Esther 4 is a sad chapter.
It presents the reaction of the Jews (4:1–3) upon discovering that an edict had been written with instructions “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, from young to old, children and women, on a single day” (3:12–13). It also describes the dialogue that ensued as Mordecai implored Esther to approach King Ahasuerus and beg for mercy (4:4–16). In this analysis, I argue that the progression of the dialogue between Esther and Mordecai plays a significant role in the narrative. The dialogue begins at a point of disagreement, with Mordecai refusing to accept clothes sent by Esther (4:4) yet ends with Mordecai agreeing to carry out Esther’s instructions of gathering all Jews for a fast (4:16–17). This progression instils a glimpse of hope in the reader that the Jews, working in solidarity, will perhaps overcome their crisis as the narrative progresses. Beginning with a brief overview of the historical and literary context of the text, this article presents a detailed reading of Esther 4:1–17 based on the Masoretic Text (MT). It concludes with a reflection of how the passage might speak into the church in times of crisis, and this particular time of COVID-19.
Historical and Literary Context
Understanding the perilous situation of the Jews is crucial in interpreting Esther 4. Jews had been taken into Persia as exiles (2:6). They were no longer in their land where the Temple and everything connected to the worship of God was based. As a people, Jews were vulnerable. This is evidenced by Esther having to hide her ethnicity on her uncle’s advice even after she became queen (2:10, 20) and Mordecai having to continue checking on Esther’s welfare daily (2:11). Hence, this passage highlights the situation of the Jews as that of a people who were already susceptible but are now facing yet another crisis.
The Esther story is found among the Writings in the Hebrew Bible. Esther ended up in the position of queen after the dethronement of Queen Vashti whose only crime was refusing to appear before her husband, King Ahasuerus, and his guests (Esther 1:10–2:18). At that time the Jews faced annihilation at the hands of the kings’ vizier, Haman, whose obsession with honour made him seek to destroy all Jews since the one Jew, Mordecai, had refused to bow down to him (3:1–6). Having trumped up false charges that Jews were defying the king’s orders, Haman had King Ahasuerus’ support (3:7–11).
Located in the first half of the narrative, Esther 4 captures the defining moments when decisions are made around the appropriate action to take in response to this arising crisis. The previous chapter details the making of Haman’s plot to exterminate all Jews in Persia (3:1–15) and the subsequent chapter describes Esther’s banquets with the king as she sought his help to prevent the annihilation (5:1–8). As such, Esther 4 is crucial to the narrative. Not only does it depict how a group of people in dire circumstances reacted to a crisis in the ancient past, it sets the tone on the direction of the narrative as it progresses.
An Analysis of Esther 4:1–17
Esther 4 has two episodes, the first presents the state of Mordecai and the Jews after finding out about the king’s edict (4:1–3). The second is the dialogue between Esther and Mordecai (4:4–17). Below is an analysis of both episodes.
“… there was great mourning among the Jews …” (4:1–3)
While chapter 3 of Esther ends with Haman and the king feasting after the issuing of the edict (3:15), chapter 4 begins with the fasting and mourning of the Jews. At loss for words and deeply grieved Mordecai, “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, went out to the midst of the city and he cried out a loud and bitter cry” (4:1). As news of the edict reached the other provinces, the Jews joined Mordecai in mourning but “with fasting” as well (4:3). In ancient times, tearing one’s clothes, wearing sackcloth, and rubbing ashes on oneself, or laying in them and wailing loudly, were typical acts of mourning. Sackcloth was “a garment of coarse cloth of goat or camel hair, possibly loincloth.” Mourning was demonstrated “through ritual or symbolic actions,” quite different to sobbing quietly which is common in some other cultures. Lamenting was targeted at God, as people sought His deliverance. Commentators have wondered about Mordecai’s intentions for acting this way publicly. It has been suggested that Mordecai may have felt self-reproach for having provoked Haman. However, it seems more likely that he was distressed at the thought of his ethnic group being wiped out. Whatever the case, Mordecai appears now to have been on a mission to find a solution. Even though he remained outside the king’s gate or the royal court, he went near the entrance of the gate to get Esther’s attention.
