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A near-transcript is available on this page.
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Do you know what it’s like to be faced with a tight-corner situation where you’ve got to do something, but you have a limited range of choices to work with, none of which seems quite totally right?
It can be quite a troubling thing to deal with!
Well, if that rings any bells with you, welcome to the Book of Esther ch. 2 and to Mordecai and Esther’s ugly world!
If it doesn’t please do be grateful … but listen up because this is a feature of faithful life in a fallen world, and you never know when such a dilemma might be coming your way.
Here’s the situation: Mordecai has had to take on looking after his relative Esther who’s an orphan and a young and vulnerable young woman in a totally male dominated, female-exploitative situation.
What’s more Mordecai and Esther are Jewish … the people of God’s Old Testament covenant … but they’ve been stuck in Exile for ages, their God having turned a bit silent on them as the result of centuries of open sin, and now the despot who rule over them is getting very much worse.
They have limited choices, each of which would compromise them in some way, and they just need God to step in and sort this out … but He seems to be tantalisingly distant.
There’s no perfect way through the challenges about to be dealt to them.
But there’s something technical here we really need to notice.
The Hebrew is full of the passive tense here in this chapter as these people have things DONE to them that they wouldn’t chose, and their choices in the situation are thoroughly limited and not ideal.
It happens to God’s people everywhere right up until this day.
A horror-story’s about to unfold.
Vashti refused to come to the King in the third year of Xerxes’ reign … 483 BC.
Esther was made Queen in the seventh year of this reign … 479 BC.
During the intervening years, Xerxes was away fighting a disastrous war in Greece.
He suffered humiliating defeat.
He depleted the treasuries of the Persian Empire.
He discredited himself in the eyes of his subjects.
It left him in not a terribly good mood.
And shortly afterwards, Esther was chosen to be his wife.
What we’re told here in Esther 2:1 is that
“Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. “
In the Hebrew here there may be a tinge of regret expressed in the king’s remembrance of Vashti.
There is perhaps a hint that he wished for her presence once again, although that was not feasible from a practical standpoint … she’ been banished by the law of the Persians and Medes and there was no revoking such a matter in Persia.
Well, anyway, the suggestions from the king’s attendants concerning a replacement for Vashti seem to be an effort to overcome the king’s nostalgia.
You can just imagine, it was to the royal officials’ advantage to seek the betterment of the king’s outlook.
Those around him the most were probably the most likely to suffer the effects of his bad mood.
The Greek historian Herodotus says that his life after his military defeat was a life of sensual over-indulgence … dallying in due course with the wives of some of his officers which led to the anger that resulted in his assassination in his BEDROOM in 465 BC.
And this all figures because the way Xerxes went about chasing his new Queen was not the way such a thing was normally done in Persia.
The Queen was normally chosen (as Darius had chosen before) from the noble families of Persia.
Often they came from the families of the King’s seven closest advisers (who we met in 1:14).
Some suggest that perhaps one of Memucan’s motives in having Vashti banished might have been the hope that someone from HIS family might have been chosen in place of Vashti.
So, in 2:1-11 the word of the King got out through the land, and ‘many’ young girls were brought into the harem at Xerxes’s court.
Now, you can see that as a feminist issue if you wish to … certainly you can because young women are being brought to the King for him to try them out to see if they give him sexual pleasure, all without their voluntary consent.
That is a feminist issue … it’s a human rights issue!
But it is much more, because whilst all these girls were being taken in this way, Herodotus reports that five hundred young boys were gathered each year by the Persian ruler to be castrated and serve as eunuchs in the Persian court.
Essentially, you see, there’s more than a feminist issue here … this is about how power was used in the Persian court against people in no position to resist it.
As Karen Jobes writes: “Everyone, whether male or female, was at the disposal of the King’s personal whims.”
God’s people are living in compromised and compromising times … with very little say in their own life and the likelihood that personal self-determination would be wrenched away from anyone at any time.
Can you IMAGINE it?
It’s a narrative, you see?
… we are supposed to use our imaginations to try to understand what it must have been like for the people in the story … because doing so is going to teach us something.
THAT was the experience of life for God’s people living under King Xerxes’s rule in the Persian Empire.
It is at this point we get introduced to Esther and her relative Mordecai, and we can see straight away that this experience of life in exile in Persia has knocked them about a bit … we immediately start picking up hints that they had compromised with the pagan culture around them as a survival tool in this terrible place.
But we’re going also to learn to appreciate the limits on their choices, and in due course we’ll see how God can deal with the consequences of the compromise born of limited choices set before His people.
“Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah. 7 Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
8 When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. She pleased him and won his favour. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.”
It would be hard to imagine we are not supposed to be shocked by all of this … possibly hurt by it because it is very possible this sort of abuse raises painful memories in God’s people to this day.
