Most of us know Esther’s story from Sunday school lessons, storybooks, and cartoons. But there’s a real problem with most of these versions. They’re mostly wrong. Not all of them. Just most of them.
They make Esther sound like Daniel. They present her as if she is a pillar of virtue, a gorgeous, dignified Jewish girl who wins the heart of the king through the beauty, humility, and character imparted to her by her noble cousin Mordecai. When a crisis comes, she is more than ready to sacrifice herself for the Jewish people, confident that doing God’s will is more important than saving her own skin.
At the very least, her story is more complicated than that. And much darker. It’s less VeggieTales and more Game of Thrones, with a lot more sex, murder, and impaling than the usual version of the story would imply. (There’s actually quite a bit of impaling.) Mordecai and Esther’s motivations are sometimes murky and sometimes blatantly self-serving. Unquestionably, Esther and her cousin are profoundly compromised people when we meet them, having abandoned most of their Jewish identity for a Persian one.
THE SCANDAL OF ESTHER
Martin Luther hated the book of Esther, wanting it struck from the canon. He said, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities. The Jews much more esteemed the book of Esther than any of the prophets; though they were forbidden to read it before they had attained the age of thirty, by reason of the mystic matters it contains.”
For Luther, it was too Jewish, too heathen, and too scandalous. Yet these characteristics are what make the book so interesting.
Aside from Luther’s anti-Semitism (though one should be extremely wary of glibly setting that aside), the “too Jewish” charge is an interesting one. An annual feast called Purim commemorates the story of Esther, and in some communities, it’s the most celebrated feast and biggest party of the year. Why is that?
One answer is because for much of the history of the Jewish people, from Esther’s day to our own, Jews lived without a land of their own. They were in exile, looking for hope, for the promise that Yahweh hadn’t abandoned them. That’s the whole point of the story of Esther. Even in the darkest moments, when God seems absent, we can trust that he hasn’t abandoned us.
Novelist Walker Percy once wrote, “Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great lourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people?”3 There’s something miraculous in the fact that God has sustained the Jews through multiple attempts to wipe them off the face of the earth, and the story of Esther attests to that miracle.
THE REAL MESSAGE OF ESTHER
For Christians, the story is a reminder that God doesn’t abandon his people, no matter how dark their circumstances, how compromised their hearts are, or how hidden he may seem.
Hiddenness is a theme that shapes the whole book of Esther. Mordecai and Esther have hidden identities. Haman—the story’s villain—has hidden motives. More important, God himself is hidden throughout the book. His name isn’t mentioned once, and his absence is a key feature of the story. God’s hiddenness is what makes Esther such an important book for our day too, a day when belief in God feels always resisted, always contested, when everything seems to have a natural explanation, and when our own experience often makes us feel as though God is, indeed, absent.
Luther’s charges—that it’s too heathen, too scandalous—are actually part of what makes the book brilliant. Other biblical characters, like Daniel, Joseph, and the apostles in the book of Acts, all exhibit tremendous faith in the midst of a hostile environment, and God shows up in dramatic, miraculous ways. But Esther and Mordecai are far frailer, more compromised, more human. They’re conflicted, out to save their skins and advance their careers or their social status. There is almost no religion in the book, only a call to fast that we can assume is also a call to prayer. So this is not a story about virtue and character, but about someone who has become acclimated to a godless world and has grown quite comfortable with it. It’s about compromise and crisis, and God’s way of preserving and renewing faith in the midst of it all.
DARE TO BE AN ESTHER?
When I was a kid in Sunday school, we used to sing a song called “Dare to Be a Daniel.” If you understand what’s happening in Esther’s story, you’ll never tell someone “Aspire to be an Esther.”
Yet this reality brings up a final reason this story is so important for us, especially now. Because if we’re honest, we do aspire to be an Esther—but for all the wrong reasons.
Esther embodies everything we think will make us happy. She is beautiful, rich, powerful; she has immense sexual charm and charisma; and she has a legion of servants at her beck and call. She’s kind of the Kim Kardashian of the Old Testament.
Why is Kim Kardashian so famous? Why does she show up on magazine covers, and why do entertainment shows and websites document her every move? It’s because her way of life is compelling. We think she has achieved the “good life”: fame, success, money, sex, power.
Esther embodies the same life . . . right up until her spiritual crisis comes (and Esther’s crisis, we’ll see, is every bit as spiritual as it is political). At that point, Esther has to reckon with God and her place as one of God’s people. She has to choose between power and weakness. Between safety and vulnerability. Between living a life of comfort and risking her life in hopes of saving her soul.
A STORY FOR OUR TIME
In [Faith Among the Faithless], I’ll retell the story of Esther. You’ll notice that I don’t quote the text much, and that’s intentional. For many of us, this is a familiar story, and I want to make the familiar strange, or at least fresh. If I have taken too many liberties, I apologize. I come from a long line of storytellers, and storytellers tend to emphasize the parts they like best. Here, I am not so much trying to entertain as to bring to your attention some of the details. I also hope to help you see these characters in their glorious, broken, and sometimes terrifying humanity.
I also want to retell the story because I think it is one of the best stories in Scripture. The characters, ironies, and plot twists make the story read like an Elmore Leonard novel. And . . . I hope that the elements of this story might surprise you a bit once again.
Most of all, I hope they give you a sense of the way forward in this strange in-between space we occupy. Whatever happens in the years and decades to come, we can be sure that faithfulness looks pretty much like it did three thousand years ago.
Sometimes it looks like Daniel: a steady path of spiritual formation and obedience. But sometimes, and perhaps more often than not in the world we occupy today, it looks more like Esther: a path of awakening, risk, vulnerability, and, ultimately, hope.
Content taken from Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad by Mike Ciosper, ©2018. Used by permission of Nelson Books, Nashville, TN.
Mike Cosper is the executive director of Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He served for sixteen years as a pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and is the author of Recapturing the Wonder, The Stories We Tell, and Rhythms of Grace. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky.