How not to read the Book of Esther
The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part Two
Esther’s story has been particularly beloved in recent years by parts of the charismatic revival movement. In particular, Esther spending a whole year being beautified before she was introduced to the king has been seen as an image we can use to understand how we might be prepared spiritually for a deeper encounter with God. Tommy Tenney, in particular, has written books and preached extensively on the topic.
I am all for deeper encounters with God but this way of reading Esther obscures the reality of her experience somewhat. And leaves us with some deeply disturbing images of God and narratives about women.
The story itself is deep and complex and has some very interesting characters within it, including two powerful women.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a rough précis.
The action takes place in Persia, where the orphaned Esther and her uncle Mordecai are Jewish exiles.
Xerxes, the king, spends six months on a massive ego trip, displaying his wealth and power. Then he holds an elaborate dinner party, which lasts for a whole week, where his generosity is demonstrated by providing as much wine as anyone can drink. At the same time, Vashti, the queen, is holding a banquet for the women. On the seventh day, when the king is very drunk, he orders his eunuchs to go and fetch Vashti in her finery so that the men can ‘admire her beauty’. Which sounds a little like a euphemism. She refuses to come. Perhaps understandably.
The king is furious and immediately (and perhaps drunkenly?) consults his advisors. They decide that not only has Vashti insulted the king, but she has set a bad example to all the wives throughout the empire, who might decide that it’s OK for women not to do what their husbands tell them. So Vashti is banished forever from the king’s presence and letters are sent to every corner of the empire declaring that every man, of every rank, is ruler in his own home and can say whatever he likes.
When Xerxes decides that he would quite like another queen, agents are sent throughout the empire to find beautiful young virgins who are brought to the royal harem. From among these captured women, a new queen will be found. Vashti’s social standing is not clear from the text, but we know that she was independent enough to be holding a banquet of her own and self assured enough to refuse a drunken instruction to come and be ogled at by the king and his severely inebriated guests. According to the midrash she was the daughter of Belshazzar and the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Royalty by birth as well as marriage. Obviously not a woman who was easily pushed around.
Was the plan to capture a new wife partly about making sure the next queen is more biddable? Esther is among the women who are captured and she is presented as being respectful and compliant. The perfect foil to Vashti in the story. The narrator is keen to emphasise her compliance and tells us that she is obedient to Mordecai, who continues to keep an eye on her even after she enters the harem and that she defers to Hegai, the eunuch, into whose care she is placed.
Esther spends a year in the harem being beautified before being taken to the king’s private rooms. He likes her more than the other women and makes her queen in Vashti’s place. Following Mordecai’s instructions, she doesn’t tell anyone of her Jewish heritage. However, when the Jews in Persia come under threat, due to the actions of Haman, who is the villain of the story, Mordecai instructs her to petition the king. She risks death by presenting herself to the king without having been summoned, very skilfully wines and dines him over several evenings, along with Haman the villain, and carefully chooses her moment to make her petition. The king listens, Haman meets a grisly end and the Jewish nation is saved.
The preaching and writing around the book of Esther in recent renewal movements has ignored the complexity of the story and instead focused almost exclusively on Esther’s being prepared and beautified for her moment in front of the king. Esther represents the individual Christian while the King is God. We are encouraged, like Esther, to carefully prepare our hearts and lives for an encounter with God. She is viewed as deeply fortunate to be chosen. Her goodness is revealed in the way that she humbly does what she’s told and takes the advice of her uncle and the eunuchs in charge of the harem. We, like Esther, must be willing to be purified and changed and made beautiful for that moment when we are drawn metaphorically into God’s inner chamber for an intimate encounter. It’s taken to be all about holiness and submission.
If you find this way of reading Esther edifying and helpful, far be it from me to dispute your experience. I find it troubling though.
To turn Esther into a holiness metaphor completely ignores the fact that this book has a kidnapped, trafficked woman at its heart. Esther is captured by a conquering army, enrolled in a brothel and subjected to a forced marriage to a king so powerful and capricious that if she enters his presence without being summoned, she could be killed on the spot. While there might be worse places to be an imprisoned sex slave, she is not in a good situation. This is not, as is so often suggested through this metaphorical reading, the story of a woman being lovingly and willingly prepared for a beautiful encounter with a good king. It’s the story of a powerless trafficked sex slave forced into marriage with a powerful, egotistical and ruthless man.
Equally troubling is the assumption that we should read Xerxes as representing God the King. The all-powerful male God figure demanding complete submission and obedience from the powerless female slave. The man powerful and completely in control. The woman adoring and obeisant.
There is a tendency to assume that where a king appears in a story, he is analogous to God. That is not a good assumption to make. Particularly not here. There is nothing in the character of Xerxes that is anything like that of the God we see revealed in Christ. There is no humility and gentleness, only savage unpredictability. This is a man whose ego is fragile. He’s spent a whole six months on a massive ego trip and he can’t cope with his wife not coming to his party. He seems primarily concerned with his own pleasure, power and ego.
