Inside: Part 1 in an in-depth study of the book of Esther, this overview focuses on the celebration of Purim.
As Christians, we can sometimes (unfortunately) be detached from the Old Testament and the understanding of the Biblical feasts. While Purim was not a feast instituted by God, it is a celebration worth studying as a Christian. It’s one of the merriest of the Jewish holidays, and magnifies God’s goodness toward and deliverance for His people.
What is Purim?
The word Purim means lots. This early spring celebration is often referred to as the feast of lots because of the role that the casting of lots played in the book of Esther (more on that in a moment).
During this holiday, there is feasting and joy, gift-giving, and the remembrance of God’s sovereign hand.
Interesting tidbit: God is never actually mentioned in the book of Esther. He’s “hidden” (and because of this, people often wear masks or costumes during Purim celebrations), but His plan and protection are obvious throughout the story.
Let’s take a closer look.
When Purim Began
If you’ve read the book of Esther, you’ve at least become acquainted with the story of how Purim came to be. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll begin to look at the book of Esther in more depth. But for now, I’ll give the quick and dirty to explain the general idea of the backstory of the celebration.
The story unfolds in the Persian Empire during one of the Jewish exiles. God’s people had been carried away, given new Babylonian names, and were surrounded by pagans. The king had dismissed Queen Vashti and was looking for a new queen. Beautiful young women from all throughout the empire were brought to the main capital city of Susa (Shushan in some translations). Hadassah, or Esther, was among these young women. And out of all of them, she had favor. In the end, the king chose her, and this placed her in a unique position.
The enemy of this story comes in the form of a man named Haman. He was an Agagite, meaning he descended from the King Agag who Saul was supposed to kill but pardoned, against the command of the Lord. And this man–Haman the Agagite–fiercely hated the Jews. The situation was not helped when Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refused to show Haman honor in his new position as a royal official. Haman’s pride was wounded, and in turn, he was out for blood. And he didn’t just want Mordecai. He wanted the blood of all the Jews in the Persian Empire to be spilled.
Now was Esther’s moment. This was why God had shown her favor and placed her in this position. She was called to bravely plead for the lives of her people. She could have been killed for doing so, but in the end, she decided that she must. And through her, God delivered the Jews. Beyond that, they had an astonishing victory over their enemies.
Those who were full of mourning over their possible demise were soon filled with joy. Sackcloth and ashes were turned to royal robes, a crown of gold, and a signet ring of authority.
It was then that Mordecai himself instituted Purim. It was to be a time of feasting and gladness in remembrance of having rest from their enemies. The very day that Haman had chosen (by the casting of lots) for their destruction was the day that became their victory. God did not leave His people without deliverance.
How Purim is Celebrated
So with the backstory in mind, how is Purim celebrated? We don’t have much to go off of in the Biblical account. We know the dates that Mordecai set and that there was to be feasting, gladness, and gift-giving. Beyond that, there are no set instructions. That really sets this feast apart from some of the other more structured feast like Passover.
But let’s look at how Purim is often celebrated now.
The book of Esther is one of the five megillot. These are scrolls that are read during certain holidays for the Jews. During Purim, the Jews read the entire story of Esther.
While the story is being read, listeners “blot out” the name of Haman by booing, stomping, and sounding off noisemakers called groggers. Our friend group recently studied Purim and had a celebration a few days after the traditional date. We all read the story beforehand, and then I retold the story for all of our children (and our ladies’s group). The kids had so much fun blowing party streamers to drown out Haman’s name!
Lots of traditional Jewish food is brought to the feast. Two of the dishes that connect with the story are Hamantaschen and Kreplach. Hamantaschen is a buttery cookie with a poppyseed or apricot filling, and Kreplach is a stew with stuffed noodles–kind of like a jewish ravioli. Both are triangular in shape and are said to have a connection to Haman. Depending on the source, you’ll hear one of three possibilities:
- They are triangular because of Haman’s three-cornered hat,
- They’re triangular because of his pointy ears, OR
- They’re meant to represent his pockets (because of the 10,000 silver coins he was willing to add to the king’s treasury in exchange for permission to blot out the Jews).
The first two don’t have any reference in scripture, but these dishes are tasty and fun!
Gladness & Celebration
Like I mentioned before, Purim is a merry holiday. There are often parades and carnivals during the festivities. And it all originated with the joy the Israelites had when the death sentence against them was turned to their victory.
People give gifts of mainly food during Purim. Traditionally, an assortment of fruit, pastries, cake, etc. are sent by the hands of a child.
During Purim, it’s also important to give to those in need, so Jews will often give food to those who would not be able to celebrate Purim without it. Donations to charity are also made.
Masks & Costumes
As I mentioned above, masks and costumes are worn to represent the hidden nature of God in the book of Esther. Some people claim that because He’s not mentioned, Esther shouldn’t even be included in Scripture. But when we sit down and earnestly read the account of what happened, we can’t help but see His sovereignty as He moved people into their positions to execute His divine plan.
Connections for Christians
As Christians, should Purim mean anything to us? When it comes down to it, the celebration of Purim is a celebration of:
- the defeat of God’s enemies
- His goodness & faithfulness in delivering His own and giving them victory
I think those are things all Christians can say “yes and amen” to! Our God never changes. The Deliverer we worship is the same God who delivered the Israelites from the plots of their enemy. He is still a Deliverer. He still protects from the enemy and turns mourning to dancing. Just like the death decree that hung over the heads of the Jews, sin was our death decree. But His sovereign hand moved all the pieces into place so that we would have victory!
And that’s something worth celebrating.
Of course, none of the Biblical feasts are mandatory for us, but they are so beautiful and full of a richness that we can delight in. So pass the Hamantaschen, whirl those groggers, and let’s remember the goodness of God!
Until next time,
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