In preparation for yesterday’s presbytery meeting, I watched a documentary produced by WEDU several years ago. The documentary, “Too Close to Home,” explores the reality of Human Trafficking in the Tampa Bay area. That ended up being a lens through which I reread the story of Esther.
The book of Esther is a strange one to have included in the body of scripture. God is never mentioned! Isn’t that odd? Yet, it tells of the origins of one of Judaism’s feasts, the Feast of Purim. One Biblical scholar noted that this is not one of Judaism’s primary festivals – and that is a good thing!
I began to hear this book differently when I was at a gathering of Biblical storytellers. Each year they “tell” an extended passage of scripture – sometimes an entire book! Those who will be in attendance are invited to be responsible for the “telling” of portions of selected scripture. One year, the book of Esther was chosen for the “epic storytelling evening.” Whoever told a portion of the 7th chapter gave it a very different interpretation. The New Revised Standard Version says, in verse 8, “When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence in my own house?’’’ The storyteller used the translation found in the New Jerusalem Bible. The king asked, “Is he going to rape the queen before my own eyes in my own palace?”
It’s not the Sunday School version. It’s not the G rated version. I read some of the Jewish midrash that has been developed around this story. One group of rabbis suggested that the original queen, Vashti, who had been ordered to appear before the king and his guests, had been ordered to do so naked – wearing only her crown. She was little more than a possession to be paraded before guests. Again, this is not the book of Esther I encountered when I was young – or even in the cleaned up language of the NRSV. Even coming back to the story of Esther, if we listen through more adult ears – and, perhaps, even more worldly ears, there are troubling details.
After Vashti had been banished (some Rabbis said, executed,) a decree was sent out. “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.” These virgins were “prepared” to be presented to the king – prepared over the course of a year. Then, the virgins went into the king for a night. I’m suspecting they didn’t talk. Esther had her night and pleased the king. That’s how she became queen. She “slept her way to the top!”
The book of Esther reminds me that we cannot claim that all we needed to know about the Bible we learned in Sunday School. If Biblical stories are filtered in ways to make the Bible presentable to children, and that’s the only way we hear them, we miss the power of stories that emerge from the true messiness of human experience. This is not a sweet, Cinderella story, where the orphan gets the prince. This is a story about a woman who was trafficked, caught up in a system that treated her and other young women as little more than sexual playthings.
Even as “queen” Esther had no real power. She couldn’t even come into her husband’s presence without being invited. So, when her cousin, Mordecai, asked her to act on behalf of her people, the Jews, because Haman had decreed that they should be killed, she was reluctant. Mordecai encouraged her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Esther used the only resource she had – her body, her beauty. She dressed regally and stood in a place where the king would see her. It was still a risk laden move on her part. She was in further danger when she accused Haman. The primary reason this book remained among the sacred writings is that the Jewish people saw, in this story, God’s salvation being worked out through the risks that Mordecai and Esther took. God is not named. But God is assumed.
Scholars point out that this story isn’t really a happily ever after story. The persecuted, the Jews, become the persecutors. They took the power they had been denied and used it to kill all who had threatened them. Maybe it was discomfort with ending that kept the festival of Purim from becoming a major festival. Perhaps God is overtly absent because God’s salvation was corrupted by new brokenness.
As I said earlier, I read this story through the filter of the documentary on Human Trafficking. That documentary made me grateful for this book which is not sweet, which has a backdrop of violence that we might wish we could relegate to a barbaric past – yet a violence that continues into our day and into our own communities.
The documentary had the story of a young woman from Haiti who was “adopted” by American parents who promised her a better life, a good education. She came to this country where she worked for her “parents” as an unpaid domestic. She cooked. She cleaned. She did not attend school. She wasn’t even allowed to use the bathrooms indoors. She was caught in this brokenness for years.
A young woman spoke of losing her dad – and turning to a woman who had befriended her as her dad was dying. This “friend” then drugged, raped her, and offered her to a series of men. That was the first night of years spent as an unwilling prostitute. There were stories of men who came because they had been promised work – work that would benefit their families at home. They came – owing unimaginable amounts of money to those who “brought” them. Then they’re forced into living situations that cost them whatever wages they might have earned. These men work in the fields and in restaurants.
Esther survived. Vashti didn’t. And then there are all those other nameless virgins who were forced into the king’s palace – and into his bedroom – yet, who did not ascend to the throne. What happened to them? They probably continued to serve as his concubines – as long as they pleased him. What would their fate have been when he was done with them? It’s a question that can’t really be answered. But, I’m guessing they didn’t have much of a future.
I had a colleague, years ago, who said that his preaching each week was focused on giving personal advice to his congregants – how they should live. He rebelled against any approach to faith that spoke about the ills of the world. He was willing to let his members support some mission projects. But, for him, faith was really about “me and my God.” It was a personal thing. And his preaching reinforced that.
Stories like the story of Esther drive me far, far away from a “me and my God” theology. Esther could not keep her identity a private thing. She risked her very life in order to call the king’s attention to the injustice that Haman intended to wreak upon the Jewish people. Justice was more than personal. It had to be institutional. It had to be rooted in the structure of that society.
The resource person for a community organizing group in Pennsylvania told a parable. “A man lived beside a river. One day, a dead body floated by. He pulled the body out of the river and gave it a Christian burial. The next day there was another body. Then another, and another, and another. He pulled the bodies out. He buried them. But, he never asked what was happening upriver. He never asked why those bodies were floating downstream.” Those involved in community organizing, he told us, were people who were striving to address the upstream issues so that no more dead bodies would be found in the river.
It is a daunting task. It would be easier to keep religion, faith, relegated to the personal and the private. I may disagree with Pope Francis on some issues, but I think he is a wonderful, refreshing voice when he calls all people to justice, to an awareness of the need to treat God’s creation with care and concern, to upstream ministries that address the brokenness in our world.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” How easy it is for us, in the church, to get territorial, to find reasons not to work together. We see it and bemoan it in the political realm – yet the church is as divided, or maybe more divided, that our leaders. Instead of two parties we have multiple denominations and divisions within those denominations. We fight about theology. We fight about décor in churches. We fight about procedure. We fight about money. We fight about the way things ought to be done. And the world suffers.
But there are groups – some of which never or hardly name God – and they are involved in the healing of the world, in dismantling systems that perpetuate injustice. There are groups that take risks on behalf of those who are victims of our own society’s ills and victims in other places in the world. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus said. People have labeled some of those groups as “para church” organizations – groups like AA or NA, or Habitat for Humanity – maybe some of those community organizing groups. They tend not to focus on theology – but on healing and justice and overcoming brokenness.
I had a friend who went, very unwillingly, to church with his wife one Sunday. The text for that particular Sunday was Mordecai’s statement to Esther. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” He said he heard God’s voice through that passage of scripture. It changed his life. He finished his military career and went to seminary. His wife wailed, “I just wanted you to go to church! I didn’t want you to get religion!” He was, they were, wonderful leaders in the faith who spoke justice and worked for justice. He challenged many in places of privilege to consider the plight of those who were on the margins – and he worked to make his communities work toward deeper justice and generous compassion. He worked within the church. He worked outside the church. He worked with anybody and everybody who was willing and able to see the need.
The story of Esther is a powerful reminder that we don’t live in a G rated world. In fact, some people are caught up in horrors which we can hardly imagine. Yet, we are God’s people – placed where we are and called to see, to risk and respond, and to seek justice, wholeness, and healing for all God’s people and God’s world.