Shalom everyone; As many of you probably know, this weekend is the festival of Purim. People often have questions about this minor holiday and, so, I thought I would repost a short article I wrote a few years ago to explain my understanding of and position on celebrating Purim.
Purim or “lots,” is considered a minor Jewish holiday inspired by a major historical event. It commemorates the deliverance of the Jews living in Persia in the 5th century B.C. The miraculous deliverance was accomplished through Queen Esther (whose actual name was Hadassah) and her kinsman Mordechai. The Agagite Haman, viceroy to King Ahasuerus, had plotted to exterminate the Jews in all 127 Persian provinces – an area that stretched from Ethiopia to India. Having convinced the king that the Jews were disloyal, he received Ahasuerus’ consent to follow through with his plan. Haman’s orders stated that lots were to be drawn in order to determine the day on which the massacre was to occur. The date determined was the 13th of the Hebrew month Adar.
According to the Bible, his diabolical plot was frustrated when Esther, warned by her cousin Mordechai, developed a plan of her own. Ignoring the potential danger her own plan exposed her to, she boldly approached the king unannounced and made a successful appeal to have the murderous decree annulled. Consequently, the Jews of Persia were released to defend themselves against their enemies and did so on the 14th day of Adar; and in Shushan, the Persian capital, the attack on Haman’s followers continued for one more day. As for the evil instigator Haman, the position that had given him the authority to decree such evil was taken from him and given to the righteous Mordechai (Esther 8:2). Haman was then hung upon the very gallows he had constructed for Mordechai’s execution (Esther 7:10). In the end, the destruction that had been determined for the Jews was reversed and visited upon those who hated them. To commemorate this great deliverance, Mordechai declared that Jews should always celebrate Purim with feasting, gladness and giving of gifts in acknowledgment that their sorrow was turned to joy (Esther 9:22).
HOW IT IS CELEBRATED TODAY
Mordechai’s decree to celebrate Purim is still being honored today by Jews around the world. In Jewish communities, Purim is indeed a day of feasting, gift giving and joyous celebration. Before the festivities begin, however, the day before – 13th of Adar – is observed with fasting. It is called Ta’anit Esther or the “Fast of Esther” in remembrance of the young Jewish girl who became the Queen of Persia and who risked her life in order to deliver her people. It also commemorates the fact that Persia’s Jews joined with her in this fast as she prepared to approach King Ahasuerus unannounced – an act punishable by death. Also on this fast day, Jews will observe the custom of mishloach manot – “sending gifts” - to friends and family as indicated in the book of Esther (9:22). These gifts consist of money, food and delicacies as an expression of joy in Haman’s defeat.
On the day of Purim – 14th Adar – celebrants will congregate in their synagogues and read the Megillat Esther – the “scroll of Esther” - to remember the miraculous story of deliverance. During the reading, each time Mordechai’s name is mentioned, everyone will whistle and shout, “hurrah.” When the name of Haman is mentioned, people stamp their feet, clap their hands or use various noisemakers – groggers –to drown out the sound of his name. This is done to express that his name is being “erased” from the Megillah. A verse in Exodus 17:14 is often quoted in connection with this tradition: “For I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” This is cited because Haman’s ancestors were not Persian but Amalekites.
After the reading of Esther’s scroll, a great feast is held on the afternoon of the holiday. Traditional foods such as kreplach and hamantaschen are eaten to remind one of the particulars of the Purim story. For instance, hamantaschen – a German word that means, “Haman’s pockets” – are triangular shaped pastries filled with fruit or cheese that are intended to remind us that the wicked Haman filled his pockets with bribes. Another tradition has it that the triangular shape mimics the type of hat Haman was thought to have worn. The challah (a specialty bread) made for Purim has particularly long braids to represent the long ropes used to hang Haman and his sons. Being a joyous holiday, the drinking of wine is associated with Purim as well because the victory over Haman began with a “banquet of wine” (Esther 5:6). Some celebrants include masquerade parties in their festivities – a dramatic departure from traditional halacha (Jewish law). Tradition and custom aside, the primary focus of the holiday’s festivities is this: Israel’s enemies devised to destroy them but their enemies were destroyed instead.
In Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem, the celebration of Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar. But because Jerusalem is considered a “walled city” the holiday is observed on the following day known as Shushan Purim (15th of Adar). The reason for this is due to the distinction between walled and unwalled cities made in the book of Esther. The Jews’ attack on their enemies concluded in Persia’s capital, Shushan (a walled city), on the 15th of Adar and, thus, all walled cities were to observe the holiday on this same date.
