When we last left the Jewish people, they were strangers in a strange land, living at the mercy of Babylonian emperors. With Daniel and his friends, we saw how the other advisors and people seemed to resent them, for having a different God and different ways and being blessed by God. We saw how God protected Daniel and his friends. Today we’re going to look at a story with a similar theme—a threat to the Jewish people, jealous advisors, and mercurial emperors. But instead of a story about four men, it’s a story about one young woman. Esther.
But before we dive into the story I want to touch on something else that we’re going to see relevant through this whole story. Obviously, the story is steeped in racism—with the Babylonians hating the Jewish people just because they’re Jewish. But unlike Daniel’s story this story has an extra element and that is misogyny—which is to say sexism against women. We’ve talked about before how society’s during this time were extremely patriarchal—that is not only were men the most important, but society was oriented towards father/master figures who were in charge of the entire family and the rest of the family was expected to fall in-line. In this sort of model of society women are viewed as no more than property. They were owned by their fathers and husbands, and because of that they were expected to do everything their fathers and husbands demanded—even when it was wrong and inappropriate.
And that’s how our story is going to start and we’re going to see this come back over and over again. So while Daniel and his friends had to deal with being viewed lesser because they were Jewish, we’re going to see Esther has an extra layer—not only is she Jewish but everyone would look down on her for the mere fact she is a woman.
Okay let’s open to the book of Esther and someone please read Esther 1:5-12.
5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings[b] and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. 9 Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
The emperor of this time is a guy called Ahasuerus, sometimes translated as Xerxes. Fun fact, this is the same emperor in the movie 300 if you’ve ever seen that. The emperor gives a magnificent banquet for everyone and the Bible goes into some decription of how elaborate and opulent it is. The men are drinking without restraint, the king allows them to do whatever they want, and the implication here is that the men are very drunk. And when people are drunk they don’t make wise or good decisions. It also says Queen Vashti is throwing a banquet for the women at the same time. So that would mean there are no women at the king’s banquet.
Seven days of partying—seven days of hard drinking and everyone is drunk and raucous, and then the king demands the Queen be brought to him. Now it says “wearing the royal crown.” There is an implication here that many Biblical scholars believe it’s implying that she would wear *only* the royal crown. So the King was demanding that his queen come before this room full of drunk and out of control men, completely naked except for a crown on her heard, so that all the men can just ogle her and demean her.
Naturally, Vashti refuses.
You might think she is queen and therefore has equal power to him and refusing him is no big deal. That’s how we often think of kings and queens, right? That together they rule the country. That is not the case. Vashti is not the emperor’s equal. She is his property according to the laws of the land. And her refusal to demean and belittle herself in front of these men is an act not just of defiance but of bravery. She is asserting herself as a person, with her own agency and destiny, she is saying that she controls who sees her and she will not be demeaned in such a way, and by saying that she is taking her own life into her hands. The king can—and we’ll see does—have her killed for this.
This is important to remember. Vashti is not some villainess who should have obeyed her husband. She is a woman caught in a no-win situation. If she had obeyed and gone naked before that room of men, who knows what would have happened to her. By asserting her own autonomy, we know what happens to her. And it’s not good.
Because the king is livid, and his advisors tell him he needs to make an example of Vashti in front of the entire kingdom. Because—they argue—if the king’s own wife can defy him, then what is to stop every woman in the kingdom from suddenly thinking for herself and thinking she can make choices outside of her husband or father’s wants and needs.
The Bible is not condoning this sort of misogynistic behavior, in fact this entire book of the Bible subverts this idea we’ll see in the end. But very real women—like Vashti—paid the price for men’s dominance of women.
The Bible doesn’t say what happens to Vashti, not directly. She is just disappeared from the narrative. The implication is that she is killed. But she could have also been imprisoned for the rest of her life. Either is a likely outcome, but I think based on the fact that we never see Vashti again and that the king is driven to replace her—that is find a new queen—that she’s dead.
Dead because she protected her modesty and her bodily autonomy. It is a terrible thing that is done to Vashti.
Someone please read Esther 2:1-8.
2 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3 And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. 4 And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.
5 Now there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. 6 Kish[a] had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away. 7 Mordecai[b] had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. 8 So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.
Eventually the king is like, “Man, I miss having a wife.” Now does that mean the king doesn’t have women? No. Kings back then had harems—that is entire groups of women that were either their wives or concubines. Women they could turn to at any time. We saw this with David and Solomon who had hundreds of wives. Ahasuerus would have a similar set up. But likely Vashti was his head wife—and she is described as the queen, so the wife who probably supported him at political functions and appeared at political events where he might need a woman present. He has no head wife right now—and instead of just promoting one of his harem, his servants are like, “Let’s gather all the prettiest girls and you can pick the most beautiful girl to be your queen.”
