In our study of the Bible so far, we’ve seen a lot of seemingly fearless heroes. Samson kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. Ehud sneaks into the palace, action-movie style, and kills the bad guy. David fights wild animals and giants, and gallivants through the countryside with his band of self-styled “Mighty Men” like an ancient Robin Hood. Yes, the heroes of the Bible, equal parts Batman and Indiana Jones, are brave.
But when we talk about courage as a Christian virtue, we too often limit our focus to men. Men are meant to be brave warriors; women are gentle and hospitable. When I think about courage, however, both inside and outside of the Bible, I don’t think about David and Indiana Jones. I think about princesses.
The first princess who comes to mind is Mia Thermopolis, the reluctant hero of the 2001 Disney classic The Princess Diaries. As a normal, awkward teenager growing up in San Francisco, the revelation that she is the heir to the throne of a small European country called Genovia comes as an unwanted shock. At the climax of the film, when she is about to run away from her responsibilities, Mia finds a letter from her father, who died when she was a baby:
“Courage,” her father writes, “is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
In today’s story, we encounter another royal who exhibits great courage: not because she is unafraid, but because the alternative is certain death for everyone she loves. You’re likely already familiar with the story of Esther, a favorite with flannelgraphs and Veggie Tales adaptations. The book of Esther is a unique one: as it is the only book of the Bible that does not mention God, many Christians may question why it is included in the Bible at all. After all, Esther is a far cry from the courageous Daniel, who stands apart from the rest of the court with his friends in their commitment to living by the health standards they grew up with. Rather, Esther submits fully to the expectations and beauty regimes prescribed to all of the girls in the kingdom, and follows suit in being used sexually by the king along with the rest of the harem. Even when she is chosen to be queen, her cousin Mordecai urges her to keep her identity a secret. It’s a far cry from Matthew 5:15’s command to never hide your light!
In order to understand the importance of the story of Esther, it’s helpful to see it as Jews see it: not only as a story of courage, but also as a story of survival. The Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates Esther’s eventual deliverance of her people from Haman’s death decree, is one of the most playful and fun holidays of the year. Children dress up in costumes to represent God’s disguised role in the narrative, people bake filled cookies called hamentaschen, and the community comes together to do a reading of the entire book of Esther, during which people hiss and use noisemakers to drown out Haman’s name.
While the holiday may seem lighthearted – it’s often called the Jewish Halloween – Nathan Lopes Cardozo explains that its celebration of defiant survival is deeply serious: ““Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They have experienced a continuous resurrection, like the dry bones that Ezekiel saw in the valley. This has become the sine qua non of every Jew. It is the mystery of the hidden miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming destruction. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale.”
The stage is set in Esther 1:1, where we find out that the Persian Empire ruled by Ahasuerus stretches from India to Ethiopia - comprising 127 provinces in total. The scale of this story is massive, as are the implications. By the end of the chapter, the king has sent letters into all of these 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia, commanding all the people in these lands that husbands must rule over and dominate their wives.
For women in the ancient world, the stakes are high in this story. The danger is real, not just for the Jewish nation, but for all the nations living under the rule of this impulsive emperor - especially for women.
When the King decides to find a new Queen, he eventually selects Esther (Esther 2:5-10). She is able to blend into life in the Persian king's palace without her ethnicity being discovered - as per her cousin Mordecai's instructions (2:10). She strategically positions herself in a place of favor with the King, and eventually is put in position to save her people when a threat rises against them.
Haman, a nobleman who hates Esther's cousin Mordecai, plots to have all the Jews living in the Persian Empire killed. He finds a way to manipulate the king into, again, acting recklessly and signing an irrevocable decree (Esther 3). The situation is desperate, but Mordecai's righteousness is vindicated in an ironic twist that forces Haman to publicly honor Mordecai (Esther 6). And Esther boldly defies the Persian laws by approaching the King without his summons, to invite him and Haman to a banquet where she will out him for plotting to kill the King's beloved wife, who is - surprise! - Jewish (Esther 6:14-7:10). Making this move is a huge risk for her. But as her cousin Mordecai puts it, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther agrees to face the king, saying “and if I perish, I perish” - a solemn acceptance of God's plan.
Esther was placed there by God "for such a time as this." Through an imperfect and dangerous situation, God brought about salvation for people all across the entire empire. Because of her actions, another decree was made - for all the Jews in the Kingdom to defend themselves on the day they were meant to be attacked.
God used one courageous girl to save thousands of her own people from destruction - and he overturned the plots of an evil man to spare an innocent one. Even in desperate situations, God is able to reverse seemingly inescapable fate. What could he do for you?
Related texts or passages to consider: Isaiah 41:10; Isaiah 43:2; John 16:33; Romans 8:37-39; Hebrews 13:5
The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible where God’s name is not mentioned. Why do you think this is? Notice in 4:12-17 that even prayer is not mentioned, but only fasting. What is the author trying to do here?
Esther 2:10 presents us with a puzzle. Esther is able to totally blend in while living in the palace. This raises some questions about Esther's Jewish practices: did she keep the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday night? Did she eat whatever was served to her? The Bible doesn't answer these questions for us, but only tells us that the King doesn't realize that the decree to destroy the Jews would also mean Esther would be destroyed. If Esther was not faithful to Jewish practices, how would that affect your understanding of the story? What could be learned from this?
Some scholars suggest that Xerxes was actually requesting for Vashti to come before the court naked and be sexually available for him and his guests. In refusing, she was risking death by defying his right to her body. Does this understanding change your attitude towards Vashti? What lessons can be learned from her?
Even though Esther takes a great risk, she spends some time beforehand considering her actions. How do we find a balance between courage and foolishness or rashness? How do we demonstrate trust in God without testing him unnecessarily?
Watch this video by The Bible Project. What insights do you gain about Esther from it?