The central character in the story of Purim is the Jewish girl Esther (originally Hadassah.) Hadassah was an orphan, raised by her uncle Mordechai. They descended from exiled Jews who lived in the ancient Persian Empire. On one occasion, the Persian King Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes) became furious at his beautiful wife Vashti for refusing to appear at his great banquet and decided to replace her. An order was issued to bring to the Palace all the kingdom’s beautiful virgins from whom Artaxerxes would choose a new queen.
Esther, being very beautiful, also was brought to the Palace. The king loved Esther more than all the other virgins and chose her to replace Queen Vashti. Esther’s uncle Mordechai advised her to hide her Jewish origins.
The King had elevated a certain man, Haman the Agagite (descended from Amalek) to the powerful position of Prime Minister of the Empire. Haman was extremely wealthy and influential and according to the King’s command, all the royal servants at the king’s gate had to bow down to and revere Haman. However, Mordechai who also sat in the king’s gate worshiped only the true God of Israel.
Mordechai could not bow down before any man. When Haman heard of Mordechai’s refusal to bow before him, and that he was a Jew, it aroused his anger and hatred, not only toward Mordechai but toward all the Jewish people. Haman schemed to destroy them. Haman persuaded the King to sign a decree authorizing the extermination of the Jews. A date was set for this purpose by casting lots (“PUR”). The lot fell on the 13th of the month of Adar.
It was a time of mourning for all the Jews in the kingdom of Persia and Media.
Esther realized that she was chosen as Queen of Persia for such a time as this; to be used by God for the salvation of His people. She rose to the occasion by taking a step of faith and went before the Highest Authority (the God of Israel) in prayer and fasting after calling all the Jews in the capital city of Shushan to stand with her in prayer and fasting for three days before she risked her life by approaching the king uninvited.
Although Esther was the king’s beloved queen, she was part of his harem. As such, coming to him uninvited meant certain death unless the king extend his royal scepter. Esther was now willing to take this risk in hope of saving her people and said, “After that (the three days of prayer and fasting) I will go to the king, although it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish!”
Even though God’s name is not mentioned in the story of Esther, His hand is visibly at work. It is obvious Esther and the Jews fasted and prayed to the God of Israel during those three days. God not only used Esther’s beauty to find favor in the eyes of the King, but He also gave her wisdom and a strategy.
On the third day of the fast, Esther, dressed in royal attire, stood in the inner court in front of the hall where the King sat on his throne. When he saw her, he remembered his great love for her and extended his golden scepter, inviting her to approach.
“What is your request?” he asked. “I will grant you up to half the kingdom.”
Esther simply requested that the King and Haman attend a private banquet she had prepared that day in the King’s honor. Neither of them knew Esther was Jewish.
During the banquet as they were enjoying the food and wine, the King sensed there was something more on her heart and asked her again, “What is your request? I will grant it up to half the kingdom.”
Her request was that they come again the next day to another private banquet she would prepare for the King and Haman. In his pride, Haman bragged to his loved ones how important he was that Queen Esther chose to invite only him, besides the King, to her banquet.
At the second banquet, as they were enjoying the food and drink, the King again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”
This time, Queen Esther revealed she was Jewish and asked that her life and the life of her people, the Jews, be spared. “This is my request, for I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as slaves, I would have kept silent and not disturbed the King.”
When the King asked who dare do such a thing, Esther pointed to Haman and said, “An adversary and enemy! This wicked Haman!” The King was enraged, left his drink, and went out to the garden to absorb all this new twist of events.
Haman was terrified of what the King might do to him and stood in front of Queen Esther to beg for his life. At that very moment, the King returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall and saw Haman falling on the couch where Esther was. Alarmed, the King exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
The King ordered that Haman be hanged on the very pole Haman had set in his house to hang Mordechai the Jew. (Esther 7: 9-10)
Mordechai received the honor of being placed in the highest position and was given the King’s signet ring to reverse the edict. It was a day of joy and celebration for the Jews, and the Purim holiday was established for all generations.