be allowed to follow the health habits that had been given to them. His request was that they be proved for ten days—for ten days they would feed upon grains and drink water, to see if they were not healthier than all the rest.
"Daniel’s strategy was most interesting. He did not challenge the beliefs of the Babylonians. Instead, he volunteered to conduct a test as to which way was best. The servant agreed to the test. For the next ten days, Daniel and those who were with him ate and drank only of the things that they knew they should. At the end of the tenth day, Daniel and his friends were found to be healthier and stronger than all the rest. Daniel soon found that he did not have to adopt a different standard of values when he was 'in the world...'
"Not only did Daniel’s service benefit the king, but because of the faith that Daniel had in the Lord, it affected an entire land. The king sent forth a proclamation that all the people of the kingdom should worship the true and living God, the God that Daniel worshiped. How mighty was the power of the service of one righteous man, affecting so many, as he served 'in the world' in which he lived! How effective will be the results of our service if we will continue to serve in our own personal way 'in the world' in which we live! (L. Tom Perry, "In the World," Ensign, May 1998)
Daniel was tested again in his later life. By now, he was a high-ranking government official. For political rather than religious reasons, others desired to have him deposed. They knew that they could not "dig up any dirt" about him, because there was none. So instead, knowing that he was true to his faith, they determined to use that faith for his political demise. They convinced King Darius to enact a law forbidding prayer to Jehovah. Daniel's behavior did not change in the slightest because of the threat. He prayed three times a day, "as he did aforetime" (6:10). This was almost a more faith-promoting experience for King Darius than it was for Daniel. Darius clearly had a budding faith in Jehovah, as he said hopefully to Daniel while throwing him in the lion's den, "Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee" (6:16). In the morning when he returned to the den, he called, "O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?" (6:20). The answer was yes.
King Darius was then a believer. He issued a proclamation, publicly stating his faith, "I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions" (6:26-27).
SHADRACH, MESHACH AND ABED-NEGO
"As a young man, I returned home from an eighth-grade basketball tournament dejected, disappointed, and confused. I blurted out to my mother, 'I don’t know why we lost—I had faith we’d win!'
"I now realize that I did not then know what faith is...
"Centuries ago, Daniel and his young associates were suddenly thrust from security into the world—a world foreign and intimidating. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow down and worship a golden image set up by the king, a furious Nebuchadnezzar told them that if they would not worship as commanded, they would immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. 'And who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?'
"The three young men quickly and confidently responded, 'If it be so [if you cast us into the furnace], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand.' That sounds like my eighth-grade kind of faith. But then they demonstrated that they fully understood what faith is. They continued, 'But if not, … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.' That is a statement of true faith.
"They knew that they could trust God—even if things didn’t turn out the way they hoped. They knew that faith is more than mental assent, more than an acknowledgment that God lives. Faith is total trust in Him...
"We must have the same faith as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.
"Our God will deliver us from ridicule and persecution, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from sickness and disease, but if not … . He will deliver us from loneliness, depression, or fear, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from threats, accusations, and insecurity, but if not. … He will deliver us from death or impairment of loved ones, but if not, … we will trust in the Lord.
"Our God will see that we receive justice and fairness, but if not. … He will make sure that we are loved and recognized, but if not. … We will receive a perfect companion and righteous and obedient children, but if not, … we will have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that if we do all we can do, we will, in His time and in His way, be delivered and receive all that He has. (Dennis E. Simmons, "But If Not...", Ensign, May 2004)
Esther is one of the Five Scrolls, books that were originally grouped together in the Hebrew Bible, called "The Writings," and read (and many Jewish communities still read them) at key annual festivals.
