Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22
Will you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.
I’ve studied quite a bit of Old Testament in the past few years: Intro to OT, a class on the Psalms, one about the book of Jeremiah, and this semester I’m taking a class that studies creation stories in Biblical-era cultures. None of these classes touched on the book of Esther, though, so it was really fun to learn more about the story and how it won a place in the Bible.
Esther was written in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, and is one of the last books to be added to the Old Testament. Depending on the religious tradition, Esther’s name is Hadassah, Esther, or Hester. There are some versions of Esther with drastic differences: for example, the Septuagint, which is the Greek version, is 100 verses shorter than in the Tanakh, or Hebrew scriptures. In Christian bibles, the extra verses are included in the Apocrypha.
It’s important to note that historians and biblical scholars can find no historical record of any of the characters in this story. There was no King Ahasuerus, no Queen Vashti, no Jewish queen of Persia, but people do speculate that King Ahasuerus represents King Xerxes I. The book of Esther, then, is effectively a fictional novella set in Persia.
There is another really interesting thing to note about Esther that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Old Testament: there is no mention of God. Most of the Old Testament focuses on the Lord’s covenant with the Israelites and then the Jews, and the many ways the Israelites failed to hold up their end of the bargain but eventually come around to right relationship with the Lord. The question I asked myself as I read the book of Esther was this: Where is God in this story?
Our scripture lesson today comes from the climax of Esther’s story. Any storyteller worth her salt knows that she simply can’t start a tale at this point — it would be as silly as telling the punchline without sharing the joke part. So. The average person speaks 130 words a minute, so I offer you a 130 word, 60 second recap of the book of Esther up to the point where we will pick up the story.
King Ahasuerus loved him a good party. Queen Vashti declined to perform her wifely duties, so she was fired and the kin’s people held the first ever Miss Persia contest to find him a new queen. Esther was a nice Jewish orphan, raised by her uncle Mordecai. She was forced to be a Miss Persia contestant, and of course she won, because the book is named after her. Nobody even knew she was a Jew! Some bad eunuchs tried to assassinate the King, but their plan was foiled by Mordecai and Esther. Bad, Bad Haman got a promotion and also really hated the Jews. Mordecai was a man of God, and didn’t respect Bad, Bad Haman, so Haman decided to make Mordecai and the Jews pay by bribing the king to enslave them and do a genocide. But Mordecai was on to Haman and told Esther that God made her queen for such a time as this and this is where we find ourselves.
For such a time as this.
I’ve noticed that when I read the Bible, or any book, really, I tend to look at the story from only one perspective. I focus on the experience of the main character without taking the time to recognize that each of these stories is full of moving parts and complicated characters with unique perspectives.
In verse 3, Esther presents her plea to the King. “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.”
Esther puts herself out there. The King doesn’t know she’s a Jew. The King doesn’t allow random requests from people. Esther actually expects to be killed for asking the King to spare the lives of the Jews, but she makes the request anyway. Can you imagine the tension in that moment? Heart pounding in her chest nauseated with the thought that this was how her story was going to end, that she was going to end up a cautionary tale to Ahasuerus’ other wives.
Facing certain death, she asks anyway. And the king listens.
Not only that, the king BELIEVES HER, and takes action.
King Ahasuerus is shocked, SHOCKED I tell you. So shocked that he gets up from the meal and goes into the garden. This is a guy who, in chapter one, we are told loves to eat and drink and lives a truly hedonistic lifestyle. Esther interrupted him doing his favourite things, and to everyone’s surprise, he didn’t order Esther’s death, but instead got up and went for a walk in the garden to think.
When he comes back, he sees that Haman has literally thrown himself on the Queen for mercy, and takes even greater offense at Haman’s choices. King Ahasuerus orders Haman’s death.
So where is God in this story, where God is not named?
The way I’ve always heard this story told is that Esther is the hero of the story. After all, she uses her proximity to the king to help protect her people. But I want to suggest to you that within our context, as people who know and believe the Gospel of Christ, that perhaps the king is our hero.
In Matthew 5, we are told the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hear, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. It’s unlikely that Ahasuerus loved the Lord, but in this moment, he loved his neighbor.
In Micah 6, we are told that what the Lord requires of us is to love mercy, seek justice, and walk humbly with God. King Ahasuerus was merciful to the Jews, enacted retributive justice on their behalf, and humbly walked back his previous orders to bring the Jews to harm.
King Ahasuerus uses his power for good, and protects and preserves the historically oppressed Jews. These people have been enslaved to the Egyptians, to the Babylonians, and were about to be enslaved by the Persians. He reaches out to the far edges of his sphere of influence, and prevents the destruction of the Jews because a woman spoke truth.
Historically, women in Western culture are not often believed. We are doubted, called, “too emotional,” and dismissed. Women in the Bible were not always believed, either. Luke 24:10-11 says, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The fear of not being believed didn’t stop these brave women from speaking the truth.
How often do we listen only to the people in power? How often do we get caught up in the he said-she said, or its twin sister, Partisan Politics? How often do we give the benefit of the doubt to the powerful, and cast blame or aspersion on the weak, simply for being weak?
The Gospel of Christ calls us to a higher standard. It’s in our rule book that we extend compassion and mercy to people who are suffering. It’s written right there in our rule book that we extend compassion and mercy to people who are suffering. It’s right there in black and white that we are called to pursue justice. It’s in our syllabus that we need to be clothed in humility — and that means sometimes we have to stop talking, and stop defending our positions, and simply listen to another perspective.
Let’s follow the example of King Ahasuerus in today’s scripture, and really begin to practice listening and loving the people around us.