The Book of Esther is a head turner. It’s about a Jewish woman (Esther), who parlays a place in the king’s harem into becoming queen of Persia. And oh yes, her cousin (Mordecai—who is her surrogate father), encourages and helps her to accomplish this. Sounds like the latest from Netflix or Hulu, doesn’t it?
But it’s not. It’s straight out of the Scripture, which makes it problematic rather than trending from the perspective of many. There’s so much that sounds so wrong with the story that they don’t know where to start. They wonder why this story has even been preserved, much less included in Scripture.
The place to start is with the recognition that many of our cultural sensibilities are just that—our cultural sensibilities. Whenever we want to impose them on people in the past, it almost always leads to trouble. After all, do we really want our descendants two hundred years from now to judge us by whatever the cultural standards are of their day? Probably not. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are all, to some degree, the product of the time in which we live. (Just find your yearbook and look at your senior picture if you don’t believe that). And yes, two centuries from now people will shake their heads over some of the things we do now—just accept it and move on.
We make a huge mistake then when we try to squeeze the story of Esther into our 21st century worldview. Esther wasn’t a Disney princess. She was a Jewish person living under Persian rule in 5th century BC. While we chafe at the idea of arranged marriages, they didn’t bat an eye at it. Living under foreign rule might represent a nightmare to many of us but it was a reality for most people in Esther’s time. Being someone else’s servant bristles our brow, but they didn’t look at it that way. In short, we have to park many of our 21st century sensibilities when we step into Esther’s story.
When Ester is taken to be part of the king’s harem, we’re horrified but neither Esther nor Mordecai seem to have viewed it that way. Being part of the king’s harem was the royal version of an arranged marriage (albeit a polygamous one). Still, many, if not most people would have regarded that as an honor (the Vashti situation notwithstanding). And Mordecai apparently saw it as more than that—he was convinced that God was using the situation (4:14 and his actions throughout the book).
And knowing how it all turned out, it would be difficult to argue against him, wouldn’t it?
Maybe that gets us to the real point, we’re not pleased with the way God rolled all this out. Couldn’t He have done things in a different way? Why did He allow this godly, young woman to become the wife of the tyrant we see in the first chapter? (And yet there is nothing in the biblical record to suggest Esther was ever mistreated this way—in fact, quite the opposite).
Hmm . . .
Maybe there’s more to this story for us than simply being aghast at the conditions Esther lived under. After all, the biblical witness majors in displaying how God’s people, through His power, learned to survive and often thrive in far from ideal circumstances. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers as a teenager. Later he was falsely accused and imprisoned. He not only survived these injustices, he transcended them to become second in Egypt to Pharaoh and was reconciled with his brothers. Ruth has just lost her husband when we meet her but with God’s help, this Moabite woman goes on to become part of the Messiah’s lineage. Hannah is unable to have children and part of a polygamous marriage, but God blesses her with a son who becomes a priest and prophet. Then there are the three young friends of Daniel who are about to be thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol, but you remember how their story worked out. Our book is full of powerful stories of hope like these (Romans 15:4).
If the Scripture teaches us anything, it is that while idealized conditions are wonderful, they are not necessary in order to serve God. It might help us to also keep in mind that it was in paradise that rebellion broke out. As I write this, I’m studying the Bible online with a Muslim woman who lives in Afghanistan—where the Taliban has taken over. I have another student in Haiti, where their president was assassinated this summer. He told me recently there is violence in the streets (a pregnant woman was shot) and the economy is in the tank. I imagine they find something quite different in these stories of hope than the critics do.
Well, enough of that. Let’s sit down with our ten-dollar cup of coffee, open up our Bible in the comfort of our climate-controlled residence and rant and rave about how God allowed people in biblical times lived under such crude and cruel conditions.