Before we go assuming that we should see King Xerxes as a metaphor for God, we perhaps should take a moment to remember that God chose to be incarnate in the person of Jesus. Living amongst ordinary people, giving honour and respect to the poor, the marginalised and the overlooked. Creatively and courageously challenging those in power while never grasping power for Himself.
If we want to find a Christlike figure in the Esther story, we need look no further than Esther herself. Esther is a deeply inspiring character. Despite being in the most powerless and heartbreaking of situations, she takes her life in her hands and uses the influence she does have to save her people. She creatively and courageously challenged those in power seeking not her own good, but that of her people. She didn’t make a direct appeal to the king, instead she carefully wined and dined him. For someone who has been captured and enslaved and for whom being assertive could result in death, her poise and confidence is quite remarkable. She is not cowed by either Mordecai or Xerxes. Just as Jesus confidently and creatively challenged power so did Esther. In many ways, this is the story of a woman finding her voice. A woman who begins powerless within the structures and culture of her time, who is noted for her humility and obedience, who, by the end of the story is calling the shots.
Admittedly, the Esther/Jesus comparison falls apart a bit at the end of the story, where, amongst other things, Esther asks for the bodies of Haman’s slaughtered sons to be impaled on a spike. However, leaving that aside for a moment, the way that she manages the situation has many resonances with the way Jesus managed encounters with people in power who were out to get him. As an example, take the woman caught in adultery. The religious teachers and the Pharisees drag her in front of Jesus to use as a pawn in their argument. They think they have him trapped in a corner. “We caught this woman in adultery. The law of Moses says we should stone her. What do you say?” He’s in front of a crowd of people He’s teaching. If He says she should be stoned, he will be directly challenging the Roman authorities and suggesting an illegal action. If he says they shouldn’t then he’s denying the law of Moses and he’s supposed to be a good Jew. “All right,” he says, “but let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
You can just imagine the careful thought that has gone into finding the perfect trap and stunned sense that he seems to have not only slipped through their grasp, but has done it in a way that leaves them looking completely stupid and exposed. All the woman’s accusers slink away, leaving Jesus to respond to her graciously and compassionately. I think they leave not primarily because they admit to being sinful but because while they would be happy to put Jesus in the difficult situation of being expected to carry out mosaic law in direct opposition to the Roman authorities, there is no way that they are going to put themselves in such a vulnerable and dangerous situation. But Jesus’ question means they can’t refuse to stone the woman without declaring themselves sinners. Tactical withdrawal becomes their best option but Jesus has ensured that it won’t come without embarrassment. What kind of sin are they admitting to? Was Jesus referring to any sin or the sin of which they are accusing the woman?
Again and again, Jesus acts with wisdom, compassion and courage, challenging received assumptions and those in power while giving dignity to those who might otherwise be oppressed or overlooked.
Scattered through the old testament there are examples of women acting with wisdom, compassion and courage, despite their relative powerlessness. I like the story of the Hebrew midwives, in Egypt, who have been told to kill the male offspring of Hebrew women. They don’t. When questioned, they manage to convince the Egyptians that the Hebrew women are vigorous and give birth before they get there.
Then there’s Abigail. Her husband manages to insult David because he refuses to give David’s men any provisions. David is so angry, that he gathers 400 of his troops and is intent on killing Nabal and all the men in his household. Abigail goes out to meet David and his men, sending servants armed with gifts of food ahead of her. One woman on a donkey riding out to meet 400 armed men in a culture where rape, particularly of the women of enemies, is seen as normal. Her diplomacy is as impressive as her courage. She skilfully talks him round. Her opening gambit is “since the Lord has kept you from murdering and taking vengeance into your own hands, let all your enemies and those who try to harm you be as cursed as Nabal is…” [1 Samuel 25] Beautifully done. David is still intent on murderous revenge at this point. And she knows it. David, neatly backed into a corner, praises God for sending her and stopping him from committing murder. He praises her good sense and agrees not to slaughter her husband.
There are some truly inspirational women in the Bible. Christlike women, such as Esther and Abigail and the Hebrew midwives who challenged the powerful men around them with wisdom and courage, knowing that they were putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others. We don’t need to reduce them to metaphors for obeisance before God or role models for women being compliant and submissive. They are far more interesting and powerful than that.
Reference: Finding Favor With the King: Preparing For Your Moment in His Presence — eBook By: Tommy Tenney BETHANY HOUSE / 2004 / EPUB
To start this series from the beginning:
If you enjoyed this, you might like my Loved Called Gifted podcast, available on most podcast platforms, or you can find it here.
I offer spiritual direction and coaching. The Loved Called Gifted course, available online and in person, will help you to discover your life calling. Discover these things and other bits and pieces on my website.