Updated: Sep 11
It's been a full week and it's late Sunday night. But after studying Esther all week, I need to write something, even if it's brief. There are a lot of uncomfortable but meaningful gender dynamics in her story that I didn't hear addressed in any of the commentary I listened to. As these hit especially close to home for me, I want to explore them and how the story of Esther strengthens me.
The story begins with a prologue that establishes the wrenching circumstances into which Esther is about to be thrown. It recounts a grand display of status by King Ahasuerus, who feels a need to gather his nobles and show off "the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty" for 180 days. This reads to me like there's a lot of ego going on. At the end of that period, the king holds a 7-day feast for the gathered men, while his queen, Vashti, entertains their wives. The men drink wine in abundance, and on the final day, when the king is good and drunk, he sends a message to Vashti, bidding her come and parade her beauty before the inebriated assembly.
The record doesn't say why Vashti dares to refuse the summons, but it's not hard to imagine. This is not a safe situation for her, and her husband is too drunk and too preoccupied with stoking his own ego for her to have any confidence in his protection. Her refusal to obey his summons becomes a scandal. The king's advisors fear that all the women in the kingdom will hear of it and have the audacity to disobey their husbands. And so Vashti is publicly cast off, and all the women of Persia are forcibly reminded that their duty is to obey their husbands, no matter what.
When the king sobers up and starts to remember his beautiful wife, his advisors come up with a plan to distract him -- they will gather all of the most beautiful virgins in the empire, give them all to the king, and he will choose one of them to fill Vashti's place. All of the maidens will be his property from that time forth. He will spend a single night with each of them, then choose his favourite. She will fill the ceremonial role of queen. The rest will be relegated to his harem, but he will never be bothered with them again unless he remembers them well enough to call for them by name (Esther 2:14).
I don't see anything in the record that suggests that Esther was a willing participant in this "contest." Nor do I see any indication that her adoptive father Mordecai had anything to do with her being entered into it. To me, it looks like Esther was discovered by the king's scouts, and that neither she nor Mordecai had any say in whether she was to be added to the king's collection. We do know that Mordecai warned her to keep her faith and ethnicity quiet, and that he was sufficiently anxious about her welfare that he daily haunted the court of the women's house, hoping for news of her.
To me, the fact that Esther arrayed herself in the bare minimum of ornamentation when she went for her night with the king suggests that she had no ambition to be queen or even to be remembered by name. Bad enough to be torn from her family, turned into property, and forced into hiding her faith and her culture. I don't think she was interested in becoming the favourite pet of the most powerful man in the land.
I do agree that we shouldn't judge the people of yesterday according to the standards of today. But I see no reason to believe that the pervasiveness of women's bondage in the 5th Century BC prevented it from being profoundly damaging, even if it was expected. Furthermore, the prospect of being cared for and surrounded by beautiful things might have appealed to women for whom it would at least have been better than being nothing more than the property of a poor man. But I imagine there was nothing attractive about being a sex slave (whether wife or concubine) for a young woman like Esther, who had been raised in the faith of the Lord to fill a meaningful role in a Jewish family.
The fact that Esther nonetheless won the hearts, first of Hegai, the keeper of the women, and then of the king, suggests to me that, even though she was being treated as chattel, she carried herself with the nobility of one who knows she is a beloved daughter of God. She could be stolen from her family, turned into property, and forced into sexual relations with an overbearing stranger, but somehow or other, she still managed to hold onto her own self and to stand in her power.
Moving forward, Esther was made queen and then Haman, the king's favourite noble, purchased from him an extermination order on the Jews. This was because Haman was enraged that Mordecai refused to bow to him. I don’t see convincing evidence that Mordecai's refusal was about his piety -- that his faith forbade him to bow down to anyone but God. There were many other Jews in Shushan, but only Mordecai is mentioned as refusing to bow to Haman. Also, it doesn't appear that Mordecai refused to bow to King Ahasuerus. If I were writing a book about it, I would make Haman the scout who took Esther from her home and that would be the motive for Mordecai's refusal to bow. But whatever the reason, Mordecai's conspicuous snub of Haman was what provoked the latter into proclaiming death to all the Jews in the kingdom.
It's easy to gloss over the precariousness of Esther's position when Mordecai entreated her to intercede on her people's behalf. He wasn't asking her to approach a devoted husband without being summoned. The king had not just forgotten her because he was busy with matters of state. He had an enormous harem full of beautiful, willing women who had likely bought the lie that their highest purpose was to bring him pleasure, and he had not seen fit to call on the one who saw herself as something more for thirty days. For Esther to approach him now, without being summoned, could easily be seen as her seeking to claim a right to his attention. His treatment of Vashti boded poorly for any action on her part that might have been interpreted as a demand for more respect. And the law elevated him to such a state that anyone who approached him without an invitation was to be put to death unless he made a special exception by reaching out to them with his golden staff.
I don't think Mordecai was blind to Esther's predicament when she explained it. I do think he was blind to the humility he owed her as he asked her to risk herself in order to rescue her people from the death sentence that followed his provocation of Haman. He could have said, "I am sorry to place you in this position. It isn't fair, and it is I who bear responsibility for bringing this danger upon our people, but there is no other way." Instead, he seems to have assumed she needed to be threatened into action and warned her that she and he and all their family would be destroyed if she held her peace. Then, at last, he said the only thing that was necessary, "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
In the context of Esther's story, I think that question could be better phrased like this: Who knows whether all of the trauma you've experienced was for this redemptive purpose?
For Esther, that possibility alone would have been reason enough to risk her life because it meant reclaiming it. It would turn her captivity into a prelude to conquest. It would give glorious meaning to every single tear.
Esther didn't argue or take issue with Mordecai for his myopia or his threat. Instead, she rose to the opportunity. She called on all her allies to fast for her, and then she broke the law to approach the king without a summons. In the end, she not only saved her people but also obtained from the king a measure of respect that had previously been beyond her grasp. She became a queen in reality as well as in name.
I love the story of Esther because, for women who have been demeaned, discounted, overpowered and used because of our gender, it proves that it doesn't matter if our socialization has been against us, if even our well-intentioned leaders and loved ones have treated us like we were a resource for solving male problems. It doesn't matter, so long as we know that we are beloved daughters of God and we remember to trust in His love and providence. If we can do that, we will be able to stand in the power of our conviction that we matter. And for each of us, the day will come when every tear will be turned into triumph and we will be able to join our Savior in proclaiming "liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound" (Isaiah 61:1). I am seeing that transformation in my own life and I wouldn't trade away any part of what I've been through for the joy and the purpose that fills me today.