In the beginning of the book of Esther we get the story of Vashti, Queen of Persia, who simply refused. She’d been told to show up in the midst of a drunken party wearing only her crown, and she didn’t. The king and his advisors recoiled in horror that a woman could use her power to say no, thus she was banished and a decree went out to the entire empire letting them know that men were in charge. She scared them, a lot.
The story continues, and at some point after that, the king got lonely and regretted over-reacting. His advisors then suggested that he’d be less sad if he rounded up all of the beautiful women in his empire, put them into a harem, and enjoyed them while deciding who the next queen should be. Wow. Aren’t those great advisors? It really is terrifying what ideas advisors can come up with that weak-minded kings decided to implement.
So, within the story of the book of Esther, they did. This serves as your reminder that the book of Esther was written as historical fiction for the sake of building up the Jews living in exile, and it was never meant to be taken as real history. We can mine this story for metaphor and hope, but not for historical facts.
In this story, Esther is one of the beautiful maidens chosen for the king’s harem. She is a Jewish woman, an orphan, who has been raised by her cousin Mordecai. At Mordecai’s suggestion, she does not reveal her Jewishness within the harem. After a year of beauty treatments, she gets her night with the king and he happens to like her best. She becomes the new queen! It is a precarious position: she is queen to a king who disposed her predecessor on a whim, who also has a back-up harem for both sexual pleasure and a queen “bull pen.” (<–Intentional decision not to gender-neutralize made here.)
Meanwhile, her cousin Mordecai has been spending most of his time standing outside the palace gates, trying to glean information about Esther and determine if she is being treated well. In his station there, he overhears a plot to murder the king. He lets the authorities know, they investigate, it is founded, and the king is pleased (to be alive). During this time, the king also appoints a man named Haman to be his right-hand guy, and Haman is given so much authority that others are expected to bow down to him whenever they see him.
Mordecai does not bow down. For a story that doesn’t mention God, the book of Esther has a lot of implied Jewish theology. Jews through the ages have refused to bow down to foreign rulers, claiming God alone is their king. Haman, the king’s favored advisor, is just as much of a narcissistic, ill-tempered, short-sighted xenophobe as his king. He FREAKS OUT when Mordecai refuses to bow down, and he decides to execute all the Jews in the empire because of it.
Haman brings up his plan to the king, nuancing it just so – pointing out that there are a bunch of people in their country who aren’t fully assimilated. They have different customs, values, and rituals. They did not follow (only) the laws of the empire. Therefore, he said, let’s kill them. He even offers the king money for the honor of killing all the Jews. The king, being presented as a weak leader, immediately agrees, but declines the money. A decree goes out that on one particular day all the people of the empire are to kill any Jews in their midst.
That’s what it took to get us to this chapter. Mordecai knows about this plan, as do the Jews around the empire, but Esther does not. Mordecai has moved into mourning, perhaps in the tradition of the Ninevahites trying to change God’s mind, perhaps in mourning for a country where they believed themselves to be safe, perhaps in mourning for himself and his people at their imminent death with fear that no one would be left to mourn them. His mourning is sort of a problem though, because it means he can’t enter the palace and that means he can’t easily get word to Esther.
Her servants know that he is her family though, even if the palace doesn’t know the connection nor her heritage. They see him in mourning and tell her. She sends him clothes, presumably so that he’d wear them and come tell her what’s wrong. He refuses them, which means they have to have their whole conversation via messenger, and with Mordecai at the gate for lots of people to overhear!
Mordecai has a plan, and he sends it to Esther through her eunuch: she should go before the king and beg him for mercy for her people. Esther’s first response is… less than enthusiastic. She is queen, but she is in a precarious position as queen, there is a harem waiting to take her position, her predecessor got deposed, and the king hasn’t called for her for a month, meaning she’s not particularly in favor. She doesn’t think she’s likely to be able to change his mind, and anyway, even showing up before him without being called held an automatic death sentence – unless he absolved it. That is, Esther appears to like being alive, and suggests they work on another plan. She isn’t suicidal.
