I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Esther (heroine of the eponymous book in the Old Testament). Between herself and Vashti, women in that book are portrayed as acting with dignity, at least, in what must have been impossibly difficult situations.
Esther in particular, you assume, was a godly woman who loved her people and was brave enough to take her life in her hands to intercede for the whole Jewish nation when they were threatened with genocide – even though she herself might well have escaped it.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to read in a religious publication recently that there is at least one person out there in the Reformed world who thinks that neither Esther nor her cousin Mordecai were actually believers – they were ungodly and unconverted, the pair of them, apparently.
I’ve had my difficulties with this particular source of theological theorising and dogma before. (The thing is, it’s free. So it goes against the grain to get them to stop sending it.)
But I have to say that this time it’s almost, if possible, even more startlingly dogmatic than usual. And the whole argument seems to be based on one core misconception: that Esther voluntarily entered a “beauty contest” (that’s a direct quote) to win the prize of “marrying” King Ahasuerus, and Mordecai was complicit or supportive in her doing so.
This thesis allows for a great deal of rhetorical moralising on the theme of fornication with pagans, which I think we can skip for the time being. But it also allows the writer to dismiss Esther and Mordecai as mere tools in the providence of God, who admittedly brought about an admirable deliverance of the Jewish people (thanks to Esther interceding for the king, the plot to commit mass murder was exposed and the Jews were at least allowed the right of self-defence when the legalised ethnic cleansing got underway), but as for themselves, they were really only sinfully ambitious individuals who cared nothing about the seventh commandment or virtually any other way of showing respect and worship for the Lord God of Israel.
I think that this construal of the events recounted in this book and the personalities involved is grossly unfair. There is a grudging commendation of Vashti (Esther’s predecessor in the role of Ahasuerus’s favourite wife) when she refused to parade herself in front of the king and his hordes of drunken princes and nobles as requested. Brave, dignified Vashti: that’s the last we hear of her.
But Esther, actually, didn’t enter any beauty contest. What happened was that after Ahasuerus had taken offence at Vashti, he sent out officials to scour the land for suitably beautiful replacements, round them up, and bring them to the palace so that they could later be presented to the king to see if he’d like them or not. Whether or not he decided to like them, of course, he got to keep them anyway.
By the 8th verse of the 2nd chapter, “it came to pass, when the king’s commandment and his decree was heard, and when many maidens were gathered together unto Shushan the palace, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was brought also unto the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women.”
To be perfectly honest, I don’t see the hearts of very many of those maidens being particularly gladdened at having been gathered into the custody of Hegai the keeper of the women. Chances of success, if that’s what you want to call it, must have been pretty tiny, and after all, the second prize was pretty grim too – to go ‘into the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s chamberlain, which kept the concubines.’
Esther herself, you’ll notice, was brought, along with the rest – hardly actively rushing to join the throng of would-be Miss Persias. I don’t think it was really like that. Especially as, once you reach verse 15, she seems to have avoided doing anything beyond the required minimum of preparation. Ahasuerus made Esther queen in the place of Vashti more in spite of her wishes than because of them.
What Esther is best remembered for, I would like to suggest, is how courageous she was in taking action to foil the self-seeking scheme of Haman the Agagite to wipe out the entire Jewish population dispersed throughout the kingdom at the time. Kept in custody as she was, she would never have known, except that Mordecai got word to her. He had an eye on the workings of providence when he reasoned with her – ‘Who knows whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ and she made up her mind to venture to speak to the king uninvited.
(And ‘all the people do know that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death … but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.’)
But my final point is that she didn’t just make up her mind to daringly approach the king. She told Mordecai to gather the entire community of God-fearing Jews to fast (and of course pray, as the two were inextricably linked). She and her attendants couldn’t join them in person, but they would fast as well. And only then, after such expressions of dependence on God and acknowledgement of the terrible seriousness of the situation, then, she would try and speak to the king.
It’s a mistake, I put it to you therefore, to conceptualise Esther as wanting to ‘marry ‘ Ahasuerus, and an even worse mistake to write her off as ungodly and an unbeliever. She doesn’t deserve this bad press (even though the circulation of this leaflet can’t be very large, I cynically predict). If Vashti behaved with dignity and deserves commendation, Esther acted with dignity too and faith in God the Saviour: she deserves our commendation and continued respect every bit as much.