Growing up in the church meant hearing fairly regularly about Esther. The general narrative taught was along the lines of: beautiful young woman, hand picked and placed by God into the palace so that she could bravely advocate for her people. She was away from home and scared and isolated and it was a bit weird she was made to make the most of her looks* but she did it all as God had placed her in this euphemistic beauty pageant ‘for such a time as this.’
I’ve forgotten the minutiae of the various Sunday school lessons and youth group bible studies and women’s retreat days, but the meta-moral-of-the-story was that God will pluck and place you in strange places for preordained purposes and your role will be to be brave and complete the action He had instigated by putting you there.
It always made me wildly uncomfortable. Maybe because I have never ever felt God actively intervening in my life. Which, I subconsciously figured, must be because I wasn’t as brave or worthy (or beautiful) as Esther. So really my take homes from the story were a feeling of inferiority, and a pervasive fear that I would miss the signs or not be brave enough when my ‘such a time’ came and let God, my people, and everyone down.
Until – Alison posted this week that Esther was actually a tale of insecure, weak, misogynistic men who made global decisions while drunk; who sent out press gangs to abduct women (including Esther) for their pleasure; and who planned genocide in retaliation for a perceived personal insult.
And suddenly it occurred to me that there was another reason for my internal conflict about how this story was told. HOW could a God of justice and mercy possibly be the active hand plucking and placing this woman in such a vile and unsafe situation? HOW can we possibly reconcile freedom and choice with being plucked and placed by this ominous Hand Of God? If God had orchestrated the situation, HOW could you rationalise the deaths and abuse and vulnerability of all the other women involved who did not gain favour in the misogynistic king’s eyes? Was Esther just more loved by God or something?
I asked Alison what was actually meant by the ‘for such a time as this’ verse, as I had an inkling I was getting it wrong. She explained, ‘Mordecai never directly says that God is doing the placing. It’s the beautifully open ‘who knows? Maybe you have come to this position for just such a time as this.’ The whole book is about hiddenness. It’s what Esther means, and, by implication, it’s about the hidden work of God – who is never mentioned in the story at all. The story is all about hints and intimation, where we look for clues and wonder without ever really know if, where or how God is at work in this or any given situation.’
This instantly clarified things for me. I do know that God has been at work in many decisions and routes I have taken in my life; but I have never felt God actively plucking and placing me on them. Rather, I have a strong sense and image of the Spirit clearing paths that I have then myself chosen to walk down. I see God’s hand as pulling back branches, clearing away rocks, sweeping sticks off a certain path – but God never pulled or picked or pushed ME. It is me who has sought out the hidden paths and tested and trod them.
Alison says this is not just a neat vibe I have, but theologically sound too: God urges in Deuteronomy (and by inference in other places) ‘I set before you the paths of life and death. But choose life!’
Esther, as with all of us, was not plonked by God into sexual slavery for some ‘divine purpose’. This happened to her because an evil man kidnapped her, because she lived in a broken and evil world. We still live in that same world, with the same misery and injustice surrounding us constantly. Like Esther, (all) we can do is test out where the path of life may be hiding and ask for God’s strength and grace to tread down it, one step at a time. By the same token, God doesn’t hand-select some very special worthy beauty queens to fulfill His purpose – each of our unique paths of life are there, hidden but discoverable, for any of us who wish to seek and trust them.
‘Such a time as this’ is, for me, day by day by day by day seeking the way that most gives the deep peace of God. It’s not always the easiest way, but it is the path of life.
*It’s besides the main point here but I do remember one particularly odd lesson: I was taught that Esther justifies and indeed shows the importance of women investing in ‘self care’ – i.e. beauty routines and make up and fashion – ‘as you never know when it could be used for God’s kingdom’. This is particularly confusing both for people like me, who enjoy dressing up and make-up simply as a form of self-expression, rather than for some Worthy Greater Good – and also for the people who care not for such routines and don’t need to be made to feel that this is failing the Almighty. Just thought I’d pop that in to say to anyone who may have heard that, or a similar teaching – I’m sorry. It’s wrong. Let’s share in healing and moving towards the true story here together.
PS: Alison writes: My reflection on Sunday was guided by people’s responses to a facebook post on Esther. I invited Lucy to expand her responses so we could share them more widely. I know her experience will resonate with some of you, while for others, it will help you understand how many Christian women have been shaped.
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