The origins of Purim, perhaps a less familiar Jewish festival, is found in the book of Esther. Purim is celebrated each year to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles from annihilation by edict of King Xerxes of Persia (485/6-465 B.C). This came about through the surreptitious work of his second in command, Haman the Agagite. Haman was likely a descendant of King Agag, king of the Amalekites, descendants of Esau and archenemies of Israel under King Saul.
Esther, a young Jewish exile, providentially became Queen of Persia when Xerxes banished Queen Vashti for refusing his summons. Mordecai, Esther’s older cousin who had adopted her earlier after the death of her parents, also served in the king’s court. As a courtier, he was privy to inside information that led to his uncovering a plot to kill the king. Later, he uncovered Haman’s devious plot to kill all the Jews. To foil Haman’s plan, Mordecai sent Esther to ask the king to reverse his decision and save the Jewish exiles. However, Esther knew that appearing before king without an official summons could result in her own death. She was therefore somewhat reluctant to attempt such an intervention.
Mordecai acknowledged the danger, yet gave her this warning, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to the royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Fortunately, the king welcomed Esther and granted her request. The plot was foiled, Haman was executed and Mordecai became prime minister.
Later, he and Esther wrote and circulated a letter to the encourage the Jews to institutionalize Purim as an annual celebration of the date when they “got relief from their enemies” and when “their sorrow was turned into joy.” They were instructed to observe “days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.”
The name Purim arose from Haman’s casting lots, purim, to determine the day when the Jews would be executed. Ironically, Purim became the name of the celebration that commemorates the foiling of that plot and the deliverance of the Jews from their enemies.