PURIM’S SIGNIFICANCE FOR BELIEVERS
Unlike Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles, the celebration of Purim is not mandated by God’s decree. However, it is impossible for attentive Bible students to ignore the incredible spiritual importance of this special holiday. It is one of the greatest examples in Scripture of how God does indeed “curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3) and repays their aggression toward Israel with the very sentence they intended to impose upon God’s people. This Purim principle does not end with the events recorded in Esther but repeats time and again. Two noteworthy instances are in recent history – the two Gulf Wars. The first Gulf War was initiated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Being threatened with invasion himself, he quickly turned his Scud missiles on the citizens of Israel. Soon after, missiles and bombs began falling on Saddam Hussein and his armies culminating in his surrender – on Purim (14th of Adar). Twelve years later, the second Gulf War began and resulted in the complete capitulation of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the elimination of one of Israel’s most aggressive enemies. That particular war began on Shushan Purim (15th of Adar).
Because of this recurring phenomenon, Purim is viewed by some as a minor Yom Kippur. In fact, the Hebrew spelling of yom ha’kippurim (day of Atonement) can also be rendered as “a day like purim.” It is on Yom Kippur that lots were drawn to see which sacrifice would be offered unto God and which would be released into the wilderness. More importantly, Judaism believes that on the Day of Atonement, all the accusations railed against Israel by the Adversary are silenced. One supporting factor of the view is that the Hebrew spelling of ha’satan (literally, “the adversary”) has a gematria (numerical value) of 364 – one short of 365, the number of days in a solar year. Thus the accuser, ha’satan, hurls accusations at Israel throughout the year but on Yom Kippur is commanded to keep silent. It is on that day that the source of his accusations – our sins – is covered by the blood of the sacrificial gift. This reversal of fortune echoes the story of Purim: Haman’s false accusations of disloyalty were silenced when the accuser of Israel was taken to the gallows.
That this Purim principle is recorded in the book of Esther is particularly interesting because, of all the books in the Bible, Esther is the only one that does not mention the name of God. Judaism concludes that this is because the book was originally a scroll sent in the form of a letter. Therefore, the name of God was omitted by the writers for fear that the letter might be desecrated or mishandled in some way, thus failing to show the proper respect for the ineffable name of God YHVH. This certainly sounds reasonable in a practical way but might it also be possible that this book is a prime example of how God chooses to conceal Himself in the affairs of the world, being discernable only to those who are looking for Him?
Y’shua stated that some people were given the privilege of understanding “the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (Mark 4:11). Messiah based this statement on a prophecy in Isaiah 6:9-10 which refers to people who hear but do not understand, who see but do not perceive. Their lack of perception is not determined by God’s unwillingness to reveal His truth but due to their unwillingness to seek for His truth with their whole heart. Messiah said, “Seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you; for everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8). Put simply, those who seek to understand the mystery of the Kingdom of God will be shown His truth but those who do not seek will not. He reveals Himself to those who seek for Him and conceals Himself from those who do not wish to look for Him.
Proverbs 25:2 tells us that, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out the matter.” In other words, God conceals things in order to provoke His people to look for them. In fact, in this manner, He is glorified even more so. We find this to be most evident in the Word of God – a fathomless treasure trove of knowledge to those committed to digging for it. Y’shua said that, “Every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52). Again, we understand that the treasures God wishes to reveal will be made known only to those who diligently seek Him. In concealing Himself and that which He deems to be precious, He also guards what is holy from desecration and destruction at the hands of those who are profane and antagonistic toward His purposes. Messiah said, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). This is clearly a statement that teaches that those who are unclean and heathen would treat the holy things of God with disrespect and, thus, He hides them.
Consider Esther.When the king’s decree to find a new wife was made known, Mordechai charged Hadassah (as she was known) not to reveal her Jewish ancestry (Esther 2:10). Thus, the young Benjamite girl, Hadassah, became known as Esther. This is of interest because the name Esther is not of Hebrew origin but is considered to be a name associated with the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar (also known as Astarte and Ashteroth). It is striking that a presumably virtuous Hebrew woman would be known by a name associated with a pagan goddess. Yet, the Hebrew spelling of Esther suggests something beyond the obvious and that is: something has been hidden from the eyes of the heathen and is visible only to those who are looking for the handiwork of the Creator. The four Hebrew letters that spell “Esther” can also be rendered as the Hebrew word esater which means, “I will conceal.” Thus, God permits the Hebrew Hadassah to “masquerade” as the Persian Esther.
