Will the real Esther please rise?

So many of our biblical heroes are outstanding sinners. This makes us uncomfortable, to say the least. We want to justify their conduct somehow, so we read the Old Testament through a moralistic lens. In the process, we whitewash behaviours like Abraham’s deception of Pharaoh, or Samson’s sexual promiscuity.

This is true. And it’s about the only point I agreed with in Preston Sprinkle’s recent piece on Patheos, “The Esther You Never Knew.”

There are two books in the Bible named after females: Ruth and Esther.

Both these characters are foreigners: one is an Israelite foreigner in Persia, and the other is a Moabite foreigner in Israel. Esther is an orphan, while Ruth is a widow.

Widows, orphans, and foreigners are of a special class of the vulnerable who God repeatedly commands the Israelites to treat with compassion. This common theme runs through the Mosaic law. It also appears within the New Testament, like James’ description of true religion as caring for orphans and widows in their suffering.

Even more so, God asserts that when others fail to treat them with compassion, He is their defender. Both Ruth and Esther illustrate God’s compassionate provision and protection for the faithful vulnerable.

When Esther was orphaned, Mordechai chose to raise her. He, like God, cares for orphans. And this pious man has raised Esther, meaning she too is likely pious, considering she is so obedient to him.

Providing a deeper understanding of God’s disdain for those who harm the vulnerable is the information provided about Haman. He is a descendant of Amalek, and the Amalekites, who offended God when they — you guessed it — attacked and harmed the vulnerable Israelites. God interpreted their actions as utter and unforgivable rebellion against Him.

Esther does not enter a beauty pageant. She is the victim of the systematic abduction and rape of a kingdom of young women. How anyone can miss the horror and suffering of this scenario is stunning.

If the King and Esther were sexual that night, which Sprinkle suggests with a nudge-nudge wink-wink, it is clearly rape. There is no other definition for it. No other way to spin it. Abduction and imprisonment for a year by a powerful, foolish, reactionary ruler are not a recipe for consent.

To imply Esther had any control of this is to blame not just her, but all victims, male and female, of sexual assault and abuse.

What does this communicate to our churches filled with sexual abuse victims and survivors? What does this say to all who have suffered rape? What does this say to sex trafficking victims? What does this say to the 200 girls abducted in Nigeria? It says you’re a sinner and not a real victim because you’re still alive. But ladies don’t fret, because Sprinkle assures us God can use us anyway, despite our cowardly impurity.

So should Esther have risked her life, as Sprinkle asserts, to stay pure? Did she lack courage and faith because she stayed alive?

The thing is, Esther does risk her life to save Mordechai and her people. She responds to Mordechai’s implication that God has raised her to the position of Queen with, “If I perish, I perish.”

Sprinkle assumes that the book’s message is only for the ladies, and that it is primarily about God’s grace juxtaposed with Esther’s and our sinful sexuality. This is radically reductionist, suggesting females are primarily their sexuality, not complex, holistic, wondrous human beings created in the awesome likeness and image of God. It also communicates that men have nothing relevant or valuable to learn from female biblical characters.

The entire Bible is for women, not just Ruth, Esther, and Proverbs 31. But this is the unfortunate message women and girls, as well as men and boys, receive in many churches. The entire Bible is for males as well, including books, narratives, and parables featuring females.

Esther is wise, discerning, courageous, obedient, resilient, charming, and lovable; she’s not “morally bankrupt” or impure. In fact, Esther is one of the easiest biblical books to discern which characters are good (Mordechai and Esther), bad (Haman the descendent of God’s enemies), and foolish (The King).

There are plenty of books in the Bible that communicate God’s mercy and use of sinful individuals. But the book of Esther is not one of them. Mordechai and Esther both care about Mosaic law. They just never explicitly say so. It is up to the reader to recognize the ways in which they fulfill the law.

Just like it is up to the reader to understand that God’s hidden hand, moving behind the scenes, is due to God’s compassion for the suffering, and not His mercy for impure, sinful, land-and-Torah hating Jews. Sprinkle’s interpretation slanders Esther and mischaracterizes God. Esther deserves better, and so do we.

Photo (FlickrCC) by martinak15