Yesterday’s message …
- Introduced the squirm-in-your-seat concept of a “sexual audition” from Esther 2;
- Meditated on both the nature of the bible — why such a story in holy writ? — and the activity of God — does he cause stuff, respond to it, or something else altogether?
- Recognized the persistence of God’s enemies;
- Landed at this bottom line, inspired by Pastor Strain of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi: God makes his enemies serve his ends.
There is a reason this message is called Beauty & The Bleh. Because there’s a beauty – Esther – and there’s a whole lot of bleh – the situation she is in, the things people do to her and with her, the enemies on the prowl, and even, maybe, possibly, the ways she is a willing accomplice in some or all of it. Beauty. Bleh. And it’s one of those stories that as I dug into, I threw my hands up and was like, “how in the WORLD can I preach THIS?” I will leave it up to you to decide whether I actually do or not.
Because here’s the situation in Esther 2. The year is 483 BC and the setting is Persia (modern day Iran). In Persia, there is still a smattering of scattered Jews. A large chunk of them had returned to Israel when King Darius let them return home (imagine the irony: Iran does Israel a NATIONAL FAVOR!). This is really an IN BETWEEN time in Jewish history … after a series of defeats, following a terrible exile, and discovering what it means to be Jewish in a land that does not recognize your God. In a land where, in spite of Darius’ favor, there are still a great many enemies to that ragtag group of people who dare to claim that a) there is only ONE GOD and b) that ONE GOD has chosen this ONE PEOPLE GROUP as his. It’s a pagan, secular, vicious culture, which may well explain why the anonymous author of Esther keeps God’s name on the DL here. And in Esther 1 (last week if you were here) King Xerxes, near the end of a 6 month long booze-fest complete with Party Busses & Dancing Girls, gets humiliated by his own wife Queen Vashti, who refuses to be objectified in front of the king’s Frat brothers. So he issues this irrevocable decree that she can never see him again. (She was probably like, “Really? No more of that lech? Great!”
Anyway, when you depose one queen you have to select a replacement and how do you do that? Look at 22:2-4:
2 Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. 3 Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. 4 Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.
OK! Persia’s Got Talent!
Or maybe more closely: The Bachelorette: Tehran Style. National scale search, incredible expense of time, money, resources, all directed towards replacing Trophy Wife with Starter Wife. This level of excess and all kinds of people extending themselves to make ME happy is exactly what we have come to expect from King X.
Which makes the contrast with this little family in 2:5-7 all the more dramatic:
5 Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin[a] king of Judah. 7 Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
A little family of an older and younger cousin, a protector & an orphan, and nothing else. They have nothing. Refugees, exiles, poor, Jews in a land where being a Jew could be a death sentence. Note the description of Esther: beautiful. You’ve got a national contest, you’ve got a beautiful Jew, and voila! look at 2:8-9:
8 When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.
She wins favor – how or why, it doesn’t say – and as a reward gets a year long skin peel and cleanse. And then this disturbing detail in 2:10-11:
10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. 11 Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.
Why the secrecy? Why conceal her identity? And what is Uncle Mordecai doing while he is walking back & forth? Anguished over her purity or wanting to ensure her ultimate victory? Esther’s author doesn’t say, doesn’t pass judgment on any of it. We want to read BETWEEN THE LINES and the author just gives us the lines. We don’t know if it is an act of wisdom or cowardice, this keeping of Jewish identity on the DL.
And then, sadly, we get the contest further described in 2:12-14:
12 Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.
The bleh creeps in. As bad as The Bachelorette is, this is much. This is not a beauty contest. This is not Better Home & Gardens tournament. It is a sexual audition. The king does it because he CAN. The girls endure it because they MUST. Esther is in the middle of enemy territory, in an enemy plan run according to enemy values with a heavy dose of enemy bleh. Because the females here have no power, no voice, no choice. We’d call it non-consensual sex. Statutory. Trafficking. Rape. In the bible. And by the time we get to 2:15, it’s already been going on for several years which means King X had to have a whole lot of little blue pills & God knows how many STDs lying around. And any young woman who auditioned AND DIDN’T GET THE PART OF REPLACEMENT QUEEN was consigned to a life of pointless luxury – no husband, no family, no children, nothing but become a concubine for the king. It was #MeToo times many thousands.
And the bleh hinted at previously comes full bore in 2:15-16:
15 When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her. 16 She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
Bleh, bleh, bleh. Not Esther! PLEASE! And through the years, people have tried to sanitize the story or re-envision it. Some have said she was and remained an innocent Cinderella who swept her Prince Charming Xerxes off his feet by winning the beauty contest (look but don’t touch) and therefore becomes queen. That version doesn’t take nearly as many little blue pills! Others have gone to the opposite extreme: she was morally compromised, a good Jewish shouldn’t and wouldn’t, especially with a Gentile guy, she’s the seductress. I think that version misses the mark as well, almost imposing some modern standards on an ancient story. Both versions read between the lines; and the lines themselves are full.
