In the Bible, there are certain things that when they happen, you should pay attention to them. For example, when God says directly something that we should do. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Or, my favorite, from the Book of Micha, the Lord requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Another time you should really pay attention is when a woman is mentioned by name. And when a book of the Bible is named after a woman! That means the woman must be incredibly important! Because it only happens twice, here, with Esther, and in the Apocrypha, with the book of Judith.
Or, at least the story must be important. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today, the overall story told in the book of Esther.
Because our lectionary really cuts this story in an odd way. In fact, this odd cutting of this one part is all we have of Esther in the lectionary. Which is too bad, because this really is an interesting story. So, if it’s ok with everyone, I’d like to take you on a story through the Book of Esther!
I think at the outset it’s important to mention that Esther is almost certainly just a story. Much of the Old Testament is a capturing of the stories that were told, the stories of the Hebrew people. Some stories are believed to be true or at least based in truth. And some are understood to be just stories. Important stories, that capture many different people, places, and stereotypes into fictional events, places, and people. Esther, like the Book that immediately precedes it, Job, is such a story.
Important stories, conglomerations of things that were passed down from generation to generation, to help explain to the Hebrew people who they are, where they come from, and why their identity as Jewish is important to hold on to.
And now, to the story! Esther is King Ahasuerus’s second queen. She is selected after a nationwide search because she’s beautiful and chosen by the King from among all of the most beautiful virgin women in the kingdom after each spent a night with him (before they were married). Had she not been selected as Queen, she would have joined the other women who had the honor of being considered but not selected as part of the King’s harem of concubines. Because, she would have been spoiled goods. Spoiled by the King, but spoiled nonetheless, and thus no longer of value to other men in society.
But the first Queen, Vashti, was still alive. She had recently been deposed because she did not come to the King while he was drunk and wanted to show off how beautiful she was to some of his friends. The King’s noblemen convince the king to depose her so that other wives do not begin disobeying their husbands. The king agrees, and Vashti is never heard from again.
Esther, was raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died. Mordecai was very well respected in his community, Jewish, and a very shrewd man.
After Esther was made queen, Mordecai would hangout by the gate of the kingdom to wait for times that he could see Esther. Because he did this, he heard two of the kings Eunuchs talking about a plot to kill the king.
Mordecai got word to Esther, Esther told the king, the allegations were investigated and found to be true, the eunuchs were hung, and the King was very happy with Mordecai.
Around the same time, the king promoted one of the members of his court, Haman, to be the highest ranking official.
Haman really liked being respected and his position of honor being recognized. He required everyone, other than the King, to bow down to the ground before him. Everyone did, except Mordecai. Why he doesn’t put himself on the ground whenever Haman came by isn’t said, but, it was a common practice later, much later, for the Jews to not lower themselves before the Greek authorities.
Haman is absolutely enraged at Mordecai, but won’t lower himself to actually strike Mordecai, because that would be below a man of his stature and importance. Instead, Haman decides to brutally murder all of the Jews in the kingdom as punishment to Mordecai. The king agrees in large part because Haman pays the king 10,000 Talents to be able to do so. A Talent was the equilivent of a years wages for the average person.
Mordecai and all the Jews, except Esther, put ashes on their faces and put on sackcloth in mourning. Somehow, Mordecai gets word to Esther about what’s going on, and tells her to go to the King.
Except that Esther can’t just go to the King, she must be called to court, and the King has not called her to court in more than 30 days. Going to court without being called was required to be punished by death. The only way around being executed was in the King held out his golden scepter to you. Esther gathered her courage and went anyway.
Fortunately for Esther, the King really is quite fond of Esther and holds out his scepter to her. He offers Esther anything she wants, up to half the kingdom.
And all she asks for is a private dinner with the King and Haman.
The king and Haman come to dinner and greatly enjoy it, the king again offers Esther whatever she wants, up to half the kingdom, and she asks for the king and Haman to come to dinner again tomorrow night. Everyone agrees.
Haman goes home, he calls his wife and his servants and his children to share with all of them how amazing he is! They all agree that he’s great. Haman again brings up that he really hates Mordecai, and Haman’s wife suggests that Haman build a 50 cubit high gallows to hang Mordecai on, and to get the king to let him hang Mordecai the next day.