Esther “sent clothes for Mordecai … but he refused them” (4:4–5)
Through her attendants, Esther heard about Mordecai. Perturbed by his actions, her first gesture was to offer him clothes, not because she was not concerned to know the reason behind Mordecai’s behaviour, but so that he could dress up in proper clothes and enter the palace to discuss the matter quietly. Since Mordecai had earlier advised Esther to hide her Jewish heritage (2:10, 20), it is possible that she wanted to keep their connection secretive. Hence, the sooner he stopped his public acts the better it would be for both of them. However, Mordecai would not accept the clothes, the crisis was still at hand, and the lives of the Jews were still under threat.
Mordecai Instructs Esther “to go to the king… to plead with him for her people” (4:6–9)
Esther, therefore, sends a messenger, Hathak, to find out “what this was and what this was about” (4:5). It seems Esther had no knowledge of what was happening outside the royal household. In order to ensure Esther understood the situation, Mordecai sent Hathak with three pieces of information and one instruction. The information was a report on the events behind his mourning, the amount of money Haman had offered the king and “a copy of the writing of the law which had been issued in Susa in order to destroy them [the Jews]” (4:7–8). How Mordecai got this much detail is not explained. Perhaps he would frequent the gate so much that he got to know things. It was the same gate he paced to find out about Esther’s welfare (2:11) and, also, where he discovered the plot against the king (2:21–23). Presenting extra proof meant that Esther would be able to read the copy for herself and not only rely on Mordecai’s report. Having provided the reason behind his lament, Mordecai finished by instructing Esther to approach the king and plead for the lives of the Jews. Mordecai can be commended for he “did not simply seek to protect himself by using his connection with Esther,” he sought to save all Jews.
Esther Explains Her Vulnerability—She Could Be “put to death” (4:10–12)
Having just heard that the lives of her people were in danger, Esther emphasises that approaching the king would also put her own life in danger. There was a well-known law that anyone who approaches the king uninvited was to be killed except if the king “extends the golden sceptre” (4:11). As it was, Esther had not been invited by the king for thirty days (8:9–14). It seems that life was not all that easy in the royal household. Esther’s explanation could imply she lived in fear of the king, as such, she was hesitating to approach him. Some commentators think Esther was plainly saying “I can’t do it!” Berlin suggests that Esther was merely highlighting the risk involved in approaching the king but at the same time she was also calculating a strategy which becomes apparent when she calls for a fast. The irony is that, having replaced Vashti who infuriated the king by refusing to appear before him, Esther was risking enraging the king by approaching him uninvited thereby breaking a well-known law. Her hesitation and fear were indeed not unfounded.
Mordecai Urges Esther “… who knows, if it is for a time like this that you have become queen?” (4:13–14)
When Hathak took Esther’s message to Mordecai, he would not hear of it. He reminded Esther not to be complacent thinking she, of all Jews, was safe in the king’s household. If she did not act, deliverance for the Jews would come from elsewhere, possibly, through other willing person(s). Some have suggested, and I agree, that Mordecai was alluding that God would deliver the Jews in some way.Considering that the book of Exodus is one of the great narratives where God delivered the children of Israel in unusual ways, it is possible that this past act of God offered a ray of hope whenever deliverance was needed.
Mordecai further warned Esther that if deliverance came from somewhere, Esther herself and her father’s household would perish (4:14). This is an unsettling statement and commentators have wondered why Mordecai would say that to Esther and what exactly he meant. Was he implying that “divine punishment” would fall on Esther? Would Esther’s family perish at the hands of the Jews who would punish her for disloyalty? Could it be that Mordecai was “threatening to reveal her [Esther’s] identity as a Jew, thus bringing her under Haman’s decree?” Berlin suggests, and I concur, that Mordecai was using rhetoric “to personalize the danger to Esther,” a tactic used to highlight the immediacy of a threat. It is also likely that Mordecai was alerting Esther that if the Jews got saved in another way, she would be stuck in the palace and perish there, no one would be able to rescue her. Mordecai was part of Esther’s family; he had raised her as his daughter after the death of her parents (2:7). As such, it is not unusual that he would be concerned for her.
Mordecai finished by suggesting to Esther the possibility that she had become queen “for such a time as this” (4:14). He reinforces the idea that, all of Esther’s life and the series of unusual events that led her to become queen, there was a greater purpose for her. She had been set up for this special assignment of saving the Jews from this impending genocide.
