Imagine a holiday where kids dress up, wander around the neighborhood in costumes, make joyous noise, and receive sweets from all over the place. No, friends, I’m not talking about Halloween. I’m talking about a biblical Jewish holiday that involves costumes, candy, and the reading of the Scriptures.
Purim is the biblical holiday celebrated worldwide in Jewish communities on the 14th or 15th of the Hebrew month of Adar. It’s a joyous holiday on which the Jews celebrate the rescue of their people recorded in the book of Esther.
For many Christians, Esther is just another small book hiding somewhere in the Old Testament. Do this strange book and the unfamiliar Purim festival have any relevance for Christians today?
Jewish people celebrate Purim through masquerading and other festivities. They also read Megilat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), which reminds them of the deliverance of their ancestors from the hands of their enemies.
Specifically, the Jewish people remember how they were rescued from the plot of the tyrannical Persian despot, Haman. Every time Haman’s name is mentioned during the public reading of Esther, those in attendance boo and rattle noisemakers to demonstrate their displeasure with his memory (cf. Ex. 17:14). To top off their party, the Jewish people eat cookies called “Haman’s Ears” and sing Purim songs like this one I’ve translated from modern Hebrew:
The people of Israel
Rejoiced and became overjoyed
When together they saw
Mordecai wearing royal blue.
Their salvation was from eternity.
And their hope is from generation to generation.
Blessed is Mordecai the Jew!
Blessed is Mordecai the Jew!
To better understand the reason for Purim, it’s necessary to know the history and setting of the book of Esther. It takes place in the late 6th century BC. This is when many Jewish people were taken into exile by the Babylonians, who were then conquered by the Persians. The events of the book of Esther take place during a period of widespread Persian dominance.
Esther is taken into the Persian king Ahasuerus’s custody, and her uncle Mordecai commands her to conceal her Jewish identity (Est. 2:10, 20). This is a noteworthy turn in the book and serves as an interesting point of foreshadowing for the reader. Ahasuerus falls in love with and marries Esther, not knowing her ethnicity.
At this point in the story, Haman the Agagite advances to a position akin to a prime minister role in Persia. Upon this promotion, the king commands that all should bow down and honor Haman. Mordecai not only refuses to bow but also reveals he’s a Jew (3:4)—doing the very thing he’d commanded Esther not to do.
Do this strange book and the unfamiliar Purim festival have any relevance for Christians today?
Haman develops a hatred for Mordecai’s people. It wasn’t enough that everyone else bowed down to him, and it wasn’t enough to kill Mordecai. Haman determines to kill all the Jewish people because of Mordecai’s rebellion. And so, Haman casts lots (Purim in Hebrew) to determine the dreadful day on which the Jewish people would be put to death (3:6–7).
Upon hearing these genocidal plans, Mordecai meets with Esther and convinces her to help her people (4:13–14). Esther invites King Ahasuerus and Haman to a series of banquets. During the second banquet, Esther reveals to her husband she’s a Jew. Haman’s plot to kill the Jews includes the queen! This is a dreadful revelation, not only to the king but also to Haman, who pleads for his life—but to no avail. He’s taken away and hung (7:7–10).
At this point in the story, the redemption of the Jewish people still isn’t complete. Another decree was needed to counteract the first (8:10–14), one that would permit the Jews to defend themselves against anyone intent on harming them (9:6, 12, 16). By this second decree, the annihilation of the Jewish people was avoided. Here’s the irony: the people’s salvation began on the same day Haman had planned for their destruction by casting lots. For the Jewish people, this was a cause for great celebration, and they instituted the new holiday.
Many Bible readers may be surprised that throughout this story, God is conspicuously absent. His name and title aren’t stated once in the book of Esther. At a time when the Jewish people needed God most, he’s apparently nowhere to be found. How many times in our lives have we felt needy, desperate, or destitute—and God is nowhere to be found?
Esther shows us that when God seems absent, he’s actually right there, working all together for his glory even if he’s not named or officially credited. When we doubt that God is concerned about a situation, he’s completely involved but not necessarily revealing the details of his work.
But why? Why is God’s name not even mentioned?
Despite what some traditions may suggest concerning Esther and Mordecai’s honorable character, the text suggests otherwise about them. Several observations help us understand why God wasn’t mentioned in Esther:
- Other than Mordecai’s refusing to bow to Haman, the two main characters seem to have no concern for God’s laws.
- Esther conceals her Jewish identity (lies by omission) when taken into the king’s court—just like Mordecai commanded her to do. In the king’s court, Esther had to have violated the Torah’s purity, Sabbath, and food laws.
- It’s not until there was severe danger, and perhaps a threat from her uncle, that Esther finally reveals her true identity.
- Esther marries a Gentile king who seemingly had no intention of following Israel’s God, and marrying a pagan is explicitly forbidden in the Bible.
Considering these observations, it doesn’t seem like Esther or Mordecai were especially interested in inviting God into their narrative. This brings us to another question: Why did God save the Jewish people if Esther and Mordecai didn’t ask him to be part of their story?
Here’s the good news. God doesn’t save people because they’re extraordinary in and of themselves. God saves people because he’s a magnificent God who demonstrates extraordinary love for people who by nature reject him (Rom. 5:8).
Purim and Christians
In Genesis, God promised Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Gen. 22:18). God preserved his promise through Jacob’s son, Judah. King David came from the people of Judah, and Jesus the Messiah was a descendant of David (Matt. 1:3–6, 16). In other words, Jesus came from the Jews to the Jews (John 1:11–14), and through the Jews to all people. God was determined to carry out his promise to bless all nations through the Jewish people by way of Jesus. God does not—cannot—let his Word fail, and he’s willing to work behind the scenes—even in silence—to carry out what he’s promised.
Esther shows us that when God seems absent, he’s actually right there, working all together for his glory even if he’s not named or officially credited.
For these reasons, the book of Esther is part of our heritage as Christians. It’s part of the big story of redemption that shows God’s love for humanity by bringing someone from the line of Abraham to save humankind.
The preserving power of God isn’t limited to one people group. For Christians, Purim reminds us of God’s providence and sovereignty over all human lives. Even when we don’t want to invite God into our story, we’re all the beneficiaries of God’s providence. As God guides all circumstances for his glory, we’re blessed to get a glimpse of what God does through people—including us.
This article is part of a developing series on the Jewish festivals that will also include the Day of Atonement, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Dedication, Passover, Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.