Re-reading the Book of Esther as part of my Lenten practice, I am reminded that the last time I read it was when we ‘did it’ in the sixth form. I remember then some of the girls saying that they thought Esther should have taken a more direct line in trying to save the Jews in the Persian Empire, but that seemed to me then, and seems even more so now, a reading designed to prove some modern feminist point rather than a prayerful one which may yield spiritual fruit.
Esther is a female orphan – the very type of mankind after the fall and exile (she like all the Jews is in exile in Persia); in terms of status, it was impossible to be poorer or lowlier. Her great beauty won for her an exalted state, but she is far from being mistress of her own fate.
Mordecai, her guardian, and perhaps her step-father, discovers that Hamam, the King’s Chief Minister, has secured approval from the King to have all the Jews exterminated. He makes a public spectacle of mourning, doing so near the palace of the King. Esther tries to get him to stop, sending him clothing to replace the sackcloth and the ashes, but her refuses. He gives Esther proof of what is being planned and urges her to intercede, implying it is for this purpose she has been rescued from her lowly state.
I feel for Esther. On the one hand her guardian, a man used to being obeyed, is urging her to intercede for her people, and on the other, the imperious King of Kings. Mordecai piles on the pressure, warning her that she need not expect to be saved if the King discovers,as he will, that she is a Jew; he asks, rhetorically what other hope there is – and in context the meaning is clear – if Esther does not act ruin will come to the Jews. As if this is not enough, he reminds her that she is the sole carrier of the family name, and if she dies, the family dies with her – so, no pressure then!
In all of this there is no mention of God, or any sign Mordecai thinks the salvation of the Jews can come via any source other than Esther. Esther knows, and tells him, that if she goes unbidden to the King, she will fall from favour and may even lose her life. But she agrees to do what she can – but, having accepted his instructions, issues some of her own, showing where she thinks salvation is to be found. She asks him and all the Jews to fast for three days, saying she and her ladies will do the same.
In the text in the Septuagint, we read what Esther did:
Then Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord. 2 She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair. 3 She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said: “O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, 4 for my danger is in my hand.
She apologizes for the idolatry committed by her people, as well as for her own sinfulness in being the concubine of a pagan king”
You know my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a filthy rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure.
She asked for help. After three days fasting and humiliation, she dresses in her finery and goes to the courtyard of the Palace, asking the Lord God to lend her aid. The same text has the dramatic story of her intervention – which involves her fainting before the King, and the Lord softening his anger and asking her to speak. Even then, she only invites him and Hamam to a feast on the following day. She is respectful of the King and his rules, and she does not, as Mordecai would have, ruin things by making her will and fears the centre of her concerns.
That night Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and asks for the court records to be read to him, no doubt so he could reflect on his own glories. In them is the record of the services Mordecai had rendered him, and he is reminded that the Jew has received no reward. This is shame to the King of Kings who, when Hamam comes to see him in the morning (to demand the death of Mordecai), asks him what should be done for the man the King wishes to honour. The vain Hamam, assuming he is the man, advises the person should be dressed in the King’s robes and led around on his horse with the announcement that this is how the King rewards his faithful servants; he is duly nonplussed when Ahasuerus tells him to do that for Mordecai.
At the second feast, Esther reveals she is Jewish, and tells a furious Ahasuerus of Hamam’s plot to kill her and all the Jews. The King leaves the room in great anger, and Hamam falls across Esther’s lap, begging her to intercede for him. His timing and method were equally bad, as when Ahasuerus comes back into the room, he assumes Hamam was attempting to assault Esther and orders him to be hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordedai, who takes Hamam’s exalted place.
But the Great King cannot annul his decree without losing face. What he can do, however, is to get Esther and Mordecai to write a decrees allowing the Jews to take action against those who try to destroy them – which is what happens – and Esther secures the death of Hamam’s sons. It is in honour of this deliverance the Jewish feast of Purim was established.
Esther worked within the huge limitations her position imposed on her. She did not, as the men in the story all sought to, impose her will on events. But what she did was to rely on God. She did penance, she confessed her sins, but she had faith that God would supply what was lacking. She found the courage to act, despite the danger, and God heard her prayer and saved her and her people. Not the heroism of all those powerful men, which in the end laid waste to many lives, but the quiet and humble faith that the Lord would save – as only he can.