Esther Actually: What happens in the harem...

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Design by  Lindsey Mccormack  for the  Old & New project , used with permission.

Design by Lindsey Mccormack for the Old & New project, used with permission.

This is the fourth post in our series on Esther. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

"Taken" into the harem...

In Chapter 2 of the book of Esther, we are introduced to a Jew named Mordecai and an orphan girl in his charge named Esther.  (Her Jewish name is Hadassah.) Mordecai and Esther live in Susa during the reign of Xerxes. Their relatives, like thousands of Jews, had been taken captive by an invading army and exiled there in decades past. 

When King Xerxes begins to miss his wife Vashti,  whom he banished for refusing to appear before him at a drunken party, he consults with his advisors who suggest that he start over with a new harem. “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king,” they say. “Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” 

The king likes this idea, and Esther is among hundreds of young virgins brought into the harem. 

Now, because this process of gathering women into the harem has recently been compared to an audition for “The Bachelor” with Esther’s participation constituting “sexual sin,” it’s important to look closely at what the text does and does not say regarding Esther’s volition in the process. Esther 2:8-9 reports: 

So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to the citadel of Susa into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women. 

Notice the difference between the words used to describe the king’s actions and the words used to describe the women’s actions. 

This “gathering” is not the same as an audition for The Bachelor! There are no audition tapes or casting calls or rose ceremonies or consent forms or arguments over who is there "for the right reasons." (Not that I would know what goes on in "The Bachelor.") There is simply an edict from the most powerful man in the world followed by enforcement.  

This “gathering,” writes Michael Fox “is not a contest. The desirable girls are simply ‘gathered,’ with no regard to whether they proposed themselves for the honor, or even whether they were offered by their fathers. The will of the maidens and their families is not a factor....The king had sent out officials with orders to gather all beautiful virgins. Moreover, the mention of the king’s ‘law’--the Persian word dat is used in this verse, as in 1:19--reminds us of the unalterable law of the Persians and suggests that Esther’s introduction into the harem was an ineluctable fate, which neither Mordecia nor Esther could withstand.” 

Notes Karen Jobes: “Regardless of how she felt about it or whether she cooperated, Esther was at the mercy of a ruthless pagan king just as her people were. The use of the passive voice is appropriate in this story, for it expresses life from the perspective of being caught up and swept along by circumstances beyond ones' control." 

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, if Esther was anything like a typical  teenage girl in this ancient Near Eastern patriarchal culture, she would not have expected to have any say in her marital future to begin with, and so when she is “taken” with the other virgins into the harem, the chances that she would even think to defy her male guardian, or even worse, the Persian Empire, are incredibly slim. We need not require that the text blatantly describe this situation as rape in order to understand that mutual consent was unlikely. 

And so, at the very least, we must look at the text and say, “We don’t know how Esther felt about being gathered into the harem, thought it is unlikely she would have had much of a say.”  That is a responsible reading that neither glorifies nor maligns Esther’s character, but simply accepts the details we have been given in the text without imposing new ones 


Esther's Immorality?

Unfortunately, after two relatively benign sermons on the book of Esther, Pastor Mark Driscoll returned yesterday to a narrative that casts Esther as an immoral woman. In his latest sermon, he chastises her for not “fighting back” when “she could have said no.” He calls her a “hypocrite” and “worldly,” a woman who “got herself into this mess.” 

As frustrating as these statements may be, I must confess that after listening to Driscoll’s sermon series thus far, I have come to believe that this interpretation does not necessarily reflect blatant misogyny as I had (perhaps unfairly) assumed upon first hearing it, but rather reflects a gross misunderstanding of the culture in which the story of Esther took place and was written. If we give Driscoll the benefit of the doubt on this---which, despite his history on issues related to women and sex,I think we should--and if we listen to his sermon, I think we see a pastor trying so desperately to make this text relevant to his congregation that he twists the story to fit modern, Western assumptions regarding women, marriage, and family. (Roy Ciampa’s observations on gender mapping seem to apply here.) He wants so badly to make this a story that includes a conversion experience, a story about God using sinful people to accomplish His purposes, a story about a sexually promiscuous woman who finds Jesus, that he reads too much into the text. 

