Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Women in Scripture: Esther

When we examine the life of a biblical character like Esther, we run into the inevitable stumbling block of time. Quite simply, her life was vastly different from the one we live here in the western world in the 21st century. It can be tempting to evaluate her as if she lived right now, and impose moral judgments to her that are not necessary. It can also be tempting to speculate unnecessarily. When we read about Esther, we need to focus on what we know from the biblical text. What do we know about Esther?

We know that Esther was a Jew (2:7) and that she lived in the Persian capital of Susa, with her cousin, Mordecai. She was being raised by him, having been orphaned. They were part of the people who were taken captive to Babylon. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra recount the beginning of the return of some exiles to Jerusalem, and the book of Esther falls somewhere in between those two. We know, however, that Esther and Mordecai remained in Susa.

We are told that Esther was beautiful in face and form (2:7). When Ahasuerus decided to replace his previously banished wife, Vashti, Esther was among the beautiful women taken from Susa to be considered for this position. The author uses the passive term “taken” to indicate that this was not something the women sought themselves. We don't know what Esther thought about this, and it's important to remember that. We may feel indignation to her situation, but we must be careful not to subject our feelings on to Esther. Her feelings aren't part of the story; what is important is that Esther found herself in the palace of the king.

The author tells us that Esther pleased Hegai, the King's eunuch (2:8). Again, we don't know why, but she impressed Hegai in some way. We also know that she her her Jewish identity, something she did in obedience to Mordecai. The reason for secrecy is not important, but the secrecy itself is, because Haman will later make an edict against the Jews, unaware of who Esther is.

We also know that Esther took Hegai's advice when she went into the king. Each young woman was allowed to take something in to the king when it was her turn to be with him. I often hear this described as a beauty contest, but it was not so innocent. To be blunt, it was a sex contest. The women were to go into the king to be intimate with him, not demonstrate their beauty. We may wonder how Esther faced such a demeaning act. We may feel outrage at the situation. That's not the point, though. The point is that Esther became the queen, and as we discover later, God had a reason for this.

We know that once Mordecai comes to Esther with the news that Haman has hatched a plan to exterminate the Jews, she is initially hesitant to help. She is fully aware of what kind of man the king is. She knows the world she lives in. When Mordecai appeals by reminding her that she could very well be in the palace for a reason, Esther takes charge and chooses to stand up for her people with her famous words, “If I perish, I perish” (4:16).

Two crucial certainties stand out for our purpose of learning from the life of Esther. First, Esther was “taken” into Susa. She was in exile, in a foreign land, with foreign gods, under pagan rule. As a Jew, this was not where she was meant to live. Esther was faced daily with questions of compromise. How did she cope with the grievous reality that she had to marry a Gentile? Did she give into the temptation to let the culture influence her? Was there any “right” choice in her situation? Did she allow herself to blend into the culture in order to keep her identity hidden?

Second, when the moment of truth came, Esther identified with her people. Despite her fear, when the moment came, she chose to act. It was a risky venture, but one that was under God's providence. Every detail, every seeming co-incidence was orchestrated by God to preserve His people.

Is Esther's situation not ours today? Do we not live in the kingdom of the world, but also as part of the Kingdom of God? As the people of God, determined to live godly lives, do we not face situations like Esther where there seems to be no easy choice? Are we tempted to compromise? Do you find secrecy necessary?

In 4:16, Esther faced a defining moment. We all face defining moments like this regularly. How will we act in that moment? Karen Jobes, in her commentary of Esther, reminds us that we all face such moments when we first confront the gospel, but that this choice is a daily one:
... the new birth is only the beginning of decisions. It is followed by a continuous sequence of defining moments throughout life as we daily face decisions that demand we choose either to identify ourselves with Christ by obedience or to live as pagans in that moment. 
I do wonder how Esther felt to endure what she did. I wonder what it was like to be treated as a possession. I wonder how she withstood the daily tedium of harem life. We are simply not told. But I do know what she did, and she was bold at the crucial moment. May we be as bold in the daily moments of truth that we face.

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