And he’s like “Cool. That seems like a great idea.”
So all the beautiful young women are gathered. Probably like sixteen-year-old girls. And one of the girls chosen is a young girl named Hadassah. That’s her Hebrew name, and her Babylonian name is Esther. She lives with her cousin—sometimes referred to as her uncle, because I imagine he’s an older cousin—because her parents are dead. This literally makes Esther one of the most vulnerable people in the entire population. Not only is she Jewish and therefore looked down upon, not only is she a woman and therefore viewed as a second-class citizen, but she is an orphan. Orphans were one of the most vulnerable populations because they lived by the charity and mercy of the rest of their family, and it wouldn’t be unheard of for their family to turn them out when they became inconvenient. But it seems that Mordecai has raised Esther basically as his own.
But Esther is beautiful, so she is taken from Mordecai and brought to the royal palace to be in this competition to be queen. Did Esther have a choice? Probably not. I imagine if the palace turned its eye on you and declared you fit for this competition, you had no choice—they would take you one way or another. If someone was given a choice, the officials wouldn’t have given it to Esther. They would have given it to Mordecai. Maybe Mordecai felt there was no choice either or maybe he thought it was politically expedient to use his young orphaned cousin to secure some political leverage. We don’t know. But likely Esther would not have been asked or given a choice in the matter. She would be considered Mordecai’s property.
Esther quickly rises to the top. The guy in charge of the women takes a liking to her and decides to help her out. And in the end she is chosen to be queen. But the other girls they don’t get to go home. They become part of his harem either way. They become his secondary wives. So Esther being part of this competition—going home was never an end result that would actually happen. She would either become *the* queen or a secondary wife.
Someone please read Esther 2:17-18.
17 the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers—“Esther’s banquet.” He also granted a holiday[a] to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality.
The king chooses Esther. It says he “loved” her more than any of the others, but I don’t want you to think of this as love. This is not a romance novel. The king was pleased with Esther more than any other of the girls. She won the competition. But did he like her as a person? Probably not. She was just the prettiest and most pleasant of this group of girls he now owned. Esther is now made queen and they have a banquet.
Something we skipped over in all of this. It’s verse 2:10. “Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell.” No one knows Esther is Jewish. She is playing the part of just another Babylonian girl. Esther is not brash like Daniel, making it clear who she is. Esther hides it. Why? Is she less devote than Daniel? I don’t know, but the world is a much more dangerous place for a girl back then. And if the men in charge of the harem had known her true identity, they may not have helped her.
Esther is walking uncertain ground. The queen before her was killed for defying an order of the king—a completely reasonable order to defy, an order that Esther would probably also defy if she was following God. People in Babylonian hated Jewish people for no other reason than they were Jewish, and Mordecai wanted Esther to have every opportunity to live through this process and come out on top. So she kept her ethnicity a secret.
Meanwhile, the villain of our story appears, a Babylonian guy named Haman who hates Mordecai with an undying passion. Someone read Esther 3:1-6.
3 After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. 2 And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. 3 Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. 6 But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
Haman is a high-ranking official under the king. Because he’s so high ranking, all the other guys boy before him as if he is the king. Except for one—except for Mordecai. This infuriates Haman. Everyone is supposed to bow before him and how dare this one guy defy him! Why doesn’t Mordecai bow? I don’t know. Mordecai seems to be a loyal citizen of Babylon. He works to help out the king at different points in the story and even gets honored by the king for his actions at one point. But regardless, he doesn’t bow before Haman. And then Haman decides that punishing Mordecai alone is not enough. He can’t just kill Mordecai. He has to kill all the Jewish people in the entire kingdom.
Haman goes to the king and gets him to sign off on this idea of killing all of the Jewish people in the kingdom. An edict is sent throughout the land that on a certain day all the Jewish people will be massacred. Needless to say the Jewish people freak out. They don’t want to die! But what can they do? They don’t have an army. They’re just subjects in this land.
There is only one person who could influence the king to do something else…maybe. And that person is Esther.
Someone please read Esther 4:9-14.
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Mordecai’s only way to communicate with Esther is using a go-between. He’s not allowed in the harem—probably no one knows he’s Esther’s uncle, since everyone knows Mordecai is Jewish and no one knows Esther is. But even if they knew, he wouldn’t be allowed in there. So they use one of the servantas a go-between—Hathach. Mordecai gives a copy of the decree to Hathach and explains it and asks Esther to petition the king to stop it.