Many a preacher and scholar have condemned her for this response. They’ve called her weak and self-serving. They’ve called her privileged and prissy. I think she’s wise. If there had been another way, it would have been wiser to go with it. The likelihood of success in this plan was LOW. Mordecai thinks Esther is their best chance, and he pushes her – HARD- to go forward with it. He points out that if this law is followed they’ll both die. He says the now-famous words, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Those words have haunted anyone with any power or privilege since this story was written. They refuse any excuse we throw at them, and make real the importance of using power for good.
With that, Esther decides. She wasn’t suicidal, but she was courageous and willing to act. She wasn’t impetuous either though! She asked for prayer support, for the community to fast and pray on her behalf for 3 days and she offers that she and her servants will too. She wants to be prepared, to have a plan, to do it right, to give it her best shot. And she says words as famous as Mordecai’s in response to him. Her final words to him are, “If I perish, I perish.” I’m not clear how anyone could accuse Esther of lacking courage.
Now, I particularly love something about Esther’s courage. Esther got to the position she was in because she was PRETTY and PLEASING, which likely means that she was compliant. Her access to power came through traditionally feminine means. However, her use of her power came through her pure courage – which hasn’t always been attributed to the feminine. I love this because often women are told that either they can pretty or they can be smart and courageous. Esther is all of the above, and no one can take any of it away from her.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, after this chapter Esther goes before the king, and he does ofter her the pardon of the golden scepter. She uses his good will to invite him to a banquet in his honor, along with Haman. He comes. He has a great time. She uses his good will to invite him to ANOTHER banquet, just the three of them again. In the meantime the king OUT OF THE BLUE remembers that Mordecai had saved his life and decides to honor him, and does so. This manages to infuriate Haman all the more, which is fun. The second night the king asks Esther what she wants again, and she finally tells him. She says that someone has been trying to kill her people, and she’s terribly sad. The king is horrified, she accuses Haman, and the tide turns. The people are saved, Haman and their oppressors are not, and the Jews survive.
In The Interpreter’s Bible, White Crawford says, “Lacking public power, women have historically been able to gain individual or private strength only by successfully exploiting the male power structure around them, as Esther does so well, ”1 and “Esther is a human heroine for a human situation and, as such, speaks powerfully to all oppressed people through the centuries.”2 Esther’s power, and her subversiveness are profoundly different from Vashti’s. Esther shows up to gain power, Vashti refuses to show up for the same reason. Vashti’s powerful “no, I won’t” stands in contrast to Esther’s powerful “yes, I will.” Esther is, perhaps, not a traditional feminist heroine in that her beauty gains her access to power. Yet, she is a perfect subversive heroine in that she uses WHATEVER SHE HAS for the sake of what is necessary. What she needs is justice for her people.
Esther’s story exists to motivate people: to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost; to have courage; to use what we have for the sake of good; and to call each other to account. It reminds us that the work of building God’s kin-dom requires courage, and sometimes risk – and I appreciate that it doesn’t celebrate risk for risk’s own sake nor call on us to be suicidal. Esther doesn’t JUMP at the chance to risk her life for the sake of her people, she only does it when she is convinced it is strictly necessary. Sacrifice isn’t celebrated for its own sake, only for its strategic usefulness in achieving worthwhile ends.
It is not terribly common to face a situation like Esther’s, where the needs of the world require putting our own lives directly on the line. It is much more common to face little tiny decisions where our instincts for peace and being well-liked compete with our desires to speak truths and protect people in vulnerable situations. Courage isn’t just about facing external oppressors and those who can do us bodily harm, first and foremost it is about facing our innermost fears of who we “should” be and how we “should” act. It is often as much about being who we are as anything else! “For such a time as this” indicates using all that we are, all that we have become, and the fullness of our experiences to face the present. It speaks to becoming our fullest selfs, as an exercise in developing our “courage muscles.”
Or, as the author Marianne Williams puts it,
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”3
Esther walked into that throne room beautiful, courageous, centered, and as a beloved child of God. She knew who she was, what she was about, and what she cared about enough to risk herself. She became liberated from fear, and in doing so has liberated others from fear into courage as long as the story has been told. May we follow in her footsteps. Amen
1Sidnie White Crawford “The Book of Esther,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999): p. 872
3Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles.”
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
November 20, 2016