“When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman hadthrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Willhe even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words leftthe mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)
It’s hard to avoid the book of Esther when it pops up in the lectionary every three years, and yet, the more often this book comes around, the less comfortable I feel preaching on it. We need a woman preaching on Esther next time. I hate ripping into one of the few iconic female figures we have in the Scriptures. The problem though is that I really don’t like her!
I remember at Moore College when we had a woman rostered on to preach. That didn’t happen very often, tragically, so when we did have a woman rostered on, I would get quite excited, and probably had inflated expectations. And then she turned out to be just as boring and predictable as most of the men!
It’s not that Esther is boring and predicable, mind you – far from it. My issue with Esther is that she is so violent, and relatively unprincipled, but perhaps that’s just my white, male, middle-class perception of Esther. You be the judge!
What I can say is that lots of other white, male, middle-class fathers in the faith share my negative assessment of Esther), Martin Luther most obviously. He hated Esther and said, “I am so hostile to this book … that I could wish it did not exist at all; for it Judaizes too greatly and has much pagan impropriety.”
Of course, Luther was notoriously anti-Semitic, so perhaps we should be cautious about taking his accusation of ‘Judaizing’ too seriously. Other church fathers though were equally staunch in their opposition. Melito of Sardis, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great Athanasius all rejected the book from the canon of Scripture completely, while Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus and Origen relegated it to being the last book in their Bibles!
Yes, these are all the perceptions of white, middle-class, male scholars (with the possible exception of Origen who was African, and who reportedly castrated himself at an early age and so was perhaps gender non-specific). Even so, their problem was not simply that the book is violent, nor that it ‘Judaized’ (whatever that means). Our fathers were thrown by the fact that the book never mentions God – a privilege it shares with only one other Biblical book – the Song of Songs.
Moreover, it’s not just that the word God itself that is missing. Esther doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious book. There’s no mention of divine law or faith or prayer or worship, or any of the great Biblical themes we are familiar with – covenant, grace, or mercy, let alone love and forgiveness.
Even so, I’ll give you an outline of the book and you be the judge. You decide whether Esther is an archetype of Biblical womanhood or whether she and her book should be quietly deleted from the Scriptural record (or something in between those two extremes)
The story is set in Susa – the capital of the Persian Empire – in the fifth century B.C. The Jews are a conquered people. Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians a hundred years earlier and its inhabitants carried off into the land of its conquerors where, by the rivers of Babylon, they sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137). Yet after a hundred years the weeping has stopped, and the exiled people of Zion were by that stage so thoroughly integrated into the Persian Empire that when Esther rose to prominence in the royal court nobody even realised that she was Jewish!
Esther rose to prominence via a beauty pageant. Queen Vashti, we are told at the beginning of the narrative, overstepped her prerogative in the royal court by refusing to snap to attention when her drunken husband called for her, and so she was dismissed from her position and the job was offered to the prettiest girl in the kingdom. That pretty girl turned out to be Esther!
The book sounds a lot like Cinderella initially (which was also a story about the patriarchal abuse of power, though with less violence). Esther – a young Jewish girl with no social standing whatsoever – suddenly becomes queen of all Persia. That’s how the story starts, and if it had stopped there with a ‘happily ever after’ message in the closing credits we might have found Esther’s good fortune heart- warming, even if not particularly spiritually inspiring.
This is not the only story in the Hebrew Bible, of course, were Jews rise to positions of prominence in a pagan court. Other obvious examples come from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends likewise take on positions of power in the Babylonian court. That story is set a century or so earlier and it’s a very different kind of story. Daniel and his friends are constantly getting themselves into trouble because they insist on worshipping the God of their forefathers and on being true to the traditions and the religion of their people. We don’t see Esther struggling with any of those things. Indeed, we don’t see Esther struggling much until her uncle starts to make trouble for both of them.
The shift in the book of Esther from fairy tale to horror movie begins in chapter two, where we read of the animosity between Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, and Haman the Amalekite, who is Prime Minister to Xerxes, the king.
While, as I said, the exiled inhabitants of Israel had become thoroughly integrated into their new homeland after a hundred years, yet, as is so often the case, old ethnic animosities die hard, and Haman (who is referred to as ‘the enemy of the Jews’) and Mordechai are enemies from early on in the Book of Esther, basically on account of the fact that Mordechai is a Jew and Haman is an Amalekite, and even after a hundred years there was nothing more hateful to a Jew than an Amalekite and nothing more hateful to an Amalekite than a Jew!
The way it reads in the book, it’s actually Mordechai who opens hostilities between the two. Haman is appointed Prime Minister, and everybody bows and shows respect to him – everybody except Mordechai. Mordechai shows no respect to the man despite his office. Why not? Because he is an Amalekite!
If this were a New Testament story, St Paul might enter at this point and proclaim that there is ‘no Jew and no Amalekite but that all are one in Christ Jesus’. Even so, it’s not a New Testament story, and things go from bad to worse.
