A Step Backwards at the End of Esther? Does the Bible Promote Violence and Sexism?

Are we not supposed to be peacemakers? Yet in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther we find a near gloating over how many people the Jews kill:

So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. . . . Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces . . . killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them . . . and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. Esther 9:5,16-17

Is the book of Esther not about Esther? Yet we find Mordecai, not Esther, being exalted in the final verses:

All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3 For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants. Esther 10:2-3

Esther is a true heroine in the story and yet she is not even mentioned in the final chapter. Instead Mordecai takes the spotlight. Must a man always have more glory than a woman in the end?

Critics say that the Bible takes us backwards into a more violent and sexist kind of world. Seeing how the Book of Esther ends we may wonder if they are correct. Let us take a look:

On the violence in Esther:

First, the violence is self defence. Only those who attacked would be killed. This is clear in the edict written in the name of the king:

11 By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods . . . Esther 8:11 (emphasis added)

In the days of Esther, it was kill or be killed. There were no Canadian peace-keepers to call upon to be buffers between enemies. We might think there ought to have been some sort of diplomatic solution sought, but we cannot impose our ideals of diplomacy on the past.

One would have hoped the peoples within the Persian empire would have realized the danger of attacking the Jews now that they were allowed to defend themselves. But, as has always been the case, the Jews had their enemies who were not about to let go of an opportunity to attack. Had they not attacked, they would not have been killed.

Second, God’s people in Persia were ethical in their warfare. The original edict called for the genocide of the Jews plus the plundering of all their resources. The second edict allowed the Jews to defend themselves plus plunder the attacking enemies. The Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity to plunder. This fact is repeated three times for emphasis (9:10,15,16). Their warfare was motivated by self defence rather than greed. Just as the plunder was left alone, it is likely the women and children of the enemy were left alone also despite the edict allowing for violence against them.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence. For example, the borders of the ancient world were in constant flux as empires rose and fell with the aspirations of people bent on gaining the resources of other lands and people. Israel was given the land of Canaan, the Promised land, but no more. The aspiration was of a safe home marked by righteousness, not a vast empire marked by constant expansion and plundering.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

On the sexism in Esther:

First, the Book of Esther portrays the reality or the Persian empire, not the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Persian Empire was sexist and patriarchal as most empires are. Therefore we should not be surprised that Mordecai seems to be more highly honoured than Esther. The queen in such an empire was basically a concubine with perks. Mordecai received greater honour than Esther, not because this is a Biblical ideal, but because that is what happens in an empire like the Persian empire.

Second, the Book of Esther is not called the Book of Mordecai. Mordecai may have been more highly honoured by the Persian empire, but Esther is honoured by Scripture and by the many people of God who have kept the Scriptures safe.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism. Women were to be more highly esteemed. For example, in the Creation story a woman was created from Adam’s rib. In other words, a woman is not different and ‘less than’ like an animal, but the same, on equal footing.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

We have become so used to better societal norms today that we easily miss just how astonishing and liberating the response of Jesus is here. “Mary has chosen the better part”, that is, a part not allowed in that day! Women were not allowed to learn from rabbis. The times they are a changin’!

When it comes to violence and sexism, we want to step forward into the Kingdom of Jesus rather than backwards into old empires. We want to take steps toward peacemaking and reconciliation, rather than toward violence. Jesus himself shows us the way in how he loves us and gives us the opportunity for reconciliation. We want to honour women and recognize equality rather than institute some kind of male superiority. Jesus again shows the way in how he honours women.

The Book of Esther was written in a time of violence and sexism, but it points forward to what we are praying for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Let us step forward into Christ’s Kingdom, not backwards into old empires.

(All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV)

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The Road of Thanksgiving (Leads Through Enemy Territory)

What happened to our “happily ever after”? Jesus came to rescue the world, yet it still seems to need a rescue. You came to Jesus for salvation, yet life still feels messy. At the end of chapter 7 in the Book of Esther, we may have expected a “happily ever after” summary. Haman’s evils plots have been exposed, Haman himself hanged, and we expect  God’s people should now be able to live happily ever after. Indeed there is great celebration:

For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor. 17 In every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday. Esther 8:16-17

While thanksgiving is not specifically mentioned, it could hardly be missing from the celebrations.

However, the story is not done. There are battles ahead. There will still be fighting, there will still be violence:

The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews and to the satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia,  . . . . By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. Esther 8:9-12

Bible scholars point out that chapter 8 reflects chapter 3, even using the same language in parts, to demonstrate a great reversal. There is the giving of a ring (3:10; 8:2), the summoning of secretaries (3:12; 8:9), the writing and sealing of letters (3:12; 8:10), the instruction to kill people including women and children (3:13; 8:11), the publishing of a decree (3:14; 8:13), the speed of couriers (3:15; 8:14), the response of the city of Susa (3:15; 8:15), and the clothing of Mordecai (4:1; 8:15).

