I must confess I don’t remember hearing this Old Testament story at all growing up in the Episcopal church. We spent a lot of time in the Gospels, studying Jesus’ words and miracles, and of course the requisite creation, Noah and Abraham stories, told with coloring pages. I don’t think we had flannelgraphs. More’s the pity.
So when I read the story of Queen Esther out of Ruby’s rhyming (!) children’s Bible, she sort of mooned over it. There aren’t a lot of female heroes in the Bible. They can pretty much be counted on a few fingers – Deborah, Esther, Jael (gruesome), Ruth, Abigail, Priscilla…and none of them got an entire book named after her. Okay, except Ruth. It seems to be the Bible’s answer to the Cinderella story. Or maybe the Cinderella story is loosely based on the story of Queen Esther.
It’s a small book in the Bible, right between Nehemiah and Job. This is a post-exilic book, dating from the time of the Israelites captivity in Babylon (Persia). The basic gist of the book is that King Xerxes, ruler of Persia, had an elaborate banquet. He poured on the wine and generosity, and his Queen, Vashti, had a banquet for the women at the same time. On the seventh day, in high spirits from the wine, King Xerxes decided he wanted the men he was entertaining to see his queen, decked out in her crown.
The rub? Queen Vashti refused to come. Josephus (yes, I’m consulting a commentary here about her refusal) states that strangers were not allowed to look at the beauty of Persian wives; so perhaps her modesty came into play, or she knew she’d be in the company of men who had imbibed a little too much. I read something that said Xerxes wanted her to appear naked and that was too humiliating; the text doesn’t seem to support that idea. She may even have been pregnant with the future king at the time.. But the king’s request did not violate the customs of the time. Her refusal amounted to flagrant defiance of the king (International Bible Commentary).
King Xerxes “became furious”, something that was part of his character, a rather quick temper, it turns out. He consulted his experts on the law about what to do. His experts realized the “trickle down” theory of Vashti’s disobedience would put all th e marriages and order in Persia in jeopardy. “If they hear of Vashti’s intransigence, all wives will mutiny!” Vashti is subsequently banished from the king’s presence. The Veggie Tales version has her “banished”, but that’s not entirely accurate. She lived on, but no longer as Xerxes’ wife.
The king’s personal attendants suggested he conduct a kingdom-wide search for a new bride, selecting from all the most beautiful virgins in the land. Enter Esther. She was an orphan, raised by her cousin Mordecai, a Jew. Esther, born Hadassah, was “lovely in form and features”, a sort of genetic lottery winner. Mordecai took her in as his own.
Esther was taken into the king’s custody as a possible bride. Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the king’s harem, took a special shine to her. No doubt she had good manners, was well-spoken as well as a knockout. Triple threat! Hegai brought her the best food and beauty treatments and assigned her special maids. He was rooting for her from the very beginning. Esther kept her family background a secret and Mordecai paced in front of the harem’s court to get word of her, make sure she was alright.
Esther underwent 12 months of beauty treatments. Twelve months?! These girls were already the most beautiful in the land. That’s a long time to wait! When it was Esther’s turn to go into the king, she asked only for the things Hegai suggested to her. Esther won the favor of all she met. The king was bowled over by Esther and he made her queen.
I could stop right here and rant about how incredibly sexist all this seems to me, a modern woman living in the 21st century, but I won’t. Esther knew her place. She knew she would not be able to fight against a king’s authority and so she went with it. She submitted to her cousin’s instruction, then Hegai’s, and won a place in the king’s heart.
Mordecai later saved the king from a plot on his life. He reported it to Esther, who reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. The traitors were hung. It was written down in the annals. I should also mention that the king’s right hand man, Haman, didn’t like Mordecai. Mordecai, being Jewish, wouldn’t bow down in Haman’s presence; he bowed only to God. Haman became furious (sound familiar?) and vowed to not only destroy Mordecai but his people as well, throughout all of the kingdom. The king, only too glad to be rid of “instigators”, agreed to Haman’s plan, not knowing Esther was one of the Jews. The executive destructive order was placed, a genocide on a special date.
Mordecai, horrified, immediately tore his clothes and sought out Esther. The Jews mourned, wept and fasted. Mordecai knew this was time for Esther to act. He begged her to help. She responded by saying she could die if she went to the king without being summoned. His response was classic: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent during this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” That put Esther back in her right mind, if she had any illusions that her beauty and grace alone awarded her the position at the king’s side. Esther asked Mordecai and company to fast for 3 days and nights and she will do the same. Then she’ll go into the king, her life in his hands.
She does it. The king sees her, holds out his scepter and greets her: “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up the half the kingdom, it will be given you.” Wow! What favor! But Esther knew she couldn’t talk to the king right then and there. She took her time and invited Xerxes and Haman to a banquet. The king asked her what her petition is, again. She stalled for time, maybe trying to gain some physical strength back as well, and asked for another banquet, the next night.
Haman went home happy. He bragged about going to the queen’s banquet and how the king had honored him over the years. His wife, Zeresh, told him he should build a gallows 75 feet high, a monstrosity, to hang Mordecai on, since that’s the only fly left in the ointment at this point. He did it.
That night, the king couldn’t sleep. He had the book of the chronicles of his reign read to him (yawn!). He found out about Mordecai saving his life and asked if anything had been done for him. Nothing had. What?! The king called Haman in, who was hanging around to talk to the king about hanging Mordecai first thing in the morning. The king asks Haman’s opinion: “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” Haman thought for a moment. It must be me! he thought. He gives the king a laundry list of his favorite way to be honored – dress the man in royal robes, riding a horse the king has ridden on, pulled along by a noble of the king crying out, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”
The king is delighted! “Haman, do that for Mordecai! Right now!” Haman does it and rushes home in shame. He knows he’s going down.
The final banquet night arrived. Esther revealed the evil, destructive plot to the king, and her own Jewish heritage. She states if it had only involved slavery of her people she would have kept quiet. She is already a diplomat. The king got furious! “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing!” Haman! The king stormed out in a rage. Haman tried to plead for his life and fell on the queen’s couch. This looked bad to the king. He thought Haman was trying to get fresh with Esther. The king’s guards covered Haman’s face, dragged him out and hung him on Haman’s gallows he’d built to hang Mordecai, at the king’s command. Huzzah!
There is a small twist. The king’s decree of destruction of the Jews cannot be altered, according to Persian law. But the king decrees that the Jews can defend themselves against the attack. Even Haman’s 10 sons get killed. This later became the Jewish holiday of Purim, a two-day celebration of the victory of the Jews over their enemies.
What’s to like about Esther? A lot. Heroes, evil villains, an orphan girl vaulted from obscurity into royalty. Drama and death, romance and beauty, all worked into one story, like a fairy tale. Esther worked within the system to make the necessary changes. She didn’t try to change the king and she seemed to grasp his personality right away. She knew her favor with the king was her saving grace. She also knew God would take care of her, one way or another, as He had done her whole life. Her position with the king was not just a result of her good upbringing but a tactical place to save her people. She was not swayed by her new, luxurious surroundings and privileged place. She was brave, unsure how things would turn out. Was it a perfect, happily-ever-after life? No. I’m sure she had struggles like women everywhere. But when it really counted, she came through and saved an entire race. That, to me, is a real queen.