Esther is one of the few above-the-title stars of the Bible who happens to be a woman and she, more than many of the men whose names may be far more famous than hers, was a badass. Not only was she a badass, but her story isn’t covered in the stains of her personal pratfalls like those of so many of the men whose names are synonymous with faith. She was noble, she was faithful, and she put her neck on the line for her people. She was also no damsel and her story was no fairy tale.
Hers is more akin to a political thriller—spies and covert ops and having a (wo)man on the inside. Truly, she was the Miss Congeniality of Persia—able to function both as a beauty queen and a kickass agent of change. I understand that in many areas of Christianity, Inc., the principle biblical female emphasis is put on Mary because she was the mother of God, and that’s fine, but Esther saved an entire people from an impending holocaust and she did so nonviolently. She’s the Bible’s Beyoncé; she’s just better than everyone else in the game.
The story goes that King Xerxes of Persia gave a dinner party that lasted six months. He was feeling full of himself and wanted to showboat his wealth to the various military leaders, princes, and One-Percenters of his day. As a kid, I imagined Xerxes looked like King Friday XIII from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but when I read it today, he looks just like the Xerxes in the movie 300—gold-skinned, pierced, and wearing a metallic speedo that showed off his bulked-up swimmer’s build. I imagine him spreading his arms wide like in the movie, showing off all he owned to his dinner party guests. The reality of the man was probably much less shiny, but as I read the story, that’s who I visualize.
At the same time as Xerxes’ party, his queen, Vashti, threw her own banquet in another part of the palace. Today, Vashti would make a great name for a vegan organic granola bar. Midway through both parties, Xerxes was drunk and bragged to the sausage-fest around him that his wife was hotter than theirs. He then decided to summon her to prove it. Vashti, being in the middle of her own gig, refused to make an appearance. Furious, Xerxes banished Vashti—his was apparently a very short fuse—after which he instructed the rest of the women in the land not to follow her example. He feared a rebellion would arise so he told the women, “When your man calls, you come, woman.” This was a very progressive time to be alive.
If I may step into the role of a Biblical dramaturg for a moment, this is an important piece of dialogue. We scan through it as the prologue to Esther’s story but it’s quite important in that it clearly sets the stage for how women were viewed in society. Not only does it establish their subservient place within the culture, but it also demonstrates how easy it was for women to be disposed of. By including this, it magnifies both the threat-against and the courage-within Esther at the end of the story.
Around the same time as Vashti’s banishment, across the tracks in the Jewish part of town, a man named Mordecai lived with his niece Esther. After her parents died, Mordy welcomed Esther into his home, took care of her, and taught her all about their Jewish heritage. I imagine he did this in a similar stroke as Ross on FRIENDS when he tried to teach his son about Hanukkah while dressed as the Holiday Armadillo.
After all of that preamble, we get to the first major plot point of the story: Esther was hot. Super hot. Gal Gadot hot. So when the now Vashti-less Xerxes decided he was ready for a new queen and his cabinet members went looking for the hottest women in the land, they easily found Esther. They had the glass slipper and her hot foot fit just right. The king’s model-scouts informed her she was to come live in the harem at the palace where all the virgins would be getting makeovers! Yay!
The second major plot point is Mordy’s reminder that Esther shouldn’t tell the king or his servants about her Jewish identity. As a captured people, he didn’t want her life to be any tougher than it had to be. Unable to do anything about the king’s decision to cast her in his Miss Persia pageant, Mordy told Esther to keep it secret, keep it safe—“it” being the truth of her ancestry—and to go live in the palace with all the luxury and comfort available to her.
So she did. Esther moved into the palace and under the care of Hegai, a name that sounds like a fungus, she quickly moved up the ranks. Hegai knew a good thing when he saw it so he showered her with beauty treatments, gave her special food, and even assigned her seven attendants. She also moved on up, Jeffersons style, to the best apartment in the harem’s East Side. Not a bad gig for an orphaned girl raised in her Jewish uncle Mordy’s house.
