Lesson: Esther 3:1-6, 4:12-14, 7:1-6, 9:20-22
The book of Esther is edgy, funny, and strange. Many commentators think it’s intended to be a farce – a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, ludicrously improbable situations and people behaving badly. This makes more sense if you read the whole book. In the first chapter, we meet the king of the Persian Empire, an ineffectual, pompous buffoon, surrounded by a cadre of advisers who pander to his ego. He throws a preposterously lavish, six-months-long party. The party ends when the drunken king summons his queen, Vashti, to parade in front of his guests wearing nothing but her crown. She refuses. Score one point for Queen Vashti. The king banishes her in a fit of rage, but soon he’s petulant and lonely.
His advisers suggest that perhaps a harem of the most beautiful young virgins might brighten things up a bit. Our heroine, Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her Uncle Mordecai, is selected for this dubious honor. Each of the young women is put through a beauty-and-perfume regimen for an entire year, and then, the one who pleases the king most gets to be queen. And the winner is – you guessed it – Esther.
The whole story would be infuriating if it weren’t so over the top. The book of Esther is poking fun at the Persian elite, mocking the decadence of empire and the absurdity of human pretensions. And of course, every story needs a villain. That’s Haman, a prince who’s elevated to high rank for no particular reason but who takes himself very seriously. When Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, won’t bow down to Haman, he responds by convincing the king to annihilate every Jew, young and old, on a day Haman will choose by casting lots. The king casually agrees to this, which makes no sense, but then – since when did people in power have to make sense?
Concerned for the fate of his people, Mordecai asks Esther to talk to the king. She’s reluctant, because if you go into the king’s chamber without being summoned, you’re put to death. The only chance you have is if the king holds out his “golden scepter” toward you. Esther says the king hasn’t summoned her to his chamber for a whole month, so the golden scepter may not be likely to point in her direction. And yes, this is intended as bawdy humor, setting a comic rather than a tragic tone.
Mordecai convinces Esther to give it a try. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe you’re in this place at this time for a reason.” Esther decides to act. She says, “If I perish, I perish.”
Esther goes to the king’s chamber. The golden scepter points in her direction. In fact, she pleases the king so much that he says he’ll do anything she asks. She asks him to come to dinner and bring Haman along. At dinner, after a bottle or two of wine, the happy king again tells Esther to ask whatever she wants of him. She asks him to come to dinner with Haman again the next evening. Haman goes home and entertains his household with stories of his great success in court; how he and only he has been invited to dine with Esther and the king.
At dinner the next evening, Esther tells the king of the terrible plan to be carried out against her people. He seems astonished, which makes no sense, given he okayed it. The king asks, “Who is the man?” In high melodrama, Esther points to Haman, “a foe and enemy!” The king orders that Haman be hanged on the preposterously high gallows that Haman himself had constructed to do away with Mordecai – 75 feet tall.
On the day the Jews were to be slaughtered, they defend themselves, perhaps a tad too robustly for our tastes. Mordecai issues a decree that from now on, on the 14th day of the month of Adar, the Jewish people will celebrate with feasting and holiday making. The feast day shall be named after the pur – the lots – that Haman cast. And it was so, and the Jewish festival Purim was born. And they lived happily ever after.
All of this humor doesn’t dull the underlying seriousness to this story. It is, after all, the story of an attempted genocide of the Jews in ancient Persia, a story that has, unfortunately, been played out again and again in Jewish history. The joke goes that all Jewish holidays can be summed up like this: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
But the strangest thing of all about the Book of Esther is that God is never mentioned. Not once. There is no prayer and no worship; there are no miracles. There are, however, many coincidences. Esther, out of all the women, just happens to become queen. The king just happens to have insomnia on the night of Esther’s first banquet. The court records read to him just happen to be the ones that tell him that Mordecai saved him from an assassination attempt earlier in the story. Haman just happens to come to the court when the king is contemplating how to reward Mordecai. And the list goes on.
There’s an old saying that a coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous. Well, maybe. Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. The question is, “Was God involved here?” And I don’t mean literally here, because the Book of Esther was never intended as history. What I mean is: Are we supposed to understand that God is an active character in this story, even if God is never mentioned? And if so, how? How can we tell? How do we discern – how do we detect and comprehend God’s will and action in the real world – both in times of crisis and in the everyday realities of our own lives? We may wish for God’s direct intervention, for a burning bush or an obvious miracle, but most days we, like Esther, don’t get such things. Most of the time, as someone put it, God is subtle to a fault.
