When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged…He scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes…They cast the pur (that is, the lot) in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar. Esther 2:5-7

This year, the Jewish celebration of Purim lasts from sundown on March 20 through the next evening. If you know anything about the holiday, you’ll remember that it’s found in the Old Testament book of Esther and, as mentioned in the above verse, the casting of a lot has something to do with it.

Casting lots is an ancient means of choosing or deciding in both secular and religious societies (more on how it relates to the story of Purim later in this post). “Lot” is the root of the modern word “lottery,” a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers at random for a prize. Lottery tickets generally cost money, and they may be a method of raising cash for a public charitable purpose, or a game run by a nation or state or group of states to generate revenue while also doling out monetary rewards to the players. Lotteries are based solely on chance, and the odds are heavily stacked against the bettor. Big winners may get the publicity, but the lottery sponsor is always the primary victor.

It may surprise you to know there are lotteries in the national parks. They don’t involve money, though, except for some fees. Still, they are a gamble of sorts, and about taking a chance, with the prize being a permit for or entrance into extremely popular events.

For example, if you’ve always wanted to go to the White House Easter Egg Roll in President’s Park, you have to sign up online to be selected to attend. This year’s lottery was open from February 28 through March 4, so better luck in 2020.

Another well-attended occasion in the same spot and again only open to those who score a pass through a lottery is the National Christmas Tree Lighting. The 2019 lottery opens in the fall.

Alaska’s Denali National Park has a “Road Lottery” for a four-day event in September in which only lottery winners are allotted one day-long permit to drive as much of the Denali Park Road as they can, weather permitting. It’s an opportunity to see wildlife along the park’s only road, winding through a wild environment of valleys and mountains. You’ll need to pay a $15 application fee to enter, and if you win, the permit costs $25. Plus there’s a park entrance fee, reduced for the winners to $10. Sign up between May 1-31, but be aware that you’ll be among 11,000+ entrants, making the odds of winning about 1 in 7.

Up for adventure? How about a hike all the way up Half Dome in Yosemite? The arduous, 14- to 16-mile round-trip climb takes you 8,800 feet above sea level. The cables normally are up from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day in October, enabling you to hike the last 400 feet without rock climbing equipment. A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed each day, 7 days a week. Enter the lottery between now and March 31 for a pass, or take a chance on getting one of the approximately 50 days permits by applying a few days in advance of when you’d like to hit the trail.

If you’re hoping to scale Mt. Whitney on the border of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest, you need to either make a reservation or, for 2 of the most popular hikes, join a lottery to obtain a permit.

At Dinosaur National Monument, single- and multi-day boating and rafting trips need a permit during the “high use” season on both the Green and Yampa Rivers. The lottery for those runs from December 1 through January 31. There’s an application fee, as well as one for the permits.

Finally, you’ll need to enter the Firefly Lottery for parking if you want to view the annual synchronous lightning bug nighttime spectacle in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll be writing about this and another park’s firefly festival in May, when both take place. If you want be in the running for a parking pass for the Sugarlands Visitor Center and to ride the firefly shuttle, sign up for the lottery between April 26 and 29.

Now, back to Esther.

Here’s a summary of the story: Esther (her Persian name, meaning “star;” her Hebrew name is Hadassah, or “myrtle”) is taken into King Xerses’ harem (Xerses is his Persian name, Ahasuerus the Hebrew one), apparently against her will. Xerses was on the lookout for a new wife after banishing his old one, Vashti, who wouldn’t do his bidding. After a “try out” period, Xerses finds Esther better than all the rest, and so makes her his queen.

Esther is Jewish, but her uncle and guardian Mordecai instructs her not to tell anyone. He keeps his eye on her as much as he can, and also learns of a plot to kill Xerses. He passes that information along and the plan is thwarted.

In the meantime, an egomaniac named Haman is promoted to the number two position in Xerses’ kingdom, and others are supposed to bow down to him. Mordecai wouldn’t, perhaps because he felt Haman gave himself god-like airs, and Mordecai followed the command not to worship anyone but God (Deuteronomy 6:13-14). He also might have refused to do so because Haman was an Agagite, Israel’s long-time enemy (Esther 3:1, Genesis 36:12, Deuteronomy 25:17-18). This angered Haman so much that he cast the pur, (an Assyrian word meaning “lot”) to determine the best time to carry out a scheme to kill every Jew in retaliation.

He bribed an indifferent and clueless King Xerses to sign a decree that on the date chosen, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar (in our calendar February-March). When Mordecai found out, he alerted Esther: “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape [the killing] any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (4:13-14).

Esther’s response is an example of a woman who seems to be nominal in her faith, rising up to do what is right despite the cost to her, and saving not only herself but her fellow Jews. Haman winds up at the end of a rope. And thus is born the festival of Purim, the plural of pur: “[The Jews] celebrate the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same month, annually, because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies, and it was a month which was turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday…For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them…Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur [purim is the plural of pur]…So these days were to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province and every city; and these days of Purim were not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants…The command of Esther established these customs for Purim” (Esther 9:21-22, 24, 28, 32).

The book of Esther is short–only 10 chapters–but exciting, so I recommend it as an easy and interesting read. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this Biblical book is that the name of God is not mentioned even once within it. But the story’s twists and turns clearly evidence His sovereignty and providence, and His behind-the-scenes work on behalf of His people.

Our pastor is preaching through Esther right now, undoubtedly meant to coincide with Purim. One thing he’s repeatedly pointed out is that God uses people–wishy-washy believers, pagans, difficult circumstances and even evildoers–to accomplish His will. I don’t know about you, but that gives me great comfort. So many things happen that are out of our control, we wrestle with trials and tribulations, and so often look for the easy way out or shove the responsibility onto someone else or just cave in.

Yet things are not always what they seem. God works for good despite us and despite what the world throws at us, sometimes behind the scenes and in ways we don’t even realize, even in the darkest of times (John 5:17, Romans 8:28). He generously fulfills His promise to “keep His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). He give us the courage and strength to step up to the plate and do what’s right in His eyes, knowing He’s got our back (Romans 8:31-32, 2 Corinthians 12:9).

A great reason to celebrate, wouldn’t you say? So make some hamantaschen, and rejoice!

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