In Sunday school, they always made Esther out to be the biblical version of a Disney princess—young, pretty, dressed in fine clothes, and blessed, no doubt, with a fine singing voice. Her story was told as a love story, complete with a handsome but aloof Prince Charming, who picked her by means of a beauty pageant. I figured that in addition to her twelve months of beautification, Esther must have performed a talent and answered questions from a glass bowl before winning the heart of a love-struck King Xerxes.
I never learned in Sunday School that Esther, whose Jewish name was Hadassah, was drafted, along with perhaps thousands of virgin girls from Susa, into King Xerxes harem. Or that the king had banished his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to publicly flaunt her body before his drunken friends. Or that, as the sexual property of the Empire and under the direction of the royal Eunuchs, Esther and the women of the king’s harem each took a turn in the king’s bed to see who would please him best. Or that the women received just one night with the king, after which they were transferred to the eunuchs in charge of the concubines with the instruction not to return to the king’s chamber unless summoned by name, under the penalty of death. Or that Esther was likely a child of twelve or thirteen when all of this happened. Or that the text never mentions her wishes or desires because, in this culture and under these circumstances, they were inconsequential.
They left those details out of the flannel graphs.
Esther may have been a queen, but she wasn’t the queen of our Western, Disney-influenced imagination.
Her story takes place in an ancient Near Eastern culture that regarded women as property, a culture in which Jews like Esther were struggling to retain their identity and safety amidst the violence, power, excess, debauchery, and volatility of the Persian Empire.
Like many of Scripture’s most interesting and influential women, Esther has been subjected to glorification, projections, and distortions through the years, but in all my years of studying Esther, I have never encountered a reimagining of her story as bizarre or as harmful as that being put forth by mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll in his new sermon series at Mars Hill.
In true Driscoll fashion, he turns Esther’s story into a story about sex:
“[Esther] grows up in a very lukewarm religious home as an orphan raised by her uncle. Beautiful, she allows men to tend to her needs and make her decisions. Her behavior is sinful and she spends around a year in the spa getting dolled up to lose her virginity with the pagan king like hundreds of other women. She performs so well that he chooses her as his favorite. Today, her story would be, a beautiful young woman living in a major city allows men to cater to her needs, undergoes lots of beauty treatment to look her best, and lands a really rich guy whom she meets on The Bachelor and wows with an amazing night in bed. She’s simply a person without any character until her own neck is on the line, and then we see her rise up to save the life of her people when she is converted to a real faith in God.”
To compare forced concubinage to an audition for “The Bachelor,” and to ascribe sexual culpability to a girl who in a patriarchal culture had no ownership over her own body and no control over her own marriage, is as bizarre as it is disturbing. It’s just as ridiculous as turning Esther into a Disney princess, only Driscoll—being older than 10—has no excuse to project this strange reading onto the text. Esther is not a flawless character (few biblical characters are), but to question her basic morality like this without any support from the text or from traditional interpretations of it seems from my perspective to reveal a troubling agenda.
Is this not how women have been silenced throughout history--by rendering them either helpless princesses or dirty whores? And is this not how victims of patriarchy and male violence are treated around the world—as sexually culpable, as guilty, as “wanting it”? Will we let our pastors do this to Esther as it has been done to countless women before?
The bizarre interpretations do not end there. I have written before about how, in Real Marriage, Mark and Grace Driscoll present Xerxes and Esther’s relationship as model for godly submission in a Christian home. Once again, in their attempts to try and bend the stories of an ancient near eastern culture to fit into the dynamics of a modern-day, Western, nuclear family—perhaps to simply make them more applicable to readers— they have dismissed the actual story of Vashti and Esther and replaced it with one of their own making. (In fact, in the actual story, male obsession with wifely submission is treated quite farcically!)
Now, let me be clear: I am not interested in countering these irresponsible interpretations with equally irresponsible interpretations that render Esther a feminist hero. No, as with the rest of scripture, we have to read this story on its own terms. And, like it or not, this story is not about sex, it’s not about gender roles, and it’s not about marriage (though these themes are present and should certainly be discussed). At the end of the day, this is a story about Jewish identity and heritage. It’s a story about what it means to be Jewish in the context of diaspora. It’s a story about God’s preservation and providence to a scattered people, God's presence in God's hiddenness.
(Though it should be noted that at times the story is funny and satirical, with hapless characters who seem more suited for a Shakespearean comedy than the Bible. In the Jewish community, it is typically read out loud during a feast - complete with boos and cheers from the kids...which sounds like great fun.)
This may not be a theme that draws big crowds to your church on Sunday morning, but I believe it is a more faithful reading of the text. And if we’re going to be faithful to scripture, we must learn to love it for what it is, not what we want it to be.
And so, in that spirit, I’d like to commit the next 5-6 Mondays to a series on Esther. We’ll start with the context of the story, then move through its major movements, drawing insights each week from a variety of commentaries from both Jewish and Christian scholars. Since I am not scholar myself, I want this series to be highly interactive, so please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment section with links to other resources, books, articles, and sermon series. I’ve heard of several other pastors and bloggers who are also planning to work through Esther over the next few weeks—both online and with their congregations—so I’ll be keeping an eye on their work in order to share it with you.
Unfortunately, this new, distorted perspective on Esther has become too big and too popular to ignore, so the best way to respond to it is with better information. This will not be a reactive series—we’ll have our own outline and go at our own pace— but rather a proactive one, in which we gather together to reason with one another and wrestle with what the text actually says.
Because we can’t allow a woman like Esther to be crammed into our preferred molds—as a Disney princess, a victim, an easily-dismissed whore, a contestant on “The Bachelor,” or even a feminist.
Because Esther is so much more than that.
Like every woman, and like every hero and heroine of Scripture, she is more complicated than we wish her to be.
So, what questions have you wrestled with when it comes to the story of Esther? What are your favorite resources and perspectives? What would you like to see happen with this series?
Note: If you are having trouble reading/leaving comments, try refreshing the page. We’re still working out some kinks with DISQUS, so please be patient if you still can’t . I do want to hear your thoughts!