My favorite musing on these questions comes from author Frederick Buechner, talking about his father’s suicide:
“As I understand it,” writes Buechner, “to say that God is mightily present even in such private events as these does not mean that [God] makes events happen to us which move us in certain directions like chessmen. Instead, events happen under their own steam as random as rain, which means that God is present in them not as their cause but as the one who even in the hardest and most hair-raising of them offers us the possibility of that new life and healing which I believe is what salvation is. For instance I cannot believe that a God of love and mercy in any sense willed my father’s suicide; it was my father himself who willed it as the only way out available to him from a life that for various reasons he had come to find unbearable. … [B]ut I believe that God was present in what happened. I cannot guess how [God] was present with my father – I can guess much better how utterly abandoned by God my father must have felt if he thought about God at all – but my faith as well as my prayer is that [God] was and continues to be present with him in ways beyond my guessing. I can speak with some assurance only of how God was present in that dark time for me in the sense that I was not destroyed by it but came out of it with scars that I bear to this day, to be sure, but also somehow the wiser and the stronger for it. … As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.”
God offers the possibility of new life and healing. God the director conveys to us, somehow, from the wings, “if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play [our] roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.”
In Esther’s story, God conveyed that message from the wings through Mordecai. “Perhaps you are here, at this place and time, for such a time as this.” This motivated her; you might say Mordecai lit a fire under her. Which is appropriate; fire being one of the primary symbols for the Holy Spirit, the way we describe God’s activity in the world. And then Esther, compelled to speak her truth in a court of powerful and corrupt men on behalf of a vulnerable group of people, lit a fire under the king.
On Friday morning, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona had just announced his intention to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, despite emotional testimony a day earlier from Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault. But then, two private citizens, Anna Marie Ochilla and Maria Gallagher, stopped Senator Flake at the private Senate elevator, and pleaded with him to listen. He did. He listened to the heartfelt overtures of two sexual assault survivors who knew he had already made up his mind, and lobbied him anyway, saying “Look at me; don’t look away from me.” Those two women lit a fire under Senator Flake, in his heart or mind or conscience. Flake changed his mind, and forced a pause in the confirmation hearings for a limited-scope FBI investigation.
Was God involved? I believe so. Our God, who offers the possibility of new life and healing. Our God, the director who conveys to us, somehow, from the wings, “if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play [our] roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things….” I’m not saying we immediately believe every accusation and condemn those accused. I’m saying that, as followers of Jesus, our call is to listen – to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to the vulnerable, as Jesus did. Above all, our work is to proclaim boldly that the God we meet in Scripture opposes abuses of power and privilege, no matter what form they take.
The women of this country, collectively, are speaking truth to abusive power; they are speaking from the wings and they are lighting a fire. Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters are speaking up after long silences about the myriad of unjust ways women and girls are being demeaned in both daily acts and in our national conversation. If you do not know anyone impacted by sexual abuse or harassment, it’s only because no one has trusted you enough to tell you. I don’t know a single adult woman without a story to tell, from minor incidents to horrific ones. Not all of us are called to confront senators in elevators. But through these women who are speaking up, God is lighting a fire under us to act – to speak or to listen to the truth, to teach our sons and daughters about consent, to call for accountability from our leaders, to remove the shame attached to speaking out, and to move beyond the toxic “boys will be boys” attitude that has prevailed far too long.
Last week was exhausting if not traumatic for most women, and for men as well. In spite of the exhaustion – or maybe because of it – a fire’s been lit under me; this is an issue where God is most definitely involved, nudging us all to seek ways to offer new life and healing. What about you? As you move into the week ahead, take that question with you. In your own story, in your life, how might God be nudging you to enrich and ennoble and hallow – that is, make holy – all that is? How might you keep our eyes, ears and hearts open?
Who knows? Perhaps you’re here for just such a time as this.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Esther 1:1-12.
 Esther 2:1-18.
 Debbie Blue, “Biblical farce,” January 12, 2016, The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-12/biblical-farce.
 Esther 3:1-15.
 Esther 4:1-11.
 Esther 4:12-16.
 Esther 5:1-12.
 Esther 6:14 – 7:6.
 Esther 7:9-10.
 Esther 8:9-14, 9:1-15.
 Esther 8:15-17, 9:18-26.
 Esther 2:19-23, 6:1-3.
 Esther 6:4-11.
 Formerly scholars identified King Ahasuerus with Xerxes I of Persia, but there was no King Ahasuerus, and it is likely that the Book of Esther is more like historical fiction.
 Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22,” September 27, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2631.
 Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 31-32.
 Niraj Chokshi and Astead W. Herndon, “Jeff Flake Is Confronted on Video by Sexual Assault Survivors,” September 28, 2018, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html?login=email&auth=login-email.