Haman thinks this is the best idea ever! Orders the gallows built, and the next morning goes off to see the King, certain that the king will grant his wish.
The king looks at Haman and asks how Haman thinks a man who had done an incredible honor to the king should be honored. Haman, thinking the King must surely be speaking of him, says the man should be dressed in royal robes worn by the king, and paraded around the city on one of the King’s fancy horses while the person leading the horse shouts how wonderful the honored person is.
The king says “you’re right! That’s great! I never honored Mordecai after he saved my life, go honor him this way, yourself, now.”
Haman does this. And after, Mordecai is returned to his place at the gate, and Haman goes home, absolutely furious. And his wife warns him, if Mordecai is Jewish, be careful, because the King seems to really like him.
While he’s still seething, the king’s eunuchs arrive to summon Haman to dinner.
Haman goes, expecting another lovely and calm evening to help rejuvenate his spirits after such a bad day.
The dinner is lovely, and after, the king again asks Esther what she would like, anything at all, up to half his kingdom.
Esther asks the king to save her people, the Jewish people, to save them from the hand of Haman who has bought the right to execute them.
The King is furious at Haman for ordering the death of the Jewish people, which includes Mordecai and his wife (which the king had apparently not realized of before). The king goes out to walk in the garden to calm himself. Haman stays to beg Esther for his life. Esther isn’t swayed and reclines on her couch for a calm after meal moment. Haman throws himself on the couch (which is how they said bed in those days), and the king walks in, sees Haman in bed with his wife, and doesn’t even need to question what has happened.
He believes his wife. Believes Haman is capable of raping her. Has caught him in a position that looks like Haman is forcing himself on his wife.
It is at this point that the eunuch points out Haman just built gallows to hang Mordecai on. The king, in a moment that I can only imagine is filled with cool and pure disdain, says simply “hang him on that.”
Now, what we have today makes it seem like the end of the story. But it’s not. Next, we hear of how the Jewish people are allowed to arm and protect themselves, how they kill 75,000 people who came for them, and how Haman’s wife and sons are also hung from the gallows. The story also talks a bit more about how great Mordecai is.
And that’s it. That’s the book of Esther.
The book of Esther, the story these few pages tell, is the story of the festival of Purim. A festival that celebrates being alive.
What I think is the most interesting about the Book of Esther, honestly, is how little of it is actually about Esther. It’s the story of Mordecai, a story of survival, and story of the abilities of the Jewish people in battle.
Esther risks her life, but only at the insistence of Mordecai. She is brave and courageous throughout. But we don’t know much about why she did these things other than because Mordecai told her to.
We don’t know how Esther felt about giving up the one thing she had to offer, her virginity, to a man she had never met and potentially impoverishing herself for the rest of her life by doing so. She didn’t have a choice. All of the most beautiful women were required.
I love that a Book in the Bible is named after a woman. Truly. But this isn’t her story. Her voice isn’t heard.
This Book is an example of a woman being used for what a society thinks are her best virtues, her looks and her virginity.
I enjoy reading this story. It’s fun. It’s action packed. It’s short. It’s literarily excellent. The way scenes are started and ended with banquets and festivals, the way the role of honor comes back and forth, the book ending of people being hung, the king blindly agreeing with his advisors (first to depose Queen Vashti, then to allow the murder of all the Jews in his kingdom). It’s a well told story. I recommend it to everyone.
But my question today is: why isn’t Esther’s voice heard? I’m not going to answer that. I’ll just point out that this is common for women throughout history. It’s part of why so few women are named in the Bible. It’s part of why Mary Magdalene, who was clearly close to Jesus and important among the Disciples, it’s part of why history has vilified her and made her out to be a whore.
Why women are unimportant throughout history is not something I seek to answer today, but in the interest of learning how to love your neighbor as yourself, I encourage all of us to consider why this is.
I encourage us to consider this because it is part of how we can actually get closer to the humans that God created us to be, and who Christ calls all Christians to be.
In the interest of explaining the rhetorical tools I’m using today, I’m book ending this sermon with things in the Bible that we should pay attention to. And using the one book in Scripture named after a woman to better point us towards the commands that God has given us on how to live.
It’s up to us to live into and up to those commands.