The book of Esther is begging to be optioned for streaming. It has everything our culture loves in a binge-worthy show: Gatsby-level opulence, rebellion, debauchery, plot twists, revenge, and a particularly stellar heroine.
It’s also a good time for the church to take a closer look at Esther. If one in four women in the United States has been the victim of sexual assault or abuse, we would do well to assume that number includes the women in our pews. While the #MeToo movement has brought heated and needed conversations within the evangelical church, it’s also an opportunity for us to share the powerful message that God’s Word offers to women.
If your last experience with Esther was from a felt board or VeggieTales, you probably remember the story along these lines: Esther wins a beauty contest and then uses her position as queen to save the Jews from an evil plot against them.
But re-reading as an adult uncovers some eyebrow-raising details, even without the meddling of Hollywood creative license. The account sets the stage for the “beauty pageant”—King Ahasuerus needs a new queen because he dismissed his first wife for refusing to parade herself for his drunk friends. So he issues an edict that all men are to be “masters” in their homes, and he rounds up the unmarried women in the country for his personal harem. This contest, it turns out, is about more than beauty—it’s a sexual audition. One night with the king to prove your worth before each losing contestant joins the harem, another concubine among many.
In the book of Esther, the degradation of women feels so commonplace that it can be difficult to read. When we don’t understand the redemption narrative God is weaving through the Bible, when we can’t relate to the culture in which a given story takes place, when we struggle to navigate the literary styles, parts of our Bible can elicit strong reactions and big questions.
But God gives more grace. By studying these passages closely, we find a gospel balm for many of our frustrations. The apostle Paul declares that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16)—and this includes biblical narrative, even the stories we have difficulty understanding.
Here are four principles from Esther’s story to encourage and challenge this generation of believers.
1. God Does Not Condone Violence Against Women
Let’s start by getting this big one out of the way. While I sometimes long for a simple “thus saith the Lord,” offering direct condemnation of disturbing details, the Bible is more subtle. Our modern worldview can make it seem like these evils are glossed over, but much is going on below the surface.
It’s helpful to remember that biblical narrative is both history and literature. The text is carefully arranged by the author. In the book of Esther, the opening account of Vashti’s dismissal sets the tone for the inner workings of the Persian court so that we understand just how dire Esther’s situation will be. As the story unfolds, language in the passive voice offers the impression that characters are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Biblical narrators rarely offer information about motives. Instead, we’re left to judge inner character by each person’s actions.
At the same time, it’s helpful to employ our God-given imagination to compassionately consider the experience of the people involved. As I try to imagine the scene in Mordecai’s home, I’m filled with heartbreak. The text simply offers, “Esther also was taken into the king’s palace” (2:8). But when did the rumors of royal edict first reach their ears? What was Esther doing when the guards knocked on her door? Was she weaving or grinding grain, listening to a story or laughing at a joke? Did she know they were coming for her? Was she prepared for the journey ahead? Did she see it as a welcome escape or did she fear imprisonment? I have so many questions, but all we get is one short sentence.
Let’s consider the details the narrator does include. Esther is an exiled Jew, displaced from her homeland. She is also an orphan, displaced from her first home. And now, for a third time, she will be displaced from her uncle’s home into the king’s palace. She will be collected as a foreign accessory. Gone are any dreams she may have held of carrying on the legacy of her people. Now, in the clutches of the king, she has no hope to fulfill her calling.
At the same time, we might wonder why Mordecai didn’t hide his cousin, why Esther seemed so willing to hide her nationality, or what sort of religious compromises she had to make in order to participate in the harem contest. What in the world is God doing here?
As any producer will tell you, the best stories have impossible conflict. And that’s what we see here in Esther. The writer wants us to see cruelty and violence in this foreign kingdom so that we see God’s kingdom in stark relief. He wants to show us the depths of despair from which God raises up Esther for his good work. He wants us to feel pained by injustice so that God’s final justice triumphs. And as we stare deeply into the eyes of Esther’s pain, perhaps even seeing the reflection of our own, the text points us forward to God’s final, sweet redemption through Christ.
2. God Offers the Counsel We Need
Once inside the palace, Esther’s character is tested. She wins favor in the eyes of the officials, her peers, the king, and “all who saw her” (2:16). Shall we condemn her for working the system? For participating in an unholy union? Do we see her as a helpless victim oppressed by a power-hungry king? Or is she a wayward Jewess, dismissing the law of her people?
If we take a moment to suspend condemnation, we see a larger theme emerge for Esther. We must remember that all biblical characters are sinners who need God’s grace. Instead of guessing at her motivations, I’m drawn to a particular repetition in the text. Esther listens to Modecai’s advice about concealing her racial identity. She listens to the advice of Hegai about what to bring to the king. She listens again to Mordecai when he uncovers a plot against the king and when he challenges her to speak up for her people. The text tells us, “Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him” (3:20). She seeks counsel amid the highly complex circumstances beyond her control, and God grows her into a woman of firm conviction.
Esther’s story invites us to ask whose team we are on. Will we follow the Lord or the way of this world?
King Ahasuerus provides a foil in this area. He behaves according to every whim, with a crowd of cronies cheering him on. Those in his inner circle begin their requests with phrases like “if I have found favor” or “if it pleases the king.” Ahasuerus listens to those who tell him what he wants to hear. He appears uninterested in wisdom or truth, for he only wants affirmation and praise.