Mordy, though no longer serving as her caretaker, never stopped caring. He spent his spare time each day hanging out near the palace courtyard in order to keep tabs on how Esther was doing in her new life. Oh, she was fine. She was living the good life in an actual palace.
That good life had one major caveat. As a member of the king’s harem, each woman was eventually sent into the king’s chambers where she had to put out on the first date, and upon being excused in the morning, she’d move to another part of the harem specified for those women who, as Monica Geller put it, gave the king their flower. That woman was then considered a concubine and wouldn’t return to see the king again unless he summoned her. That’s one hell of a caveat.
When it came time for Esther to “go see” the king, she won over everyone who interacted with her. The king, seeing the wonder in her, was hot and horny for Esther and the Bible says she “won his approval more than the other virgins.” [Esther 2:17] Reading between the lines, this means when he slept with her—something Mordy seemed to have no issue with—he became a smitten kitten. So smitten in fact he crowned her his queen, gave a banquet in her honor, and proclaimed that day a holiday.
Mordecai is an interesting character. He was a loving uncle, yes, but he was also an eavesdropper, a spiritual gift he and I share. After Esther became queen, Mordy overheard two officers talking about how angry they were about something the king had done. Frankly, they weren’t just mad, they were enraged to the point of plotting to assassinate King Xerxes. Wide-eyed, Mordy scuttled away and told Esther what he overheard. Esther, with her lasso of truth, reported it to the king, all the while giving Mordecai full credit for the hot tip. When the king substantiated the rumor and found it was super true, the two offending officials were impaled on poles. Problem solved.
To recap: Esther became queen and with the help of her Jewish Uncle Mordy, foiled an assassination plot to kill the king. That’s a full movie unto itself, a complete story with a satisfying denouement. Cut. Print. Roll Credits.
Then Haman entered the scene.
Haman was a prince within the Persian Empire who had risen in the ranks to become the king’s Number Two. Imagine Hans from Frozen: good looks, charming personality to get him what he wants, really dark undercurrent fueled by an irrational need for power. Haman’s need was so pronounced, he convinced the king to force people bow to him. I’ve never understood why the king indulged Haman like that but no one else seemed to have a problem with bowing. Except Uncle Mordy. He straight up refused to bow to Haman. Every other official would drop trou and take a bow but not our Mordy. As you can imagine, that rubbed Haman’s over-inflated ego the wrong way and he decided death was the only proportionate response.
Actually, maybe killing only Mordecai isn’t a big enough slap on the wrist. Maybe this warrants the deaths of the entire Jewish population. Yeah! That’ll do it!
Haman’s ancestors were enemies of the Jews from way back and since he’d recently discovered Mordy was Jewish, an impromptu holocaust sounded like a kicky way to settle the score. Is anyone else uncomfortable? You should be.
Of course Haman couldn’t incite genocide unilaterally so he made his pitch to the King. “Your highness, there’s a certain people-group within your kingdom who purposely separate themselves from your other subjects. Their customs are different from everyone else and they don’t obey all of your laws. I don’t think it’s in your best interest to keep them in the fold so if it’s alright, I’d like to have them all killed. I’ll even pay you 10,000 talents of silver for the pleasure of doing so.”
Xerxes, again, just went along with it, never asking for further clarity on who these specific people were, and implying, “Well, racism is fine by me. Do as you want Hitler, I mean Haman.”
The mailers went out—mailers that painted this action as a decree by the king and not the brainchild of Haman the Egotistic—letting the Jews know they were to be annihilated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month. Get your last meals ordered for your days are numbered!
Well you can imagine what reading the mailers did to the Jewish populace of the region. Chaos. Every Jew flew into an emotional tailspin as they began fearing for their lives. Mordy, not knowing what else to do, sent Esther a copy of the edict and informed her of the price on their heads. He told her, “Go in there and tell the king what he’s signed! Our lives depend on it.” But Esther remembered how easily Vashti was disposed of and said, “Anyone who goes in to see the king without being summoned gets killed unless he spares them.”
Mordy, ever her uncle, gave her a reality-check and said, “Don’t think you’re safe because you’re in the palace. You have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” [Esther 4:14] That was a famous line in Sunday School. It’s been used as a spiritual motivator for everything from altar calls to attendance at See You At the Pole.
