Esther: adored despite being “godless”

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Esther by BotticelliMy wife just joined a ladies’ Bible study on the Book of Esther based on Beth Moore’s book, Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman.

Like most evangelicals, Ms. Moore sings the praises of Esther for her beauty, pleasing personality, and wisdom, and Mordecai for his role in discovering the wicked genocidal plot by Haman, King Xerxes’ right-hand man, against Jews. Both of them were instrumental in preventing the destruction of God’s covenant people by the Persian Empire.

As you read this, you might feel disgusted and repulsed by the provocations I have to say about the usually adored two main characters of the book.

First, I have never read anything good about King Xerxes’ queen, Vashti, who refused the king’s behest to present herself to his drunken guests of royal sycophants. No reason is given for her refusal, which surely put her life in danger (there is no mention of her in the rest of the book). But one could guess how this woman must have feared being humiliated before a drunken crowd hooting and hollering at the sight of her exceptional beauty, which, in addition to Persia’s superpower status, is one of King Xerxes’ source of pride. Surely, she was not being asked to make a solemn speech about equal rights for Persian women.

Contrast her with Esther, who never had any word of hesitation in becoming a part of the king’s harem of hundreds of women. When her turn came to be summoned by the king in a quest for a new queen, she willingly went into the king’s chamber. The book says about the women’s turns in the king’s chamber, “In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem” (Esther 2:14). Now we know that a night with a king widely known for being a womanizer was not spent on exchanging pleasantries. As well, winning “grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins” (Esther 2:17) was not only because of her wisdom and virtues, for her beauty was a sight to behold (Esther 2:14).

Now, who was more chaste and modest? Surely, this is not God’s way of choosing a wife, nor is this the way for a woman to choose a husband. Not only that, this is a direct violation of God’s command to Jews not to be unequally yoked with pagan foreigners.

Second, why were Esther and Mordecai and many other Jews still in Persia after God commanded Israel to go back to the Promised Land? Israelites who remembered their covenant God, the Temple and the sacrifices yearned to go back, but these two chose to stay in a foreign land. In contrast to Ezra and Nehemiah and a faithful remnant of 50,000 Jews who returned to Canaan and suffered in their mission to rebuild the city and the Temple, Esther and Mordecai enjoyed their prosperity in Persia.

Esther and Mordecai were in disobedience to God’s command to return to Israel, so they were not as godly as many Christians today portray them. In fact, the Book of Esther does not mention YHWH even once.

Third, which is more wicked: Mordecai’s edict “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included” (Esther 8:11), or Haman’s order for the Jews “to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated”? (Esther 7:4) In Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, whole cities were destroyed by the Israelites, not of their own accord, but according to God’s command.

Fourth, In contrast to Passover, Pentecost, and other God-ordained Jewish festivals, Purim, the celebration of Esther and Mordecai’s victory over Haman, is purely a human festival designed to give glory to their great accomplishment. Esther 9:27 says, “the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year.”

As well, while all the God-commanded festivals were celebrated to give glory to God’s mighty acts, with offerings and sacrifices, and singing of psalms of thanksgiving, Purim was celebrated with merrymaking, without any praise to God, and as “days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). Purim is not unlike our commercialized Christmas celebration, and in fact, today, it is a festival of drunkenness and merrymaking.

What is usually left forgotten and unmentioned is that while God is absent from the Book of Esther, God is the unseen Providence working behind the scenes, orchestrating all of these events and characters to accomplish his purpose. What is this purpose? Is it to save the Jews? Yes, that was a part of his purpose. But ultimately, God’s purpose is the salvation of his covenant people through a Savior, Christ, who would be a descendant of these Jews who lived in the Persian Empire.

The Book of Esther is a book of reversals, which unbelievers would say “reversal of fortune.” But all the events in our lives and in our world are not by fortune or by chance. Even though the book has no reference to God, its message is about how God works in unseen ways through ordinary events and ordinary people—even sinful people. This is what believers call “providence”: God’s sovereign control over the universe.

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