It is depressingly contemporary, actually. I don’t know if there any Amalekites left to hate in the world, but anti-Semitism is certainly still with us, along with any number of other forms of discrimination. Mind you, one of the most pronounced waves of racial prejudice we’ve ever experienced in this country came shortly after world war II. ‘There’s only three things wrong with them. They’re over- sexed, over-payed and over ‘ere!’ Who were we talking about? Americans!
At any rate, it’s this tribal animosity between Jews and Amalekites that drives the drama in the book of Esther, and it all escalates very quickly. Mordechai disrespects Haman, and Haman decides to respond by not just killing Mordechai but by wiping out his entire people – the Jews! He convinces the king that eradicating this particular race from his empire will be good for everybody and the king, it seems, agrees without looking too closely into the details.
The key to the drama, of course, lies in the fact that neither Haman nor the king realise that Queen Esther herself is a Jewess as the girl had continued to keep this hidden, apparently at the behest of her uncle, Mordechai, who evidently anticipated some level of anti-Semitism from his tribal enemies. This allows Esther to eventually reach the king’s ear and make an appeal to him on behalf of her tribe before they are all subjected to wholesale slaughter.
The climax comes in chapter seven where Esther pleads to the king for her life and where Haman – realising suddenly what is going on and seeing that the tables have been turned upon him – falls on the couch of the queen and pleads for his life. The king then walks in to witness what appears to be some sordid attempt at sexual assault. “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” the king says, and we’re told, “As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)
It’s graphic language that vividly anticipates the gruesome fate that meets Haman only moments later. Haman had, up to that point, been happily building a gallows in his backyard – a gallows upon which he intended to execute his enemy, Mordechai. As it turns out, of course, it is not Mordechai who is hanged there but Haman himself – hoisted (quite literally) on his own petard.
And yet the violence does not stop there! With the cooperation of the good King, Esther manages to have all of Haman’s children and extended family hanged there as well, with their bodies hung up on display afterwards for the world to see! And the violence does not stop there either! Esther requests of the king that she and her people might be allowed to go on killing their tribal enemies and so do unto their enemies as their enemies had intended to do unto them!
The book says that Esther and her tribe were so successful that they managed to kill the best part of 100,000 people over only a couple of days – a feat that, in the eyes of the author of the Book of Esther, ranks as a both remarkable and admirable though, by today’s standards, it would surely rank as a war crime!
As a postscript, we note that the story of Esther is remembered each year in the Jewish community at the Feast of Purim, where there is apparently a tradition that participants drink so much wine that after a while they can’t tell the difference between the cries of ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’.
Some think that’s why the name of God isn’t mentioned in the book – because people are regularly so drunk when the Book of Esther is read that they might accidentally take the name of the Lord their God in vain! Thus the book becomes associated with drunkenness as well as violence and godlessness, which brings us back to the question about what it’s doing in the Bible in the first place.
You be the judge. Make up your own mind about the book and about its leading character. Is Esther a strong woman who saved her people from destruction or was she cunning and self-serving with no concept of proportionality.
My feeling is that we need to look beyond the gender dynamics and recognise that the poison that destroys both men and women in this story is power. As Lord Acton put it, ‘all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Sadly, that’s proven to be as true of Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton as it has been of any of their male counterparts.
The other question, of course, is ‘so what’s the point?’ If the story of Esther isn’t given to us as an example of godly leadership, what is the book doing in the Scriptures? My feeling is that it’s there to remind us of the secular side of God.
God’s workings are not obvious in the Esther story. The Spirit of God does not shine through any of the characters and there are no miracles. Yet, when we stand back and look at the big picture, we recognise a story of God fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, even if it’s not being done in a very religious way!
In Esther we see the secular side of God, which is not what we are used to! It is easier for us to think of God as one who inhabits a world of religion. God is present in His holy temple. God is present with his people gathered. God is at work through the prayers of those who serve him, bringing miracles and healings and salvation and life, and all of this is surely true. And yet, it seems that the same God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of the pagan king. God who meets us in worship at church is also with us when we get home. God who works through the prayers of his faithful people will still be at work when nobody is praying and when there are no faithful people to be found!
This is the story of Esther, where nobody prays, nobody talks about God, and nobody even seems to think about God, but God is at work anyway! Miracles don’t seem to be happening. In fact terrible things are happening. Even so, in the end God’s will is being done, and that has to be a ground of hope for all of us!
Stuff happens. People are bigoted, narrow-minded and selfish. They let us downand they damage us – sometimes accidentally and sometimes with clear and evilintent – and God, ultimately, works it out. This is not to say that things work outexactly as we wish they would or that, in retrospect, life looks like one perfectrose garden. Even so, God’s will will be done, and through the blood and thesuffering, love ultimately wins. Amen!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 30th September, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org