As a result, he judges Esther as he would judge a free woman in a free society, and he judges Mordecai as he would a free citizen who could protest his government’s policies without getting himself and his adopted daughter killed for it. (And, inexplicably, throughout the sermon, he continuously judges all single men as ignorant, good-for-nothings who have no wisdom to offer the world...apparently forgetting that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were single men!) 

He also makes quite a few arguments from omission, concluding from the fact that the text doesn’t explicitly report that Esther “went to synagogue” that she must have been a  worldly, lukewarm Jew, forgetting  that Esther is the one who calls for a fast later in the story, reflecting something of a religious background and personal religious conviction. And while he says he wants members of his congregation to debate the text in their Bible studies, he accuses anyone whose interpretation might give Esther the benefit of the doubt as being prideful. 

Put simply: He rejects the story as given and replaces it with a story he wishes it to be, a story that lines up with some of his assumptions regarding salvation, election, gender, sin, and relationships. We are all guilty of doing this from time to time. It is, of course, easier to spot in others than it is to spot in, despite my frustration with his irresponsible interpretation of the text, I’m going to cut Driscoll some slack and assume that, this time, it’s based on misguided attempts to make the text relevant to his congregation rather than misogynistic inclinations. 

As one astute reader (Bryan) observed in a comment  after my first post on the topic, "I suppose if one is "Mary Magdalene'ing" Esther for the sake of dismissing her value as a disciple then I'd agree. I'm not sure I agree Mark is doing that. I think he's just wrapping up the story with a new sexual take -- his favored paradigm it seems -- and trying for something novel, perhaps for its own sake. He's trying, I think, -- and too hard at it -- to teach the Reformed worldview narrative of complete depravity and unmerited election to God's work by Grace through faith. Painting Esther worse than she was makes that worldview sell much better."

Sometimes your readers are right!

Friend of Eunuchs.... 

Now let me be clear: I am not interested in casting Esther as a sinless, goldy heroine who could do no wrong and who should be praised uncritically. (Frankly, how she behaves at the end of the story--ordering a second day of massacres against the enemies of the Jews--is more troubling to me than how she behaves at the beginning of it!) But I am interested in what the text actually says about her. And thus far in the story, it hasn’t said much. Esther appears to be the passive recipient of circumstances beyond her control, perhaps even a victim of them. She is a young girl, “taken” into the harem of a powerful king and “commanded” by her caretaker Mordecai not to reveal her Jewish identity. So far, she has come across as rather powerless. 

But then she enters the harem and befriends the eunuchs. 

According to verse 9, Esther pleases the eunuch Hegai and “gains” or “takes” (nasa’)  kindess (hesed). Michael Fox notes that “this idiom, found only in Esther, holds a suggestion of activeness in ‘gaining’ rather than, as the usual idiom has it, ‘finding’ (masa’) kindness. Gaining kindness is something she is doing, rather than something being done to her. Thus she has some social skills, and not only good looks.” 

The text reports that Esther found such favor with all who encountered her. And in the context of a harem of hundreds of women, it’s hard to believe that this was a result of good looks alone. We cannot know for sure why Esther befriended the eunuchs or why she found favor in the eyes of so many people. Perhaps she was manipulative. Perhaps she had a good sense of humor to go along with those good looks.  I like to think that it was because she was kind...especially to the eunuchs who, like Esther, had once been “taken” and used by the king. Sometimes powerlessness makes people bitter and angry; sometimes it makes them compassionate and kind. (Again, this is a reading that I favor, but it is not one spelled out explicitly in the text.) 

Regardless, this alliance with Megia turns out to be a critical one, for he helps Esther prepare for her night with the king and ensures that she is properly cared for and fed. And, as we will see in future installments of the series, Esther’s favor with the eunuchs will prove critical to her efforts in saving the Jews, as God continues to use the powerless to shame the powerful. 

...More to come!

[Sources: Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther;  Karen Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary)]


What do you think? Is Esther to blame for her circumstances? How can we stay faithful to what the text actually says and still find elements of this ancient story that are relevant to our lives? 

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