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  • David Firth

Esther 1 of 3 - Living in a Time Such as This

When I began learning biblical Hebrew, I was quickly introduced to the concept of a paradigm. Fortunately, having been taught Greek the previous year I realised that they were important – something that had seemed considerably less clear when starting Greek! I have taught Hebrew often enough that I can rattle most of them off even now. The importance of learning the paradigm was more than simply understanding the verb that we routinely used. Rather, it was a matter of realising that what was learnt for one verb was transferable to another verb. Such grammatical paradigms are not perfect because almost all languages are inconsistent at some point, but knowing the paradigm quickly made it possible to understand other words and how they functioned in any sentence. Although the analogy is also imperfect, it is also helpful to think of the book of Esther as offering us a paradigm that can be applied to a range of theological and ethical challenges faced today. Central to this is understanding that Esther is a book that closely replicates the civil and political position of Christians today. Again, the concept of post-Christendom is important. In post-Christendom, the church operates within a religiously pluralistic society without an assumption of intrinsic authority. For the Jewish community described in Esther, the situation was similar. No longer were they the standard religion of their place (as they had been before the exile) and neither did they have any intrinsic civil or political authority. Indeed, they could not assume that their religious beliefs and practices had any claim to normativity. Rather, they were seen as one group among many, a people who had to find a way of being faithful in a world that was often hostile towards them. For that community, there was a need both to reject aspects of the Persian state and yet at other points accept it. Finally, they also needed self-awareness about their own position. In each case, this was informed by their awareness of how God was at work through encounter with other parts of Scripture. 

The diaspora Jewish community were always a minority. Despite the challenges this provided, there were points where they needed to reject aspects of Persian rule. As a powerless group, this critical rejection of the Persian state is often expressed through ridicule and satire. We cannot consider the many examples of this but can note the case of Ahasuerus’ (also known as Xerxes) process for finding a new wife after dismissing his previous wife, Vashti (1:13-22). Having dismissed her, he was left in need of a new consort. As someone who never makes a decision on his own in the book, he accepts the advice of one of his attendants who suggests bringing in every beautiful virgin in his huge empire so that the one who pleased him could replace Vashti (2:1-4). Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, this involves a huge number of women brought in for an expensive beauty treatment before spending their one night with the king to see who might ‘please him.’ It seems reasonably clear that good conversation was not a criterion for this test. This is a hugely powerful state that controls the life of all its subjects, and which is content to use that power simply for the king’s pleasure. By contrast, Mordecai had adopted his cousin Esther, putting the needs of a vulnerable girl first, representing the concern for the marginal found throughout the OT’s laws. The paradigm is clear – God’s people prioritise those in need, rejecting models of government where the powerful rule only for their own benefit. 

Despite the problems posed by the Persian state, there are also points where critical acceptance was possible. It was a flawed state, but not everything was rejected. Esther’s position within the Persian court was initially under threat simply because she was Jewish. Nevertheless, in overcoming the decree organised by Haman for the destruction of all the Jews she clearly worked within the constraints of Persian law and practice to create the context of possible deliverance. For example, she knew that it was essential to bring the king on side – he is a deeply flawed character within the book, but Esther knew they needed him on side if they were to challenge Haman’s decree. Esther’s process for this in chapters 5-7 involved her organising a pair of banquets, knowing that such meals were the place within the empire where such matters were resolved. It is true that the events in chapter 6, between her two banquets, were beyond her control, and that is perhaps one of the most obvious points where God’s unseen presence is evident. But Esther makes no effort to change the system itself. Instead, she works with it to bring about a change which will lead to the deliverance of the Jews. Indeed, by the book’s end, Mordecai has risen to a position of significant power within the empire (chapter 10). Critical acceptance allows God’s people to find ways of retaining their integrity and commitment to his purposes even while working within systems such as ancient Persia by identifying how godly purposes can be achieved within them. 

Finally, the book shows that there always remains a need for self-awareness because as Jews gradually gain more power within the empire, they must face the risk of being corrupted by power themselves. This is evident in chapters 9-10, as the Jews are able to defeat those who would attack them (9:1-10). Despite this, Esther then requested a second day for the Jews to be armed and defend themselves. This may seem excessive, but clearly a level of threat remained. Yet, the striking thing is that they did not take any plunder (9:15). Even the powerless may gain power, but when they do it is essential that they do not simply become the new oppressor. Rather, there is always need for critical reflection on the wider OT to realise this danger and so to continue modelling and promoting justice.  

Esther offers one paradigm among others in the Bible. As with grammar, the key is always to apply the right paradigm – knowing the paradigm of a verb will not help with a noun! But it seems clear that Esther offers a paradigm that will be of increasing importance for the church in the west. It reminds us that we reject government that rules only for its own benefit, offering an alternative where we care for the vulnerable. Yet we also work within the constraints of such a setting, seeking paths where faithfulness can be demonstrated, always aware that when we do have moments of power that we too can become the problem. This is why we continue to look for and reflect on God’s presence and work among us, remembering that he is over all other authorities. 

David G. Firth 


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