The world in which Esther and Mordecai lived was both stable and shaky. King Ahasuerus (who is better known by his Greek name Xerxes) inherited the reign of leadership from his highly successful father, Darius the Great. A military man, Xerxes spent the beginning years of his rule regaining control of Egypt and putting down an uprising in Babylon. The Book of Esther opens with Xerxes’ return to the prominent city of Susa after winning both campaigns. The king throws a lavish banquet (the Persians were known for them!) for his military leaders. But the festivities also allowed time to plan out a strategy against the Greeks who had humiliated Darius in 490 B. C. at Marathon. While Xerxes may have been calm and methodically collected on the battlefield, he was known to be volatile and impetuous off of it. Several ancient histories (such as the one by Herodotus) make note of this. So it is not surprising that when Xerxes’ queen refuses to come and entertain the guests during the banquet that he automatically dethrones her. The search for a replacement begins and eventually a young Jewish woman gains a position she probably never imagined having in her wildest dreams when she is selected to take Vashti’s place.
Esther has grown up in a pluralistic situation. She understands her ethnicity (as seen in her heroism at the climax of the story) but functions naturally in a pagan culture (as noted by the fact that her Hebrew name is Hadassah (Est. 2:7), but she goes by her Persian name, a tribute to the pagan god Ishtar!). She seems to accept being taken into the king’s harem without protest, follows the beauty regimen and diet prescribed for her by her caretakers while in training for her “royal duties” and the Hebrew is quite clear in pointing out that Xerxes selects her above the others because of her looks (Est. 2:17). Her situation and response to it makes the scenario a little uncomfortable. Shouldn’t she make some sort of protest over being a mere sex object for the king? Aren’t Biblical heroes and heroines supposed to stand up and stand out because they only do things God’s way? And isn’t God supposed to rescue them out of that mire and keep them pure because they are altruistic and faithful? These things do not happen in Esther much to our surprise.
Esther is not the first person of God’s people to be thrown into a pagan court. Joseph, Moses and Daniel have all preceded her. But she is the first woman to gain such prominence. (While Sarah spent time in the household of another man upon the advice of her husband she never gained the status that Esther did, nor was the relationship consummated. See Gen. 20:1-8 and the similar story of Rebecca in Gen. 26:1-11.) We may squirm a bit with the circumstances and the incongruities of the moral implications but they point to the overall lesson of the book- God is at work within culture and while He may not be openly visible, He is always working behind the scenes. Much has been written about how God is hidden but present in Esther, especially concerning the acrostic puzzle of Est. 5:4 but it is good to remind ourselves that as strange as it may seem, God sent this young, unassuming Jewish woman into the decadent and opulent Persian court for a specific purpose- to protect the Jewish people from utter destruction (Est. 4:13-14; 7:1-10; 8:1-14).
It is important to remember that the Book of Esther is not promoting compromise or suggesting that God will turn His head while we blithely do whatever the culture deems is good especially if it is obviously against what God desires and we can remain obedient to Him. However, it does teach us that God places us in a sphere of influence where we can make a difference when we do stand up for Him. Have you, like Esther, entered into a position where God can use you? If so, I encourage you to be bold for Him. You will be surprised at what He will do through you no matter what the circumstances (Phil. 1:12-20)!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 3/12/2017