Today we are wrapping up our summer series on Women in the Old Testament, looking at some of the most important and impactful women in Jewish Biblical history. We will be reflecting on Esther 7, Esther: The Clever Queen. Esther finds herself queen in the greatest empire of the time, queen to the king of Israel’s enemy. The king is not a wise king and is easily manipulated by those around him, which ends up placing the Jewish people in the empire in danger due to a vengeful advisor to the king. Esther is called to use her position and relationship with the king to save her people, cleverly manipulating the king against his advisor.
Esther, The Clever Queen
August 28, 2022
Esther is an incredible story of an orphan, making her one of the least powerful people among the Jews, she’s a woman and so seen as less important or valuable in her society, and she belongs to a nation that’s been enslaved by the most powerful empire of its time. Esther is not your typical hero, not the first person you would expect God to use; and yet the Bible continually reveals that God often uses the unexpected persons to lead his plans forward. Her story fascinates me.
Esther becomes the queen of the powerful King Xerxes because he’s made to look like a drunken fool by his Queen Vashti who refuses to parade herself in front of his drunken nobles who have been partying and drinking for 7 days. The king is then manipulated by his advisors who tell him to get rid of her because otherwise other wives might refuse to obey their husbands’ orders. They then hold a contest to find the most beautiful, and the underlying tone is, and obedient subservient woman in the land to be the next queen. They also make it a law that wives must obey their husbands. After a year long contest where the women are all properly trained, Esther wins and becomes queen.
However, she never tells them that she’s Jewish. This becomes important later on because one of King Xerxes’ chief advisors is Haman, a descendant of Agag, king of the Amorites who was defeated by King Saul generations before this all happens. Now King Saul spared Agag’s life against God’s command, so the prophet Samuel showed up and put Agag to death by hacking him to pieces. Haman is carrying around a multi-generational hatred and grudge against Israel; looking for ways to humiliate or exterminate them. Finally, Haman has his chance and manipulates King Xerxes to sign an order to kill all the Jews.
Why are we here, does God have a purpose for us, is it alright to try to ignore the hard stuff around us and only focus on our own faith journey? One person asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” meaning, am I responsible for other people? The Bible consistently calls us to look outside the very narrow lanes of our lives to consider the lives of others. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle challenges her when she’s afraid to risk herself, “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” I’m reminded of what Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, said as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides... Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”
Much of what comes next, I learned from an article in the Jewish Journal by Rabbi Yossi Marcus. Even though God is not mentioned at all in the book of Esther, we see his influence all over the place. When Esther is called on to risk her life for her people, she steps up and leads, calling her uncle to gather all the Jews in Susa together to fast and pray for three days before she approaches the king also giving her time to formulate a plan for protecting her people. After three days of humbling herself before God, seeking his guidance and will, Esther approaches the king uninvited, potentially a death sentence. Remember, this is the same king who put aside Queen Vashti for disobeying his command. Esther is willing to sacrifice herself for her people.
Esther invites King Xerxes and his chief advisor Haman to a private banquet. This is where you begin to see that Esther has thought about and planned her strategy at a deep level, understanding both the hearts and personality of the king, but also the heart and personality of Haman. The food is ready and the king and Haman go to Esther’s place and they enjoy a meal together. Now the king knows that Esther wants something that only he can give her, but when he asks her what it is she wants, Esther asks them to come together again the next day and she will tell him what she would like from him.
We know that the king is prone to excessive emotional responses, so when the king sees his queen inviting Haman to her private banquet again, a seed of questioning and jealousy is planted, “Why is she inviting Haman again?” which may be the reason the king has a hard time sleeping that night and spends the time in his library where he discovers that Mordecai foiled a plot to kill him. Jealousy and maybe even a bit of paranoia begins to eat away at the king. Haman meanwhile, is filled with both pride and rage and so he’s filled with a pompous sense of importance which keeps him from questioning why he would be invited to such a private meal with the queen and king a second time. Esther embraces the same tactics that the king’s advisors use to manipulate him for their own ends.
The king and Haman arrive at Queen Esther’s banquet the next day, and while they’re enjoying wine, the king asks again, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the king, it will be granted.” Professor Cameron B. Howard explains what happens next, “Upon hearing Esther’s account of Haman’s plot, the king is enraged (again), and Haman is terrified… the king stomps out to the garden, while Haman “stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther.” When the king comes back inside, he sees Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, and we notice once again that the king does not understand how to read a situation. He believes Haman is trying to sexually assault Esther, and it is for that reason he condemns Haman, not for his plot against the Jews. While the defeat of Haman is the “correct” outcome, the king reaches that outcome erroneously.” Esther has set everything up perfectly for Haman’s destruction. She makes sure that Haman is there when the king goes explodes in rage so that Haman’s fall comes quickly, before he can change the easily manipulated king’s mind.
Haman is impaled on the gallows he had built to hang Mordecai on as the first step in his plan to rid the empire of Jews. There is clear irony here, especially as Mordecai is then chosen as the king’s new advisor. Through this entire story of Esther, one thing shines through: Esther’s most important attribute is faith. She realizes that God runs the world, not Xerxes or Haman. There’s a deep trust that God does not abandon his people, that even though they’re in exile, God is still watching over them. Esther uses the ways of the culture in the palace of manipulation and cleverness, yet it is done with the knowledge that God is the one in control. I’m reminded of Jesus’ parable where he commends the wisdom of the servant who is about to get fired, but then lowers the debts of all those who owe his master so he will have a chance to find a new grateful boss after he’s fired. He uses the ways of the world.
Jesus calls us to place our trust in God and himself, especially when things seem dark and confusing. In John 14, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me,” also often translated as, “You trust in God; trust also in me.” There are so many times in our lives when we find ourselves in situations where we cannot feel or see Jesus’ presence, even though we’re looking for him. We remember that Jesus promises in Matthew 28 “to be with us always,” but we find that it’s going to mean moving forward in faith and trust, doing the best we can, trusting that Jesus is always true to his word and promises to us.
Trusting in Jesus happens at a number of different levels, in different ways. We trust in Jesus, believing in Him for salvation as John reminds us, “whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life.” We believe and trust that Jesus is God in human form and came to save us from our sin, died for our sins, and rose from the dead, so that we can have new life in him and with God our Father. This trust and belief in Jesus gives us the hope we need when times are hard. Elliot Clark writes, “Hope for the Christian isn’t just confidence in a certain, glorious future. It’s hope in a present providence. It’s hope that God’s plans can’t be thwarted by local authorities or irate mobs, by unfriendly bosses or unbelieving husbands, by Supreme Court rulings or the next election. The Christian hope is that God’s purposes are so unassailable that a great thunderstorm of events can’t drive them off course. Even when we’re wave-tossed and lost at sea, Jesus remains the captain of the ship and the commander of the storm.”
Esther can see God’s face behind the powers in her world and so is able to fearlessly and strategically pursue what’s right and good no matter what is happening in the world around us.