Esther Instructs Mordecai “go gather all the Jews in Susa and fast … if I perish, I perish.” (4:15–16)
At this point, convinced by Mordecai, Esther implicitly agrees. She then instructed Mordecai to call all the Jews in Susa to a three-day intercessory fast before she approached the king. It was as if she was implying that all the Jews, not just her, were “called for such a time as this.” They also had a part to play. The fact that the fast had to be three days long, with no food or drink points to the seriousness of the crisis and the desperate need for God’s intervention, even though God’s name is not mentioned in the whole narrative. As Berlin writes, “[i]t is hard to read about fasting, mourning and crying out without seeing God as the addressee to whom all these actions are directed.” Esther herself and her attendants would be fasting too after which she planned to approach the king, bravely adding, “and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Esther’s humble response demonstrates she knew this was not a one-person assignment, but more importantly, its success heavily depended on divine intervention. Mordecai gathered everyone, and they fasted as instructed.
Chapter 4 presents a shift in the character of Esther who is now making decisions. She is initially introduced as a “passive, obedient and silent” person taking her uncle’s instructions (2:10, 20), and that of Hegai (2:15). However, in chapter 4, despite earlier hesitation, she resolves to approach the king even if it costs her own life. Moreover, she also gives instruction to her uncle to call a fast. The chapter concludes with Mordecai going to do “all that Esther had commanded him” (4:17). The reader is left wondering, what will happen? Will the Jews escape this impending genocide?
The author of Esther began this passage by painting a sombre picture of the intense grief expressed by Mordecai and the Jews as they “responded to bad news, specifically the threat of death.” It is through the messenger, Hathack, that a dialogue between Mordecai and Esther is possible. The two ultimately settle that Esther will seek human assistance by approaching the king but only after Mordecai and the Jews seek divine help through an intercessory fast. With all parties fully aware of what is at stake, and in solidarity on the way forward, the reader senses a glimmer of hope for the Jews. And rightly so, for as the narrative progresses, the annihilation is foiled, and the Jews managed to defend themselves against their enemies (7:1–10:3).
Reflection: Esther 4 in Times of Crisis
The events recorded in the book of Esther are far removed from our time. It is estimated the story was written as early as 400 and as late as 200 BC. Is there any chance that it could speak into the Church today? Absolutely! Smith aptly notes that “the response of Mordecai and Esther can illuminate and encourage believers” in crisis situations today. In a recent commentary on Esther, Schmutzer also remarks
Genocides and national disasters, by their nature cause differing responses from people but also call for specific responses from believers.
In this section, I reflect on three ways in which Esther 4 can speak to believers in a crisis. Firstly, it speaks of the role of lament. Secondly, it highlights the importance of seeking God’s help through prayer and fasting. Finally, it reminds us that times of crisis call for solidarity.
This passage highlights the necessity and appropriateness of mourning or lamenting in times of crisis. Lamenting is a way of releasing emotions, described by Ackermann as “a language for dealing with, although not solving, the problem of suffering.” It is necessary to acknowledge painful situations. Mordecai and the Jews did not hide their pain and their fears over the impending annihilation of their people.
Prayer and Fasting
Esther’s request for Jews to fast for her highlights the importance of seeking divine intervention. In an overview of scriptural passages on fasting, Berghuis says the concept of fasting is presented in the Bible as a "way for God’s people as individuals or as a body to express humility, sorrow, repentance, seriousness in prayer, and a desire for God’s manifest presence."
Believers are called to prayer and fasting in trying times. Jesus fasted (Matt 4:2–3) and expected his followers to fast, hence, he advised them what to do and what not to do when fasting (Matt 6:16–18). Even when, for some reason, we cannot fast, Paul still encourages us—“be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Smith reminds us that in time of crisis the “principle of taking complaints to proper civil or religious authorities who can address the issue is still valid.” However, it is not only the work of an individual or a few authority figures that counts, but collective action from everyone. While Esther had to be brave to face the king, she would only do so after the intercessory fast by Mordecai and all the Jews in Susa. The Jews had to depend both on divine help as well as their solidarity to overcome their crisis.
As I write this article, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit most parts of the world. Many countries, including New Zealand, have closed their borders to stop the spread of the disease. People are in lockdown and only allowed to leave the home for essential goods and services. Day by day, the death toll and infection rate have been rising internationally. It is estimated that many people will be affected in one form or another.
In this time, the book of Esther reminds us that it is appropriate to lament; to lament the pain of sickness, the loss of loved ones, the loneliness of being isolated in lockdown, the loss of income, and the freedom to engage in activities that are part of normal life. As we do so, let our lament be addressed to our loving God who is ever-present (Ps 23; 139); our Saviour, Jesus Christ who is well acquainted with suffering (Heb 2:8) and who intercedes for us (Heb 7:25, Rom 8:34); and to our comforter, the Holy Spirit who is also always interceding for us (John 14:16, 26; Rom 8:26).
Through prayer and fasting, we can express our pain. However, that is not all. Just as in the book of Esther, some have to be in the front line—the nurses, doctors and other practitioners who courageously risk their own lives on behalf of others—let us support them through our prayers that God would protect them and heal the sick they care for.
This is a clarion call to everyone, for, we each have a part to play in our different spheres of influence. This could be leading or working in churches or other organisations, attending to our own families, friends, and neighbours in need, or providing financial or other support to organisations involved in solidarity with the fight against COVID-19, locally and internationally. We are all called, in our various ways, for such a time as this!
Tekweni Chataira (nee Nyamukachi) is a first year PhD candidate at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Her doctoral research is on the Old Testament, focusing on the book of Esther. Her other research interests include the New Testament, theology, African theology and culture, postcolonial criticism, as well as womanism and feminism. Tekweni also works part-time as a graduate teaching assistant at Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand. She was born and raised in Rusape, Zimbabwe then migrated to New Zealand with her husband over a decade and a half ago. Together they have two teenage sons and a younger daughter.
 All translations in this article were done by the author.
 Aside from the MT version in Hebrew, from which Protestants mainly translate their Bibles, the Esther narrative comes in several other versions. There is the Septuagint (LXX) from which the Roman Catholic translations are based. The LXX has several additions that are missing in the MT; hence the plot is slightly different. There is also the Alpha Text (AT) and several other Greek versions. See Kandy Queen Sutherland, Ruth & Esther. (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary Series, v. 13A. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2016), 190–196.; Sutherland gives a detailed assessment of these versions and for a brief assessment see Bechtel. Carol M. Bechtel, Esther (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 1–2.
 Karen H. Jobes, Esther: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 95.
 Jobes, Esther, 131; Klara Butting, “Esther: About Resistance against Anti-Semitism and Sexism,” in Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, ed. Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 207–20.
 Samuel Wells, and George R. Sumner, Esther & Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), 51–53.
 Frederic William Bush, Ruth, Esther (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2007), 393.
 Adele Berlin, Esther =: [Ester]: the Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 45. Charles R. Swindoll, Esther: A Woman of Strength & Dignity: Profiles in Character (Nashville: Word Pub, 1997), 79.
 Clause Westermann, “The Role of the Lament in the Theology of the Old Testament,” Interpretation 28, no. 1 (1974): 23.
 Carey A. Moore, Esther: Introduction, Translation and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 47.
 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 372–373; Berlin, Esther, 31.
 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 394.
 Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 59.
 Robert D. Holmstedt, and John Screnock. Esther: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), 142.
 Bechtel, Esther, 45–46.
 Berlin, Esther, 47.
 Lois Semenye, “Esther,” in Africa Bible Commentary, edited by Adeyemo Tokunboh (Grand Rapids, MI: WordAlive Publishers; Zondervan, 2006), 563.
 Rivkah Lubitch “A Feminist Look at Esther,” Judaism, vol 42, 1993: 441.
 Berlin, Esther, 47–48.
 Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, 63–64.
 Jobes, Esther, 133–34.
 Moore, Esther, 50.
 Moore, Esther, 50.
 Ronald W. Pierce, “The Politics of Esther and Mordecai: Courage or Compromise? BBR 2 (1992): 87.
 Jobes Esther, 134.
 Berlin, Esther, 49.
 Jobes, Esther, 134.
 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 397–398.
 Berlin, Esther, 44.
 Carol M. Bechtel, Esther (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 50.
 Rivkah, “A Feminist Look at Esther,” 438–442.
 Gary V. Smith, “Esther,” In Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther, ed. 215–89 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 256.
 Berlin, Esther, xli.
 Smith, “Esther,” 256–7.
 Douglas J. E Nykolaishen and Andrew J. Schmutzer. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 254.
 Nykolaishen and Schmutzer. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, 254.
 Ackermann, D. M. 2003. After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) 100, quoted in Klopper Frances, “Lament, the Language for Our Times,” OTE 21 1 (2008): 125.
 Berghuis, Kent D. “A Biblical Perspective on Prayer.” BSac 158 January–March (2001): 87.
 Smith, “Esther,” 257.