“Isn’t Esther a ‘girls’ book?”
You might be surprised to find how many times I’ve been asked this question over the last two years. After all, books about Esther usually don’t appear on the shelves besides men’s devotionals, or even in the “Christian Living” section of the book store. They tend to be placed alongside books like Bad Girls of the Bible, a book which is clearly not marketed for men.
I must admit that the first time I really studied Esther was begrudgingly. At the time, I was still serving on the staff at Sojourn Community Church here in Louisville (where I still attend and serve as a non-staff pastor), and I was regularly serving as part of the preaching team. We were working through the books of the Old Testament, and were doling out preaching duties for Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Ezra and Nehemiah each got two or three weeks to cover their stories. Esther was only getting one, and since I wasn’t the regular preacher, the duties fell to me. (I also think the other preachers weren’t excited about having to preach a “girl’s book”.)
So I re-read the it. And while I had heard the story and read the book several times before, this reading took my breath away. This was not the tame bedtime story that its often made out to be. Esther is not a beautiful virtuous girl who won the heart of a King and saved her people. She is a profoundly compromised character caught up in a stunning drama. Her story is much less “Veggie Tales” and much more “Game of Thrones.” God’s name never appears in the book, and there is only one moment of overt religiosity, yet the story is rich with God’s providence and his grace. And it might be the book we need for times like ours.
These days, in our increasingly secularized world, Christian leaders are often pointing to the life of Daniel as a model for how we might make our way through dark times. But there’s a problem with making Daniel our point of reference. Daniel lived the formative years of his life in Jerusalem, immersed in the habits and practices that defined Jews as a tribe distinct from their neighbors. I don’t think we can separate Daniel’s acts of resistance – his refusal to bow to idols or his refusal to give up his habit of prayer – from these formative years. They gave him a firm ground on which to stand in contrast from the world around him.
We, on the other hand, are long past the days when Christianity served as a foundational backdrop for our culture. Even our evangelical churches struggle to serve this purpose today. At one extreme of the spectrum, we have churches that are relevant but not formative, and at the other, formative but not relevant. One draws crowds and entertains them; the other struggles to draw crowds because its practices, which were once effective at making disciples, no longer are.
In other words, with a few exceptions, most of us aren’t like Daniel. Our formative practices center around social media, entertainment, and the bizarre circus of our politics. There’s plenty of research to back this up. Christians are as likely to divorce and as addicted to porn as their non-Christian neighbors. Many evangelicals had no problem endorsing a presidential candidate who brags about sexual assault and adultery, and whose business dealings are notoriously shady. And of course, this is just a snapshot of conservative evangelicals. Liberal and progressive Christians represent another kind of compromise altogether; a willingness to abandon historic beliefs in order to align with the ethics of the sexual revolution. We’re in a real mess.
Enter Queen Esther.
Esther was born in exile, immersed in a Persian culture, and raised by a cousin named Mordecai – a name given in honor of the Persian god Marduk. Esther’s name, too, is in honor of the Persian goddess Ishtar. When their story begins, no one knows they’re Jewish. When Esther is taken into the King’s harem, her cousin tells her to do everything she’s told to do: eat the food, participate in the beauty regimen, sleep with the Persian King. There is compromise happening all the way through the story.
And yet, these two profoundly compromised characters experience a kind of awakening. They make themselves vulnerable in their hostile culture, and their self-sacrifice leads to a miraculous redemption for the people of God. Not only are their lives spared, there is a kind of religious renewal that happens at the end of the story, with the inauguration of Purim.
Esther’s story is an invitation for anyone who finds themselves immersed in a hostile world, struggling with a sense of lost identity, and longing for spiritual renewal. She confronts demonic evil with vulnerability and weakness. She and her cousin Mordecai practice a kind of resistance that not only improves the welfare of God’s people, but improves life throughout the kingdom of Persia. They fulfill the mandate of Jeremiah 29, seeking the good of the city.
I believe that, like Esther, we need an awakening. And by immersing ourselves in her story and following in her footsteps, we can renew our faith and empower God’s people to live with a kind of faithful presence in a hostile world.