*this post features a personal story from one of our elders*
This week’s text makes us wonder why Esther and Mordecai were in Susa. Why didn’t they resist assimilation like Daniel did?
We learn that Esther has a secret Jewish identity – Hadassah – a name that is brought out like the good silver for us to look at and then ushered back into the pantry. We are confused as to why she is identified and called Esther throughout most of the book.
It turns out that Esther is the Persian name for the Babylonian goddess of sex and war, Ishtar. Her cousin and caregiver, Mordecai, is also named after a Babylonian god – Marduk – who is the cousin of Ishtar in Babylonian myth, and who rose from nothing to a position of great power. Is this story meant to allude to the story about two powerful Babylonian gods? Or is it the story of two somewhat helpless Jews – an orphan and a eunuch? Could it be both?
How can Esther and Mordecai be both compromisers and heroes of faith?
Let’s back it up for a minute: we see from Esther 1:13 that previously, it was the King’s custom to talk about everything with a group of 14 confidantes. Weird flex, but okay. Recently, there had been an attempted assassination, and so the King decides that there are too many kids in this tub – perhaps it would be best to go with quality versus quantity after all. He replaces his 14 men with one person: Haman.
Curiously, that promotion does not go to Mordecai – the man who just saved the King’s life. This is perhaps the source of the hatred that comes between Mordecai and Haman. With Haman’s promotion, the King decrees that everyone should bow and pay him respect. Mordecai won’t.
When pressed about it, he says it’s because he is a Jew. Now hold on just a darn minute.
Mordecai doesn’t seem very Jewish. Like….at all. Nothing about his life or identity is Jewish. He’s got a Babylonian name, he didn’t return to Jerusalem, he chose to stay in the diaspora, he doesn’t celebrate Passover. In fact, he moved even further east (AWAY from Jerusalem) to come to Susa. There is no mention of any sorrow when his cousin, whom he raised away from the identity of their Jewish heritage, is taken to perform sexual acts with a gentile and then goes on to marry him. (Jury’s out on which would be the worse shame, Jewishly speaking.) So what is he even talking about?
In fact, for Mordecai to have the place he did at the gate (an official position in the Royal Court) he most definitely would have needed to prostrate himself – as a sign of respect – before the King and others. So if we can rule out that it most definitely was not a religious conviction that was preventing him from bowing down, it must have had something to do with Haman in particular. Perhaps Mordecai resented that he was not chosen as the King’s right-hand-man. Perhaps Mordecai expected himself to be the one others would be paying homage to. After all, his cousin is the queen, and he just proved his loyalty to the King – they could be great together. They could be heroes, for just one day.
Additionally, there was absolutely no previous reason to be afraid of one’s Jewish identity in Persia. King Cyrus rather recently not only let the Jews return to Jerusalem, but gave them resources to rebuild (thanks, Dad!) and returned their religious artifacts that had been plundered from the Temple by Babylon. This is not a climate of oppression. Nobody is being forced to assimilate in an effort to humiliate and stamp out their culture.
The Jews who are living there are summed up in the attitudes and lifestyles of Esther and Mordecai – they may as well be Persian. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, maybe it actually is a duck. But Haman sees Mordecai refusing to bow down to him – and this apparently so incenses Haman the Honey Badger with incandescent rage that he plots to have the Jews all over the empire annihilated. Mordecai, as one would perhaps expect, is greatly anguished over this edict, and he shows it – and so does everyone else. The text says that there was great mourning among the Jews, but interestingly, there is no mention of repentance or prayer or any hope that this fast might turn the hands of fate.
Mordecai asks Esther to approach the King. Time to pony up and take one for the team. Esther knows that the punishment for this is death. Furthermore, the King has continued to sleep with every young virgin in a fifty mile radius and Esther has not been summoned by him in a month. It’s not like the King has just been terribly busy with running a kingdom and he forgot to call. He has moved on. He is enjoying other young virgins that were rounded up on his behalf. In case you missed it, let me again reiterate – this is not a fairy tale, this is not a beauty pageant, this is not a how-to for women, and it’s most definitely not a romantic comedy. Esther does not have much of a leg to stand on. She can’t just waltz in there and boldly enter the King’s presence. Queens, after all, can be replaced easily. Maybe the girl he was with last night would do nicely. Being queen means nothing. It gave no protection for Vashti, and it will offer no protection for Esther.
