Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from an impending holocaust, decreed by the Persian king Xerxes and devised by his wicked viceroy Haman. The story unfolds in Shushan, one of the ancient capital cities of the Persian Empire, between the First and Second Temple periods, and after the downfall of the Babylonians at the hands of Persia.
Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Jerusalem, burnt its Holy Temple to the ground, and exiled the city’s Jewish inhabitants. The Jewish people found great hope in Jeremiah’s prophesy, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place [Jerusalem]” (Jeremiah 29:10). But when 70 years had passed and they remained in exile under the vicious King Xerxes, they began to doubt the prophecy’s validity.
Even King Xerxes believed that the revered God of Israel had given up on His people. The king had calculated that God would no longer stand in Israel’s defense, and would no longer pursue justice and morality in a world taken over by evil and deceit.
In the opening chapters of the book of Esther we read about a major celebration hosted at the king’s palace. During this party, Xerxes, in a drunken stupor and with his trademark cynicism, displayed the holy vessels which had been looted from the Jewish Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Xerxes actually used the sacred vessels at his party as a show of defiance and disregard for the God of Israel. Unfortunately, there were many Jews who joined Xerxes’ party, especially the more prominent members of the Jewish community.
However, there was one man who held a very prominent position in the Jewish community who did not partake in the king’s party, nor would he agree to bow to the king’s directives. His name was Mordecai, and he and his niece, Esther, who later became Xerxes’ wife, were the catalysts for the Jewish people’s repentance before God and His deliverance of the Jews from Xerxes and his wicked viceroy Haman.
This is the backdrop to the story of Purim. In the days leading up to this great holiday, I’ll share more of this ancient story as well as the timeless lessons it can teach us today.