Even as we wrestle with the advice Esther obeys, we see a clear divide between the people of God and the Persian court. We’re meant to see God’s way as the good way and God’s people lifted up, even when they follow him imperfectly. Esther’s story invites us to ask whose team we are on. Will we follow the Lord or the way of this world?
Our efforts to pursue wise counsel should begin with the Author of wisdom. Wise counsel can come from various sources—Christian friends, godly pastors, even legal professionals and law enforcement officials—but our ultimate resource is God himself.
3. God Designed Men and Women to Work Together
In the climax of our narrative, a major contrast is established between Queen Esther and Queen Vashti. But it may not be what you think. Theirs is not the tale of the bad, unsubmissive wife versus the good, godly wife. This isn’t a contrast of wives at all. Instead, we see two different partnerships—Vashti and Ahasuerus compared with Esther and Mordecai.
King Ahasuerus and Vashti exemplify the sin-ridden conflict we expect between spouses after the fall. They operate separately. He orders Vashti to parade her beauty. She fights against his authority, and he claps back with legislation to control her. Their marriage is a partnership in name only, fraught with conflict, rebellion, and domination.
Esther poses a different way—not in her marriage to the king, which the text doesn’t describe, but in her partnership with Mordecai. Esther respects the wisdom of her cousin. He loyally checks on her at the gate every day during her 12-month beautification. Then, when Haman devises a plot to murder the Jews, Mordecai turns to Esther for help. He knows God may have intended her position “for such a time as this” (4:14). She accepts the challenge, even though petitioning the king might cost her life, and she makes a request to Mordecai in return: organize a fast among the Jews. Mordecai does “everything as Esther had ordered him” (3:17). In the end, God uses the faithful, collaborative efforts of Esther and Mordecai to save his people. Esther risks her life to expose Haman’s genocidal plot, and justice is served. Haman and his family hang on the very gallows he intended for Mordecai.
I’m struck by the great tragedy of certain feminist ideology that says men are the issue and that getting around or walking over them is the best solution. The problem of sin is much deeper and more insidious than the bad behavior of a few men or even the systemic inequalities perpetuated by generations. Where the serpent turns us against one another, the Bible’s narrative reveals incredible blessing when we work together for the sake of human flourishing. Ever since God named Eve the ezer—an aid in battle to complement Adam—his plan has been for men and women in his church to collaborate on the work he assigns.
Part of the curse in Eden was a rift in the holy way of relating male to female. The #MeToo movement has exposed ways in which men have leveraged social or physical power against the very women God designed to work alongside them. Sadly, this problem isn’t new. It’s been our trajectory since we left the garden.
Through Christ’s redemptive work, we’re now adopted into his family, and we relate to one another as brothers and sisters. And like a healthy family, we ought to each contribute according to our gifting and role. We lean in to support one another, and go out into the world to bring God’s good news.
4. God Has Not Forgotten You
Esther is the only book in the Bible without explicit action from the Lord. While this omission may seem odd, the literary choice is brilliant. During this period of exile, Jews felt like God had abandoned them. Yet in the twists and turns of Esther’s story, the writer drops hints of God’s supernatural presence. So many “coincidences” would seem as unbelievable from an ancient perspective as they do to us today. Esther’s rise, Mordecai’s discovery of the coup, Haman’s ironic humiliation—who but the Most High could orchestrate such an elaborate web of subplots?
While we may wonder at Esther’s motivations to please, we aren’t offered a window into her heart. But in the end, God is the real hero, working behind the scenes to secure the safety of his people through the influence of the one in the story with the weakest social capital. There is no logical reason for Esther to prevail, but God loves to use the weak things in the world to shame the strong.
The book of Esther isn’t meant to show us how to behave in morally ambiguous situations. It shows us how God behaves in spite of them.
The book of Esther isn’t meant to show us how to behave in morally ambiguous situations. It shows us how God behaves in spite of them.
Women, the same is absolutely true for you. Those times you felt passed over unjustly at work, the depravity you experience in catcalls and wandering eyes, and even in the midst of violence and abuse, God has not forgotten you. I don’t say this lightly. Our God is working amid broken systems and despite cruel sinners. You might feel like you’ve been exiled in a strange land that doesn’t know his name, but God does not forsake his people.
We serve a God who is able to work all things for good for those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). And while this verse may sound trite in a vacuum, Esther’s story allows us to sit in the gravity of it. It’s true for her, and it’s true for #MeToo. God can take my suffering—your suffering—and remake it into something good. Through Christ, God is in the business of making dead things come alive again, and that includes the parts of your heart and body that you feel are beyond repair.
We can trust that even when God seems absent in our own stories, he is always at work behind the scenes. He never abandons his people.
Wrestle with the Text
As I consider my own history and the stories of women I know, my questions for Esther can be difficult to satisfy. What about the injustice done to Queen Vashti? What happens to Esther in the end? Why doesn’t God destroy King Ahasuerus for his abuse of power? Perhaps you have others.
Keep asking these difficult questions, women. They’re a blessing in our churches, a challenge for us all to dig deeper into the powerful redemption of the gospel. We can bring heavy questions to Scripture. And sometimes, even as our questions remain unanswered, God uses our faithful inquiry to illuminate attributes of his character that make us stand in awe.
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