The book of Esther is a fascinating book of the Bible because, in all 5,633 words of it, God is not mentioned a single time. And yet, God was so clearly at work, protecting and uplifting his people through the book’s heroine, Esther.
During the reign of King Ahasuerus, Esther is used by God to save the lives of all the Jews of the Persian Empire from being killed by one of the king’s counselors, named Haman. To commemorate their miraculous salvation, Jews celebrate a holiday called Purim, meaning “lots.”
Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar. This year, Purim is March 16th-March 17th, 2022, beginning on the evening of the 16th. It is one of the liveliest holidays on the Jewish calendar, involving costumes, charity, and parties.
The costumes reveal the point of the celebration: God’s supernatural hand working through seemingly natural events. Keep reading to discover the joy of celebrating Purim.
How Did Purim Begin?
Purim, meaning “lots,” is so named because of how Haman cast lots to decide when to plan a massacre of all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
To back up to the beginning of the story, we begin the book of Esther by first reading how King Ahasuerus threw a massive, six-month-long party for his armies, governors, and princes. He was quite drunk by the end of it and ordered his Queen Vashti to parade her beauty before the court. The insinuation was for her to wear her royal crown, and nothing else.
Upon her refusal to do so, the king divorces her and starts a beauty contest of sorts to find a new wife.
Young, Jewish Esther, who was raised by her cousin Mordecai, is chosen amongst all of the virgins in the land. She conceals her Jewish identity and wins over the favor of the court and of the king.
Mordecai learns of a plot to kill the king by two of his eunuchs. He tells Esther of the plot, who tells the king, and the king’s life is saved. Meanwhile, Haman, one of the king’s counselors, is promoted. He makes a law throughout the land that all people must bow to him. But, because of his devoutness to God, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman.
Enraged by this, Haman decides to hatch a plan not just to kill Mordecai, but to kill all Jews. Haman convinces the king that the Jews deserve to die because they do not follow the king’s orders. He casts lots to decide on what day to enact the massacre and lands on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar.
Mordecai, along with the rest of the Jews, learns of this new decree and mourns in sackcloth and ashes. He urges Esther to approach the king to try to change his mind. This was an extremely dangerous mission for Esther though, because if the king did not invite you into his presence, then he could kill you outright. Esther tells Mordecai to have all the Jews fast for her.
Esther was as brave as she was shrewd. When she approaches the king, he holds out his scepter to her, indicating favor and that she won’t be killed for entering without being summoned. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet that night, and then at that banquet, requests that they join her for another banquet the following night. At that banquet, she asks the king to spare her people. When asked who would do such a thing, she points to Haman.
And then, in an even more dramatic twist, Haman falls on Esther’s couch, and it appears to the king that Haman is trying to assault her. He immediately orders Haman to be impaled–on the very pole that Haman had arranged for Mordecai to die on.
Esther was put in charge of Haman’s estate, and Mordecai issued a decree to all the Jews that they could defend themselves and plunder their enemies on the day that the enemies of the Jews were set to attack. The other nationalities were scared of the Jews, and because of fear of Mordecai, the governors, straps, and princes also helped the Jews out. The Jews struck down all their enemies, but did not touch their plunder.
The province of Susa carried out the edict on the 13th and the 14th, and those in the villages did so on the 13th.
“That is why rural Jews—those living in villages—observe the fourteenth of the month of Adar as a day of joy and feasting, a day for giving presents to each other.
Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor,” (Esther 9:19-22).
Purim was established to celebrate and remember a day of victory for the Jews. God came through for them, even though it seemed like it was all natural events and people that moved the plot forward.
How Is Purim Celebrated?
Purim is compared to Halloween, simply because costumes are involved for both holidays. But Jews specifically celebrate Purim with costumes because it is a reminder that God’s work was disguised by natural events, but that he was behind the scenes all the while. As this site quotes, “The custom of wearing costumes on Purim is an allusion to the nature of the Purim miracle, where the details of the story are really miracles hidden within natural events.”
Other reasons Jews dress up on Purim is 1) to commemorate how both the Jews who served other gods during this time only pretended to do so, and how God only pretended to destroy the Jews. Both of their actions disguised other motives; 2) to show love to the poor who go around collecting charity during this time by shielding them from embarrassment, and 3) the remember how Mordecai was dressed up in the king’s royal garments (Esther 8:15).
In addition to wearing costumes, Jews celebrate by fasting the day before Purim to remember Esther’s fasting, reading the story of Esther out loud on two separate occasions (called the Megillah), giving money to the poor, sending two kinds of foods to at least one person, and a festive Purim feast, which can include a special pastry called hamantaschen.
A festive detail of the celebration is that when the story of Esther is read out loud, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, the Jews “blot out” his name by making all kinds of noise, from noisemakers, to banging on tables and breaking pots. The reason for this is in Deuteronomy 25:19, Israel is ordered to “blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.” The book of Esther explicitly links Haman to Amalek by lineage. And because Haman is inarguably the villain of this story, Jews join in on showing contempt for their common enemy together.
Purim is a lively and colorful holiday that Jews celebrate every year.
3 Things Christians Should Know about Purim
Even though Purim is a Jewish holiday, there are still many lessons Christians can glean from this celebration.
1. God is always working, whether you see him or not.
God was not mentioned a single time in the book of Esther, and yet we see his divine providence and faithfulness to his people at every turn. Just like the Jews remember this by wearing costumes, we can learn from their faith in God’s ability to use every little circumstance to bring about his good plan for his people.
2. It is good to celebrate through generosity.
Purim isn’t just about having a good time by yourself or with those you love; it is about active outreach to the poor and sharing in God’s goodness.
Mordecai started Purim to celebrate the Jews’ mourning turning into joy. It is easy to be generous when you are grateful that you just made it out alive!
Unfortunately, we humans are very apt to forget how bad a situation was once we are out of it; and likely to forget how good God is. But Purim is a profound reminder of an epic victory that God gave to his people, and that it is best celebrated by sharing with those you love and with those who are in need.
3. God wants his people to have fun!
As Ecclesiastes 4:3 tells us, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” There are certainly Jewish holidays that call Jews to be solemn and introspective, like Yom Kippur. While Christians don’t celebrate these holidays today, we can certainly have an overarching attitude towards Christianity that it is about penance, suffering, and hardship. Purim is a celebration!
Costumes, food, generosity, gifts, and special treats–these aspects of Purim point to a celebration and a God that wants his children to enjoy good things. To let loose, to remember victories, to be creative, and to be generous. While there are times to be solemn, there are also times to party. And God loves to give his children good gifts (Matthew 7:11).
Purim’s origins and the overall story of Esther is a delightfully complex and dramatic manifestation of God’s sovereignty and care for his people. Even though it is a Jewish holiday, Christians are always welcome to take special time to commemorate this victory, along with all the victories God has given them in their own lives. And remember, it’s a good thing to party when celebrating God’s faithfulness!