If ever a Biblical story cried out to be made into a Hollywood movie, it would be the story of Esther. The story has everything that Hollywood values in a movie: rags-to-riches, gorgeous scenery, sex, intrigue, a creepy villain, attempted murder, violence, plot twists, a cast of thousands, and a happy ending. It even centers upon a strong female character, a kind of proto-feminist, someone who is both strong and feminine, vulnerable but courageous. It almost seems too good to be true. Cecil B. DeMille definitely missed his chance with this one
In fact, many scholars wonder if it is completely true, and there are certainly enough details in the story to raise the eyebrows of an historical detective. Consider the following: the text (or the script) says that the king’s first queen was named “Vashti”, whereas history knows her as “Amestris” (Herodotus’ Histories 7.61). The text also says that the king ruled over 127 satrapies, when in fact Persia contained about 20 of them. Also, Esther was chosen from other participants in a beauty pageant, when history informs us that the queen was chosen (unsurprisingly) from one of the seven noble families of Persia. Also, the text dates Mordecai from the exile of 597 B.C., which would make him about 120 years old at the time of the events related in the story.
Other improbabilities abound. Is it really likely that a queen would be chosen without inquiry about her race, immediate family, or past history (2:20)? Or that an order would go out across the empire decreeing that a wife must respect her husband (1:22)? Or that a king would appoint a commission before issuing this order (1:15f), but issue an order for an empire-wide genocide on the basis of a whim and a bribe? And that one would offer a bribe totaling about two-thirds of the revenue of the empire (3:8-9)? Or that when the king discovered his queen was Jewish, instead of simply rescinding the order, his response would be to issue another order telling the Jews that they could defend themselves, as if they wouldn’t have done that anyway (8:11)? Or that the slaughter of Persians by the Jews totaled 75,000, and that the king would accept this slaughter with equanimity (9:16)? The sum total of such historical errors and improbabilities is why many scholars regard the genre as historical romance (or political satire), and not history—though it might have been inspired by a local and limited Persian pogrom. (Or, as they say in Hollywood, “This story was inspired by true events”.)
The point, of course, is not the specific genre or the historicity, but the story itself. In this story, the Jewish heroine Esther finds herself caught up in the king’s project of finding himself a new wife to replace Vashti, his old wife whom he demoted and divorced. By royal decree young girls were gathered together from throughout the empire to take part in what was essentially a Persian beauty pageant, and the girl who best pleased the king would be the new queen. At length Esther was chosen as the new queen, though no one inquired about or knew her Jewish lineage or her personal history.
Esther had been looked after by her uncle Mordecai, who managed to insult and antagonize a high official in the king’s court by the name of Haman. Haman was filled with rage at this insult, and so rather than simply dispose of Mordecai, he decided to get rid of him by having all the Jews killed throughout the Persian empire. He suggested this genocidal policy to the king, offering him a bribe of ten thousand talents of silver to seal the deal, and the king immediately agreed to give the order, to be carried out in a year’s time. When Mordecai learned of the order, he immediately went into mourning, and asked Esther to convince the king to rescind the order. The problem was that Esther did not have access to the king unbidden, and if she dared to approach unbidden, she might be killed. But she decided to risk her life by approaching the king anyway.
Eventually she approached the king, who agreed to grant her access and not have her killed for her daring approach. After a day or so of feasting and buttering him up, she put before him her plight: she would soon be killed along with her people. Asked who would dare to harm the queen, she accused Haman. Immediately the king had Haman killed by hanging him on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai.
But the king could still not rescind the order, and so he issued another one: the Jews were allowed to defend themselves, and in response to the attack they slaughtered 75,000 Persians, including Persians in the royal capital. In the end, Mordecai was exalted to a position of authority and the Jews everywhere rejoiced and kept the anniversary of the day as a special feast—the feast of Purim. The story itself is of course more exciting and dramatic than this brief summary, and its ten chapters should be read to see why it is a perennial favourite. The Book of Esther’s difficulty in finding even a late place in the Biblical canon should not be allowed to detract from its dramatic power.
What can we learn from the story’s heroine and from the story generally? I suggest three things.
First of all, Esther is an example of loyalty to her people. Given her unforeseen and rapid advancement from unknown exile and immigrant to queen consort, it would have been easy for her to simply forget all about her unknown and politically inconvenient past. She would not have been the first person to ignore and deliberately lose contact with those who knew them before their meteoric rise to fame and influence. Yet despite the risk associated with her being a Jew, she maintained contact with her uncle, and continued to be guided by his advice. She exulted in her newfound status as Esther the Persian, but she never forgot that she was also Hadassah the Jew (2:7). For Esther, her membership in God’s people superseded everything else. It dictated her fundamental identity and guided her actions.
Secondly, we see Esther’s willingness to do the right thing regardless of the personal cost. She knew that she did not enjoy immediate access to the king, and that approaching him unbidden was against the law. She had not been summoned within the past month (4:11), and so it was unlikely therefore that she would be summoned in the immediate future. Bursting in unannounced might well result not just in loss of privilege and position, but also in loss of her life. Nonetheless, she said, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Her determined willingness to sacrifice her position and possibly even her life in the service of her people sets an example of courage for us all.
Finally, the story of Esther reveals that God will protect His chosen people in all circumstances, no matter how dire things become. Though Esther is heroine of the tale, God remains the invisible protagonist behind the scenes. He works through the plots of the ungodly and the courage of the pious to fulfill His will for the protection and survival of His people. The story of Esther is ultimately not about the fate and courage of one woman or about the necessity of piety. In fact, there is very little show of piety found in the narrative: the Name of God is not mentioned, no one is seen praying, even when doom threatens (see 4:1-3). The moral therefore is not, “Piety will be rewarded”, but rather, “God’s people will survive, since God protects them”—see 6:13, where even Haman’s wife and friends seem to know this.
This has relevance for the Church as well, since the Church is the Messianic commonwealth of Israel. No weapon forged against the Church will ultimately prosper (Isaiah 54:17), and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Church is the anvil which has worn out many hammers, and it will remain until the Coming of the Lord. The story of Esther contains the promise that God will watch over His Church until the end. God will always preserve His people. The only question for us is: will we show courage in the hour of danger or not? Like Esther, let us resolve to do the right thing no matter what: if we perish, we perish. We must remember who we are and do our duty.