Esther realized if she did nothing, not only would her entire people be slaughtered, but she’d also be complicit. “You’re right,” she told her uncle. “Gather the Jews and fast for three days for me. I will too. When that’s done, I’ll go to the king and plead our case. If I die, I die (and so will you but we’re hoping for a miracle here).”
After three food-less days, Esther put on her royal robes and walked into the inner court of the palace. Xerxes was sitting on his throne and when he saw her, he invited her in. Impressed by her boldness (and still dazzled by her hotness probably), he asked what she wanted and that whatever it was, she could have it. She said, “Come to dinner, bring Hitler with you, and we can talk about it then.” So he did what she asked. At dinner, she asked him to come to another dinner the following night. He was probably drunk so he said he’d be there.
Meanwhile, Haman was clueless. When he got back from Esther’s dinner, he bragged to his wife about how he was the only other person invited to dine with the king and queen but his day had been totally ruined by Mordy who still wouldn’t bow to him. His wife’s suggestion was to build a 50-foot pole and have him impaled. How sweet. And he thought this was a great idea. Of course he did.
Little did he know, the king couldn’t sleep that night and while he was doing some light toilet reading of his royal records, he realized he never rewarded Mordy for saving his life from the officials conspiring to assassinate him. So the following morning, he summoned Haman and asked what he should to do honor a man who’d shown incredible devotion and service to the king. Haman, the self-involved ego-maniac he was, thought the king was alluding to him so he told him to put the man in royal garments and lead him through the streets on his royal horse. “He deserves a parade!” Haman exclaimed, his arms flung into the air, joy overflowing.
“Good. Go get Mordy and let’s do that for him.”
Hysterical. The Bible is funny, y’all.
Cut to Haman leading Mordy through the city streets while proclaiming, “This is what is done for a man the king honors!” [Esther 6:11] Hot and bothered, Haman endured a level of embarrassment that had to burn inside of him like fire. He went home fuming mad but didn’t have time to dwell on it because he was due at Esther’s second dinner.
As they ate and drank, the king asked Esther again what she wanted. “Don’t kill me or my people. We’re about to be annihilated and we’d prefer to live.”
[spit take] “Excuse me?” the king asked. “What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been sold out and your name is on the receipt,” Esther said.
“Come again? Who would sell you out?”
“He did,” Esther said as she pointed across the table. “Haman.”
“Oh shit.” The Bible doesn’t say that’s what Haman said, but I’m fairly certain it was either that or an adjacent sentiment. The jig was up so he began begging for his life.
“It’s not like that! I didn’t know Esther was Jewish! I just wanted Mordy to bow down. He’s the problem! He’s the one that should be killed!”
I imagine Esther turned her head slowly toward Haman and said, with gritted teeth and eyes ablaze, “He’s [beat] my [beat] uncle.”
[another spit take from the king]
So Haman was impaled on the 50-foot pole he built to impale Mordy—Biblical poetic justice—and for his trouble, Mordy got Haman’s job. Not only did the Jews get to live, but the festival of Purim was established as a reminder of how they were saved from extermination by their very own wonder woman, Esther.
It’s a great story but wonder women aren’t just comic book heroes or Persian queens.
In eighth grade, I ate lunch every day with a girl named Amanda, an aspiring country singer with a rhinestone cowboy hat who predicted the demise of Leann Rimes’ career a decade before it happened. Over lunch one day, she mentioned her parents were divorced and upon hearing that, I made a face. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that nine times out of ten, I am unable to control my facial expressions when I feel a certain way about something and apparently, I grimaced at the mention of divorce. So she asked me why.
I wasn’t all that familiar with divorce at the time. My next door neighbors lived with only their mom, but we didn’t ask or talk about where their dad was. All I knew was that divorce equaled sin, at least that’s what people at church conveyed to me, so I told her as much.
