These days would be remembered and kept from generation to generation and celebrated by every family throughout the provinces and cities of the empire. This Festival of Purim would never cease to be celebrated among the Jews, nor would the memory of what happened ever die out among their descendants. [Esther 9:28 (NLT)]
Today is the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar when the two day celebration of Purim begins. I first learned about this holiday in college when my Jewish roommate received boxes of delicious hamantaschen cookies she graciously shared with me. Hidden inside the sweet flaky triangular-shaped pastries was a sweet filling of either poppy seeds, prunes or apricots. My roomie said the cookies represented Haman’s three-cornered hat but other sources say they represent his ears or the villian’s pockets filled with money. But, I’m getting ahead of myself without telling you the whole megillah.
“The whole megillah” is an idiom taken from Yiddish that means a long convoluted story but the Megillah (with a capital M) is a scroll of the book of Esther (which truly is a complicated story filled with plot twists). This year, Purim occurs on the Sabbath so there will be some variations in its observance but, typically, the Megillah is read during a synagogue service on the eve of Purim and again the following day. Rather than the solemnity you’d expect in a place of worship on a holy day, it’s read very dramatically. Each of the 54 times the evil Haman’s name is mentioned, the congregation raucously stomp their feet, boo, hiss, and swing greggers (ratchet noisemakers).
The mitzvoth (religious duties) of Purim are outlined in Esther 9, the first of which is the reading of the Megillah. Because this holiday commemorates a time the Jewish people were saved from extermination during their exile in Persia, the second duty is that of celebration. Families and friends feast on hamantashen and kreplach. Children (and sometimes adults) dress in costume as silly characters, Esther, or Mordecai. Emphasizing the importance of friendship and community, the third mitzvah is to send food to friends (which explains the hamantaschen sent to my roommate). The final mitzvah is that of giving gifts to the poor. To ensure that all Jews can experience the joy of Purim, every Jew is supposed to give money or food to at least two needy people.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the story of Esther, I urge you to read it this weekend. Unique about this short book is that God’s name is never mentioned. Nevertheless, His divine attention, direction, and power are evident on every page. His fingerprints are all over every coincidence in the story—from Mordecai overhearing a plot against the king and saving the king’s life to the king’s sleepless night that caused him to learn of Mordecai’s part in his rescue, from Queen Vashti’s banishment to Esther being drafted into the king’s harem, from Esther finding favor with the harem eunuch and being chosen queen to the date Haman selected for the massacre of the Jews—a date which gave Mordecai and Esther time to foil his plot. Since Haman had thrown lots to determine when he would carry out his diabolical scheme, Purim (which means “lots” in ancient Persian) is the name of this joyous holiday.
Like the children masquerading as different characters, the miracles in this story were disguised as natural events and, like the sweet filling in the hamantaschen cookies and the savory ground beef or chicken inside the kreplach, God’s intervention was hidden. While God’s name isn’t found in Esther, His activity is as He overruled history, overturned the plans of the wicked, and saved His people. Not every miracle involves something as dramatic as the parting of the sea; as seen in the story of Esther, sometimes God’s miracles can be found in the page of a king’s history book or in the roll of the dice!
Although Christians don’t observe Purim, perhaps we should. Let us never forget that Haman’s decree of death to the Jews extended to all Jews in the Persian empire, which would have included those Jews who had begun returning to Judah. Had Haman succeeded in his genocide, the Davidic line would have ended and disrupted God’s plan to send His son to be born a Jew in Bethlehem. The message we find in Esther is a simple one: God’s plans cannot be thwarted.