The Five Scrolls and their Festivals
- The Song of Songs (Song of Solomon in the KJV), read at Passover, commemorating the passing over of the angel of death when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt
- The Book of Ruth, read at the Feast of Weeks, also called Shavout, or Pentecost in the New Testament, a celebration of the harvest
- Lamentations, read on the 9th of Av (a month in the Jewish calendar), commemorating the sadness and oppression that has happened to the Jews, beginning with the destruction of the temple
- Ecclesiastes, read at Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (refering to tents), a 7-day festival in which the 40 years camping in the wilderness is commemorated and somewhat reenacted
- The Book of Esther, read at Purim, a name derived from the word pur which refered to the casting of lots done by Haman in the story of Esther to determine the day of the destruction of the Jews
A Chiastic Pattern for the Book of Esther
Chiasmus (pronounced "ky-AS-mus") is a Hebrew literary tool in which all the lines of a poem lead to the main point, after which they all repeat in reverse order with slight variation. The central point of the broad chiasmus of the book of Esther would be that the Jews, represented here by Mordecai, get the honor they deserve for their righteousness and good works. This is the point of all four stories discussed in this lesson: the faithful Hebrew figure puts his/her neck on the block, with faith in Jehovah, and not only is the executioner's hand stayed, but glory is awarded to them by the worldly powers.
A King Xerxes’ banquet and the rise of Queen Esther 1:1-2:23
B Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews 3:1-15
C Mordecai’s plea to Esther and Esther’s request 4:1-17
D Esther’s first banquet 5:1-8
E Haman’s family plot to hang Mordecai 5:9-14
F Mordecai honored 6:1-12a
E’ Haman’s family predicts his downfall 6:12b-14
D’ Esther’s second banquet and Haman’s death 7:1-10
C’ Esther’s plea to King Xerxes to save the Jews 8:1-15
B’ The Jews destroy their enemies 9:1-17
A’ Feast of Purim and Mordecai’s rise to power -10:3
COMMENTS FROM THE HARPER-COLLINS STUDY BIBLE
- 1:21-22 All official resources and protocol of state are needed to deal with the danger posed to men by one willful woman! This is the first in a series of letters and decrees sent by means of the famed Persian courier service.
- 1:3; 2:16 It took four years to find a new queen.
- 2:19 "Sitting in the king's gate:" Mordecai is an official of undetermined rank.
- 3:9 10,000 talents of silver is a huge bribe. Inflated figures like this one, the height of Haman's gallows, which was the equivalent of 75 feet (5:14), and numbers slain by the Jews (9:5-16) give the story an air of the fantastic. (All numbers used in the Old Testament must be taken with a grain of salt--often they are figurative and not literal.)
- 7:7-8 The king's exit allows Haman one last plea for his life, ironically from the one whom he unknowingly sought to destroy. His attempt seals his fate, as the king mistakes his posture of supplication before the reclining Esther as an assault upon the queen.
- 8:11-12 The wording recalls what Haman wrote (3:13) in an exact and vengeful manner...The effect is to reverse in every detail what Haman planned for the Jews.
- 9:10, 15-16 That the Jews did not touch the plunder although they were allowed to do so (8:11) suggests they were fighting for survival and not increased wealth.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN DANIEL AND ESTHER
(This section is on the fringe of the purpose of the lesson, so I wouldn't include it as a part of a lesson being taught in Sunday School, but it is an interesting aside to personal scripture study. Should questions come up from class members on this topic, this information may be helpful.)
In the present Hebrew Bible, the books of Daniel and Esther are placed together. The contrast between the stories, though, are great enough that they have bothered scholars, particularly Jewish scholars, for thousands of years. Daniel and Esther were both offered the king's food (Daniel 1:5; Esther 2:9). Esther 2:9 in the King James Version only covertly mentions food, "such things as belonged to her," but it is clearly food in the New Revised Standard Version, "her portion of food". The word portion is from an Old Persian word meaning "government-supplied food ration" (Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 1304). While Daniel and his friends refused the food and stuck to their strict Hebrew diet, Esther ate what was was given her. Daniel and his three friends prayed in open defiance of the worship of idolatry. Prayer is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Daniel and his friends profess faith in God and publicly give Him credit and glory for the miracles that save them in the book of Daniel. God is never mentioned in the story of Esther. Curious.
