The Uncomfortable Truths of Esther

By: Matt Keller
When I began studying the book of Esther to lead the church through this magnificent narrative, I knew chapter two would present multiple challenges. First, the facts leading to Esther's ascendency to the throne are dark and uncomfortable for our modern sensitivities. We cannot relate to how people lived under the most powerful monarchy the world had known up to that point. Furthermore, we continually want to view the Ancient Near East through the lens of 21st-century life.  

Second, because Esther isn’t a popular option to preach through, most Christians are familiar with the story of Esther as it was taught to them by well-meaning Sunday school teachers, through bible-study authors, or by the folks who produced Veggie Tales. Moreover, adults have primarily been led to view Esther as if Esther and Mordecai knew that God would use them to save the Jews from the plot of Haman. By viewing the events of Esther this way, we typically adopt one of the following positions, 1) Esther was a victim of her circumstances. 2) Mordecai put Esther in a terrible, no-win situation. 3) Esther and Mordecai did what they needed to do to produce the best possible outcome for the Jewish people—the ends justify the means.

Third, through the instruction of various Bible teachers, Esther has become a heroine—a feminine icon worthy of praise, adoration, and emulation. Therefore, the idea that Esther was a sinful young woman who compromised with the world in which she lived and intentionally made choices that betrayed any covenant commitment to Yahweh is simply offensive and unthinkable.

Yet, we must work hard to understand the meaning of Esther chapter two and deal with the facts given to us in Scripture. As believers, our job is not to subject Scripture to our understanding but to subject our understanding to Scripture. For this reason, we must read Esther with the knowledge that the principal characters in the narrative had no idea what would happen in the future. Mordecai was not a prophet who received prior revelation from God about Haman's plans to annihilate the Jews. Likewise, Esther did not know why God put her in a position to influence Xerxes and save God's people. The aha moment for both is found in chapter 4 when Mordecai said,

Esther 4:14
14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

The Hebrew word translated you have come is הִגַּעַתְּ which means to attain or to gain with great effort or through some inherent quality. This implies that Esther wanted to be queen and did what was necessary to become queen without truly knowing or understanding God's greater purpose for gaining the throne. Furthermore, the word leads us to believe what the text of chapter two has already revealed, precisely that Esther pleased 1 Hegai and worked to win the favor of those with whom she came into contact.  The word pleased  is an active verb as is the Hebrew word translated won his favor. The verb tense reveals that Esther was not being acted upon, but acted to please and win the favor of Hegai. In verse 17 the Bible tells us that Esther won grace and favor from the king. Again, the verb is in the active voice meaning that she was working to win the favor of the king.   All of this points to the undeniable reality that God had a greater purpose than either Mordecai or Esther could have possibly known when the announcement was made that King Ahasuerus would initiate a competition to find a new queen better than Queen Vashti--a competition in which Esther was an active and willing participant.

I realize some believe Esther was a victim caught up in circumstances beyond her control. While I understand why people want to believe that narrative, the text simply does not bring about such a conclusion. First, it is true that passive verbs are used in verse eight to describe the gathering of the young women in Susa and that Esther was taken into the king’s palace. However, using passive verbs likely points to the possibility that being selected by the king would not have existed apart from his edict. In other words, the king acted upon the eligible young women of the kingdom by initiating the search. While the verb לְקָחָ֧הּ (lāqaḥ) can mean “taken by force” and has so been interpreted by some scholars…most feel there is no indication that she was taken by coercion.2

Second, the text says that Esther also was taken, and some believe this means that Esther was essentially abducted against her will by the servants of the king. However, the word taken means to transport into a new location or state. Furthermore, Karen Jobes wrote,

Esther “was taken” (2:8) into the harem where the virgins were gathered. Some commentators have understood this to mean that the women, and particularly Esther, were taken against their will. This is probably overinterpreting the passive voice, which may have been used only to express that it was at Xerxes’ initiative, not the women’s, that this occurred.3

Anthony Tomasino observed, “Esther was gathered with the other young women. She is “taken” into the house of women, but there is no implication she was forced to go against her will. As Fox observes, Mordecai will later state that Esther ‘attained’ the royal station (4:14), perhaps implying that she had actively pursued the position….The Jewish audience of the book of Esther could not have approved of Esther’s conduct.” 4

