Lesson 45: “If I Perish, I Perish”
Daniel 1; 3; 6; Esther 3-5; 7-8
Purpose: To help class members have the courage to live according to gospel standards.
Imagine for a minute we have a visitor, someone who doesn’t know anything about us, but who wants to know what makes the Latter-day Saints who we are – not our doctrines, in particular, but the story of us as a people. What 10 or 15 specific stories or events from Mormon history might we tell him about? (List on board as stories are suggested by class members. Mark the relevant ones for the following discussion.)
Notice how many of these key events – the troubles in Missouri, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the exodus from Nauvoo into the wilderness – have to do with hard times, and loss, and death, and danger. Why do you think these events are so important to us that they come up in a list like this? What do they mean to us – how do they show us what we think of ourselves as a people? What does that tell us about our relation to God?
There are five Jewish religious feasts where the Jews focus on their history as a people, times when reading specific books of scripture are essential to the observance, perhaps like reading the second chapter of Luke is essential to our Christmas. These feasts and the associated scriptures are: (List on board)
Passover, commemorating the angel of death passing over the Children of Israel just before they left Egypt, when the Song of Songs is read;
Pentecost, an agricultural festival, when the book of Ruth is read;
Ninth of Ab, recalling Nebuchadnezzaar’s destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, when Jeremiah’s Lamantations is read;
Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt; Ecclesiasties is read at this time; and
Purim, recalling the time Esther saved Israel from destruction during the Babylonian captivity, when the book of Esther is read.
Notice that four of these five feasts commemorate times of danger or destruction or exile in the history of Israel – the flight from Egypt, wandering in the desert, the destruction of the temple, and threatened destruction during captivity. There are other Jewish observances that are tied to times of danger – the recent Hanukkah, for instance, recalls a period when the Greeks invaded Israel, looted the temple, and the Jews fought back tor reclaim their religious and political freedom.
We can’t really speak for the Jews, but why do you think they might consider these events so central to their religious life? How might what we have said about our own history (summarize class conclusions) also apply to how we think about our ancient roots as descendants of Israel?
Today we’re going to talk about some of the people who lived during the captivity in Babylon, whose stories are preserved for us in the books of Daniel and Esther. Because it’s such a novelty to be able to draw on the scriptural story of a woman, I’m going to focus chiefly on Esther, but feel free to bring up the stories from Daniel in our discussion, as well.
1. Daniel and his friends refuse to eat King Nebuchadnezzar’s food; they are blessed with good health and wisdom.
2. The Lord saves Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from death in the fiery furnace.
3. Daniel prays in spite of the king’s decree and is thrown into a den of lions; the Lord sends an angel to protect Daniel.
4. Esther risks her life to save her people.
The story of Esther takes place in the court of the king Ahasueras (485-464 B.C.) Esther tells us that the king made a feast – the Hebrew word used means literally “drinking,” so we can gather from that, and from clues like the statement that “the heart of the king was merry with wine” (1:10), what kind of a celebration it was. Nobody was thinking very clearly when the king sent for his queen to leave her own “feast” and appear at his; she refused; the king’s counselors advised him to punish the queen by exiling her, for fear that she would set a bad example for other rebellious wives. The king does so, and although he apparently regretted his action when he sobered up, he was bound by law to enforce the decree he had made.
Again at the advice of his counselors, the king begins a search for a new queen. Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl who had been raised by her uncle Mordecai and who was a very beautiful young woman, apparently, was chosen as one of the candidates. This is not a pleasant experience– even though candidates were given servants and luxuries before they were taken to the king, the story illustrates how helpless women were in that time and place. Esther was apparently taken against her will – there is no reason to suppose she had any fondness for the king. The beautiful young women, including Esther, were taken one at a time for the king to sleep with. Most were then sent to the king’s harem, where they might spend the rest of their lives, provided with food and clothing but without family or any kind of a normal life.
Ahasueras, we are told, favored Esther; rather than being one among many concubines, he made her his queen. Perhaps that status gave her additional privileges. Whatever those privileges might have been, we shouldn’t turn the story into a romance – this was no fairy tale where the beautiful young princess met Prince Charming and lived happily ever after. Esther had no choice in the matter – she may have been the queen, but she was also a slave.
Her uncle Mordecai had advised Esther to conceal the fact that she was a Jew – actually, like Mordecai, of the tribe of Benjamin, but also a Jew in the sense that they had come from the Kingdom of Judah. No one in Ahasueras’s court notices, apparently, any difference between the way Esther lives her life and the way any Persian woman would have lived in similar circumstances.
Recall that Daniel and his companions – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago – also lived in the court of the Babylonian king. Everyone knew they were Jewish – their trials, including being cast into the lions’ den and into the fiery furnace, occurred precisely because they insisted on living and worshiping as Jews and not submitting to the decrees of the king that violated their religious standards. But here is Esther, living and behaving as a Persian.
What are we to make of that, and is there any application to our own lives? There are times when we have to speak up and make it known through our lives and our words that we are different – what might be some of those times? Are there other times when it may be right for us to blend in and not to announce our Mormon-ness? What might be some of those times?
The king has a prime minister, Haman, who is a descendant of King Agag of Amelek. You’ll recall that in one of his first battles to establish the Kingdom of Israel, Saul conquers King Agag. The Lord had commanded Saul to kill Agag and all the cattle and sheep, but Saul disobeyed, keeping Agag alive and enriching himself with the herds and flocks that the Lord had forbidden him to take. In all the generations that followed, the descendants of Agag, including Haman, remained enemies of the Israelites. Now here we have Haman in a powerful position in a land where the Jews have limited protection.