In The Septuagint (the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), the translators (pious Jewish scholars) tried to correct this problem by making six additions to the book of Esther, four of which make God's presence very clear throughout the story. (These are included in the Appocrypha which is readily available from many publishers. The Septuagint version of Esther is printed in the Approcrypha section of the Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 1481-1496.)
- The book opens with the story of a dream which Mordecai has in which God reveals, in symbolism, all that is going to happen.
- The king's edict is written out expressly.
- A prayer in which Mordecai calls mightily upon the Lord for aid is inserted, and the addition concludes, "And all Israel cried out mightily, for their death was before their eyes."
- A sweet and tender version of Esther's appearance before the king, and the softening of his heart toward her is added.
- The second edict of the king is inserted.
- There is a little post at the end of the book in which Mordecai relates the interpretation of his dream, and notes that everything God promised has been fulfilled.
It's also possible they didn't make them up.
Josephus, the most important early Jewish historian whose works are still available today and are widely considered a very trustworthy source, believed that the translators of the Septuagint were inspired of God. Could they have been acting under inspiration as Joseph Smith did when he studied and re-translated the Bible, inserting details that were important but had been left out? It's possible that they received aid from God in the form of revelation about what the actual circumstances had been and restored the true story.
There is no way to know.
Why ask questions for which we have no known answer? Because it expands our thinking, and exposes the possibilities to us. If we can't find the answer, we place the question on our "shelf" of questions to be answered later. At another time, we may take them down again, see if more information or revelation is now providing the answer. If it is, great. If it is not, back on the shelf it goes. It may stay there until the next life, when all questions will be answered. As long as we don't demand an answer immediately, our faith remains intact.
We can ask another question for which there is no known answer: Who wrote the book of Esther, and why would he leave these important details out of the story, if they were true? Josephus claims Mordecai wrote it, and he is generally a pretty good source. Another possibility is Nehemiah. For a good but simple discussion on the authorship possibilities, see Bible.org.
If Mordecai were the author, here are my personal thoughts--my personal thoughts--about why he may have written without expressly referring to God, prayer, and Jewish practices: Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel's king) ruled from 605-562 BC. Ahasuerus (Esther's king) is usually identified as Xerxes I, who ruled in 486-465 BC (Harper-Collins Study Bible). So the story of Daniel took place well over 100 hundred years before the story of Esther, and immediately after the exile. Daniel and his friends were fresh out of Hebrew communities steeped with their religious culture. Mordecai and Esther and their people, 100+ years later, may have suffered a gradual loss of Jewish influence in their new environment. They seemed to not be as openly practicing their religion as Daniel did, since Esther was living in the king's court completely undetected as a Jew. The king himself seemed to be unaware of the entire culture of Jews until Haman pointed them out.
Could years of keeping their religion quietly have caused the author to also keep it as an unstated undercurrent in his writing? Was the account written at such a time or situation or context in which it was inappropriate or dangerous to expressly include deeply religious experiences? Or was the author someone we don't have any record of at all, and was he not a religious person, but simply a recorder or historian?
Regardless of the reason for the way the account is written, it is clear to me that God and prayer were key parts of the story. When Mordecai said to Esther, "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" there was clearly an implication in his words that he believed a greater Power was enacting a plan to save the Jews, and that Esther was part of that plan. Esther called upon the Jews to fast for three days and nights (Esther 4:16). What purpose would there be to fasting without prayer? This is the only instance in the scriptures of which I'm aware in which fasting is mentioned when it is not directly connected to prayer. It was a practice used in no other way.
Their story as well as Daniel's teaches that God loves His children and is merciful, ever seeking to aid them in adversity, responding faithfully when they exercise their faith. Their righteous influence blesses their entire community, and spreads the gospel. "The city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad. The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour. And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of [respect for?] the Jews fell upon them" (Esther 8:15-17).