Esther chapters 5 and 6 ‘Power and purpose’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
Well, here we are at chapters 5 and 6 of the Book of Esther and the story is gathering pace. For those who are entering the journey at this point here’s a quick recap of what’s happened to date; Mordecai and his niece (sometimes referred to as his cousin) Esther are Jews living in pagan Persia. Esther, who having hidden her Jewishness, has captured the eye of the king and has been made his queen. Mordecai is aware of a plot put together by the king’s chief adviser Haman to kill all the Jews in Persia. Mordecai, seeing Esther’s position as Queen for the power it brings, urges her to reveal her Jewishness and ‘save the Jews’ from Haman’s evil plan to annihilate them all. It’s a story full of drama, deceit, ego and manipulations. It’s a story we might expect to come from the pen of Shakespeare or, the modern-day equivalent a TV suspense drama. There is intrigue aplenty as plans are hatched, mostly as we hear today, in the interests of gaining power over others.
There are so many tempting themes to pick up from just these two chapters but today I want to have a look at a couple of things that especially stand out. The first of these is how the different characters use power. It seems to me, that more often than not, power is something we see others as having, especially when it appears to be ‘over’ us. But we can be blind to our own power and use it without so much idea of the consequences for others. So, let’s take each of the main characters and spend some time addressing the power they have and how they each use or are used by it.
Let’s start with Mordecai. The story is told against the backdrop of a patriarchal world and an elder male is understood to have automatic rights and responsibilities over younger female family members. As Esther’s elder relation, Mordecai has automatic power and authority over her. Mordecai is wise enough to be aware of the power that comes to a beautiful woman who has caught the eye of a man who himself has great power and rights, even if he is a little lacking in responsibility! Mordecai knows that Esther can use her power in her exalted position of being one of the kings favoured ones to help ‘save the Jews’. It’s a risky business but he encourages her to come out from behind her mask and reveal herself as a Jew, hoping that the king, in his desire to please her, will save her people. If the king knows she is Jewish he will also know that to let the genocide go ahead will mean he will lose her. Mordecai must have felt the gamble was worth the risk. Maybe he knew enough about the lengths a man might go to, to win favour with a beautiful woman!
Haman, as chief adviser to the king is the holder of great power. He has the king’s ear and he knows how the game is played. But Haman is revealed as a weak man and he is afraid. He knows that his power rests solely on his position next to the king. Haman is ruled by his fickle ego and he acts out of his fear, he pushes his position further and further with the king. His ego is further fed by Queen Esther’s invitation to a private meal with her and the king. He leaves the banquet feeling all pumped up, until he comes across Mordecai who instantly deflates him with his deference. When the king asks Haman how he should treat someone he wants to honour, Haman’s ego is such that he can only assume the king is asking about him. Who else could the king possibly want to honour? So, Haman answers with all the honour he himself would like to have lavished on him. He uses his power with the king to advance his own place and standing. Imagine the horror when all that he suggests is then given to the one he seeks to destroy, the Jew Mordecai. The misuse of power comes back to haunt him with a complete reversal of fortune. How that must have hurt!
In the pagan world of Persia, the king has the ultimate power to decide the lives of those in his kingdom. He has already shown what he can and will do to anyone who denies his wishes. His former wife Vashti, stood up for herself, made what I would see as a reasonable call but was quickly disposed of. These shows of power are to be a lesson to anyone considering denying the king anything he might wish for. How does he use his great power – he breaks and destroys those around him at will, in order to establish and strengthen his own position. Great power brings great responsibility. The king was certainly high in the former and sadly low in the latter.
Esther, the young beautiful Jewess, by no choice of her own finds herself front and centre of the play. As the kings favoured one, she has some power but she also knows how quickly that can be taken from her; she knows what happened to Vashti. She knows that she is only one misstep away from a similar fate. She takes a tentative step and approaches the king and he shows he is generously disposed toward her by offering her half his kingdom.
