“It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.” That is what the opening line to Esther should be. We find the Children of Israel forced from the Promised Land, living hundreds of miles away under Babylonian rule. It’s hard to imagine that just a few pages ago in the Bible, Israel was a happenin’ player on the global scene. So what happened? Shouldn’t they still be chillaxin’ in Solomon’s palace? Life should have been daisies and roses, but it wasn’t. Stories of God’s protection and deliverance didn’t make sense any more. Where was God now? You can see the Children of Israel lamenting their current situation, like Simba in The Lion King, yelling to the heavens, “You said you’d always be there for us! But you’re not!” Did God abandon them? Would God ever return? They didn’t know when or if ever they would get to return. Life in exile sucked. Hope was fading.
But not lost.
I See What You Did There
I remember Sesame Street had this running skit called “One of these things.” It teaches kids to spot similar and different objects. The song stayed in my head all day. You could sing, “One of these things just doesn’t belong…” about Esther and her self-titled novel; it’s something that doesn’t belong. (Let’s put a pin in why Esther, the character doesn’t belong.) The Book of Esther doesn’t fit with the other books in the Old Testament. The typical trademarks in the rest of the books of the Old Testament aren’t found in Esther: God isn’t mentioned; there isn’t a miracle; the Temple isn’t mentioned; no prayers are offered; there is no reference to it in the New Testament; and its named after the female instead of the male. Nonetheless, it is in the canon. It’s very presence in the Bible is a surprise. A book that shouldn’t be there but is, and its about a woman who shouldn’t there either.
Now back to our pin. While Israel was living in exile, in a strange culture and strange land, you would think that our story would be about returning home (Exodus II). Instead, our story is about a conspiracy and fight for survival and a female actor in a supporting role that steals the show. But getting there wasn’t peaches and cream.
Again, we can sing the jingle from Sesame Street, “One of these things…” Someone who shouldn’t be there… is there. She’s an orphan, she’s a woman (duh), and she’s a minority in Babylon. Her very identity is a red flag to those reading. The author is doing some really clever things with the text and is doubling up on a common literary style. Over and over again in the Old Testament we are reminded to look after the orphans. When we see that Esther is an orphan, that’s a good sign to pay attention. But it’s connected with the other words, which makes her identity stand out. Which begs the question, why are those words important, and what do they have in common?
Normally, when we see orphan, it is usually with widow and stranger, or as my Systematic Theology professor says ‘sojourner’. All these people are on the outcast of society, and the sort of people Israel was supposed to take care of. Esther is an outcast. The other parts of her identity go along with that. She is female in a patriarchal society and she is a member a minority religious group and nationality. The author is juxtaposing her status of outcast with her status Queen; a Biblical rag-to-riches story. Esther is a prime example of John Wesley’s social holiness: from excluded, to included.
The second literary device our author uses can be found in the hymnal. I won’t make you sing all four verses of Hymn #2 in Sing to the Lord, but “Holy, Holy, Holy” is an example of this type of ancient literary device. In modern English we would say “Very, Very Holy” (but that doesn’t harmonize well). The repetition of the same word reinforces its significance. Esther is no exception. She is an orphan, woman, and a minority. The author could have said, “outcast, outcast, outcast.” Before Esther becomes the powerful, the author is also reminding us that she is powerless. That is to say, she is powerless, powerless, powerless. She was utterly powerless. No family, few rights, and subject to discrimination. So the author doubles up in the story telling by saying that Esther went from outcast to welcomed, from powerless to powerful.
And Now Our Feature Presentation
If you are unfamiliar with the story of Esther, you can check it out here: Esther.
Two things set the stage for the big surprise at the end of Esther. The first is found at the beginning when King Xerxes makes an unbreakable vow that no one can address him unless he addresses him or her first. It was childish and immature, but he’s the King and he can do what he wants. The second is that a conspiracy arose from the chief advisor to the King wants to get rid of all the Jews in the Kingdom. And by get rid of, he means kill. Babylonians adopted a conquering style where they would take the best and brightest of the fallen people back with them instead of killing them, and leave the rest of the people to be led by dullards who will follow blindly. For the Babylonian King to commit genocide is uncharacteristic to his conquering style. Our author has positioned King Xerxes between his two most trusted people: his advisor, and his Queen. One wants to kill the Jews, one wants to save the Jews.
Esther can prevent the genocide of her people but in doing so she risks her own life. (The most epic Catch-22 ever.) As Esther debates what to do, her uncle Mordecai offers her some advice. “You think the King will spare you just because you’re pretty? If you stay silent about this, someone else will do it. Maybe, just maybe, you were put here for this very moment.” (My own paraphrase of Esther 4:13-14.)
That gives Esther a lot to think about.
Fast-forward to 2010, we have a guy who by all accounts shouldn’t be a Nazarene pastor, but is. He is dealing with what appears to be an unchangeable Manual. Just like Esther hid her nationality from King Xerxes, this pastor hid his sexual orientation from his family, friends, and church colleagues. Then he reads the news about how teens across his land were committing suicide because of how people treated them, just for being gay. He wanted to say something, but felt trapped by his position in life. He wanted to act, but did not know how. His Nazarene credentials were a mile long, but speaking out against the church he loves would kill any chance of a future career in his beloved church. He could lose friends and family when he comes out too.
The mental gymnastics one goes through debating on where or not to act on something of this caliber is exhausting. It is the only thing you think about. You can’t seem to distract your mind long enough for it to go away. It is constantly churning and draining you of your energy both mentally and physically. I imagine Esther wrestled with this like I have about coming out. Making the right decision isn’t always the easiest. You can almost see the dignity, poise and vulnerability as Esther replies, “Yes, I’ll do it. If I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16) Esther will speak up for her people, and confront the King.
It took two years of planning, writing, sleepless night, contemplating linguistics and consequences, but he will finally do it. He will come out of closet, and tell his family, his friends and his church that he is gay. Because maybe, just maybe, he was put here for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, he went to that Church for this reason. Maybe, just maybe, he went to that Nazarene University for this reason. So that he would be a voice of change even in the most red of states, and join the others who are already saying the same thing. The alternative of remaining silent is clear. If he stays silent, he watches another generation of people leave the Church he loves because people and policies aren’t accepting. If he stays silent, someone else will speak up, it might as well be him.
Esther expected death. She risks it all and goes to King Xerxes. Esther expected death. In literary circles, when the expected result does not occur that is called irony. I imagine she walked into the throne room, past the shocked faces of the guards and royal attendants who knew what happened to the last Queen who disobeyed the King. Instead of anger, she is greeted with affection. King Xerxes says to her “Darling, what is it, you look troubled, I’ll give you up to half of everything I own if it’ll cheer you up. Just tell me what you want and it is done.” (My paraphrase of Esther 5:3)
In a surprising twist Esther is greeted with life instead of death! As the story tells us not only life for her but life for all her people! How awesome is that! This is probably why the story made it in the Bible, because where else do we find a story of people who deserved death, but were given life? Do we not believe that we all deserve death, and just through the surprising act of Jesus, we get life? That is the best surprise of all.
He comes out to his friends and has already found support. How nice then would it be if he came out to his family and church and found the same support? How cool would it be to have a resolution drafted at General Assembly that removes anti-homosexual statements that he expects to get voted down but actually pass! How wonderful will it be to be a member of a Church that he thought would never accept gays as members or clergy, become LGBT affirming? Now that would be surprising! But he would have never been able to experience those surprises if he stayed silent.
The Book of Esther lets us know we can learn about God in surprising and unusual places.
To be concluded…