Lessons from the Book of Esther

There are many popular Old Testament Bible stories that almost every adult who ever attended a Protestant church even for a short time knows aboutóparticularly if they ever attended Sunday School classes as an impressionable youngster. Who can forget "Miz Lois" (insert your own teacherís name) and her Flannelgraph presentations of David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lionís Den, The Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace, Moses in the Bulrushes, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors.?

Then again, who can remember Esther, Mordecai and Haman? I donít know about your experience, but as a child growing up in the 1950s, those folks were not on my list of Famous Bible Characters. Perhaps the Flannelgraph people just didnít produce a set of figures for the Book of Esther, so it wasnít really my Sunday School teacherís fault.

You would think that this problem would be solved for adults, since most church Pastors donít use Flannelgraphs in their sermons. So what kept them from the Book of Esther? I donít know. But I do know that for twenty years I was in churches that had a weekly worship service with a sermon, and a weekly Bible Study session on a separate day. Thus I can account for having listened to nearly 2000ómaybe moreómessages and lessons based on the Bible. And I canít remember even one that had as its theme the events or characters of the Book of Esther.

Given the few female role models in the Bible, this should be somewhat surprising. Why didnít ministers take advantage of the story of Esther to inspire women, young and old, in the churches with messages that would emphasize the importance of the role of a Godly woman in the unfolding plan of God? Again, I donít know, but I do know that the only women I can remember being featured in sermons or Bible Studies were:

   1. Eve, who was pointed out as being the cause of all the sin of the world because she seduced her husband into eating the forbidden fruitóin sermons about men being heads of their households (which seemed to gloss over any guilt that Adam may have had coming in the matter).
   2. Sarah, who was pointed out as having called Abraham "Lord"óin sermons on husband/wife relationships.
   3. Miriam, who was pointed out as being struck with leprosy for questioning Mosesí authorityóin sermons on respecting church authorities.
   4. Bathsheba, who was blamed for Davidís sin of adultery because she was taking a bath while he was spying on heróin sermons about modesty.
   5. Jezebel, who was pointed out as being evil and wearing eye-shadowóin sermons about wearing makeup.
   6. Martha, Lazarusís sister, who was maligned for being a fuss-budgetóIím not sure the exact point of such sermons, but perhaps they were about paying attention during sermons (like Marthaís sister Mary did at the feet of Jesus).

There you have itóthe sum total of Biblical role models for women. And what about the men? They were regaled in sermons and Bible Studies with positive role models galoreóthe bravery and faith of little David against Goliath; the steadfastness of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in face of the fiery furnace; the triumph over adversity of Joseph; the fiery zeal of John the Baptist; and many, many more.

My daughter Ramona asked me about this disparity one day recently, puzzled why we had never heard any messages about Esther in church. In fact, it wasnít just in church settings that Esther has been ignored. Hollywood, where numerous epic movies and mini-series with Bible themes have been brought to movie and TV screens, has ignored her story too. This particularly puzzled Ramona, as she had recently read the Book of Esther again and noted what a dynamite plot it had. She thought how much the setting in Persia and the colorful characters would lend themselves to the kind of gorgeous historical sets and period costumes that Hollywood reveled in for a while in the 1950s-1960s, such as in the movies Ten Commandments and David and Bathsheba. Yet Hollywood totally ignored Esther too.

Only in Jewish communities are the book and the characters remembered much. The Jewish festival of Purim is celebrated in late winter each year (March 9 in 2001) in memory of the events of the Book of Esther, which tell of the great delivery of the Jewish people during the reign of King Xerxes of Persia in the fifth century B.C.. As part of that commemoration, annual plays based on the story of Esther are staged in almost every local synagogue. Members of the audience are given noisy instruments, and encouraged to rattle, bang, toot and clatter them whenever the name of the villain of the story, Haman, is mentioned, drowning out that hated name. This is particularly exciting for the children of the congregation. Some more-contemporary synagogues even take a few liberties with the plotóat least one I am aware of re-stages it each year to be a musical parody of famous Broadway musicals. I have seen their hilarious performances of "My Scared Lady" and "Bye Bye Haman", with the tunes from My Fair Lady and Bye Bye Birdie faithfully reproduced with new words and puns that fit the Esther story.

But back in the Christian Churches, Esther continues to be a forgotten woman. This is a shame, for there is so much to learn from her story.

Starring Queen Esther

If we were to "cast" a movie about Queen Esther, what sort of actress would we get to play the part? If you think like I do, the idea of someone being a queen brings up an image of someone like Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra in the movie by that name. I picture an elegant, mature-but-youthful actress, say 30 years old or so. There is only one problem with that pictureóit doesnít fit historical reality. The reality is that, at the beginning of the Book of Esther, Esther is a young virgin. In those days, this quite likely meant not much more than 14 years old! And given the chronology of the story, she was likely less than age 20 even by the end of the story. This sheltered young woman, barely out of girlhood, was thrust into a setting where she ultimately had influence with one of the most powerful men in the world, King Xerxes of Persia. All of this was at an age when most modern young women are still concerned with such things as school proms and studying for geometry exams. What incredible qualities God must have seen in such a young woman to entrust the rescue of His People to her courage, wisdom, resourcefulness, self-control and faith.