She began to tear up and in my naiveté, I couldn’t understand why. Rising from her bench, she stood and looked down on me as she told me I was wrong. She explained that her parents’ marriage falling apart had nothing to do with the state of their souls and then asked where I would get such an idea. I told her the adults at church said so. Over the course of one lunch in a suburban junior high school cafeteria, she sternly clued me in to a different, less tunnel-visioned way of seeing not just her life, but life in general. She may have only been in eighth grade, but she was strong, self-assured, and I spent about a week apologizing and offering and buy her Little Debbie’s from the snack stand. She stood up for herself and her parents and in doing so, she changed my perspective.
Not all strength is the same. In college, Dr. Amy taught many of the English classes I was required to take at the Bible School for Super-Christians and I came to look forward to that hour with her each day. It wasn’t that I was enthralled with every book we read, but I was captivated by the way she spoke. Her voice was soft but clear; calm but decisive. When she spoke, she didn’t do so flippantly. Her words were measured and specific, filled with care and learned wisdom.
This wasn’t something that came naturally to a reactive, cut-and-dry person like myself, but sitting in her classes, I began to implement mindfulness into the way I used words. She may have been audibly soft-spoken like a church mouse, but she was mighty like a lion in her command of the English language. She’s one of the few people whose prayers resonated inside of me like earthquakes, whose clarity of intention made what she said palatable to my over-studied brain, and whose measured-spirit showed me that gentleness does not equal powerlessness.
Despite my affinity for Dr. Amy’s classes, I transferred to a larger liberal arts university so I could study writing. As a byproduct of the move, I was immersed into an entirely new group of friends, one of whom was Cheryl. We’d met through my roommate and bonded over enormous glasses of sweet tea and our love of 90’s nostalgia. She eventually moved into the apartment across the street from ours, part of our very FRIENDS-like existence we were lucky to have for a couple years, but regardless of where she lived while we were in Waco, she spent most of her time in my living room.
As graduation approached, her mind was set on a particular job—a job she’d dreamed about—but there were specific steps and more schooling required to obtain it. From my living room, I was witness to the hard work of waiting she endured for over a year; how the prolonged periods of patience wore on her but she never gave up and never conceded defeat. The day she found out she was accepted into the graduate program that was the necessary next step in her goal-reaching journey, we’d just returned from spring break. After days of driving, we were tired and really just wanted to sleep in our own beds. She drove home to her apartment and my roommate and I walked upstairs to ours. Only minutes after she’d left our parking lot, Cheryl bounded back up our stairs, flung open the front door and while waving her acceptance letter in the air, screamed, “I got it!”
Together, we jumped up and down in my living room, she being one step closer to the dream job that a few years later, she would in fact obtain. It required hours of study, years of interning, and even taking a job in another state so that when the position finally opened, she’d be able to claim the dream that was hers. She never lost sight of her goal. She remained diligent and in doing so, showed me the power of perseverance.
The truth of the matter is that I’ve never known life without strong women; they’ve been guiding and carving my path since breath number one. This starts with my mother who sacrificed for me and my siblings when our family didn’t even have the money to buy apple juice. She worked from home so she could be there when we were young, then outside the home so she could help fund the lives of three busy teenagers. This same strength lay within my grandmothers, both of whom imbued their wisdom and relentless love into me every chance they got. My sister has shown me that changing vocations and going after a new dream requires the strength and mindset of a long distance runner. She also showed me that when the mountains of unfamiliarity, insecurity, and doubt manifest during that season of change, it’s best to sing as your plow through them.
Okay those are sweet stories but they’re nothing like what Esther did.
Anywhere there’s a woman changing someone’s world, there’s an Esther.
They may not be intercepting holocausts or rescuing nations (though there are many who are doing exactly that), but they are shaping the futures of the people around them. They are world changers and I can say that with utmost confidence because they have changed my world. Today’s Esthers are changing people’s worlds through courtroom legislations and living rooms conversations, during marches and mealtimes, through Sunday School classes and English courses. They are each a part of Esther’s legacy—a legacy of status quo-challenging leaders—and without them, we’d all be lost.
Esther, Mordy and the gang can be found in the book of…you guessed it…Esther.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com