“And Esther won the favour of everyone who saw her” (Esther 2:15b)
Often, when we are reading Scripture, it’s easy to miss what else might be going on behind the story. In the Book of Esther, chapter 1 presents the story of a great banquet, thrown by King Xerxes of Persia, to demonstrate his massive power and wealth to all his subject nations. Chapter 2 begins with the word, “later”, and it’s easy to miss what that little word conceals. Actually, there is a gap of four years between chapters 1 and 2, during which mighty King Xerxes went off to war against the Greeks and was utterly humiliated. It’s not mentioned in the Book of Esther, because, probably, everybody knew what that little word, “later” was referring to. The Persian defeat by the Greeks is one of the most famous battles in history: the defeat of the mighty Persian Army (the greatest army, the greatest Empire the world had ever seen!) at the hands of just a few (300?) Greeks. It is such a famous defeat, the defeat at Thermopylae, that 2,500 years later, we’re still making movies about it: the movie The 300 , about this exact battle – and this exact King Xerxes - was a huge hit in 2014. So the brash King Xerxes that we meet in chapter 1 has been humbled and changed by these experiences by the time we meet him, four years “later”, in chapter 2.
Now back from war, the King remembers what happened to his Queen: like he had been publicly humiliated in battle, so she had been publicly humiliated - by him - when he called her to come to him naked in front of a drunken, raucous crowd of men to show off his own power. And King Xerxes finds himself ready to try again with a new Queen, and perhaps to do it differently this time. Now, we may be rather shocked that the following events are told in Holy Scripture, but remember that first, the world was very different then; and second, remember that God accompanies us through whatever it is that happens to us in our lives. And so, it is that the King sent out messengers to bring the most beautiful virgins from his 127 provinces to the harem at Susa, for him to choose between them. One of these most beautiful virgins was Esther, who was secretly a Jew, and secretly the cousin of one of the King’s Scribes, Mordecai. Mordecai has great concern that Esther must keep her Jewish identity hidden, and their family relationship. Remember that the Jews had been carried into exile – into slavery – by the Babylonians, and that the Persians, when they conquered Babylon, would have taken the Jews as their own slaves. Thus, Esther keeps her identity secret, and goes into the palace with these other young women, completely isolated from her family, her traditions, her prayer practices, and everyone she knows.
Last night at our Lenten Study, we imagined what it would have been like, in the harem, with all these young women competing to become Queen. A cross between Miss Universe, the Bachelor and Survivor is what we came up with. And recall: they’re probably all teenagers, and there’s probably hundreds of them. This would have been an extremely competitive environment, probably highly manipulative, with lots of factions and backbiting and scheming and emotional cruelty circulating among these girls. We thought about how we behave when we’re faced with a workplace that is toxic like this, and we all agreed: it brings out the worst in almost all of us. But this is no workplace: Esther is stuck there, with these women, for at least a year, and more likely several years, before she even gets a chance to see the King.
This is the remarkable thing about Esther’s character: in this highly toxic and competitive environment, Esther wins the favour of people around her by her personality and presence. We noticed some key things about how she behaves: she takes time to win the respect of the head Eunuch, Hegai, who may have been seen by the other girls either as a slave not worthy of their notice, or a jailer whom they despised. She clearly conducts herself in a way that is humble, kind and respectful of others. When she’s given the chance to take anything from the harem with her to the King - jewels, precious cosmetics, spectacular clothing or adornments – she turns for advice to the Eunuch Hegai, trusting that he has more wisdom than she does. She’s right, and her attitude wins her the favour of a growing circle of significant people, including, finally, the King himself.
Esther is chosen to become Queen. It’s interesting to think that while Vashti’s beauty was what King Xerxes wanted to show off in the first chapter, here, after his public humiliation, he seems to be looking for more substance. He chooses the girl who is beautiful in character, rather than the many girls who would have come to him draped in jewels and dripping with makeup and perfumes. The difference between chapter 1 and chapter 2 in how the King treats his Queen is striking. The King honours Esther with her own banquet, where she is presented to all the nobles and officials in the place of honour, wearing her crown and her clothes. In contrast to the proclamation Xerxes sends out regarding Vashti (that she’s been disgraced), in which he proclaims brutishly that the man is the head of the household, now he sends out a proclamation honouring Queen Esther with a holiday (probably several weeks or months long) and distributing gifts with “royal liberality”.
Within a short period of time, Xerxes is rewarded for choosing a woman of substance. Mordecai overhears a plot to kill the King, and passes news to his cousin, Queen Esther, who reports it to her husband. Imagine the risk this might have posed. If the King had disbelieved Esther, or thought she was plotting against his trusted officers, she might have been in danger. Mordecai might have been in danger also, if the King had shared their suspicions with the officers themselves. But despite the risks involved, Mordecai acts because it is the right thing to do; and Esther acts also because it is the right thing to do. This is a repeated theme in the Book of Esther: doing the right thing, because it is the right thing to do, despite the risks that are involved. The King recognizes the value of their actions, takes their accusations seriously and discovers the plot is true. Because of Esther’s good character, she has become Queen; now because of the courage and righteousness of Mordecai and Esther, the King’s life is saved.
Esther became Queen by earning the respect of the King, and now she’s strengthened his respect and trust by uncovering this plot; but it won’t be long before their relationship will be tested. Join us next week as the plot begins to thicken, and Esther’s deepest secret becomes a risk. Wednesday evening: soup at 6pm; study at 7pm.