Christian believers these days are becoming interested in Jewish holidays and customs, and with an increase in interest in the festival of Purim since the release of the Christian film, “One Night With The King,” based upon the Esther narrative. The Purim holiday is interwoven with the inspiring story of a young Jewish girl, Esther, and her cousin, Mordecai, who with resolute cunning and bravery prevent a wicked Haman from destroying the Jewish community in ancient Persia.
The Jewish holiday of Purim or “Lots,” in fact, has its entire basis as a brief mention in the Book of Esther, without which it would not exist. Is Purim worshipful or carnavalesque? Why is Purim regarded as offensive to so many people, both Christians and Jews?
Worshipful or Carnavalesque?
Adele Berlin, in “The Book of Esther in Modern Research,” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 380, T&T Clark, London, 2003) says, “The book [of Esther] is important in Jewish life, for without it there would be no Purim…apart from the book of Esther, there is no mention in the Bible of Purim and no reason for its existence.” (p.10) She adds that the book and holiday are “carnavalesque… the book is meant to be funny, and I want people to appreciate its comic nature…it is likely that the rabbis viewed Esther as a comedy.” (ibid. pp. 10, 12)
Dr. Barry D. Walfish, in “Kosher Adultery? The Mordecai-Esther-Ahasuerus Triangle in Talmudic, Medieval and Sixteenth Century Exegesis,” tells us, “In general, playfulness and lightheartedness have been characteristics of Purim and the Esther story from the beginning. Transgressing boundaries, flouting Jewish practice, and mocking Jewish law are common practices on Purim. See Greenstein 1987:231.2.” Should Jews or Christians choose to celebrate a wild holiday that mocks Scriptural morality and biblical law?
Dr. Ori Z.Soltes, in “Images and the Book of Esther: From Manuscript Illumination to Midrash,” says, “…the demise of Haman and his sons, is, for the audience, laughable; and everyone celebrates by allowing the fun of the story’s finale to spill off the stage (and off the narrative page) into a raucous festival…The entire emphasis, in celebrating the holiday, on the play between revelation and hiddenness—accentuated by the use of costumes and masks, and no doubt influenced by the Christian carnival celebrations (which more or less coincide on the calendar with Purim)—would have had a particularly strong appeal.” (p.140) Purim should be compared with Mardi-Gras, not with the biblical Mosaic holy days.
Respected British scholar, Dr. Stephanie Dalley related that a friend “took me to a Purim service in Oxford to witness the high spirits of a liberal tradition including whirling football rattles, men dressed in women’s clothes and jewelry; and hissing, booing, and stamping at the sound of Haman’s name…and brought me a selection of Haman’s ears for delectation…” (“Esther’s Revenge at Susa,” p. vii).
How is Purim traditionally kept in America? Face painting, Esther’s royal scepter replaced by “a magic wand from fairyland,” Vashti “dressed in black as a Halloween witch” from the pagan early Celtic New Year festival. (Reference: Judith Neulander, “The Ecumenical Esther: Queen and Saint in Three Western Belief Systems,” p.193)
Immoral and Offensive to Jews and Christians:
Adele Berlin says, “…there is no Purim in the Christian calendar and there is a stream of Christian exegesis that perceives the book as lacking in moral values and in literary merit…there are parts of it that modern Jews also find offensive.” (p.10) Dr. Michael Fox bluntly states that Esther wins the king’s favor in a “sex contest.” (1991a:28)
Sidnie White Crawford, in “Esther and Judith: Contrasts in Character,” summarizes the immorality in the Book of Esther well: “The lack of religious piety in the Hebrew version of Esther is notorious. God is not mentioned by name at all. Neither Esther nor Mordecai display any concern for any of the laws of Judaism, even though one of Haman’s calumnies against the Jews is that they have a law different from every other people (Esther 3:8). Esther becomes the sexual partner and then the wife of a Gentile; she lives in his palace and eats his food with no recognition of the laws of kashrut; in fact, since Ahasuerus and his court, including Haman, have no idea that she is a Jew, she must be quite assimilated. There are no prayers, sacrifices or other acts of conventional religious piety…” (p. 67-68) Aside from historical considerations, are we to uphold and celebrate Esther as an example for us to follow???
