Monday, January 20, 2014

Was Esther a Good Girl?

"Ahasuerus and Haman at Esther's Feast," by Rembrandt
In an excellent Old Testament survey course at Cedarville University, Dr. Chris Miller challenged the traditional interpretation of Esther, arguing persuasively that Esther is not actually a godly role model. I have recently been reading through the apocryphal additions to Esther and am even more convinced that his view is correct.

One must first understand that the story of Esther occurred after Cyrus allowed the Jews to return and rebuild the temple. Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews living in Persia had presumably stayed because of the comforts and pleasures of the pagan world. 

Furthermore, the conduct of Esther and Mordecai is hardly stellar. This is made even more evident when we see how the author of the apocryphal additions felt the need to fix the story. Note how he has patched up the following details:

1) Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman.

There is no command in the Law against bowing to others; in fact, it is done all of the time. Jacob bowed to Esau, Joseph’s brothers bowed to Joseph, Moses bowed to Jethro, Abigail bowed to David - the list goes on and on and on. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that any sort of worship was implied in bowing down to Haman; this was a common demonstration of respect for authority. Keep in mind that Daniel, another Jewish exile, always paid the greatest respect to his rulers: "O king, live forever!" (Dan. 6:21). 

Based on the account in Esther, it seems clear that Mordecai refused to bow down simply out of pride. Evidently, the apocryphal author thought so too and decided to write the following prayer into the mouth of Mordecai:
Thou knowest all things, and thou knowest, Lord, that is was neither in contempt nor pride, nor for any desire of glory, that I did not bow down to proud Aman. For I could have been content with good will for the salvation of Israel to kiss the soles of his feet. But I did this, that I might not prefer the glory of man above the glory of God: neither will I worship any but thee, O God, neither will I do it in pride. (Esther 13:12-14)
2) Esther joins the harem of a pagan king.

In the Veggie Tales version of this story, Esther wins the king’s heart by singing a song about God in a talent show. This is not exactly what went down; the competition Esther won was of a rather different sort! We are never told that Esther was forced to take part in this competition, but even if she was, we should remember how Daniel and his friends responded when faced with violating God’s Law: they chose death instead. Again, the apocryphal author seems painfully aware of this problem and wrote this prayer into Esther’s mouth:
Thou knowest all things, O Lord; thou knowest that I hate the glory of the unrighteous, and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised, and of all the heathen. Thou knowest my necessity...and that I have not greatly esteemed the king’s feast, nor drunk the wine of the drink offerings. Neither had thine hand maid any joy since the day that I was brought hither to this present, but in thee, O Lord God of Abraham. (Esther 14:15-18)
3) Mordecai and Esther never pray or seek God in any way.

Esther is the only completely secular book in the Bible; there is no mention of God, prayer, worship, or anything religious. Unlike Daniel, who always went to God when faced with trouble, Mordecai and Esther never demonstrate any meaningful relationship with God. The apocryphal author evidently noticed this deficiency and decided to write in several long prayers. When Esther learns she must go before the king, he tells us, "[She] resorted unto the Lord...and she prayed unto the Lord God of Israel” (Esther 14:1-3).

So does all this matter? Actually, it does. The apocryphal writer presents Esther as a story of a nation “which cried to God, and were saved” (Esther 10:9). There are indeed many such stories in the Bible, but I do not believe Esther is one of them.  Esther is the story of a God who never forgets his people, even when they have forgotten him. One is reminded of the words of the prophet Hosea: 
Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel." (Hosea 3:1)
The book of Esther is not a hero story; it is a poignant reminder of God's unending love and faithfulness.

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