When Esther hears this, she is scared for her own life. The queen can’t just appear before the king. She can only go before the queen if he asks for her. Esther is the king’s property and if she defies him or displeases him, he’ll disappear her just like he did to Vashti. And the king hasn’t asked for Esther for thirty days. She is terrified for her own life—that she will go before the king and be killed.
Mordecai reminds her that if all the Jewish people are killed, she will also be killed—and if she pretends and manages to not be outed as a Jewish person, her entire family will perish.
God will save the Jewish people either way, Mordecai is confident and faithful, that God will send deliverance one way or another to spare his chosen people, but then he says the most famous line in this entire book of the Bible. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
For such a time as this. Mordecai says that the reason she is queen, is probably because God has placed her there to protect the Jewish people, to save everyone. That God chose her—an orphan girl, the lowest of the low, a girl who was chosen to be queen not for her intelligence or bravery or faith, but for something as superficial as beauty—to be the deliverer of all of Israel.
Presuming the king doesn’t immediately have her killed for coming before him.
Someone please read Esther 4:15-17 and let’s see how Esther responds.
15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Esther asks Mordecai to lead a fast on her behalf—for all the Jewish people to gather and pray for three days. And she will go to the king, even though it’s illegal and she says something that I always find very powerful, “If I perish, I perish.”
Esther is willing to die to save her entire people. She is willing to stand up. And she knows that it may be for naught, and that the king may kill her before she can even get her petition out. Remember this is not just some vague threat. The king has already killed one king, and he could very easily do it to Esther too. This is a very real threat. But Esther is willing to die for her people.
Someone read Esther 5:1-8.
5 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace. 2 As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3 The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” 4 Then Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.” 5 Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, so that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet that Esther had prepared. 6 While they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 7 Then Esther said, “This is my petition and request: 8 If I have won the king’s favor, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I will prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.”
After three days of fasting and prayer, Esther positions herself just outside the king’s hall. She doesn’t go before, she just kind of stands in his line of sight. The king sees her, and instead of being angry or upset, he invites her in and asks her what she needs.
Esther doesn’t jump immediately to “save my people please.” Instead she invites him and Haman—the very guy who is asking for her people’s death to a banquet. At the banquet the king asks again, “what is your petition?” And she doesn’t say, “save my people.” She says “Please come again tomorrow night.”
And they do come again the next night. Someone please read Esther 7:2-6.
2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”[a] 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
The second night the king asks again what Esther wants. This time she says that someone wants to annihilate her people. And the king is all like, “Whaaaat? Who could possibly be trying to do that.”
And Esther is like “Haman!” Who remember is sitting right there. Haman is terrified because he realizes his life is on the line. The king is furious. He’s so angry he walks out of the room—presumably to walk his anger off, and Haman tries to beg for his life. But he’s like throwing himself at her, begging her, and when the king walks back in he thinks Haman is assaulting his wife. And so the king has Haman hanged to death.
But killing Haman isn’t enough. Killing Haman doesn’t revoke the edict that has already been sent around the entire country, ready to be followed and annihilate the Jewish people. So Esther’s job is not done.
Someone please read Esther 8:5-8.
5 and Esther rose and stood before the king. She said, “If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. 6 For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to the Jew Mordecai, “See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. 8 You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
She weeps at the king’s feet and asks for him to revoke the edict, to not let her people be killed, and the king he agrees. He tells her she may write whatever edict she wants in regard to her people in his name and seal it with his ring and then it cannot be revoked.
And so Esther, an orphan girl, saves her entire people.
There are many interesting things about the book of Esther. One is just that it shows that God uses unexpected people. An orphan girl—literally the lowest person in society outside of a slave, though often orphan girls became slaves. She is thrown into what is a scary situation—being the king’s wife right after he killed his last wife—and God uses this weird and precarious position to save all the Jewish people.
Another interesting thing about Esther is that God is never actually directly mentioned in it. However, even without seeing his name we see how Mordecai and Esther alude to him, and how clearly God’s hand is in the entire story. How God elevated Esther, for such a time as this.
It reminds us that sometimes the events in our lives that we don’t understand or get, that God can use those events for the greater good and for his glory. Even if we don’t directly see his hand, looking back, we’re like, “Wow, that was clearly God working to make this happen.” It also reminds us that no matter who we are, God will and can use us for his glory and purpose. And no matter our positions in society, we should stand up for what is right and good. Even if the result is that if we perish, we perish.
And that is the story of Esther.