Haman demands that all bow down before him in recognition of his new and powerful position as the king’s minister, but Mordecai refuses, much like Daniel had refused to bow before the king. And, like Daniel, that refusal came at a price. Haman was angered by Mordecai’s refusal, but he became enraged when he learned that Mordecai was a Jew. Rather than taking action only against Mordecai, as the king had taken action only against Daniel, Haman plots to take revenge against the entire Jewish people. Let’s read a few verses from Esther chapter 3 (p. 671)
8. And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them.
9. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.
It’s easy for us in this case to see the wickedness of Haman, and the injustice of inflicting a penalty on an entire people because of the actions of a single man. Is that ever a problem in our own times and our own culture, though? Can you think of times, either in our history or in our own day, when the entire Mormon people are have painted with a broad brush and made scapegoats for the behavior of a few?
Turn that around now. What are some times when we – either as Mormons, or Americans, or in any other capacity, paint with a broad brush, and hold an entire group of people responsible for the sins of a few?
We are all, by and large, pretty decent people, who likely would never consciously decide to hate or punish an entire group for the behavior of a few – how can we guard against falling into that behavior unconsciously?
King Ahasueras grants Haman’s request, and the decree is sent throughout the empire that on a given day, all of the Jews in Babylon are to be killed. Mordecai, along with all the rest of the Jews, goes into mourning. He communicates with Esther, telling her that she must go to the king and plead for the lives of her people. Esther tells Mordecai that she will be killed if she approaches the king without his having sent for her. Mordecai reminds her that if it becomes known that she is a Jew, she will die anyway, along with the rest of her people. He says to her,
13. … think not … that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.
14. For if thou … holdest thy peace at this time, then shalt … deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
“Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” This is one of my favorite lines in all of scripture. Don’t we all sometimes have a hunger to know what is our purpose here on earth, what we are meant to do, not just as one of many children of God, sent to earth to gain a body and experience, but each one of us, individually? Do you know why you are here, now? Do you know whether “thou art come to the [world] for such a time as this?
We talk from time to time and foreordination, and the tasks that we may have been assigned to accomplish during our lifetime. We also talk about spiritual gifts, and the claim of scripture that each one of us has a gift or gifts. Do you know what your gift is? Do you know why you are here, now?
If anyone would care to speak to those questions personally, I welcome and invite your testimony. Because the answers might be intensely personal, though, we can talk about them a little bit in the abstract. Some of you older class members who have had great experience in life and in the gospel – as you look back over your life, can you identify times or ways in which you recognized your purpose? Can you offer suggestions to younger class members who are still wondering, or even to the rest of us who might not know how to recognize we are “come to the [world in such times]?
Esther’s reply to Mordecai is worth reading in her own words:
16. Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
Let us also read the words of Daniel and his three companions when they also were threatened with death, in Daniel 3 (p. 1105):
17. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
18. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
What does that tell you about the faith or the character of Daniel and his three companions, and about Esther?
Would you be willing to die for your religion, or your faith?
I like the words that a certain playwright puts into the mouth of Joan of Arc:
Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, nevertheless, they give up their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it, and then it’s gone. But to surrender what you are, and live without belief — that’s more terrible than dying — more terrible than dying young.
— “Joan of Lorraine”
Think back over your own life. You have not died for the sake of the gospel, but many of you have given your lives to be true to the gospel. In what way does a Latter-day Saint give his life for what he believes? Who are some of the people you admire, Latter-day Saint or not, who have given their lives for something you admire?
Esther does go to the king, of course, and wins his favor at the risk of her own life, and he offers to grant her whatever she asks.
2. And the king said … unto Esther … What is thy petition, queen Esther? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request? and it shall be performed, even to the half of the kingdom.
3. Then Esther the queen answered and said, If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request:
4. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. …
5. Then the king Ahasuerus answered and said unto Esther the queen, Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so?
6. And Esther said, The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.
King Ahasuerus grants her petition, and Haman is hung from the very gallows he had specially built to hang Mordecai. All those, including the sons of Haman, who had been involved in the plot against the Jews are also slain, and the Jewish people took an oath that they would always remember and always commemorate this event in their history.
The story of Esther and the way she managed to save her people is one of the dramatic stories of the Bible. If you search the book of Esther carefully, though, you might be struck by the fact that nowhere does it refer to God in any direct way. Do you have any idea why that might be? What clues do we have that, regardless of this omission, Esther and Mordecai and their people believed in God and believed that he could and would deliver them? Does this mean anything for us today? Is there ever a time when referring directly to God is unnecessary or counterproductive? If there is, does this reflect a lack of confidence in God, or a fear of man? How might our lives still testify to our faith in God even when we do not directly invoke his name?
Brothers and sisters, I think that whether we freely admit it or not, we all long to believe that we are unique, that we have missions to fill that no one else could accomplish. Sometimes they might be great and grand missions – but we are not all Joseph Smiths, or John the Baptists, or Abrahams, or even Esthers. Nevertheless, there is something for us to do, a place to fill, a word to speak, a charity to do, a class to teach, a mourner to comfort, and we may be the one whose privilege it is to fill that need. I hope each of you have times when you recognize that you are come into the world for such a time as that, whether the mission be great or small. Our missions are all valuable, our lives are all of worth.
But whether or not you can identify specific moments or specific actions that convince you that you have a gift and a mission, remember what it is that you have given your lives to. You are all good people, living good, if imperfect, lives. You are giving your lives to what you believe is of greatest value.
This lesson owes a great debt to Jim F. at Times and Seasons and Feast Upon the Word. Although I had known for weeks that I wanted to focus on the story of Esther – how often, really, do we get to discuss the life of a woman?? – Jim’s questions and other ideas bring the scriptures into focus and help shape my lessons, including this one.