Before we dive into Esther’s story, a word of caution. Ordinarily, the hero of a story is the person we might relate to the most, imagining how our own heroes are emulating similar actions and leadership in today’s context. Yet for many of us living in North America, with a fair amount of privilege and access to resources, we actually have more in common with the people of Persia and the empire.** So instead of hearing this story and wondering how it relates to our own journey, I’d like to invite us to imagine that Esther represents a hero of an oppressed and marginalized community walking beside us.
The question to keep with us as we move through Esther’s story is:
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
Alright, let’s dive in:
Esther is an orphan, and part of a marginalized minority group. If children were at the bottom of the social order as we spoke about last week, you can imagine where an orphan child from a minority group was going to rank on that hierarchy. Thankfully, she had a cousin named Mordecai who could raise her.
Now Mordecai frequently sat at the king’s gate, which is how he learned about King Ahasuerus (A-has-u-erus)’s latest scandal. After six months of partying, surprise, surprise, the king was drunk. As a rule, this king tended to be more concerned with having fun than actually exercising leadership. In his drunken state, he demands for his queen to come to him at once. As she was in the midst of hosting her own gathering, she declined to come.
The king was outraged by Queen Vashti’s refusal. So much so, that he spoke to his lawyers about how the law might punish her. The lawyers suggested that not only had Queen Vashti offended the king, by not coming to him when called for, but she had also offended every male in the kingdom. For if Queen Vashti did not go to her husband when called, soon, other women would begin to disobey their husbands! While Queen Vashti kept her life, she was removed from her position as queen.
When Mordecai realized the king was looking for a new queen, he sent Esther to the palace and made her promise not to tell anyone she was Jewish. He promised to come by the gate each day to check on her. To be clear, he is trafficking Esther to be a child concubine, in the hopes that she might become the next queen.**
Esther was one of many beautiful young women who underwent a year of beauty treatments before they each were given an evening with the king. When it was Esther’s turn with the king, he loved her more than all the others, and made her the new queen of Persia.
For the most part, the king seems to focus his attention on whatever will give him pleasure in a given moment, while leaving the governing to his new prime minister, Haman. Here’s a shocker: the guy the king puts in a position of great power is greedy and lusts after more power and status. Which is why it should come as no surprise that the new prime minister actually expected people to bow to him whenever he passed by. And everyone did bow, except for Mordecai.
This deeply irritated Haman. When he learns that Mordecai is a Jew, he actually plots to kill all the Jewish people within the kingdom. Haman suggests to the king that there were a people scattered throughout the kingdom who were not keeping the king’s laws, and the best way forward was to eliminate these people. The king, spineless as ever, agrees, and a date was set for the ethnic cleansing of all the Jewish people within the 127 provinces of the kingdom.
When Mordecai overhears these plans, he exchanges his clothes for a sackcloth and wails outside the king’s gate. Through a messenger, he asks Queen Esther to speak up to the king on behalf of her people. This put Queen Esther in a difficult position. If she approached the king without being summoned, she could end up with a similar fate as Queen Vashti, or worse, she could be killed. Yet Mordecai pressed her on the matter:
“Do not think 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 family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”
Queen Esther agrees to approach the king, and instructs Mordecai to gather the Jewish people and fast for three days. On the third day, Esther puts on her robes and approaches the king, who gladly welcomes her in. In fact, he was so delighted with her that he offered her anything she wanted. She asks for the king and prime minister to join her for a special meal the next day.
Meanwhile, Haman is just about done with Mordecai’s disrespect, and at his wife’s encouragement, he has a gallow built, and plans to ask the king to hang Mordecai. And that plan just might have worked, had the king not found himself tossing and turning, unable to sleep that night. He asked one of his servants to bring him the book of record and read it to him. And it just so happened, that the servant read about the time a man named Mordecai saved the king from two guards who had plotted to kill him.
When the king realized nothing had been done to honor this man, he sent for the prime minister so they might honor this hero. Yet Haman arrogantly assumes the king must want to honor him, and suggests offering the man royal robes and horses. You can imagine Haman’s horror when the king asks him to adorn Mordecai, standing there in his sackcloth outside the gate, with royal robes.
Alas. Later that evening, Queen Esther hosts the king and prime minister, and they have such a wonderful time that the king offers Esther anything she wants. Queen Esther answered,“If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives. We’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed—sold to be massacred, eliminated.”
(Esther 7:13-14 The Message).
Stunned, the king asked who would presume to do such a thing. Queen Esther tells him--a foe, an enemy, this Haman. The king, overcome with anger, storms out into the palace garden, while Haman throws himself upon Queen Esther and begs for his life. Yet when King Ahasuerus walks back in, all he sees is Haman on top of Esther, and he is consumed with rage that Haman would dare assault his queen, in his own house, in his own presence!
From there, things shifted pretty quickly:
This is not a disney-esque princess story. These are powerful leaders of empire, using their power, authority, and privilege to gain their most selfish desires. The king uses young women and alcohol in order to meet his every bodily need. The prime minister seeks to use his position to annihilate his enemy and plan genocide. Even the uncle, while hoping to gain some respect for his oppressed people, is willing to potentially sacrifice his cousin’s self-agency in order to get it.
Yet this young queen is smart, and knows exactly what these men want and crave. She plays them; using her bodily assets, charm, and wit to save her people. Her actions shine a light into the bleakest corners of their kingdom.
Queen Esther is one example of many unsung heroes, who are doing everything within their power to cry out on behalf of their people. To bring an end to injustice, prejudice, hatred, and oppression.
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
How might we, as a people of faith, engage in the essential work of amplifying their voices?
* See Mary Joan Winn Leith’s commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Vision, edited by Michael D. Coogan.
**See Elaine T. James commentary at WorkingPreacher.org for more information on reading this book from this framework.
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