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God Uses Harem Girls: Esther

Shawna R. B. Atteberry

Esther 4:14 . . . Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."

These classic words are from the book of Esther, and they come in the middle of a book of coincidences. The Book of Esther has always presented the problem that God is never mentioned in the book. In fact, for that reason, Martin Luther did not want it included in the canon of Scripture. This is what Luther had to say about Esther: "I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities." -1- The whole book could be taken as nothing more than chance and luck. It can be seen as a literary tale of how a young Jewish orphan just happened to become queen and be in the right place at the right time to save her people. Or is there more to it than that?

The book begins on a whim of a king. King Ahasuerus had given a great banquet for all the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much revelry, the king ordered for his queen, Vashti, to be brought before everyone, so he could show her off. Vashti refused. In a fit of drunken rage Ahasuerus for all intents and purposes divorced her to set an example that wives are to obey their husbands. After he sobered up and cooled down, he realized that he had no queen. The decree could not be changed so the search began for a new queen. All the beautiful young virgins in the provinces were brought into the harem, so that the next queen could be found. One of the virgins was Esther, a Jewish orphan who was being raised by her cousin Mordecai.

Esther was probably a teenager, no older than 16. She might have already been betrothed to a friend of the family. Ripped out of the only life she knew by the whim of an impulsive king, Esther began the one year of preparation for her one night with the king. She found favor with Hegai, the eunuch who was in charge of the harem. But she was one of hundreds—one harem girl in the middle of a harem that likely numbered in the 1000s. She would probably spend one night with the king then be sent to the house of the concubines where she would live out the rest of her life alone and with no purpose, unless the king called her again. When her night came Esther went to the king. And in the first coincidence of the book she found favor with Ahasuerus who made her queen.

Shortly after this coincidence number two happened: Mordecai found out about an assassination plot and warned Esther who told the king. The eunuchs planning the assassination were killed, and the incident was recorded.

Later Haman rose to power and became the prime minister of the empire. He was second to the king. All of the king’s servants except Mordecai would bow when Haman entered the court. Infuriated that Mordecai would not worship him, Haman began a plot to kill, not only Mordecai, but his whole race, the Jews. Casting pur, or dice, to choose the day he would carry out his murderous plot, Haman received permission from the king to destroy the people whom he said would not obey the king and were trying to overthrow his authority.

The decree was sent to all the provinces and the Jews immediately began to mourn. Mordecai mourned in front of the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes. Esther heard of it and sent clothes to him which he refused. She then asked what was wrong. He told her of the decree and urged her to go to the king and intercede for her people. Her first response was one of fear. Anyone who goes to the king without being called can be killed, and the king had not sent for her for thirty days.

Because we are so well acquainted with the story, we just assume Esther is exaggerating. After all the king does accept her. But Esther really didn’t know that. This was the king who got rid of his first queen on a whim. This was the king who commanded the engineers of a bridge he was building be thrown off the end of the bridge when they fell behind due to a horrible storm. When a father requested this king not to send his last son off to war (he had lost his 3 other sons to this king’s war), the king commanded the last son be killed in front of the father, then had the father blinded so that was the last thing he saw. This was the king to which Esther was going, without an invitation.

But Mordecai reminded her that her position as queen would not protect her from the edict, and if she chose not to act, deliverance for the Jews would arise from elsewhere. Then the prod: "Who knows? Maybe that is why you are here." Who knows? Maybe this is why you are married to a pagan Gentile? Maybe this why all of these coincidences happened? Esther agreed and asked Mordecai to have the Jews of Susa fast for her, and she and her maids would also fast for three days, then she would go to the king–even if it cost her life. She would do the right thing—she would appeal for the life of her people.

Ahasuerus had deposed the queen who did not come when she was summoned. What would he do with a queen who came when she had not been summoned? Once again Esther found favor with the king and requested that he and Haman attend a banquet which led into an invitation to a banquet the next day. But on his way home Haman saw Mordecai, and once again he was filled with rage at this Jew who would not worship him. Complaining of it at home, his family and friends suggested that he build a gallows and request Mordecai be hung on it the next day.

Now another coincidence happens: the king had insomnia. He commanded the book of the annals be brought to him and heard the re-telling of how Mordecai saved his life. After finding out that Mordecai had not been rewarded, Ahasuerus decided to reward him. Coincidently, at that moment, Haman entered the court. The king had him brought in and asked him what is to be done with the man the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the king could not possibly want to honor anyone but himself, Haman devises this elaborate show of putting the king’s clothes on the man, sitting him on a horse the king has ridden, setting a crown on his head, and walking through the streets proclaiming that this is what happens for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Ahasuerus loved the idea and ordered Haman to do this for Mordecai. Although Ahasuerus does not know it, he just saved the life of the man who saved his life earlier in the story. Haman did as he was commanded then ran home humiliated. While he was telling his family what had happened, the servants of the king come to escort him to Esther’s second banquet.