Now, Mordecai has a name that sounds like he’s being described as a worshipper of Marduk … the male deity of the Babylonians.
This jars bit because we’ve just been told about his Jewish ancestry … he’s a Benjaminite and descendant of Kish (the father of King Saul).
Interestingly, a tablet discovered in 1904 at Persepolis contains this name as a Persian official in the early years of King Xerxes’ reign … and the description of Mordecai in this book as a man who ‘sat in the Gate’ denotes that Mordecai was an imperial official.
It’s a potentially interesting link.
Esther is introduced to us as Mordecai’s cousin who he’s brought up because she was an orphan.
That’s quite a picture of vulnerability there, don’t you think?
But at the very start we’re told NOTHING about Esther herself but her beauty.
Just like Vashti, she was a beauty.
Esther also has a name that she owes to the experience of Exile … Hadassah.
It looks as if ‘Esther’ was a name given to Hadassah to accommodate to her vulnerable situation as a member of God’s people in the Persian Empire, Esther being a Hebrew transliteration for ‘Ishtar’, the Babylonian goddess of love and war.
That fits well with Esther’s story: she is beautiful and in just one night pleases the King more than all the other virgins taken to see if they’d please the King.
Interesting, isn’t it, because the outcome of this story suggests strongly that Marduk and Ishtar … the Persian deities … are subservient to the purposes of the unnamed God of the Jews.
The author mentions both names, both identities … Esther IS a woman with two conflicting identities and that’s an issue that will be brought into sharp conflict later in the story.
So that’s what we know and what we’re supposed to take with us as we imagine ourselves into the account that unfolds here now with Esther … this vulnerable, conflicted and to some extent (as we’ll see) spiritually compromised young Jewish believer in hiding.
Well, in v. 8 Esther gets ‘taken’ (the language is glaringly expressing her vulnerability by its use of the passive here) into the violent, unstable, pagan King’s harem.
We’re supposed to let our imaginations run again as we try to picture what that would be like for her.
The Jews (v. 6) had been ‘carried’ into Exile.
Esther was ‘taken’ (v. 8) into the harem.
Regardless of how she felt about it, Esther was at the mercy of this ruthless pain of a king, just as all her people were too.
They are swept along by circumstances way beyond their control.
And they were just doing what they needed to do to get by.
That’s why Mordecai (v. 10) instructs Esther to conceal her nationality and family background … her origins, ethnicity and faith.
This inevitably means compromising any loyalty to God’s Word - His Law - that she may still have openly had.
Opposition to God and His people was evidently on the prowl in this environment.
And there she was ‘taken’ into the harem of the crazy King of Persia, but Mordecai still found a way to check up on her daily … indicating the concern that was warranted for her welfare in this compromised and compromising situation.
Esther wakes up the next morning in the harem.
All these young virgins around her will be used by the King, probably just the once, then banished from his presence to waste the rest of their lives, fruitlessly secluded in the harem.
Esther’s chances in there are pretty slim … not a great place to be.
And yet … look ye here!
“Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 She pleased him and won his favour.
Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food.
He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.”
So Esther in the harem is living with an unusual indication of the favour of the God Who is silent but Who is nonetheless there with her.
This book is already going about its business of showing how, against all the odds, the fate of God’s people living vulnerably within a hostile world can be reversed.
And yet all this is going on while Esther lived in this threatening situation awaiting her fate … possibly her doom … under such objectifying, demeaning and threatening conditions as these:
v. 12 “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.”
Even so, against all odds, in some mysterious way the events of human history work to fulfil the promises the covenant God made to His people at Sinai … even though those people’s compliance with His covenant is far from perfect.
This is the God Who in His righteous wrath remembers mercy.
And that same God is with Esther even in the terrible situation she is thrown into on this crazy Persian King’s test bed …
V. 15 “When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favour of everyone who saw her. 16 She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.”
It seems significant that Esther simply took what she was told to and did nothing to try to get the Queen’s position … she isn’t seeking this situation simply going along with what she cannot avoid.
Who can accurately imagine what that experience would have been like for Esther … so horribly spiritually compromised as a closet member of God’s covenant people, with the very strong prospect of being just another rejected but imprisoned woman wasting her life away in Xerxes’s harem for the rest of her life.
How far SHOULD God’s people go to conceal their beliefs in a society that is hostile to their convictions?
I mean … Daniel and the lads DIDN’T conceal their convictions and it was all VERY threatening.
God stepped in to rescue them astonishingly miraculously.
But He didn’t for Stephen, martyred so soon after the great victory day of that first Pentecost of the Church.
And Esther went on and lived and actually … subsequent to her being spiritually compromised in the way that she was … proved to be the deliverer under God of her people and of God’s plans and purposes for them.
Mordecai and Esther assimilated themselves enough to Persian culture to be able to conceal their faith but Esther’s decision to come out of that closet and finally identify herself with God’s people at risk of her own life shows where her heart and her allegiance actually, ultimately, lay.
