A well-beloved ambassador arrives in many churches throughout the country this Sunday via the RCL (Track #1) lectionary: Esther. The inspiration for the Jewish feast of Purim, she is one of only a handful of biblical women who regularly crosses the divide between religious and secular worlds. Memorialized in books and films, she is beautiful, brave, kind, patient and smart. Remarkably expressive, she is the third most verbal woman in the Bible (1207 words are attributed to her), surpassed only by Judith and the unnamed woman in the Song of Solomon.
In a nutshell: Queen Esther saves her people from annihilation. Her name (Hadassah in Hebrew) appears 57 times in ten chapters of the book named after her. Esther’s story is told in two versions: in the first, the Hebrew/Old Testament Book of Esther, and in the Apocrypha. Interestingly, God’s name is never mentioned in the first; yet the additional Greek lines in the Apocrypha document her extensive prayers to God for guidance and courage.
Here’s the background for the lectionary reading this Sunday. Put your feet up and think of yourself as living in that time period, about 2500 years ago.
Part One: Life for virgins and kings
Esther is living in Persia, being raised by her uncle Mordecai, when news comes from the palace that King Ahasuerus is searching for a new queen.
Vashti, the current queen, has been ousted for not obeying the king’s orders to “show the peoples and the officials her beauty” during a celebration to commemorate “the great wealth of his kingdom.”
Reasons that Vashti might not have appeared: 1) she was tired of entertaining, as the party was at the end of 187 days of feasting; 2) the king’s eunuchs arrived to “collect” her, probably somewhat undiplomatically; 3) the king was drunk (the Bible says, “merry with wine”) and 4) Ahasuerus’ order for her to wear her crown must have made her wonder if that was all she would be wearing.
Her refusal embarrasses the king, causing him to send word throughout the country that such behavior would not be tolerated and that, “Every man should be master in his own house.” Yikes. Vashti disappears, apparently thrown into the great chasm reserved for women not wishing to parade naked in front of dozens, if not hundreds of strange men.
Eventually a net is cast to “gather all the beautiful young virgins” into the king’s harem, and Esther is caught up in the sweep. When her night with Ahasuerus arrives, she apparently pleases him and is named queen.
Part Two: The treachery begins
Mordecai, sitting on a bench outside the palace gate, overhears two of the king’s eunuchs discuss their plans to assassinate Ahasuerus. He tells Esther, Esther tells the king, the eunuchs are hanged, and the event is recorded in the palace books.
Soon after, the king promotes his favorite advisor, Haman, to be the kingdom’s top official and requires that all bow and do obeisance to Haman. But when Haman passes Mordecai on his way home, the old Jew refuses—knowing that he is to bow only to God.
The Bible says that although Haman is infuriated, he thought it beneath him to censure Mordecai directly. Rather, he swears to eliminate all Jews throughout the kingdom. Sadly, the king agrees.
With Jews in deep mourning throughout the country, Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes and goes wailing through the city “with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther 4:1) Esther hears of his distress and knows that she and her people are facing genocide. Mordecai then urges her to intervene with the king—but there is a problem. No one, including Esther, is allowed to talk with the King without first being summoned, upon pain of death.
The king still does not know that Esther is Jewish. And in a move that resonates through the ages, she asks for three days of fasting from her fellow Jews. Saying she will fast as well, she agrees to go to the king, “though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
Dressing in her royal robes, she stands in the king’s hallway, waiting permission to enter. He sees her, summons her…and she asks him and Haman to a party that she will throw in the king’s honor.
Haman, puffed up with pride that he will attend, walks home to share the good news with his wife and friends, also telling them about the irritating Mordecai who still refuses to bow when he passes by. They respond: “Build a gallows fifty cubits high and hang him!”
Part Three: Exoneration
As the shadow of the newly-built gallows haunts him, King Ahasuerus cannot sleep. He fights his insomnia by having the palace ledger read to him, hoping that the minutiae will leave him snoring—but jerks to attention when he hears the detailed notation about Mordecai saving him from the earlier assassination attempt.
Realizing that he has never rewarded Mordecai, he asks his servants, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman, overhearing this, assumes that Ahasuerus wants to honor him and suggests a royal parade through the city.
“Great,” replies the king. “Go get Mordecai.” And so the tide turns.
The promised party occurs. The king asks Esther again to make her request, and she does, for her own life and that of her fellow Jews. The truth comes out. Ahasuerus is incensed at Haman, and when the King walks away to the palace garden for a minute, Haman throws himself on Esther, begging her forgiveness. Bad goes to worse for Haman, for the king thinks he is sexually assaulting his wife.
A body swings from the gallows that very day—and it is not Mordecai’s. Haman has met his match in God’s servant Esther.
The moral of the story? Bravery and loyalty are the keywords here. Esther could have walked away from a dangerous situation and thought only of herself. Instead, she risked her life to save her people–and has been an inspiration for centuries.
A hero of the faith, indeed.
Text adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014
Photo: Noël Bailey