Chapter 4

Esther 4 (C and D will follow separately):

1) When Mordecai learned all that was happening, he tore his garments, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city crying out loudly and bitterly,


COMMENTARY:  Sackcloth—burlap—was the cheapest and coarsest fabric available, woven for transporting objects insensible to its scratchiness.  To wear it showed humility before God, because one’s garb denoted one’s position in life even more then than now.  To wear sackcloth means to put aside all worldly honors, to disregard how others might have elevated you, and acknowledge a much higher power than yourself.

Ashes represented total destruction—nothing left but ash.  To put on ashes in a religious context meant to cry out to God, “I will be utterly destroyed if you do not come to my aid!”

Humility gets a bad rap these days.  Many of my generation suffered being taught a distorted version of it, making us feel utterly worthless and miserable, and so we overcompensated in raising our children, telling them that they were perfect, gods and goddesses, and celebrating how wonderful they were.

But this put a terrible burden on the kids!  Because deep down they knew they weren’t perfect, but now this became a dread secret.  They kept trying to live up to it, and hating themselves for never being able to achieve what they think is their birthright and moral obligation.  They came to believe in only two options: perfect or garbage.

Which is why many psychologists have warned that we now have an epidemic of narcissism in the nation.  There’s the more obvious overt narcissists, who reach a point in their striving where they convince themselves that they have indeed attained perfection.  Anyone who says otherwise must be envious.  (In fact they think that only two kinds of people exist: those who admire them or those who envy them.)  These are the hardened cases who dare not change, learn and grow, because that would imply that they were wrong, or less right, before.  They are not as happy as they pretend, though, because they exhaust themselves fighting to keep their secret imperfections hidden from themselves most of all.

More common, not so obvious (and more miserable, but also with more hope of recovery) are the invert narcissists.  These have not taken that final, fatal step.  They obsess on their image mirrored in other people’s eyes, not because they have fallen in love with themselves, but because they hate themselves and can’t bear to look too deeply into their own hearts, but place their hope in attaining at least a pretense that they are what they think they ought to be.  Like the overt narcissists, they believe themselves the center of attention, but instead of admiration or envy, they imagine themselves under constant judgment, either found wanting or barely passing muster for the moment.

For both kinds each least criticism hurts like a kick in the gut!  If not perfection, then garbage.  The overt narcissist will get angry, go into full assault mode, no holds barred, because he really believes that he’s fighting for his life!  The invert narcissist will curl in on herself and beg for mercy, while asking friends, “Am I as terrible as so-and-so says I am?” and exaggerating so-and-so’s critique to monstrous proportions—because that’s how she perceives it—so that she can get the balm of hearing her validators, her mirrors, say, “Oh no, so-and-so is a wicked idiot for saying something so awful!”  In either case, no learning curve is allowed—you have to get it right the first time, or you have failed to live up to the glorious expectations put upon you.  Or else you have to rationalize where you are right now, without any need for growth.

This is no way to live!  Genuine humility doesn’t despise oneself for not being perfect, but accepts that flaws and mistakes are part of the human condition.  That gives us room to grow, as well as mercy for others.  We are on a learning curve from birth to the grave; rather than looking back on our errors with regret, we should look on them with self-respect, for they mean that we have learned something, and have gotten far enough on our journey to do better than we have done before.

It is such a relief to admit that one has reached a limit!  To not have to try and be a god, sufficient unto oneself.  To lay down the pretenses, to drop the unrealistic expectations like court robes and to unabashedly ask for help beyond oneself.

Mordecai has an additional reason to wear sackcloth and ashes.  Chapter C will get into that.



2)  till he came before the royal gate, which no one clothed in sackcloth might enter.

COMMENTARY:  People used to have sumptuary laws, that dictated who could wear what where.  For instance, only royalty could wear Royal Purple or Royal Blue in Europe or the Middle East, and in China only the Emperor could wear Imperial Yellow.  Each class had its own set of rules as to what colors they could wear, what fabrics, and what kind of ornamentation they were allowed to have, so that everyone could tell at a glance who to defer to and who to boss around.

So by banning sackcloth from passing the royal gate, the King made it clear that only the elite could come and see him, properly garbed to show their status.  As far as he was concerned, peasants had nothing to say to him.


3) Likewise in each of the provinces, wherever the king’s decree and law reached, the Jews went into deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament; most of them lay on sackcloth and ashes.


COMMENTARY:  Interesting that the writer had to say, “wherever the king’s decree and law reached”.  It reminds us of the limits of mortal power, subject to the logistics of the possible.  In the Middle East, difficult-to-access hilly regions always had tribes in them with no law but their own.  Even today Kurds and other Middle-Eastern minorities are very hard to control by their nominal governments; consider how much harder it used to be, with few good roads and no mass communication.  Most despots consoled themselves by pretending that the hill-tribes didn’t matter, so they mutually ignored each other.

And why does this matter to us?  Because it’s a little dig at the pretentions of power, the limits of which Mordecai acknowledges by wearing sackcloth.


4) Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her. Overwhelmed with anguish, the queen sent garments for Mordecai to put on, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he refused.

COMMENTARY:  Up until now Esther’s coping strategy has been docility, to obey every rule presented to her and to conform.  Up until now this strategy has worked.  You bet she’s anguished!  The man who taught her how to survive in this tyranny has done a complete about-face and her entire reality has turned upside-down!