Esther expects she will be killed if she goes to the King. But Mordecai points out that she will die anyway, so Esther calls out “VALAR MORGHULIS” and all her attendants fast with her. The likelihood that she had anyone in her company that was Jewish is next to impossible. They aren’t Jewish, but they are her closest friends.
Second, there is no repentance, no acknowledgement of God, no mention of prayer. They are fasting because she is going to die. That is the only reason. They don’t even mention a wish that God could or would save them. Esther will die. Mordecai will die. Hadassah will die. They don’t expect anything.
They have removed themselves too far away from Jerusalem, from the Temple, from God and his covenant promises. Is this their just punishment? How good do they need to be for God to come for them? They aren’t even hoping for that. It doesn’t even seem to cross their mind as an option. It seems they don’t deserve for God to come for them or hold out his promises.
But who does deserve that? Maybe you think you do, but what about your racist neighbor? Does he deserve it?
I Am A Super Good Christian, And You Can Tell Rolling Stone I Said That
When I think of Esther, I reflect on all the ways I disappoint and fall below the expectations of the law.
I know the rules. I know what’s expected of a good Christian. I went to school for four years at a pretty conservative Bible College. I was selected to represent the female student body in school matters, and I graduated with distinction. I broke up with my boyfriend because I didn’t think we were God’s best for each other. We never kissed.
Approaching graduation, I couldn’t decide if I should go into further studies to be a bible translator, theology professor or an apologist, who with my wit and logic would win people to Jesus. I was a good Christian. I moved half my things to Vancouver after a church who saw me on tour with my traveling worship band invited me to come be their worship pastor. Eventually I moved back home and started working in a homeless shelter.
I met my husband-to-be there and fell hard in love with him. Suddenly, all the reasons I had for saving myself for marriage turned into reasons I wanted to give all of me to him. We discovered we were pregnant before we were married, and I found myself quite quickly off my pedestal and into a big ol’ pile of shame. I loved my husband so deeply and had promised myself in my heart to him, and I knew God saw that. But a lot of other people were less understanding.
To make matters worse, we chose to live together before the wedding. With a baby on the way, it seemed only wise to give ourselves time to learn how to love and care for each other. We didn’t just have sex once, we were “living in sin”. The acute awareness that I, by conceiving my sweet daughter, had destroyed other’s respect of me and disqualified myself from what so many others expected of me was shattering.
I still felt God’s love but wondered what kind of a place I had amongst the Christians. The message I received was ‘we love you, but we don’t support what you are doing’ – love the sinner, hate the sin.
I began attending Awaken with Jesse, expecting to be politely rejected. I kept my eyes down and didn’t broadcast loudly that I was with child. But as people found out, I was drawn in, even further than I would have thought I was allowed to hope for. Amanda and Michelle threw me a baby shower even though I hardly knew their names. Eric told me he thought we were stupid, but in a way that let me know we weren’t going to be in this alone. I’m not saying that everyone at Awaken assured me that they agreed with our lifestyle choices, but whether they did or didn’t wasn’t given the main stage. It was left between me and my creator. I not only was welcomed, but even given space to lead worship, to preach, even before we married.
Some days I don’t know what I think about Jesus, but I know I was shown his love and pulled in when I was on the outside and thought I would be told to stay there. Nobody deserves to be here, but we are still invited.
Hopefully, we turn and invite others from the outside in too. That’s the point. Esther and Mordecai didn’t deserve God’s love.
Do we hear this and agree, damning her to her fate and expecting to see her destruction? Or do we see ourselves, remember Hadassah, and with the same hope that God is still willing to uphold his end of the covenant with me, hope that he might come for her and her people?