Finally, some find it difficult to believe that Esther would look for a way to win the king's heart and seek to gain an advantage that would assist her when her night with the king arrived. As stated in the sermon on Sunday, the text uses a common Hebrew euphemism to reveal that sex was one of, if not the key element in this competition. In verses 12-15, we see the English phrase, go in to or went in to—therefore, we have been given a window into the king's activity with each of these potential brides-to-be. In other words, the young women were judged not only by their looks but also by their performance. Is that offensive? Yes. But such was life in the empire of a pagan king. Therefore, Esther, knowing that her time with the king was approaching, actively sought advice from the person who best knew the king. Again, Tomasino wrote,  

When asked what she would like to take with her into the king’s presence, her response is, “What would you recommend?” Fox sees here evidence of passivity: “So devoid is she of individual will that she does not ask for further aids on her big night—a request that might at least show active participation in the process.” But Esther does not fail to ask for anything; she asks what Hegai thought she should take. It might be said that she was humble, not presupposing to know what would please the king. Rather than being passive, this move appears shrewd and calculating: Hegai, keeper of the royal women, would have known all the royal gossip and would have heard from the wives and concubines about the king’s preferences. Equipped with whatever Hegai had deemed best, Esther pleased all her admirers. Her strategy was working.5  

Karen Jobes provided this insight in her commentary,

Esther asked for nothing except what Hegai, the keeper of the harem, suggested she take with her….Levenson suggests that because Esther knew she had won Hegai’s favor, she wisely trusted in his expert knowledge of the king’s desires rather than in her own instincts. He infers from this that Esther was “wise and forbearing rather than inpulsive, prideful, and self-destructively independent.” Esther’s deference contrasts with Vashti’s defiance and implies a different outcome.

Given the sensual atmosphere created by the author’s description of the period of preparation and the competition Esther faced, the reader can hardly avoid wondering just how she won Xerxes in just one night with him. Did God give her favor with Xerxes? The text does not explain it that way. However, it is certain that because this young Jewish virgin apparently did whatever it took to please a lascivious pagan king, she won the position of queen, through which she later saved the whole of her nation, the nation from which the Messiah later came.6

The language used in chapter two is not only inspired by God, but it leads us to the conclusion that Esther was not a victim caught up in a process she wanted nothing to do with. The text teaches us the opposite. She went into this competition and did what was necessary to win. God, knowing what Esther and Mordecai could not have known, ensured that her efforts were successful and turned the heart of everyone who encountered Esther to favor her and be gracious to her—which culminated in Esther winning the heart of King Ahasuerus and becoming the Queen of Persia.  

So, why is this approach to Esther so different from anything most people have heard? Why don't other pastors teach the text the way I taught the text? Some might even be asking, why do you hate Esther? Well, I don't hate Esther, and I cannot speak for the actions of others, nor am I responsible for them. As the primary teaching pastor of CrossPointe, my responsibility is to preach the Word faithfully and accurately to the people God has placed under my care. The preaching task is one that I love; therefore, I approach it with great seriousness. My goal in the sermon on Sunday was not to destroy pre-conceived ideas of Esther or besmirch a woman who was used by God to deliver His people. Esther had many laudable qualities—things that will become more apparent throughout the rest of this series.  

If you've ever bought a diamond—not a ring, but the stone itself—then you know that a good jeweler will lay a black velvet cloth on top of the case, then they will place that diamond on the black fabric so that you can observe the beauty of the gem. The cloth does not make the diamond more beautiful or brilliant, but it provides a contrast to make it look more attractive. In the same way, the rawness of the narrative of chapter two will eventually allow us to see more clearly the brilliance of God's glory and His gospel in and through Esther.  
1 Esther 2:9 tells us that Esther pleased him (Hegai). The word pleased means that Esther had good or desirable qualities that were especially suitable for a thing specified.  This could mean that Esther’s beautiful face and figure were what the king desired, or it could mean that Esther had personal characteristics that were desirable to the king.  I believe the text leads us to conclude that both are true—Esther was beautiful and was more compliant than Queen Vashti.

2 F. B. Huey Jr., “Esther,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 806.

3 Karen H. Jobes, Esther, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 98–99.

4 Anthony Tomasino, Esther: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, ed. H. Wayne House and William Barrick, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, n.d.), 185–187.

5 Ibid, 191-192.

 6 Karen H. Jobes, Esther, 111.