Strong Women of Faith: Esther
The Book of Esther (selected verses)
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2022
Today, we explore the last in our summer series on Strong Women of Faith. Esther was a beautiful young woman who found herself with access to the most powerful man on earth “for such a time as this”, as the Scripture says. Her story is told in the Book of Esther, one of two books of the Bible which never mentions the name of God.
We are not clear about the historicity of the Book of Esther. There are certain aspects that seemed based in history, whether or not they are fully historical. Some call the Book of Esther an historical novella, which scholarly reviews of the several different translations from the Hebrew would support.
As the story goes, a beautiful woman gets caught up in a dangerous political and ethnic situation, and when her people desperately needed her to act on their behalf, she did so in good faith. Esther took a great personal risk on behalf of her people. She wisely worked her charms on the king, so that he might hear her truth.
At the time, King Ahasuerus was probably the most powerful man on earth. He wielded even greater power than the President of the United States, for there were few if any systems in place to hold accountable a mighty Persian king. Esther is a classic story of a careful and cunning young woman who used deceitfulness for a good cause, to save her people from destruction.
On one hand, we appreciate Esther as an exciting biblical story that celebrates the courageous cunning of a young Jewish maiden and her cousin. On the other hand, we remember that the aftermath of this story and its continued celebration today is a stark reminder of why Jesus came to teach us a still, more excellent way. This story of political plotting and preemptive killing is not, after all, a “feel good Sunday School story” for children.
Hear the Word of God from Esther, selected verses:
On the seventh day, when the king was in good humour, he told…the seven eunuchs who served King Artaxerxes, to escort the queen to him in order to proclaim her as queen and to place the diadem on her head, and to have her display her beauty to all the governors and the people of various nations, for she was indeed a beautiful woman.
But Queen Vashti refused to obey him and would not come with the eunuchs. This offended the king and he became furious. The king was so furious that he took the advice of his sages, who recommended that Vashti be deposed as Queen and that another take her place. The men were afraid that if the noble ladies heard about Vashti’s disobedience, they would follow suit and, “there will be no end of contempt and wrath.”
So the king sent letters to all the provinces, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”
Perhaps we can set aside, for the moment, our own modern sensibilities about gender roles and equality, and continue the ancient story.
Now there was a Jew in Susa the capital whose name was Mordecai…of the tribe of Benjamin; he had been taken captive from Jerusalem among those whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had captured. And he had a foster-child…and her name was Esther. When her parents died, he brought her up to womanhood as his own child. The girl was beautiful in appearance. So, when the decree of the king was proclaimed, and many girls were gathered in Susa the capital in the custody of Gai, Esther also was brought to Gai, who had custody of the women. The girl pleased him and won his favor…
Now Esther had not disclosed her people or country, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. And every day Mordecai walked in the courtyard of the harem, to see what would happen to Esther…
Now Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. So Esther went in to King Artaxerxes…And the king loved Esther and she found favor beyond all the other virgins, so he put on her the queen’s diadem. Then the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all his friends and the officers, to celebrate his marriage to Esther; and he granted a remission of taxes to those who were under his rule…
In the meantime Haman, a Persian, one of the highest officials of the king’s court, came to despise Mordecai, a Jew, who was also an official at the kings gate. Haman is offended by Esther’s cousin and guardian, Mordecai, because Mordecai refuses to prostrate himself before Haman as did the other officials.
So Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jewish subjects of Persia as well. Haman even convinces King Ahasuerus to write a royal decree that all the Jews in the kingdom would be killed on a certain upcoming date.
This was a serious matter, not unlike the pograms of the Third Reich under Hitler. And so Haman said to his cousin Esther:
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 family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’
Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him…
As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden sceptre that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the sceptre. The king said to her, ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.’
Then Esther invited the king and his official Haman to a special banquet. When the king asked once again what her request would be, she invited them to a second banquet on the following day.
So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. What is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.
If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’
Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen…
And they hanged Haman on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai… And Esther said, ‘If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman… which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king… Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to the Jew Mordecai…. You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.’… So they wrote letters in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed them with the king’s ring, and sent them by mounted couriers riding on fast steeds bred from the royal herd.
By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods… So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. .. a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged…
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder… Letters were sent wishing peace and security to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, and giving orders that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons… The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
On the one hand, the Festival of Purim is a celebration of the defeat of enemies, the escape from sure death, from ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, Esther and her cousin Mordecai did not seem to mind at all when their enemies were slaughtered.
