Two strong women of the Old Testament: Second, Esther
The Book of Esther is set in Susa, the capital of Persia, which is ruled by one King Ahasuerus, who has power of life and death over all the communities of Jews who had settled in his territory during the exile. But unlike many in the kingdom, Ahasuerus has good reasons to think well of the Jews. The prominent Jew Mordecai had uncovered a plot to kill the King, which was foiled by the information Mordecai provided. Moreover, the King had deposed his Queen, Vashti, because she did not take his commands seriously, and when he scoured his kingdom for her replacement, he settled on Esther, who was not only a Jew but had been raised by Mordecai (being his uncle’s orphan).
The book, then, recounts a struggle between pro and anti-Jewish factions at court. Those who hate the Jews, led by the King’s chief councilor, Haman, accuse them of collective treason and come very close to having them exterminated. It is only through the efforts of Mordecai and Esther that the Jews are spared.
Board set, pieces in position
The first and second chapters of the book reflect the larger pagan culture. Ahasuerus’s advisors have urged him to banish Queen Vashti from his presence so that “when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low” (Est 1:20). And then they offer a plan to replace Vashti with a more suitable queen:
Let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital…; let their ointments be given them. And let the maiden who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti. [Est 2:3-4]
We cannot be surprised that “this pleased the king”. But it is only fair to suggest that many of the beautiful maidens hoped to become the new queen. (Does this prove the depressingly pagan origins of the modern beauty contest?)
In any case, Esther was one of the young women selected, though Mordecai counseled her to keep her lineage secret. “And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was and how she fared” (2:11). The virgins were put through an entire year of beautification, and then went in to the King by turns (from evening until morning). When Esther’s time came, “the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found grace and favor in his sight…, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen” (2:17).
A little later, Haman was promoted to chief advisor. The king commanded all to do him obeisance, but Mordecai failed to recognize Haman’s importance. Thus Haman portrayed Mordecai and all the Jews as traitors—a hostile people spread through the very fabric of the Kingdom (much as Christians are often regarded today)—and he secured a decree from the King permitting the extermination of the Jews in every community in which they lived. In response, Mordecai tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and wailed before the king’s gate. Esther saw him there and sent to know the reason for his distress.
It would be very natural to identify the chief drama in the Book of Esther as the conflict between Haman, who represents all that is worldly and selfish, and Mordecai, who stands as a symbol of Israel in service to God. But to me the drama on which everything turns is Esther’s struggle to find the courage to approach the King on behalf of the Jews. Through the messengers she sends to Mordecai, her guardian charges Esther to intercede with Ahasuerus,
…remembering the days of your lowliness, when you were cared for by me, because Haman, who is next to the king, spoke against us for our destruction. Beseech the Lord and speak to the king concerning us and deliver us from death. [4:8]
But Esther replies:
All the king’s servants…know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law; all alike are to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter that he may live. And I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days. [4:11]
In response, Mordecai is forced to be stern. With total trust in the ways of God, he rebukes her:
Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? [4:13-14]
Esther decides to take her life in her hands, and so both Mordecai and Esther spend several days in prayer. Then Esther approaches the king. By the grace of God, his initial wrath changes to tender concern. Esther is able to initiate her plan by inviting both the Ahasuerus and Haman to a banquet the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman’s vanity is so offended by Mordecai that he makes plans to hang him on a scaffold built on his own estate, intending to secure the King’s permission the next day.
Now the hand of Providence becomes clear. Because the king cannot sleep that night, he asks that the book of the chronicles of his kingdom be read to him. There he learns that it was Mordecai who saved him from the plot against his life years before, and he also learns that no honors had been bestowed upon Mordecai for this service. Therefore, he determines to give special honor to Mordecai, and even charges Haman to take the lead in bestowing these honors.
Finally, at the banquet with Queen Esther, the king learns that Haman had actually made plans to execute Mordecai. In a rage, Ahasuerus orders that Haman be hung on the gallows instead. Then Esther explains the evil Haman had tricked the king into authorizing, namely the extermination of the Jews as the cause of evil and unrest throughout the kingdom. In response, Ahasuerus issues a new edict ordering officials throughout the kingdom to assist the Jews in resisting any attacks which may come upon them, with the result that many of the Jews’ enemies are killed.
Finally, Mordecai is elevated high in the king’s counsels and, at the end of the Book, he establishes the Feast of Purim as a celebration of the LORD’s deliverance of His people.
And what about us?
All three moral tales in this post-exilic sequence—Tobit, Judith and Esther—are set in pagan territory and characterized by intricate plotting which combines moral rectitude, fidelity to God, extraordinary courage and the dispositions of Providence to bring deliverance to the protagonists and, through them, to a wider community or even to the Jewish people as a whole. Christianity draws on these lessons but also goes beyond them, just as the New Testament draws on yet goes beyond the Old. Christians know that the drama of the survival of Israel, in addition to its immense value in history, is a type of the larger struggle between good and evil from which there is no respite in this life, and for which we will all be rewarded or punished after death.
For Christians in the midst of a hostile secular culture, therefore, the moral of the Book of Esther is not hard to discern. It concerns the temptation to set aside our spiritual responsibility in favor of an easy life, and it is best captured in the potentially damning question which the Holy Spirit placed on the lips of Mordecai:
Think not that you will escape. And who knows whether you have not come into the world for such a time as this?
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