The first act of Esther’s story reads like a common tale. She’s an orphaned girl who uses what she’s got, her beautiful body, to make her way in the world. And she makes it. It is kind of a sordid fairy tale. Orphan girl sleeps her way to the top. It’s never that easy, of course, but after Xerxes banishes Vashti for not displaying herself, Esther wins the beauty pageant that sends her to the throne as Queen of Persia. Many advocastes for women’s rights (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton), laud Vashti and denigrate Esther. It reminds me of how Joan Harris, from Mad Men, who sleeps with a potentially lucrative client, Jaguar (the car company), in order to get a share of her advertising agency and to get the client. She does it, reluctantly and with turmoil, the night before the advertising agency is going to pitch to Jaguar.
The world, dominated by men, seems to favor the beautiful and create the powerful into beautiful people. It is not Esther’s fault that she attracts the King and becomes Queen; in fact, she gets dolled up by his court so that she can impress the king. She is who she is. Just like it isn’t the five great-looking Best Actress nominees‘ faults got their nominations, but what does the relationship between the physical appearance and success teach us? They are more than their physical appearance, and they are being recognized for their skill, but still, the world judges them and glorifies them for how they look, at least as much as how competent they are. It is not easy for a woman to succeed in a world of men, and the beautiful people are privileged, and the privileged people are made to be beautiful. Esther starts there, but she doesn’t end there.
I suppose it is easy for Esther, or Joan, or anybody to get stuck in the idea that all they are is their physical appearance, all they are is their sexuality, all they are is who they can attract. We could get stuck in the form that the world makes us into in our first act. The cost of doing that is not just ours to feel. Everyone feels it when we allow the world to exploit us. Joan is wronged, but her difficult choice wrongs the women around her, too. And the whole corrupt agency feels their crime. The whole world feels it too. The things we do in our lives affect the people around us, even those with whom are not intimately involved.
In the first act of life we are often stuck with a small idea of ourselves, aren’t we? It is tempting for all of us just to recycle where we have been. To go back to where we are comfortable. To go back to where we feel good. Progress does not happen in a vacuum. You don’t grow up just because you age. Esther knows that. And Esther moves beyond that. She is more than just her beauty, more than her body, and she grows into her fullness. Her past does not make her future. God can do something new with us next.
Esther manages to stay on the good side of the volatile, all-powerful Xerxes. But her Uncle Mordecai ends up on the wrong side of government favor. Mordecai refuses to bow down before the newly-appointed prime minister, Haman. Haman vows to kill not only Mordecai, but to kill all the Jews in the Empire. Mordecai asks Esther to help.
So here is where Esther has to decide whether she is going to enter her next act or not. She’s a Jew in name only. She’s not going to synagogue or anything; she’s never seen Jerusalem and barely knows where it is. She’s the orphan who is the Queen of Persia and there is absolutely no higher rank to which an orphan girl might aspire. She has eunuchs waiting on her hand and foot, great clothes. Her husband adores her. She’s young, beautiful, and relatively free. She has to be thinking, “And you want to drag me into politics? Besides, the king doesn’t know I am a Jew, so I’m OK.”
I am sure you can relate to this as a Christian. You have a relationship with God and the church, who all adore you, it is new, it is nice, it is all about feeling better and you do feel better. And then someone, like the pastor, or the cell leader, or the compassion team leader pops up and says, “Violence in Nigeria matters, gun violence is wrong, end of police brutality, advocate for the schools, stop watching TV so much, you should be in therapy, make the church work, don’t let it die, say ‘Jesus’ to your mechanic.” And suddenly there is a lot of responsibility. You have to be thinking, “Who am I really? I just had some of my childhood wishes fulfilled and now you are pressing massive adulthood on me.”
For Esther, interceding with the king means risking her life. Esther is supposed to wait until she is called. The queen doesn’t cuddle up to her husband whenever. She is off secluded in the harem away from prying eyes. So to appear in the throne room is not done. If someone just shows up unbidden, the king must recognize them by lifting his scepter to them or the guards might whisk them away to Guantanamo.
So Esther has a lot to think about. She is afraid to break the law and go to the King unsummoned. Mordecai tells her that she must or everyone is going to get killed. She decides to act. She says, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.” So she tells Mordecai to have all Jews fast for three days together with her, and on the third day she goes to Xerxes. He stretches out his scepter to her which shows that she is not to be punished. Not only that, he says he will give her whatever she asks. All she asks is that he and Haman come to a feast that night. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai and consults with his friends. At his wife’s suggestion, he builds a pole on which Mordecai can be impaled.
That night, Xerxes suffers from insomnia. When he can’t sleep he has the court records read to him. While listening he learns that Mordecai saved him from people plotting against his life. Xerxes is told that Mordecai has not received any recognition for saving the king’s life. Just then, Haman appears, to ask the King to impale Mordecai, but before he can make this request, King Xerxes asks Haman what should be done for a man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the man the king is referring to is himself, Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse, while a herald calls: “See how the king honors a man he wishes to reward!” To his horror and surprise, the king instructs Haman to do that very thing for Mordecai. After leading Mordecai’s parade, Haman returns in mourning to his wife and friends, who suggest his downfall has begun.
Immediately after, Xerxes and Haman attend Esther’s second banquet, at which she fulfills Mordecai’s request, confesses that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Overcome by rage, Xerxes leaves the room and storms around; meanwhile Haman stays behind and begs Esther for his life, falling upon her in desperation. The king comes back in at that very moment Haman has fallen onto the queen in terror and thinks he is molesting her; this makes him angrier than before and he orders Haman impaled on the pole that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. He then rescinds all orders for extermination.
Simple lessons Jews have been learning ever since that make sense to me, too. This story is celebrated annually during Purim. Four lessons.
Don’t worry who you are in the eyes of others. Use what you’ve got and God will give you opportunity. Even if you are exiled in a far off foreign land or you are oppressed, God can use you. The story of Esther encourages Jews to hold on to their identity despite oppression–it is a story about nationalism (amazingly God is not mentioned in the whole book!).
Don’t worry about your past. Esther was from a conquered, often despised people. She prostituted herself. She was an orphan. God is way bigger than your past.
Don’t worry about how long it takes to get to your second act. Let yourself be ready for what you can do. Mordecai convinced Esther to act by saying she was in the right place at the right time. By astutely using her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther saves her people, brings about the downfall of their enemy, and elevates her kinsman to the highest position in the kingdom. Esther becomes the model for all of us who live as strangers and exiles in this world.
Let God be your ruler. Esther’s story was a political satire, showing the danger of giving absolute power to someone who might turn out to be a fool. Ahasuerus governed by whim rather than by wisdom, becoming the tool of anyone shrewd enough to exploit him. The lesson is clear: do not give too much power to any one person; in the long run God alone should rule us.
I based this post on a speech Rod White gave.