This becomes a powerful encouragement to us who go through life trying to deal with situations where we want to do the right thing, to walk God’s path through complicated and confusing experiences in life where we certainly don’t feel we are on top of the right path to take, nor in control of our choices or opportunity to live out our convictions.
And yet, in these two people at the heart of this story of Esther, whether they always knew what the right course of action was, whether or not they actually got the decisions right … even whether or not they had the best of motives … God was working through their clouded vision, their imperfect actions and their questionable decisions to fulfil His perfect purposes.
This is not in the least to excuse having a sinful unbelieving heart that turns away from the Living God.
I’m suggesting that’s not what we’re dealing with here
It is to say that, in spite of our cold hearts and our unwise hearts and minds, our gracious God still works out through our imperfect decisions and actions His perfect purposes … for His Glory.
There is a great danger in not recognising this.
It is the danger of pretending to be other than this.
To pretend we are better than this.
Even the godliest people in the Bible were flawed, often confused and sometime even downright disobedient.
And we are no different.
Karen Jobes comments “Yet our gracious God omnipotently works His perfect plans through them, through us, and most surprisingly, even through powerful political structures that sometimes operate in evil ways.”
‘Even through powerful political structures that sometimes operate in evil ways’?
I dare to suggest it might sometimes do us good to remind ourselves of this when we are watching the news …
What He is doing is nowhere near apparent … and it’s hard to know what Esther or Mordecai could possibly have made of what must for them have been the inscrutable plan of God that was being worked out in what happened next in the King’s bed-chamber … but what happens next is so remarkable (if not bizarre) that we are left thinking God MUST have been active in what was taking place.
And yet the outcome of Xerxes’ beauty contest with benefits?
It’s certainly not what any one of us would have chosen!
This King Xerxes really is a man who is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.
That description was first used by Lady Caroline Lamb (1785–1828) about her lover Lord Byron, but while Byron had intent, he had very little wealth, power or authority to do you harm with.
Xerxes was a different kettle of fish.
He had the power AND the inclination!
What you want to avoid when you’re living in a godless, violent situation like the one we’re being shown here is to come to the notice of the despot at all.
There’s a Japanese proverb that says it is the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down.
That takes on a far greater poignancy in a place like the Persian Empire under the reign of King Xerxes.
And here’s Esther - who’d be far safer NOT coming to the notice of the King, far less pleasing him in his bed-chamber and being made the successor of deposed Queen Vashti.
And yet, the God Who is pretty silent but nonetheless at work brings this highly unlikely event to pass:
V. 17 “Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favour and approval more than any of the other virgins.
So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
18 And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials.
He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.”
Esther’s neck is now very firmly on the block and she is both compromised spiritually by her relationship to the King and dependent on a changeable, drunken, letcherous personality for every aspect of her situation in life.
So this story raises the question: how little choice and how compromised out of the ‘ideal’ can you become … and God has still got it all under control?
You see, we know the end of this story.
We know God is going to use this imperfect situation and the alarming outcome of this lack of viable-looking choices to actually achieve the fulfilment of His plan and purposes and the rescue of His people … but at this point in the situation it’s looking pretty dreadful.
At this point let us be TOTALLY clear.
This is NO excuse for taking the seriousness of sin lightly … not at all.
The issue here is that the people of God are NOT always given excellent choices.
We know from what follows in this story that Esther is prepared to put her life on the line in the service of God and His people … there’s no doubt about that.
And we know she’s prepared to do that in Exile, when God’s presence is not comfortably felt very much, and His voice isn’t heard through the prophets.
And we know about all those passive voice verbs in this chapter which show that so much of this is being done TO Esther and Mordecai, and not BY them as if they had the choice.
These two people … God’s people … are getting tossed on the tide in this section of their lives, but God (though silent) is still in control as they make the best of the limited range of options available to them and are coerced into compromise they can find no way to avoid.
It’s called ‘moral injury’, and it happens to this very day.
An article in The Lancet (Psychiatry) in June 2021 helps us understand this concept of ‘moral injury’:
“Moral injury is understood to be the strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person's moral or ethical code.”
It is a damaging experience, it can lead to a range of psychiatric disorders and illnesses and it is something that these days we are urged to take seriously.
It concerns stuff we’ve had no choice about doing that violates our faith, ethics, belief system or whatever, and it can be seriously injurious to the person.
Just IMAGINE how Esther would have thought about herself for all that she’d passively been pushed into by her situation.
And yet it was THAT situation that the God of all grace used and transformed to deliver His people.
And the fact we serve a dynamic, gracious and omnipotent God Who can do THAT,
must be a great help to us when we are seeking to serve Him from a position of moral injury,
having to act in the best way we can,
on the limited knowledge we might have,
when we have really limited choices.