Not Disney Approved
There are many different opinions out there about whether Esther was a godly woman or a compromiser of the faith. Was she promiscuous, or a victim of patriarchy? What if she was both? The truth is, we don’t know. Esther’s feelings about being brought into the King’s harem are not mentioned, because they are inconsequential.
We know that Esther was a Jewish orphan, raised by her cousin Mordecai. In most Ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Israel, unmarried women were considered the property of their fathers (or the male head-of-house, in Esther’s case, Mordecai). Under biblical law, they could either be sold into slavery to pay off debt or married for a bride price (Exodus 21:7, Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1-10).
Marriages were typically arranged by the male members of the family before a girl reached puberty. Girls were married as teenagers, and rarely had any say in the process. The fact that Esther was a beautiful virgin, and not yet married, suggests that she was quite young when she was brought into King Xerxes’ harem.
Esther 2:14 also tells us that in the evening, the girls were taken from the harem of the virgins and in the morning were placed into the harem for the concubines. That makes it pretty clear that this isn’t a beauty pageant. Nobody gets to return home after. It’s a sex contest.
Most beauty pageants are entered by choice, which doesn’t seem to be the case here – consent is not mentioned or even regarded as a consideration of any importance whatsoever. Since the girls are no longer virgins after their “try before you buy” night with the King, they all belong to the King forever – to satisfy his sexual desires at his beck and call. Is this the bible, or is this a horror movie? Could be either, the way things are going.
In the book of Esther, we have met all different types of characters – sex-crazed and violent Kings, Virgins, Concubines, and Eunuchs. These titles might seem ancient and outdated, so it’s important to keep in mind that this is a story that involves a lot of human trafficking. History tells us that prisoners of war, especially “boys of unusual beauty” were often castrated and sold to the Persians. Cyrus believed that eunuchs would be more trustworthy than other males because they were unconnected – they had no love or loyalty to a spouse, or in-laws or children of their own. He viewed Eunuchs in the same way that he viewed castrated animals. He believed that, like a neutered dog or a castrated bull, eunuchs would only become more faithful and protective of their masters while retaining their physical strength and energy.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote a book on Persian history just 25 years after the reign of Xerxes, and provides some insight into his might and cruelty – including the fact that 500 young boys were gathered each year from the kingdom and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court.
These boys would have been seen as lower class and treated like animals – and yet, isn’t it interesting that they are the ones who hold key positions in this story and are instrumental in moving the narrative forward. Eunuchs and Concubines are often erased by history – their stories are never told. But Esther is a book where they are named and valued. It’s not to be missed or understated that this is a book of reversals.
Xerxes exercised complete control over the many people, who were from a variety of ethnicities and cultures and found themselves swept up in his empire. Esther’s body, the bodies of the eunuchs, and the bodies of the women brought into the harem, were the property of the EmpireBut before we decide to decry Xerxes as nothing more than an evil jar of hot mayonnaise, take a moment to consider that this custom was not only practiced by evil foreign Kings. Harems were used by both David and Solomon.
And while the book of Deuteronomy speaks against having multiple wives, when it actually happened, God is silent on the matter. David had at least 10 concubines and seven wives; Solomon had 300 concubines and 700 wives. Why didn’t God stop Solomon (or David, the bible’s golden boy) from collecting powerless girls? What do we do with this? How should we respond to human trafficking in the Bible? For that matter, how should we respond to it today?
As we work through the book of Esther, my stomach turns at the events. This is no fairytale story of winning a beauty contest. We have girls and boys as young as nine years old being forced into slavery. There is no condemnation. There is no call for justice. There is no response from God at all.
So where is God in the injustices in our world? The Christian response to injustice is often not that different from decent people in the world around us: We want to DO something, or we want our politicians to do something, or we want our neighbours to do something…it’s called policy change, we say, while “thoughts and prayers” is paraded around like Justin Trudeau at a pride parade. We see nothing happen, no change, and we sink into despair.
Let’s hold this tension as we journey deeper into the book of Esther and consider the silence of God and the silence of the Church in the face of injustice. Surely…. The world is not as it ought to be.
hear the prayers of your faithful people;
you know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Grant our requests as may be best for us.
This we ask in the name of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord.
For the needs of the world, we pray.
Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer.