I don’t know what you learned in Sunday School, but Esther's story was most definitely not a love story. Despite that fact, generations of church kids, girls especially, have been told a fairytale that most certainly did not end with happily ever after.
I was one of those church kids, a Sunday School regular from birth until, well, pretty much forever, who heard Esther’s story again and again as it made the rounds through all manner of churchy curriculum. The story was consistently told as a dreams-come-true real life Cinderella Story; a tale of a beautiful girl, pampered in the royal spa for no less than an entire year (to be made more beautiful), winning a beauty pageant (because she was so beautiful), stealing a king’s heart (because she was the most beautiful), being made queen of the known world (because…um, beautiful…), and living out her days in the lap of luxury. Until one day, beautiful Esther would be called upon to save her people. She would have to be brave, to muster a queenly courage, and step into the role she was born to play.
None of that is necessarily untrue, but it's a spin job like no other. True, Esther’s story is all about courage. This girl dug deep and found courage in the face of violation, powerlessness, and the worst kind of injustice. The real story of courage begins before Esther is even introduced to us. It begins with Queen Vashti, Esther’s predecessor. While her husband King Xerxes was indulging with his ministers and nobles in a drawn-out course of debauchery and drunkenness, she courageously dared to refuse his call to parade herself before his guests wearing only her royal crown. And she suffered for it. The Bible records she was banished, but some scholars speculate she met a more grisly fate. In the wake of her courageous stand for her dignity, however, other young women were robbed of theirs. Enter Esther.
The backstory on Esther is informative and shouldn’t be overlooked. Long before Queen Vashti made her departure, a young Jewish girl was orphaned. We’re not told how her parents died, only that her older cousin Mordecai took her in and raised her. The implica-tion is she was quite young when she was orphaned and, we can assume, vulnerable—as orphans always are in so many ways. However, unlike many other orphans, even today, Esther was lucky; she had Mordecai to protect her. But one day, luck ran out, for Esther and every other “beautiful young virgin in every province” of the king’s realm. They were taken. Taken from their homes and families. Taken into the service of King Xerxes. Taken because they were beautiful and because they were virgins, and because the king needed to replace his queen.
Can we please abandon the fairytale at this point? These girls were taken on the king’s orders and most certainly against their will. This king was not looking to fall in love, and these girls were not invited to participate in a “royal beauty pageant.” They were taken into the king’s harem. Let’s just remind ourselves what the harem of a monarch in the Ancient Near East was: this was the community of women he claimed and kept for himself. They were his property; and they were not free to leave. They were under guard and monitored at all times. This was the group of girls he used regularly for his sexual pleasure.
Since this despot was in need of a new queen, the decision was made that the new girls in the harem would each have one night with him, and whoever pleased him best, would win the prize of his favor and wear the imperial crown. Little Orphan Esther was awarded that honor. Beyond my acknowledging that she shrewdly consulted the chief eunuch on how to secure victory, I will leave it to you to contemplate by implication how one would “win” this particular “competition.”
History tells us Esther was crowned queen four years after Vashti’s unprecedented stand for dignity and subsequent disappearance from the pages of history. But this should not by any means cue the music for Esther’s happily ever after. She had pleased him, yes, but soon, the king’s court was awash in intrigue, and the prime minister was nursing a personal vendetta against Esther’s cousin. This vendetta morphed into a naked attempt at the genocide of an entire people group. This “final solution” of its day would have succeeded if not for the courage of Esther, the orphan-turned-queen who found her voice and used it to save her people.
To speak up was a risk fraught with consequences far more dangerous than most of us can truly understand. Esther, though queen of the realm, was not really in a position to stop a wave of imperial genocide. Not really. Though queen of the realm, she had no right to even speak, much less approach her husband without being summoned. And even being summoned could go heinously wrong; just ask Vashti.
But Esther was a survivor and she was smart, as most survivors are. With her cousin’s prodding, she stepped out and she spoke up. She called her people to fast and then she carefully implemented a gutsy strategy. All told, she shrewdly caught the villain in his own trap and saw him hung on his own gallows. The genocide could not be repealed, however, so a second order was sent out to the four corners of the empire. This time, the Jews under attack were allowed by royal decree to protect themselves, and they could “destroy, kill and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children.” In other words, they could act in self-defense. They were not to be sitting ducks after all; they could fight.
In the end, the Jews were saved. Seventy-five thousand plus Persians were not so fortunate, however. Nor were the 10 sons of the prime minister that were hanged at the personal request of Esther. But don’t be too surprised; remember this one is really rated R.