The Festival of Purim celebrates that some 75,000 enemies of the Jews were slaughtered. Let us be clear. Esther is in our Bible, but this Old Testament narrative is not a Christian story. This is one of those Old Testament, old covenant, narratives that make me cry out: Thank God for the New Testament! Thank God for the words and ministry of Jesus! The Book of Esther, while celebrating her courage and the willingness to takes risks on behalf of others, never once mentions the name of God.
The Book of Esther stands as a stark reminder of why Jesus came. Jesus came to teach us that there is a still more excellent way than eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Jesus came to teach us to turn the other cheek in nonviolent protest instead of engaging in the preemptive slaughter of enemies.
Jesus taught mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. He embodied the path of nonviolence. The Book of Esther is written from the biased standpoint of Hebrew authors. How differently the story would have been written from the perspective of those whose families had been slaughtered in the far reaches of India and Ethiopia.
As long as we live in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth world, the whole world will end up blind and toothless.
Earlier this summer, the commissioners to the General Assembly of the PCUSA, our denomination, recently voted 266-116, a split vote, to approve a controversial declaration. The gathered commissioners, an equal number of pastors and elders. after much debate, discussion, and prayer, declared that the laws, policies, and practices of the Israeli government regarding the Palestian people “fulfill the legal definition of apartheid.”
Some have criticized this declaration as anti-Semitic, saying it hurts interfaith relations, but this declaration has been a long time coming. For those of us who have spent any time on the ground in today’s Bethlehem, or in Ramallah in the West Bank, or read about conditions in the Gaza strip, there is no question of the need to speak courageously regarding the human rights of Palestinians.
Say what you will about the need to quell terrorism, which is an ongoing reality in Israel, but the actions of a few terrorists do not justify the harsh confinement and decades-long oppression of an entire people. There is a still more excellent way.
Though pride was taken in that no spoils were taken after the slaughter, the preemptive strike on other human beings remains a celebrated aspect of the Jewish festival. Yes, the Festival of Purim commemorates the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation, which should be celebrated, but it also celebrates the preemptive killing of tens of thousands of people who were regarded as enemies.
Is this a model for contemporary foreign policy?
If we thwart an attack on our nation that saves thousands of people, do we then go and preemptively kill the families of those who plotted the attack? The remembrance of Esther’s story is not dissimilar to the ways that we remember aspects of North American or European history. History is recorded by the victors, as they say.
Many of our nation’s narratives celebrate the good that came from some historical event, without recognizing the sinfulness and evil that were part of the complex mix. Manifest Destiny has long been the explanation of the exploitation of indigenous populations, but Native Americans tell a very different story of the birth of our nation.
What do we do with such questions?
How do we understand the biblical stories old in a modern, global world?
What were the biases of the biblical authors? What was their purpose at the time in writing their narratives? Throughout the Old Testament, there are multiple competing narratives. One narrative is that Israel is the city on the hill, the light to the nations, so that all nations of the world will be blessed through Israel. A competing narrative, present in the texts, is the narrative of fear, that Israel should kill its enemies before they turn and kill us.
The story of Esther is a helpful reminder not to paint broad strokes of black and white, but to recognize the complexities of historical situations, especially those with undertones of power and religion and ethnicity.
The recent James Webb photographs from space remind us of the vastness and wonder of creation. Human beings, earthlings, get so caught up with our boundaries, property boundaries, national boundaries, boundaries between peoples and religions. Perhaps spending a few moments with those wondrous images from space, reflecting on the wonder of millions of galaxies and untold number of planets similar to ours, might encourage us to work together more readily, to accept those who look different from us, or who speak or worship differently than us.
Haman, the evil antagonist of Esther’s story, was not the root of the evil. Haman’s hate of Mordecai and other Jews was a symptom of his time. His attitudes arose within a cultural and political climate that encouraged his mindset. And the Jewish mindset that enemies could and should be slaughtered if they pose a threat was a symptom of the world in which they lived.
Still today, powerful and dangerous leaders arise who are symptoms of the time in which they live. They are not the root cause, but symptoms of a national illness. Jesus came to teach a still, more excellent way – the way of mercy and compassion, of understanding and forgiveness, the way of nonviolent protest in the face of evil, the way of self-giving, sacrificial love.
As many have said before, we are always only one generation away from forgetting or betraying the teachings of Jesus. We know the ever present danger of allowing those who would do so to corrupt religion for national and political gain. So let us read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. And let us continue to teach the words and ministry of Jesus, to teach them to our children, when we are home and when we are away, and to write them on the doorposts of our homes and on the linings of our hearts.
May God make it so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2022