Where is God in Esther?

· Women,Bible,Ethics

In my earlier blog on the Book of Esther, we were introduced to Vashti, the deposed queen of Persia. Today we meet the book’s eponymous character.

Esther is a beautiful Jewish orphan adopted by her cousin Mordecai, a resident of Susa. Hadassah is her birth name, but she has been renamed as a means of protection; the Jewish people are an exiled minority in the Persian kingdom and socially vulnerable.

We’ve hardly learned of her existence before Esther is taken from Mordecai and, along with many other young women, trafficked for the purpose of finding the king a better wife. Her trafficker, captivated by Esther’s charm, treats her well (for a slave). Unaware of her ethnicity, he dolls her up and positions her in nicest part of the harem. Though Esther doesn’t know it, Mordecai paces outside, always looking to hear some news about her.

King Ahasuerus—that rash, impulsive, lustful, and somewhat dense ruler—meets Esther and, in a move as swift as his divorce from Vashti, makes her queen. Guess what? It’s time for another banquet!

In chapter 3, we are introduced to another character, Haman, the greatest noble in the kingdom to whom all must bow. Much like Ahasuerus, Haman’s emotions are close to the surface. And when Mordecai (who, incidentally, has already saved the king from an uprising) refuses to bow, Haman crafts a vengeful plan.

He convinces the king that because the Jewish people forsake royal laws for their own, they deserve to be wiped out. The plunder, of course, would line the king’s pocket. Ahasuerus sends out a decree across the kingdom: On an appointed day, Persians are to plunder the Jews. And worse. They are “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, children and women.” (It’s worth noting that this is the first time in the text that women are listed alongside men as their equals. They are to be punished equally!) Ahasuerus and Haman celebrate their plan with a toast.

In chapter 4, the people of Susa are alarmed, Mordecai is grieving the impending genocide, and the only person not in the know is Esther. Her couriers provide her with a copy of the decree and a message from Mordecai. “Haman will see to it that your people are destroyed. Only you can stop this.”

Esther relays a message. “You know the king is rash. There is but one punishment for those who enter the inner court uninvited. Death.”

“Don’t think you’ll escape,” replies realist Mordecai. “If you don’t protect your people, they’ll receive protection from another source. And you will be found out and pay with your life. Who knows?” he suggests in that memorable statement. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Esther, who, despite her secret identity, did not escape trafficking, is now called to risk her life to save a people. Esther acquiesces, asking her cousin in turn to gather all the Jews in Susa not for a week-long feast but for a three-day fast—a practice typically accompanied by prayer, now known as Purim. She, along with her servants, will fast too. And then, she will go to the king uninvited. Morosely, she concludes: “If I perish, I perish.”

After the three-day fast, the king’s acceptance of Esther’s presence in the inner court seems too easy. (Then again, she is beautiful.) “What would you like, my dear? I’ll give you half my kingdom if you ask for it.” Esther’s response is to invite the king and Haman to her own banquet, and the king accepts.

At the banquet, Ahasuerus makes Esther the same offer. “What would you like, my dear? I’ll give you half my kingdom if you ask for it.” Esther repeats her invitation. If Ahasuerus and Haman show up for a banquet tomorrow, she will reveal her answer to his question. Again, they accept.

But as Haman leaves the banquet, he passes by Mordecai who still refuses to give him deference. Suppressing his rage in the moment, Haman goes home to conspire with his wife and friends to have Mordecai hung on a pole—only by the king’s orders, of course.

Through a series of fortunate events, Haman’s plan is foiled. The king finds out Mordecai had once saved his life and is flustered that Mordecai was never rewarded. In a suspiciously timely manner, Haman shows up.

And now the oddest thing happens. The king steps out of character. He is no longer dense, no longer rash, but cunning. “Hypothetically,” he asks Haman, “what would you say should be done for a man the king wants to honor?”

Haman is thrilled by what the king is proposing! My liege, such a man, whomever he may be, deserves royal treatment: a robe, a headdress, and a horse. The cunning king promptly tells Haman to hand these articles over to Mordecai. Haman obeys. He is forced to be Mordecai’s opening act as he trots through town.

Curses! Foiled again!

When Haman makes it to the second banquet, he watches Esther reveal her ethnicity to the king and confirm his treacherous plans: “Haman has convinced you to annihilate all Jews, young and old, children and women.” Now the king we’re used to returns. Ahasuerus flips out and storms out. Haman is left to prostrate himself on the queen’s lap, which, upon Ahasuerus’s return, is interpreted as attempted rape.

In the end, Haman is the bearer of poetic justice, hoisted with his own petard.

Knowing that a law made is a law played (Again, where does this savvy come from?), the king allows Esther and Mordecai to reverse his law’s effects with a new decree: The Jews are free to defend their lives and property, free to annihilate any armed force that attacks them.

Esther has done it. The tables have turned. The Jews become empowered, so much so that many Persians pretend to be Jews.

What does this have to do with God?

In the blog on Vashti, I noted that Jewish customs reference worship of and submission to God. Among them is the fasting that Esther called for. Esther had resigned herself to the fact that she might die in defending her people. But it wasn’t a hopeless resignation. If it were, there would be no need for prayer and fasting. She hoped in God’s deliverance, knowing that there was no guarantee that deliverance would come for her.

I’ve never been in Esther’s position. I’ve never been trafficked. I’ve never been undercover. I’ve never been a royal. But there have been times when I have needed to hope, knowing there are no present guarantees.

Hope, then, is not optimism—not as the Python Boys have it.

We don’t hope for the good we know will happen. Who hopes for what we can already see? Instead, we hope for what we yearn to happen, knowing we are powerless to achieve it on our own. We hope for justice when people are discriminated for their race or gender. We hope for solidarity when the least of these are isolated by the powerful. Hope doesn’t overcome the grimness of life. But it pulls us through life’s grimness, showing how to work for good things like justice and solidarity. And it is always rooted in God’s promise: that all suffering will be transformed into joy.

This must have been Esther’s—Hadassah’s—hope.