I’ve been reflecting this week on a story of drunken men, an inept and foolish leader, and the women who stand up to them.
I’m talking about today’s Old Testament reading, the story of Esther. (What did you think I was talking about?)
Several years ago our lectionary, that schedule of scripture lessons that we read in church each Sunday, was revised, partly to include more of the stories of Biblical women, including Esther.
That we now hear Esther’s story in church every three years is a good thing. But unfortunately, we hear only an isolated slice of the story that really doesn’t make much sense out of context.
Actually, the book of Esther begins with another woman, Esther’s predecessor as queen, Vashti.
The book opens with the king of Persia hosting a lavish banquet that lasts 180 days, followed by a really, really lavish banquet that lasts seven more days.
The banquet is a men’s only affair and scripture says “drinking was by flagon, without restraint.” After all this time of unrestrained drinking the king is “merry with wine,” and he has an idea.
The purpose of all this feasting, drinking, and merry making is to show off his great power and wealth, but there is one thing he hadn’t shown off yet, his beautiful queen. So he orders Vashti to appear and show herself to the banquet hall of drunken men.
Queen Vashti, understandably, does not like this idea. And she does something unheard of – she says no.
No, she will not go into a room full of drunken men.
No, she will not be put on humiliating display.
No, she will not subject herself to the inevitable pawing and groping.
No, she will not have the sounds of the men’s drunken laughter playing in her head for the rest of her life.
The king is enraged by Vashti’s refusal. He calls together his advisors to discuss what her punishment must be.
The fury is not just because Vashti has said no to him; the king’s fury also grows from the fear of the precedent Vashti has set.
“For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women,” he fumes, “causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.”
The king may be an inept fool, but he understands that when one woman stands up to misogynistic abuse, it gives other women the courage to do the same, to come forward with stories of their own.
The king and all the other men around him are afraid that Vashti’s refusal is the beginning of a revolution.
The king hurriedly sends out a proclamation throughout the land declaring that every man should be master in his own home.
And Vashti is banished from ever appearing before the king again, which in the king’s mind is quite a punishment.
But with Vashti out of the way, the king has a new problem. He needs a queen.
A call goes out for the most beautiful women in the kingdom to come audition for the role. Among them is Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman raised by her uncle Mordecai, who works in the king’s court. He advises her not to tell the king she is Jewish.
Esther wins the role of queen.
Mordecai keeps on eye on his niece. He picks up useful information for her to pass on to the king, like a plot to assassinate him.
But Uncle Mordecai also makes a powerful enemy in the king’s top aide, Haman, by refusing to bow before him.
Haman retaliates by plotting to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews of Persia. He sends an order throughout the kingdom, naming the day that all Jews are to be killed. And he begins building a gallows on which to hang Mordecai.
Uncle Mordecai sends word to Esther that she is the Jews’ only hope. She must beg the king to deliver her people.
But there’s a catch.
Anyone who enters the king’s presence without being summoned by him is put to death. And the king hasn’t sent for Esther in 30 days.
She must take the risk, Mordecai declares. And then he utters the pivotal line of this story: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Maybe Esther has become queen for just this moment, to save her people. Will she have the courage to risk her own life to do it?
Esther tells Uncle Mordecai to send word to Jews throughout the kingdom to fast on her behalf for three days. Then she will go to see the king.
“If I perish, I perish,” she declares.
After three days, Esther stands outside the king’s chamber, hoping to catch his eye. She does, and he invites her to come in, telling her he will grant her any request.
What she requests is that the king and his assistant Haman come to a royal feast that she will prepare.
That’s where the story that we heard today picks up. Esther, the king, and Haman are dining together, when the besotted king once again tells her he will grant any request.
Imagine the courage it took for this young Jewish woman to stand up for her people. Esther tells the king she is Jewish, and tells him about the threat against her people, begging the king to save them and her.
The king is appalled to hear of the plot.
“Who is he and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” he demands.
Esther dramatically points to the other man at the table. “A foe and an enemy, this wicked Haman!” she declares.
The king orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that Haman had ordered to be built for Mordecai.
As one reviewer I read this week noted, “Never plan something dirty or nasty for someone else, for it can backfire on you.”
The Jewish people are saved, Uncle Mordecai is appointed to take Haman’s place as the king’s assistant, and Esther continues to reign as queen.
There is one character missing in this story, one who plays a prominent role in every other Biblical book. That is God.
Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God. Not once. Many people argued against it being included in scripture because of that.
But although God is not overtly named in the book, I believe that the divine is present in the courage of two women – Vashti and Esther.
The strength and courage of these two women give us hope in dark and difficult days.
Every one of us either has been or will be in a position where we have the choice to stand up for what is right, or to keep silent.
Maybe it’s to challenge a bully at school or at work.
Maybe it’s to stand up for someone in need.
Maybe it’s to voice the often unpopular viewpoint that women or gays or blacks or immigrants are children of God, worthy of dignity, respect, and equal privilege.
Maybe it’s to tell those in power and the nation one of the most private and terrifying moments of one’s life, giving others the courage to also tell their long-held secret stories of humiliation and abuse, and to demand dignity and respect.
When we’re in such a position, Uncle Mordecai’s question may help up make the right decision.
Who knows? Maybe God has put us here for just such a time as this.