With a wonderful reversal, there is much for God’s people to be thankful for. However, this is no “happily ever after”. The road ahead would not be easy. The former edict to wipe the Jews out could not be simply undone. That is not how things were done in Persia. As foolish as it seems, what the king writes is final. Instead, a new edict was provided to allow the Jews to assemble an army together, to give them the right to defend themselves. Their road of thanksgiving would lead through enemy territory.

As Christians we celebrate a great reversal, we have the greatest reasons for celebration and thanksgiving. Instead of heading toward death, we are headed toward eternal life. We celebrate God’s grace. But like God’s people in Esther’s day, the road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory. In Esther’s day God’s people were not simply removed from the Persian empire with all its quirks. The Christian today is not simply removed from a broken world with all its troubles. There is great thanksgiving, but the road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory.

The teaching of the New Testament encourages us to be ready for this road.

Jesus teaches us to rejoice in the midst of trouble:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12

Jesus teaches us to pray for deliverance:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13

Paul teaches us to put on the full armour of God:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Ephesians 6:10-17

James tells us that the devil will be tempting and inviting us:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. . . James 4:7-8

Peter tells us that troubles will come:

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:6-7

Peter further tells us that we the devil will come at us:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 5:6-1

Anyone who tells you that God will lift you out of all troubles when you follow Jesus is being selective in their reading of the Bible. The road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory. Expect trouble. Prepare for it.

There was great celebration for God’s people in the Book of Esther, they knew all would be well, it was a time for thanksgiving. But it was also time to prepare for battle. In Christ we have a great salvation to celebrate, all shall be well, it is a time for thanksgiving. But it is not a time to let our guard down. It is time to prepare for battle, to prepare for the road that leads through enemy territory. The road of thanksgiving leads through enemy territory, but God leads us through it.

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:20

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Giving Thanks When We Are Broken

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

I was grateful. Even when I turned around to see our eldest son bailing out furiously, I was grateful. We had just launched our recently acquired sailboat and I was about to go sailing for the first time in over a decade. The launch went well enough with neither the van, nor the boat-trailer being lost at sea. But I didn’t expect to return from the parking lot to see my son sinking! Nevertheless, I was grateful. The problem turned out to be an open self-bailer, which evidently does not work while sitting at dock. But even if it had been a leak, I would still have been grateful.

I was grateful. Second sail, with the self-bailer closed, and this time with another son on board as crew. It was very gusty and my son was very gutsy to come along. The strongest gusts were such that with both of us “hiking out” to the windward side, the boat was sometimes heeled over with the opposite deck going for a swim. It was an exciting sail, especially so when a piece of the deck ripped apart from the force of the wind pulling on a stay, a wire that keeps the mast secured to the boat. We managed to get back to dock without the mast falling over or the deck ripping further. Despite the fail, I was grateful.

The boat first showed up on a lawn in Grafton with a For Sale sign. In my mind that was a For Sail sign and I just had to enquire. “I think my husband wants $150”. That couldn’t be right, it seemed to be the complete package with boat, sails, rigging, and trailer all there and almost ready to sail. So I called the husband when I got home. “$100 or a case of beer.” Not knowing the price of a case of beer I showed up the next day with $100. I was grateful to have the promise of sailing again at such a bargain. I would have taken the boat home that day but the trailer was missing some important parts. So we had to rent a trailer to get the trailer and boat home. With some new parts and some effort the trailer was roadworthy, and the boat seaworthy, again. I was grateful. Now that the boat is no longer seaworthy, I am still grateful.

“ . . . give thanks in all circumstances . . .” Even when you may seem to be sinking and falling apart. Though our boat needs repairs, gratitude is easy to come by, for it can be fixed and is still worth much more than what we have put into it. Gratitude is easy when we focus on the big picture.

As Christians, gratitude can still happen in the midst of brokenness when we focus on the big picture. We see God’s amazing grace, we see the free gift of eternal life; “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 6:23. We see the promise of what is yet to come; “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” Romans 8:18.

“ . . . give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” We might think this as a difficult command imposed on us, that we must muster up some gratitude even as we are sinking and falling apart. However, we can miss the fact that God’s will is to give us so much to be grateful for. Back to the big picture! There is nothing broken in our lives that cannot and will not be fixed. Though winter may be approaching and the boat may be broken, there is great sailing ahead.

Wishing you a Happy Canadian Thanksgiving.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)