Esther and Holy War

Esth 8:11 is one of the most troubling verses in the book of Esther for many Christian readers. Not only does Mordecai’s counter-edict effectively authorize a civil war, but its provisions seem unnecessarily barbaric. Although many English translations smooth things over somewhat, many commentators agree that the edict permits the Jews to kill the women and children of their enemies as well as plundering their property. Have Esther and Mordecai become corrupted by power? Have they sunk to the level of their enemies?

There are a few considerations that help us understand why the edict was framed in this particular way.

First, it was a mirror edict. The laws of Persians were irrevocable – to repeal a law would be tantamount to admitting that the king had made a mistake, which was unthinkable (much like modern-day politicians are derided if they make “u-turns”). Therefore, to counteract Haman’s edict, Mordecai’s edict had to be at least as strong, if not stronger. In other words, everything you can do, we can do too. To compare and contrast the edicts look at Esth 3:13 and Esth 8:11, and you will see that the provisions of the counter-edict are equal and opposite to the provisions of the original edict.

Second, because of its strength, the edict served as a deterrent. Anyone thinking that he might be able to target a wealthy and vulnerable Jewish family and take their home from them would now think twice, since his own family and home would come under threat as a result.

Third, it is important to note that the retribution is permitted against attackers only. In other words, Mordecai’s edict didn’t allow the wholesale slaughter of Haman’s people (the Agagites), but only against those who acted on Haman’s edict and attempted to annihilate the Jews.

But fourth, and most significantly, there seems to be a good chance that Esther and Mordecai see this as an occasion to wage holy war. The very concept of holy war is of course not easy for us to stomach. I will first explain why I think it applies here.

When we are first introduced to Haman, we are told that he is an Agagite (Esth 3:1). To most modern Bible readers, this seems like an irrelevant detail, but it is crucial to understanding the story. By identifying Haman as an Agagite, the author of Esther points his readers to the events of 1 Samuel 15.

In 1 Samuel 15, Israel’s first king, Saul, is commanded by God to wage holy war against the Amalekites and destroy them completely, taking no plunder (1 Sam 15:3). Saul does attack and defeat the Amalekites, but spares the best of the cattle and their king, Agag (1 Sam 15:9). The prophet Samuel famously tells Saul that “to obey is better than sacrifice” and that God will remove the kingdom from Saul as a result of his disobedience (1 Sam 15:22-23).

In fact, the hostility between Israel and the Amalekites stretches even further back. They were the first nation to attack the Israelites, while they were still wandering in the desert. In Ex 17:16 we are told that “the LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” and in Deut 25:19 specific instructions are given to the generation that would enter the land that they should wipe out the Amalekites:

When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut 25:19)

In other words, Saul had missed the opportunity to end a long-running conflict between the two nations and now in Esther’s day it had come back to haunt them. That is why she was so determined to finish the job properly this time.

As distasteful as we may find the concept of holy war, the Old Testament does present it as one of God’s means of bringing judgment on the nations. It certainly was not a reward for Israel being righteous as Deut 9:4-6 makes plain.

For us living in the new covenant, the coming of Jesus has changed everything. We now no longer live in an age where holy war is to be practised or tolerated. Karen Jobes sums up this transition in her commentary on Esther:

The death of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, provides the only basis for the cessation of holy war, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit provides the only power by which one may love one’s enemies as oneself.

We’ll return to holy war in a couple of blog posts time when we consider the distinct lack of mercy found in the story of Esther

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