5) Esther then summoned Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs whom he had placed at her service, and commanded him to find out what this action of Mordecai meant and the reason for it.

COMMENTARY:  The smartest move to make, when everything you thought was real and normal falls apart, is not to continue trying to make the old status quo work, but to gather information and find out why things changed.


6) So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the public square in front of the royal gate,
7) and Mordecai recounted all that had happened to him, as well as the exact amount of silver Haman had promised to pay to the royal treasury for the slaughter of the Jews.

COMMENTARY:  As we’ve seen before, Mordecai keeps meticulous records and is not afraid to wield them.  No matter how unjust a government is, it must try and maintain at least an illusion of justice, usually by concealing inconvenient facts.  Mordecai’s not going to go down without a fight; he is ready, willing, and able to expose whatever truths need brought to light.

As mentioned before, the Jewish community has always placed a high value on scholarship.  They especially stood out, back in Biblical times, for the extent of their literacy and their teaching of critical thinking, but even now the rest of the world has, overall, not quite caught up.  Far from the love of ignorance that we see in too many religious communities today, seeing too much education as a threat to faith, Jews then and now encourage active debate of every least grammatical choice, inflection, and diacritical mark in scripture, reveling in its ambiguities and multiple layers of meaning.  They do not believe in simplified, singular definitions (a European-originating preoccupation) but multiple possible meanings interrelated, that one can spend an entire lifetime studying—and they encourage each other to do just that, starting in childhood and continuing into old age.

So you will see, as a constant thread in Jewish stories, examples like this of the benefits of scholarship.  Mordecai’s not going to let anyone confuse him as to what the facts are or why they unfolded the way they did.


8) He also gave him a copy of the written decree for their destruction that had been promulgated in Susa, to show and explain to Esther. Hathach was to instruct her to go to the king and to plead and intercede with him on behalf of her people
.  [addition in Greek:]  Remember the days of your lowly estate, when you were brought up in my charge; for Haman, who is second to the king, has asked for our death. Invoke the Lord and speak to the king for us: save us from death

COMMENTARY:  Hathach must explain it because, sadly, even though they were remarkable for insisting on male literacy as a condition for adulthood (a big improvement on how the rest of the world did things) they did not include women in on it, and female Jews were no more likely to know how to read than people of other countries.  Fortunately today Jewish girls go through a bat mitzvah equivalent of the male bar mitzvah.

(This was why, in an often misunderstood passage of the New Testament, Paul urged that women of his day should not talk in church, but wait till they got home to ask questions of their husbands.  Because for the first time, in the Christian communities, the women were right there listening to sermons on the scriptures, and they had a lot of questions, a lot of catching up to do, and hadn’t gotten there yet.  And then Christianity spread out into other communities, and the whole value of literacy thing got lost in translation, so with everybody in the congregation equally ignorant, people forgot why women had been originally (and probably temporarily) singled out.)

Regarding the addition to the verse found only in the Deuterocannon, God is never directly mentioned in the Hebrew texts.  This addition matters, because it gives a religious context, that Esther doesn’t intercede all by herself, but can call on God to aid her.


9) Hathach returned to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said.
10) Then Esther replied to Hathach and gave him this message for Mordecai: 11) “All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned is subject to the same law—death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter will such a person live. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.


COMMENTARY:  Now comes the point when Esther can no longer get through life by being an obedient little girl.  The law and her father-figure have asked conflicting things of her!  She has to grow up and make a woman’s decision—a matter of life and death, any way you look at it.



12) When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13) he had this reply brought to her: “Do not imagine that you are safe in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews.


COMMENTARY:  The easiest course to offer itself seems to be to do nothing.  But Mordecai reminds Esther that the stakes are high whichever way she goes.  She can’t escape having to make a decision.



14) Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source; but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?”


COMMENTARY:  The Hebrew leaves “another source” ambiguous, but the Greek makes it more explicit that God will come to their aid (perhaps for an audience in the diaspora who need it spelled out.) Mordecai means, “You could risk angering the King, or angering God”, but that doesn’t actually make the decision all that easy.  She herself could escape harm, even if her line dies out.

The second sentence has different meanings, depending on whether or not you include the Greek texts.  Without the Greek texts it sounds like, “Perhaps God let you prosper so that you could benefit your people.”  In the context of the Greek texts that we shall soon study, it comes across as “Perhaps God allowed your suffering for the greater good.”



15) Esther sent back to Mordecai the response: 16) “Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking night or day for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!” 17) Mordecai went away and did exactly as Esther had commanded.


COMMENTARY:  She makes her decision—a brave one—and becomes a woman.  It still scares her, enough to ask for drastic desperate prayers; becoming a responsible adult does not mean escaping fear.  It means facing fears head-on, doing everything you can to mitigate the risk but ultimately embracing it, doubts and all.

How many of us have faced a similar, “If I perish, I perish!” moment?  I bet we’d be surprised at just how many of us have, in a literal way.  And many more have faced little deaths that still took courage: moments where if we decided to do the right thing, we’d risk the deaths of friendships, of romances, of careers, of opportunities, of popularity—points of no turning back.  And sometimes we got lucky and the thing we feared didn’t happen after all.  And sometimes it did, but we already prepared ourselves for that possibility in advance.  It still hurt, but something in us already decided that what we’d achieve by accepting that hurt was worth it.

That’s the difference between adult and child: the ability to risk getting hurt for a greater principle.  Even, sometimes, to the point of death.

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