This gracious offer was, however, simply an idiom of the time, he didn’t mean it literally, but it did show her she was on safe enough ground to take the next step. Even if that next step, to do what Mordecai is wanting her to do, means she will be risking everything. It was not a great place to find oneself in was it? How could she live with the genocide of her people by keeping herself safe? If her people were annihilated and she was the last Jew left, but unable to live as a Jew, what would she really have left? So, she makes the tough call, if I perish, I perish. She steps up and risks everything. I wonder, would we make the tough call, if we were faced with the same terrible decision? Note that this is not a clear-cut decision, there is good and bad, right and wrong all mixed up here – as there often is in these serious decisions of life. Her decision to identify herself is likened to those moments when we all have to choose who we serve, ourselves or God. Those moments when we are set the choice – will your decision bring life or death? This little slip of a girl takes a stand, risks it all and changes the world, for her people. Here we have just one of the many things I love about this story; this girl who initially hid her identity, would go on to become the pivotal character on whom the future of the Jewish people in Persia came to rest.
Before I move on from the power theme, I think it might be helpful for us to remember that most of us live our lives on the powerful side of things. In many ways, generally speaking, we are the ones with the power. It matters that we are conscious of this, and that we live knowing that those with less power need us to remember our good fortune and work to raise their lot, rather than cementing our own. My guess is that most of the time, most of us are unaware of our own power and how we may be using it in ways that make it harder for others. We may not mean to have this happen but it takes repeated practice to be consciously aware of these things. Like, how do you use your power in your family circle, and in your choices in what kind of businesses and organisations you support or invest in, or donate to and so on. Many of our societal rules for living are designed to help the powerful and hold at bay those with less power. Power in any situation is a gift to be used to lift those with less power, rather than to knock them around. Our ethics matter!
The other point I want to make today comes with what is often regarded as the pivotal point in this whole story – the kings insomnia. This whole story turns on a king who can’t sleep one night. I can relate to sleeplessness but I have to say I have never considered asking someone to read the Parish Council minutes to me to help me sleep! As the king listens to the court records being read, he is reminded that it was Mordecai who saved him when two of his staff were plotting to assassinate him some five years earlier. He realises nothing was done at the time to thank Mordecai for this great act. He senses that he needs to right this wrong if for no other reason than this; thanking those who show loyalty to him would help to keep him safe. A show of thanks would incentivise others to do the same. So, the next day he talks to Haman about how to make this right and Haman’s world begins to come tumbling down. Haman’s ego has caused him to overstretch and will ultimately bring about his ruin, as his wife Zeresh realises when she finally discovers Mordecai is a Jew. As a result of a bad night’s sleep, all the plans and machinations of Haman are turned on their heads and the Jewish people are saved. Quite the opposite of his intentions! The Old Testament Greek translation of the bout of insomnia would say that ‘the Lord took sleep from the King’. You may see it that way or not, but either way, God uses the bad night’s sleep of a Persian king to bring about his promised salvation of his people. This seemingly random act from an unseen power sets in motion the reversal of destiny of God’s chosen people.
How many ‘seemingly random’ events can you think of in your life that resulted in unexpected outcomes? What about meeting your ‘someone special’, or finding your way into a much-loved career, or coming across the perfect home to be your sanctuary, to name a few. Can you think of the string of random events that led to any of these? I don’t see God as a puppeteer pulling strings and making things happen, but I do think God can and does use these random events to open us to new possibilities and new outcomes. The book of Esther doesn’t ever overtly mention God once but we can see plenty of evidence of God’s agency, God working to bring about the salvation of his people. Likewise, we may not have concrete evidence of God at work but that doesn’t mean God isn’t working with us to bring about the purposes of salvation. It means we can look back and see where God has been nudging, guiding, holding us, and walking with us through whatever life has thrown our way. God, whose purpose is to bring life from death, and good from bad, brings power to the powerless and responsibility to the powerful.