If you’ve got it, flaunt it?
King Ahasuerus, aka Xerxes, likes to flaunt what he’s got. At the beginning of the book of Esther, he holds a banquet where he ‘displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all’ (Esther:1:4). That’s a lot of pomp sharing. Queen Vashti has a her own banquet for the women in the palace. She’s a beauty. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Not only does the King have a bucketload of wealth and a dollop of splendour, he has a gorgeous wife. He wants to show her off, too.
But she refuses. How embarrassing.
How dare she? How dare she decide what she wants to do with her own body? The King is pretty angry, and open to suggestion. Banish her from power, his advisors tell him. Make clear this isn’t acceptable for a wife. Find someone better. Oh, here’s another idea, your majesty – let’s gather up lots of beautiful young virgins. You can have your pick of the harem. The King likes this idea.
What a lovely story (!).
And here enters Esther (related to a word meaning ‘hidden’). She is of Jewish origin and rather than flaunt who she is, she hides it.
But it’s clear she is beautiful. All who see her admire here (2:15). And when her ‘turn’ comes with the King, he ‘loves’ her more than any of the other women (2:17).
Esther takes Vashti’s place as Queen. But she obeys Mordecai above all – the man who raised her, not the man who claimed her from the harem (3:20). Mordecai proves himself worthy by reporting an assassination attempt. But Haman, the promoted official, finds that Mordecai will not bow down to him.
Haman gets angry. And he takes out his anger not just on Mordecai but on his people. The Jews. He plots to destroy all of them, because one of them would not do obeisance to him. So he goes to the king and asks for their destruction.
And the King says yes.
When Esther hears of this, she is ‘deeply distressed’ – for her people and especially for Mordecai. She can no longer remain hidden. At Mordecai’s behest, she breaks her silence and resolves to petition the king. “If I perish, I perish,” she declares.
She approaches the King carefully, setting up a situation where she can intercede for the Jews.
Interestingly, this coincides with another moment – the King, unable to sleep, gets his servants to bring his records. In these records he is reminded of Mordecai’s role in saving the King from assassination. He resolves, of his own accord, that Mordecai must be honoured – at the same time Haman plots to hang Mordecai from the gallows. The story now assumes a darkly comic thread. He asks Haman “What shall be done for the man the King wishes to honour?” (6:5). Haman assumes, in his arrogance, that the King is speaking of Haman himself. He trots out a list of honours to be given to this man.
And they are given to Mordecai, child of exile, focus of Haman’s contempt. The despised becomes the honoured.
Esther makes her request of the King, an unlawful act by her own admission (4:16). But the King’s love for Esther means that he accedes to her request. The hidden becomes known; the powerless becomes the powerful.
Haman is hung on his own gallows. The Jews who were to be killed become the killers, in a discomforting finish.
It’s a story of contrasts, of flipsides. What can we learn from it? As with many Old Testament stories there are very uncomfortable elements to it. But it is artfully written, and we see how things are flipped around, turned on their heads with an almost farcical tone in places.
Here are some suggestions of questions we might ask ourselves:
- What do we flaunt about ourselves?
- What do we hide?
- How do we use our influence?
- How do we allow others to influence us?
This post originally appeared at the BIGBible Project