Esther, empire and the hiddenness of God

Esther shows that when insecure fools are in charge, even the most disempowered person may trigger a radical policy reversal. (Listen.)

Esther is not a love story; it’s a story about powerful men. Esther is not a love story; it’s a story of faithfulness and courage. Esther is not a love story; it’s a story about the hiddenness of God. And yet ‘love story’, even ‘beauty pageant’, is the interpretation of Esther that many of us were taught. So today, we’re going to blow that reading out of the water: then we’ll look more closely at what it’s really about.

Let’s recap. Once upon a time, there was an empire which stretched from India to Ethiopia; and the name of its king was Xerxes. One day, after an extended male-only drinking bout, Xerxes ordered his queen, Vashti, to parade herself in front of the men. She refused. The king’s advisors were so terrified that their wives might hear of this and be inspired to refuse them, too, that they told Xerxes to get rid of her. He did, and then he sent a message to every province in the empire ordering wives to obey their husbands. But this left a vacancy in the palace and in his bed.

So his advisors then suggested that hundreds of beautiful young virgins should be seized, to be primped and prepared, each to spend a night with the king. The one Xerxes liked best would be made queen.

In other words, Esther didn’t line up at the palace flapping an application form for a beauty pageant; nor was she picked for her personality. Instead, she was a vulnerable young woman, an orphan, who was noticed for her beauty and abducted by the king’s brute squad. Her only hope for survival lay in pleasing the king’s eunuch – for then he “provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food” (2:9). A year of treatment and training prepared her for the next step in survival: sexually captivating the king. Which she did; and this is how Esther became queen.

If that’s not clear enough, let me be blunt: At every step, Esther had less power than a bunny in the Playboy Mansion. She was abducted, held, primped and pimped. Survival required absolute compliance, and her body was never her own. This is not a love story: it’s a story of politically sanctioned sexual assault.

And so, it’s a story about powerful men. And what do we see? Men making far-reaching decisions, not after considered discussion, prayer and fasting, but during drinking bouts. Men using women to shore up their own egos, and viciously punishing women who will not comply. Men signing off on murderous policies with their billionaire buddies, then celebrating with more drinking games. In this story, beneath all the trappings of power, beneath the money and the suits and the dinners and the policies, we find insecure and foolish men who are governed by their appetites. Their frantic efforts at controlling everyone around them reflect their lack of personal discipline and self-control. They know they are hollow and they’re terrified of mockery; so they dominate others to protect their cronies and themselves.

Of course, having insecure fools run the show is terrifying. Yet we who see this happening around us now can take comfort. For this ancient story shows that it’s nothing new: and that, even when fools are in charge, we might see radical reversals. If an empire can turn on the whim of a king’s libido or by ‘having a chat with Jen’, there’s hope: just as we see in Esther.

The reversal in Esther is the stop to an order of genocide. And while this is not a love story, there is love here: it’s the love which Esther has for her people. Esther is Jewish, but Xerxes doesn’t know it: for Esther has kept it secret. Her name reflects this. ‘Esther’ is related to the word for ‘hiddenness’, while her name in Hebrew, ‘Hadassah’, relates to ‘darkness.’ Esther’s identity is hidden.

So when Xerxes signs the order for genocide, Esther has a choice. Visiting the king unbidden means death, unless he raises his golden sceptre towards her. She can remain hidden, knowing that protecting herself will mean the death of her people; or she can risk death and go to the king uninvited, where she might reveal herself and persuade the king to reverse the order.

“I have set before you life and death … Choose life!” urges God (Deut. 30:19-20). But choosing life is not about seeking personal growth or following your bliss. Nor is it about self-gratification or ensuring your own security. As the God made known in Jesus Christ says hundreds of years later, those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it (Luke 17:33).

This is the choice that Esther makes: she chooses life by risking her own security, indeed by putting her very life on the line, for the life of her people. She has been swept up into terrifying and humiliating circumstances, she is disempowered and vulnerable, yet still she prays, reflects, and acts. And as a result, the Jewish people are saved from annihilation, and Esther becomes part of God’s salvation history.

This brings me to my final point: this is a story not just about Esther, but about God. Yet God, too, is hidden: in this story, God is not mentioned once. Even when Cousin Mordecai begs Esther to act, he says simply, “Who knows? Maybe you have come to this position for just such a time as this.” It would be easy to claim that God placed Esther in that position. However, the story doesn’t make this claim; and to those whose stomachs churn at the thought of God placing people into violent, humiliating, oppressive situations to bring about a plan, this should come as a relief. But what, then, can we claim?

I think the story shows that, even in an appalling situation, a pathway can open up towards God’s life and liberation: and we might ponder whether such a path is made by the hidden hand of God. We trust in a God who calls order out of chaos, life out of death, a dry path from a raging sea; we believe in radical reversals when everything seems lost. Perhaps that’s what happened here. Powerful men forced Esther into a terrible situation: but even there, perhaps God opened up a way.

Whatever, this is not a love story, and Esther is not a Disney princess. Instead, Esther invites us to look for the hints and intimations of God in our own lives, especially among the shadows. For no matter the situation in which you find yourself, no matter how humiliating or awful or constraining, no matter how hopeless things seem or how appalling the people in charge, God has set before you life and death. There will be clues; there will be choices; there will be a path. And you may never be sure if, where or how God is at work; but whether you’re Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, or simply Fred Nerks: who knows? Maybe you have come to your position in life for just such a time as this. Ω

Reflect: What are your gifts? What is your personal history, your life experience? What particular challenge in this world calls to you? Might you have come to your position in life for just such a time as this? What Biblical texts would you rely on to discern your call?

A reflection on Esther by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 26 September 2021 (Year B Proper 21) © Sanctuary 2021. Thanks to Beth Barnett for her comments on empires turning on ‘the whims of a king’s libido’, also re ‘having a chat with Jen’ (which is something our Prime Minister has referred to when making a radical reversal; Jen is his wife). Beth made these comments on Facebook. Photo by T from Pexels.

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