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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Esther, by Viktor Bobrov (1888)

Esther

As a seminary student, I wrote this in my essay on the book Esther: “If I get a chance to preach on Esther, my main point would be to discourage reading it as a melodramatic love story akin to the tales of “A Thousand and One Night”. Certainly, as a work of literature, this book is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern legend, as it does unfold in a dynamic and captivating manner, is written with a stylistic flourish, and contains exaggerations. Unfortunately, both our Sunday school classes and the popular media, and even some women’s Bible-study groups, fail to recognize its darkest elements: an oppressive culture and political regime, a forced marriage and the lives of eunuchs and concubines, political schemes and personal greed, the violence of executions ordered on a whim of a tyrant, and a vengeful two-day massacre.” I never actually got a chance to preach on Esther until this day; yet even now, years later, I still stand by these words. When read through the lens of certain maturity and life experience, the story clearly begins to resemble that of Bathsheba and David, rather than the Song of Songs!

Set like a play with a prologue, crescendo of episodes, central conflict resolution, and epilogue, it contrasts impulsivity and self-control, pride and dignity, human agency and God’s providence, and conveys a very specific stance on the broader biblical theme of suffering and retribution. Spanning almost 10 years of the reign of Achashverosh (typically identified with the Persian emperor Xerxes), it opens with the scene of yet another scriptural banquet. This one lasted six-months for the officials of the Empire, and culminated in a week-long celebration for all other nobles, and commoners. Queen Vashti refuses to parade in front of intoxicated men, and the -- briefly remorseful -- King casts her out. He then begins a perverse search for her successor from the ranks of the multitudes concubines newly gathered into his harem. Esther, a descendant of the Jews exiled to Babylon in the preceding century, finds herself among them. It is not clear whether the king’s officials actually tore any girls away from their families by force, or they simply looked to be rid of a mouth to feed and dowry to pay. So I don’t see a reason for her “kind uncle” Mordecai to offer her up (quite contrary to the precepts of his faith) to a pagan, polygamous man. After four years of her preparation -- and violation of many other women -- Esther is the Queen; this entails that she gets to see the King once a month. The rest of the girls, of course, never return to their homes and childhoods.

Mordecai, in the meantime, happens to uncover a conspiracy against the King, which Esther conveys to the King. Then, the new second-in-command of the Empire, called Haman, rises to power, but Mordecai refuses to honor him. We are not told that Haman requires Mordecai to worship him, so his refusal seems to be motivated by personal pride, and shows the lack of foresight of the consequences for his people (unlike Vashti’s rebellion that endangered her alone). Rather than avoiding Haman, Mordecai loiters consistently in his presence and repeatedly refuses to bow. Haman retaliates by bribing the King, and effectively funding the state-wide massacre of the Jews. Esther is the only one who may plead with the King for their salvation; yet, she also risks being the first one executed, since nobody could approach him unbidden (though earlier, she had no issue telling him about Mordecai’s discovery!).

The King chooses to hear her, and she builds suspense by inviting him and Haman to two private dinners. Haman misinterprets them as honoring him, and pridefully builds the gallows for Mordecai. But, the King remembers Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against him. At her second dinner, Esther reveals her nationality, and begs for her people. The King asks for the name of the person behind the plan, as though he himself had not endorsed it! Enraged, he storms out (again, as though he’s above it all!), and Haman throws himself at Esther’s feet; a gesture that the King interprets as an assault upon return. Haman is executed; whether it is in reparations of the King’s honor, or in punishment for his evil scheme is to be read between the lines. However, the laws of the Empire are not reversible, so to remediate the fate of the Jews, the only thing the King may do is to allow them to arm and defend themselves. This they do; and in fact turn self-defence into genocide. 75,000 are killed in one day, and yet Esther requests another day of killing, and a public display of the bodies of Haman’s 10 sons and wife.

The Scriptures never hide the imperfection of humanity... Mordecai willingly endangers his people, surrenders Esther to a harem, and tells her to hide her faith. The Jews are overzealous in murder, and Esther is as vengeful as any man. Yet, when we embrace self-control, intelligence, bravery, and above all, a self-sacrificial stance, through our agency, God (who is never explicitly mentioned in Esther) transforms the worst scenarios to serve a greater purpose. So, echoing the stories of Joseph and Moses, Esther and Mordecai rise to power in the foreign country, and participate in the salvation of their people. These OT stories of human imperfection point us to Jesus’ perfect work. Esther had, in fact, nothing to lose; Jesus gave up everything voluntarily. In doing so, and in rising to life again, he showed that when tragedies befall the innocent, their suffering and death do not signify the end of the battle of good and evil. The victims’ lives on earth may be over, but in eternity they are healed and free. And, in contrast to the OT characters, in eschewing retaliation, he showed that self-sacrifice is the very power that destroys all evil with finality, and allows for eternal life with God. Amen.

Esther, by Edwin Long (1878)