Here is my summary of our second class on Esther, which I just posted to our class blog:
During our second class on Esther, we worked our way through the first three chapters, and considered whether any of the characters in the book could be considered a classic “bible hero.” Our conclusion? Not really, but thats okay.
The early chapters in Esther tell a humorous story about how Mordecai and Esther enter into (and come out on top of) a game of sexual politics in the Persian court. After King Xerxes removes the title of Queen from Vasti for refusing to appear before an assembly of drunken men, Esther joins a harem of beautiful virgin/candidates, each of whom is taken to Xerxes as a “try out” for the new Queen. Esther is instructed by her cousin Mordecai to keep her identity as a Jew a secret, and she complies with this instruction.
After an extensive period of beauty preparation, each virgin goes to spend a night with the King, but ultimately it is Esther who “wins the favor” of the King, and she is named the new Queen. Esther will later use this influence to protect her people from annihilation.
The decisions that are made by the characters in this story are morally ambiguous at best. By encouraging Esther to keep her identity secret, Mordecai puts her in a position where she will almost certainly violate the commandments of the Mosaic law. Also, inter-marriage, much less unmarried sexual contact with uncircumcised Gentiles was out of the question for women of Jewish descent. Yet, to this very day, the Jews clebrate the book of Esther as a story about how God gives victory to his people.
What do we make of this bizarre story, which invites us to laugh about, rather than judge the conduct of these characters? Karen Jobes, I think, has the right answer:
Regardless of whether they always knew what the right choice was or whether they had the best of motives, God was working through even their imperfect decisions and actions to fulfill his perfect purposes. Other than Jesus, even the godliest people of the Bible were flawed, often confused, and sometimes outright disobedient. We are no different from them. Yet our gracious God omnipotently works his perfect plan through them, through us, and must surprisingly, even through powerful political structures that sometimes operate in evil ways.
Our challenge in reading Esther, then, is one of grace and mercy. Esther and Mordecai were doing what they thought was necessary to ensure their own survival in a highly politicized, decadent culture. They may or may not have made the best of decisions, but we can take comfort in the fact that the outcome of their story is not dependent on their ability to get everything “right” in a difficult situation.