Dr. Timothy S. Laniak, in “Esther’s Volkcentrism and the Reframing of Post-exilic Judaism,” states, “What should a reader think of the Jewess whose daily ritual consists of cosmetic baths in preparation for a night [of sin!] with a pagan king? What of one lost in a courtly crowd whose suspicions are never aroused by any distinctively Jewish behavior? Instead of challenging the king’s diet as Daniel did, she prepares the king’s food! This is the one known not for her religious habits, but for her beauty and charm—and her erotic capacities. Her choice is not to reveal her Jewishness, but to avoid risk by concealing it. Esther seems flagrantly anti-Torah…There is no concern for ritual purity and little concern for…’moral absolutes’.” (p.83)
Professor Elizabeth Groves, in her study, “Double Take: Another Look at the Second Gathering of Virgins in Esther 2:19a,” is equally blunt in her assessment that Esther was merely a sex object: “Esther was a “sex object only, whose nationality—Persian or otherwise—was so unimportant that it did not even need to be known.” (p.103) Groves adds the interesting fact that the Hebrew text of Esther 5:1, where Esther “comes to the king ‘royally’…suggests that her royal robes were designed for sex appeal.”
The recent Christian film, “One Night With The King,” glorified Esther’s illicit co-habitation with a heathen monarch as if it were something wonderful to celebrate. The truth of the situation is far different than the rosy picture presented by the evangelical community. Professor Groves tells us, “The end of [Esther] 2.14 seems to me to recount a tragedy. Girls were rounded up and deflowered by the king for his pleasure and his vanity, probably by the hundreds, according to Phipp’s estimation (as cited by Wyler 1995:119), and then would linger, forgotten, in the harem for the rest of their lives…The king’s sexual indulgence represented a ‘theft’ of sorts, which affected the girl’s families even to future generations.”
Dr. Barry D. Walfish, in “Kosher Adultery? The Mordecai-Esther-Ahasuerus Triangle in Talmudic, Medieval and Sixteenth Century Exegesis,” says, “The book of Esther presented a challenge for Jewish religious leaders in the Second Temple and rabbinic periods. Its lack of religious sentiment, mention of religious practices or any reference to God raised serious questions about its suitability for inclusion in the biblical canon (Moore 1992:636-9). Indeed, it has been suggested by some that its unreligious nature is the very reason why a copy of the book has never been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.” (p.111) He adds, “The rabbis in the Babylonian tractate Megillah (10b-17a)…portray Esther not as a young virgin, but as a mature woman who was already married to Mordecai when she was taken to the king’s harem. This interpretation… raised the level of transgression from one of intercourse with a gentile to possible adultery.” (p.113) Dr. Walfish adds that in Esther 2:17, women as well as virgins appear in the Hebrew text. “If women and virgins are mentioned in the same verse, the king must have tried out married women as well.” (p.123)
Professor Stephanie Dalley asks why Esther wants to slay 510 people in Susa and 75,000 people in the provinces for essentially a personal vendetta? And why did the king allow so many of his people slain, instead of only Haman? (“Esther’s Revenge At Susa,” pp. 195, 197)
Let us list a few of the customs that are a part of the Purim celebration: 1. Transvestitism, men dressing as women contrary to Deuteronomy 22:5, which calls it “detestable.” 2. Drunkenness. Celebrants traditionally get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between saying, “Cursed be Haman,” and “Cursed be Mordecai.” Dr. Stephanie Dalley states, “Indeed, this behavior is positively recommended in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b)” (ibid. p.187). Ishtar was the goddess of sexual love, as well as drunken feasts and wild carnal pleasure (Dalley, ibid. p.137). 3. Cannabalistic ritual; eating cakes and loaves in the form of Haman’s ears. What is the possible origin of this? Ishtar was the pagan goddess of wisdom; in Akkadian wisdom was “hasisu” meaning ear (Dalley, ibid. p.152). Dr. Dalley says, “This can be interpreted from an anthropological viewpoint, as sublimated cannibalism, in which the victor consumes a part of his enemy.” This is contra to Deuteronomy 14:3-8, “you must eat nothing that is detestable.” 4. Immorality, or irreverence and mocking of biblical moral law and Scripture commandser as noted previously. 5. Paganism. Dr. Dalley states that there are “features in the feast of Purim [as it is popularly practiced] which have led schol ars, both Christian and Jewish, to suppose that a pagan, non-Jewish festival lies behind…” (ibid. p.188)
Finally, Dr. J.B. McFadyen, in “Introduction to the Old Testament,” sums it all up well in saying, “All the romantic glamour of the story cannot blind us to its religious emptiness and moral depravity.” (p.315)
Should Christians observe Purim? Dr. Iain Duguid advises, “It was established as an ordinance by edicts from Esther and Mordecai (Esther 9:20-22, 29-32), not from God.” (Westminster Theology Journal 68, 2006, “But Did They Live Happily Ever After? The Eschatology of the Book of Esther,” p.93). The bottom line is that Purim is a man-made holiday, not a Divinely-commanded Holy Day, nor a New Testament-ordained rite, and as such should not be observed or promoted by Christian believers.