If you have not read this exciting story recently, letís recap just the highlights of the plot:

The Jews had been in exile for many years in the land of Babylon. When power changed to the hands of the Persians, they were still there. At the beginning of the story of Esther, the King of Persia is displeased with his queen, and removes her from her royal position. Advisors suggest that all the fairest young maidens in the land be brought to the King over a period of time that he might choose a new queen from among them. (Yes, this may well be the original source of such elements in folk tales like Cinderella.)

The young Jewess Hadassah, whose Persian name is Esther, is among the young maidens brought to the palace. At the insistence of her guardian, Uncle Mordecai, she conceals her national identity. After winning the favor of the King, she becomes Queen.

Meanwhile, Uncle Mordecai runs afoul of the evil courtier Haman, who decides in revenge to trick the King into declaring a sentence of death on all Jews in the kingdom, to be carried out at a future date to be decided by lot. (The word "purim" in Hebrew means "lots", thus the name of the festival of Purim.)

Mordecai learns of the plot, and alerts Esther. She, at great personal risk, decides to accept the role of confronting the King about the plot and begging for mercy for her people. She is successful in this matter. Through a series of fortuitous events (no doubt orchestrated by God) and her wise handling of the circumstances, Haman is shown before the King to be the villain that he really is. In the end, Haman is hung on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. And the Jews of the kingdom are saved from extinction.

The Lessons

There are many ways to focus on the contents of the Book of Esther. In spite of the fact that most pastors and teachers seem to ignore the book and the character, there have been a few books written specifically about Esther. And radio-teacher Chuck Swindoll has done a whole series of programs going through the book verse by verse.

The purpose of this article is to encourage readers to go back and read through the Book of Esther with a new perspective. Below are five specific general principles/lessons which I have gleaned from the book. It is left to the reader to contemplate how these principles might apply to us as Christians!

1. God has sometimes used armies and sometimes flashy miracles in order to rescue His People. But He is not limited to those strategies. He can just as easily use one obscure personómale, such as Joseph, or female, such as Estheróand manipulate the circumstances around them to allow them to be the agent of His salvation.

2. In our western nations, we appreciate living in basically democratic societies. And rightly so. Christians can thereby be unusually free to worship according to their consciences, and free to obey God without much fear that such obedience will run afoul of the government in most circumstances. But God never in the Bible destroys kingdoms just because they are dictatorships, so his servants could have the kind of freedoms we enjoy. Instead He enabled His people to function right within whatever system they found themselves in. Even Paul notes this

1 Corinthians 7:20-21
"Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so." So Paul is not thereby telling us to give up the freedom we have. He is indicating that God can use us, just as He used Esther, wherever we find ourselves, no matter the nature of the government.

3.  Serving God and fulfilling the role He called you to was possible even in an environment where almost everyone around you was a heathen. And it could be done without attempting to change everyone around you. Joseph, Esther and Daniel all served totally pagan kings and won favor with them by their exemplary conduct and example. And they were thereby able to accomplish great deeds.

4.  God can use young women, like Esther, just as easily as young warriors, like David, to accomplish His plans for His people.

5. It is comforting to know that God can redeem people with unpleasant pasts and use them to advance His plans for His peopleówitness Rahab the harlot and Paul, the persecutor of Christians. But in some cases His plans particularly call for those who have kept themselves undefiled physically and/or spiritually. Certainly in the case of Esther, it would have been impossible for her to fulfill Godís plan if she had not been a chaste young woman. This brings to mind another chaste young woman, no doubt as young as Esther when she began her role in an even greater plan of salvationóMary, the mother of Jesus. Just as noted above about Esther, what incredible qualities Mary must have exhibited even as a young woman barely out of girlhood, to be considered mature enough for the responsibility of raising the Messiah!

As for movies about the Book of Esther, there finally is one out on video now. It isnít quite the Hollywood epic that Ramona and I had hoped for, but it is unique. It is the recent release in the extremely popular series of childrenís inspirational videos called Veggietales. The stars of these videos are computer-animated vegetables and fruits. In this case, Esther is played by a lovely young leek, Mordecai is a grape, other parts are played by tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, celery, peas and more. Yes, itís the sort of production that must be seen to be appreciated. My young grandchildren, ages nine and eleven, think it is touching and terrific.

What a shame it seems to have taken so long for anyone to recognize the value of sharing with a wide audience the timeless lessons in the Book of Esther!

This material is part of the Oasis website.
Unless otherwise noted, all material on the Oasis website was written by Pam Dewey and is © 2004 or earlier.
Reprinted with permission of Pam Dewey. http://youall.com/oasis/esther.htm 

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