At this banquet Esther presented her case to the king. She pled for the life of her people whom Haman would have executed. On finding out about Haman’s plot, the king left the room, and when he returned he found Haman on the queen’s couch pleading for his life. Ahasuerus accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and in a wonderful twist of irony, Haman is taken away to be hung on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Esther once again intercedes for her people, and a decree is issued that on the day of the intended massacre, the Jews can defend themselves and kill their enemies. But something happened before this day of defense. The last part of the last verse in Esther 8 (8:17) simply says, "And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them" (NASB). Other people came into the people of God because of Esther’s decision to act to save her people at the cost of her own life.

I am reminded of all the passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel where God tells the people one of the reasons He is sending them into exile for their sins is so that the nations will know that He is God. One of the results of all of these coincidences piling up is that "many among the peoples of the land"—the people of the nations, is that they see that the God of the Jews is God, and they respond by becoming part of the people of God.

The festival that followed this day came to be known as Purim, and Esther is read every year during this feast. And once again we are reminded that this isn’t just for the ethnic Jews. In Esther 9:27 we read, "the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed."

The thing that stands out most about the story of Esther is the fact God is never mentioned in the book that tells the story. In fact any mention of God or religion is noticeably missing from this book. If Esther is read historically and literally God can be left out all together. It is truly a book of coincidences. That is why we need Esther. Too often we think that just because there is no obvious working of God in the world that God is not working. Esther’s discreet witness says otherwise.

And we need these reminders. We need reminders that God working in our world is not always obvious—even to those in the church. We also need reminders that God uses harem girls to accomplish His purposes. Sometimes God uses the small things, the little things, the things that could be easily overlooked to accomplish His purposes.

Paul reflects this truth in 1 Corinthians 1:25-29:

1 Cor 1:25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

There are always those times in life when we wonder where God is. Esther reminds us that there are times that God is firmly behind the scenes, and we may not see how He has been working till well after what is taking place now. Part of our walk with God is realizing that God is with us regardless of circumstances or how we feel. The Jews had to have felt abandoned as they saw the decree that would take all of their lives. But seven years before they even realized they were going to need a deliverer, a Jewish queen came to the palace. That could have been a tragedy in the life of the young girl Esther, and in many ways was. And yet, God used those events to deliver his people. Even in the worst the world can throw at us, God continues to walk with us and provide ways of deliverance for His people. He walks with us through the messes as well as the celebrations.

The book of Esther seems to be driven by whims, accidents, and coincidence. But is it? The underlying, almost invisible, current running through Esther is that God is working in the world to accomplish his purposes. He can even use a harem girl and an arrogant, pagan king to do this. The book of coincidences is really a book of grace. In one of the most pagan places possible—the palace of a pagan king who does not even know that he has married a Jew, nor does he know that a decree has went out in his name to destroy his wife and her people, God is working (see Underdogs and Earthen Vessels).

One thing at which Israel and later the Jews excelled was their ability to see God at work in their world and in their history. While sometimes horrible events happened, those events were never beyond the ability of God to bring newness, hope, and a future into the midst of apparent endings (note Genesis 50:20). That is why Esther is part of our Bible today. Although there is no explicit mention of God, the implication is that God is working behind the scenes, and He continues to do so right here and right now.

I think this is the reason a Jewish philosopher disagreed with Martin Luther. Moses Maimonides said, "When Messiah comes, the other books [of the Bible] may pass away, but the Torah and Esther will abide forever." -2- In the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—God comes on Sinai with lightning and thunder, and everyone knows He is there. But Esther remind us that’s not the only way God comes—sometimes He comes and stays quietly behind the scenes working through harem girls.

Notes

1. Luther, Martin, "Of God's Word: XXIV" [1566], in The Table-Talk of Martin Luther, trans. William Hazlitt, Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1893. [Return]

2. Moses Maimonides, Laws of the Scroll [of Esther]: 2:18 "All of the books of the Prophets and Writings will be rendered irrelevant in the Messianic Era with the exception of the Scroll of Esther, which will continue and be fulfilled just as the five books of the Torah and like the laws of the Oral tradition which will never be rendered irrelevant. And even though all recollection of pain and trauma will eventually become irrelevant, the days of Purim will never cease to be relevant . . . " quoted by Rabbi Sam Shor in Timely Torah [External Link]  [Return]

-Shawna R. B. Atteberry, Copyright © 2013, Shawna R. B. Atteberry - All Rights Reserved
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