I went for a run on the Rio Grande Trail near Carbondale. It’s a great trail. It’s wide and paved, and it sure beats running on the road. People use it to run, walk, and bike – and to walk their dogs and to push their kids in strollers.
As I was running, I came across a sign that notified bicyclists they should use an “audible” signal to inform people when those bicyclists were about to pass them from behind. Just a little warning to avoid a pedestrian getting whacked by someone on a bike. Made sense to me.
So every now and then, I’d hear someone call out – or ring a little bell – as they were getting ready to pass me. “On your left!” they would say. But relatively few bicyclists actually did this. The majority just zoomed on by. I might have heard the whirring of their tires on the pavement just a split second before they zipped past me. In fact, the ones who were going the fastest seemed to give the fewest warnings.
Of course, it’s hard to follow all the rules and regulations we’re faced with. Try driving the speed limit everywhere you go. On some roads, that will drive you crazy. We can say it’s not really any big deal. There’s not really all that much danger there. We’ll follow the really big laws, like not committing homicide or bank robbery. And for the smaller ones, well, we’ll do our best.
The Jews were thorough in Esther 9. They were so thorough they asked for another day, at least in the city of Susa, to do their work. Their work was killing their enemies.
This is a hard chapter. Where is the grace here? What we really see are the Jews across the Persian Empire turning on their enemies and killing 75,000 of them. And they memorialized it with an annual festival. It makes us uncomfortable. It probably should make us uncomfortable.
You’ll have to decide in your own heart how much of a moral judgment you want to levy against those Jews. Be careful.
There’s a big backstory that’s worth being told.
The first king of Israel was named Saul. He was from the tribe of Benjamin. This was about 400 years before Israel was conquered and its people carried off into exile. Saul was commanded by God to destroy the Amalekites – and everything they owned. (Again, you can decide in your own heart what you want to make of this command. But the point, I think, is the story.)
King Saul didn’t do it. He didn’t follow God’s command, at least not completely. He captured and spared the life of the Amalekite king, Agag. And Saul kept alive some of the best of the sheep and oxen and fattened calves and lambs. You can read about this in 1 Samuel 15.
In the end, Saul was stripped of his kingship by God. He didn’t follow God’s commands to the letter. Saul kept finding ways to put his own desires and own advancement in front of his devotion to God. And Saul’s legacy was followed by most of the kings of Israel who came after him. It’s a roll call of men who failed to follow God.
Fast forward 500 years – into the Jews’ exile in Persia. A ruler named Haman had convinced the Persian king to issue an edict to destroy all the Jews in the empire – and to plunder everything they owned. Haman was an Agagite. His family name should sound familiar.
Fortunately for the Jews, Esther and Mordecai stepped in to save the day. The Jews were given permission by the king to fight anyone came against them. They were given permission to defend themselves against their enemies. Mordecai and Esther were both from the tribe of Benjamin. Their tribe was the same as that of the disgraced King Saul.
So there is a story here that came full circle in Esther 9. It was a story of past disobedience and a very thorough effort by the Jews to correct those wrongs – even at the risk being judged by us 21st century American Christians.
The Jews did not spare the lives of any of their enemies. At least that’s how the story reads. Haman the Agagite already was dead. But the Jews killed his 10 sons and had them hanged from the gallows.
And you’ll notice three times in the text, the Jews “laid no hand on the plunder.” This time, there was no saving out of the best of their enemies’ material possessions. No sheep or oxen or calves or lambs. There was no overwhelming greed. I think this story was written in a way to make us think back on King Saul and his failure with the Amalekites.
So what are we to make of this story? Yes, it offends our modern, peace-loving sensibilities. But these Jews were living in a world that was much different than ours. They had seen things that we must hope we never have to see. And they had seen how the mistakes of their forefathers – disobedience of and disrespect for God’s law – had resulted in ultimate loss. The loss of life, the loss of homeland, the loss of culture, the loss of freedom, the loss of security. The Jews were living in a precarious and dangerous time and place. Clearly, the Persian King Ahasuerus was unstable and unwise.
And the Jews must have remembered their losses from of old. And they were determined to follow through this time.
I wonder whether we understand the cost of sin – big ones and little ones. And if we really understood the cost of sin – as an innocent and loving man hanging on a cross for us – how would our lives change? Would we always ring that little bell on our bikes?