Why would God conceal the Hebrew Hadassah in the guise of the Persian Esther? He alone knew the heart of the wicked Haman before the Agagite was ever elevated to the position that would allow him to persecute God’s people. Thus, the Purim story demonstrates that, even though He is not mentioned by name, the Creator was already at work positioning – concealing - one of His servants so that all of His people might be delivered. Even though His name is not written in the scroll of Esther, He nevertheless is glorified in the outcome. This is such an important principle for believers to embrace – that even when we cannot perceive the Adversary’s threat against us and our family, the heavenly Father is already working on our behalf. He simply wants us to commit ourselves to His purposes with our whole heart.
In the festival of Purim, we also learn the value of knowing why we have been placed in the position we have and the importance of functioning in that purpose – regardless of what it may require of us. Perhaps, Esther wondered why such favor had been shown her by being chosen queen against such odds. In time, circumstances answered those questions and, thus, we see that the favor being shown her was not entirely for her benefit but for the wellbeing of her people at large. Furthermore we see that the favor extended to her required much of her – a deep commitment to a greater purpose and the fortitude to see that purpose through even if it meant putting her life on the line. For a moment, it may have seemed to her that the palace insulated her from the impending storm, but Mordechai provoked her to realize that all the good that had come to her was not for her good alone. In fact, he warned Esther that if she did not use what Heaven had bestowed upon her for Heaven’s purpose, then another would arise in her place.
It should be noted that Mordechai was not asking Esther to act in a way that he was unwilling to do himself. It was Mordechai’s refusal to bow down and worship Haman as a god that incited Haman’s wrath against Mordechai and the Jews in the first place. It is quite ironic that, in Persia, we find a descendant of Benjamin (Mordechai) resisting the intended tyranny of a descendant of Amalek (Haman). This is interesting because, centuries before, another descendant of Benjamin (King Saul) refused to put to death the king of the Amalekites (Agag) in defiance of God’s command (1 Samuel 15:9). Consequently, the kingdom was taken from Saul and given to David. The Amalekites were direct descendants of Esau who, according to Scripture, felt that Jacob had stolen his birthright and blessing and, thus, determined to kill Jacob. However, Scripture also tells us that, according to God, the birthright and blessing rightfully belonged to Jacob (Genesis 25:23, Malachi 1:2-3). Therefore, the argument can be made that Mordechai, knowing that the God of Israel had decreed Jacob (Israel) would rule over Esau (Amalek), refused to bow to someone who was destined to be under his feet. In so doing, he placed great trust in God and, by his actions, demonstrated incredible faith that God had orchestrated these events and would ultimately deliver His people.
So then, his call for Esther to act culminated in the words that every believer must take to heart: “perchance you have come into the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Those are the words that caused Esther to conclude that fasting and prayer were in order that God’s people might be delivered and that she might have the courage to be His instrument of salvation. In her call to prayer and fasting she also acknowledges a mindset that is prevalent in other saints who have placed everything on the line, for she says, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). This courageous declaration reminds us of another statement issued to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon by Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego. Having been previously exalted by the king to positions of influence, they subsequently found themselves in a situation that, like Esther, required them to break the king’s law under the penalty of death. Nevertheless, they too resolved that if death was the consequence of adhering to God’s purposes, then so be it. They were committed to the purpose that had been given them and so they declare, “God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace….But if not, let it be known to you O king, that we do not serve your gods nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
It is imperative that believers in the last days embrace this mindset for we see that the saints at the end of days overcome the Adversary by the “blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony and they did not love their lives to the death” (Revelation 12:11). It should also be pointed out here that, though the three Hebrews and Esther had to be willing to face death to further the greater purpose, it was not required of them to die. The hidden reason for their trial was that God might demonstrate His might and power when willing vessels submit to His sovereignty. The three Hebrew men came from the flames unharmed and without the smell of smoke on their clothing. As Esther boldly approached the king’s throne, instead of having her killed, Ahasuerus bestowed unprecedented favor upon her, thus paving the way for Esther and her people to overcome their enemy – Haman the Agagite. When we realize our Father’s purposes far surpass ours; when we submit our will to His will; when we have confidence in His promises, then we can confidently approach the Throne of Grace and obtain divine mercy, deliverance and victory over our Adversary.