More than that, in this unsanitized history, we recognize that God, who is so emotionally secure that he inspired a book that refuses to mention his name, also believes his people are mature enough to handle the truth. And the truth is that Esther is a victim. Trafficked. Non-consensual. Say yes or you’ll die. Bleh, bleh, bleh. No wonder this part of Esther’s story never makes it into any Illustrated Children’s Bible: Eshter had a sexual audition with Xerxes AND GUESS HOW SHE DID, KIDS!!
The result of this night? Look at 2:17-18:
17 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.
Are we supposed to feel good? Hey Esther the Jew outperformed all the pagans! Or are we supposed to feel the bleh? Face Palm. Sigh. Again, the author – maddeningly – doesn’t tell us the emotions of either the characters or himself! But what he does tell us is embedded in the first part of 2:17: “queen instead of Vashti.” What a reversal. An orphan, a refugee, a Jew, a woman … now A QUEEN. And the enemies who came up with the despicable contest fueled by their disgusting values have no idea what is getting ready to hit them. Because Esther’s elevated status becomes absolutely essential in rescuing the Jews from the Persians; God’s people from God’s enemies. As the next story shows in 2:19-23:
19 When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.
21 During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana[b] and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. 22 But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. 23 And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.
All those pieces – a replacement / upgraded queen, Mordecai’s heroism – are indispensable building blocks in this narrative of rescue that leaves all the enemies befuddled and the Jews blessed. God’s enemies don’t know it but they are arranging their own demise and funding their own insurrection.
But what do we say of what it took to get there? What do we do with this gruesomely unsanitized history? Did God cause it? Or did he merely respond to it? In a book that is silent on God & God is silent in return, where is he? And as so often is the case, it is hard to say “thus saith the Lord” when the Lord doesn’t saith anything. From my end, it is so hard to be certain on those places where Scripture is ambiguous. But one thing I do know is that over and over the bible is less concerned with whether God causes/responds and about how God does not shy away from taking the raw material of human life – and raw means RAW – and forging something whole out of all that brokenness. He takes our rebellion and transforms it into agents of redemption. He many not sanitize our history; he saves us from it.
And it’s the enemies in Esther 2 – Xerxes, his Cabinet, even the eunuch beauty consultant – who interest me today. They are clueless and yet God is arranging it so that their actions accidentally, unwittingly rescue HIS people. And so here’s where it lands: as a teacher in Jackson, MS shared, God makes his enemies serve his ends. Yep! His opponents become his tools! He turns his antagonists into his unknowing allies! Part of his great plan of reversal is that his enemies wind up bewildered and his people are blessed.
Think about it. It seems like it’s always been this way. Pharoah … the stubborner he got the more he ensured Israel’s release from slavery. Caiaphas? The Roman soldiers? Pontius Pilate? The more they ensured Jesus’ execution, the more they guaranteed YOUR salvation! At every step along the way, people found themselves in God’s story being used for a larger purpose against their will! Because it’s God’s purposes that will prevail, not those of his enemies. After biblical times, you may know that the Eastern Orthodox Church (AV) has a tradition of Joke Day every year on the Day After Easter. Why? Because on Easter, God pulled the great cosmic joke on Satan. The enemy of enemies thought Good Friday was his triumph. Nope. It was ours. And Easter proved it. God makes his enemies serve his ends.
Or in India (AV) where we have such support for our pastoral networks. Pastors who proclaim the name of Jesus at the risk of imprisonment and upon the pain of death. And yet you know what happens time and again? Those who WERE persecutors see how the Christians believe and endure and they become believers themselves. From persecutors to praisers. Yep. God makes his enemies serve his ends.
Even when I look in the mirror. I’ve told you before that I was an adolescent atheist, something for which I received encouragement. But as I remember things I said in 5-7th grade, just UNBELIEVABLE stuff, insulting to Jesus stuff, I’m too cool to be scared of offending God stuff, I’m shocked. And yet what do I do for a living now? Who has the last laugh because he’s already had the last word? You got it – and it’s not me. God makes his enemies serve his ends.
This matters because when it comes to the large scale and the deeply personal, the big picture and the small time, it can seem like God’s enemies are winning. Whether it’s the decay of our culture, the fracturing of our families, the erosion of what it means to be married, the rise of Islam, and even, sadly for a lot of us, the gutting of so many small and mid-size churches after the recession, it is easy to lose faith. It is tempting to decide that the forces lines up against God and against the Gospel are winning and let’s just get in a cocoon til Jesus comes back … if in fact he is. Listen: don’t do that. Don’t lose faith. The evil that today prospers will one day fall prostrate before the throne. God works in the middle of the chaos, among all the unsanitized lives. He has an overarching plan and his enemies are his unwilling accomplices. If I didn’t have that assurance, my life would have no point. But because I know how the final chapter ends, at all the points along the way I am looking for downpayments large and small on his ultimate buy back. God makes his enemies serve his ends.
And along that way … on the remote chance that Esther had a say in the matter with Xerxes sexual audition, don’t use her as a reason to compromise. None of “well, she compromised and it ended up OK, so I might as well because it’s more about God than me.” See, God is GONNA work – and he will either work inside of you or in spite of you. Choose the former and not the latter as you’ll keep yourself from so much regret along the way.
Because ultimately we live unsanitized lives surrounded by God’s enemies. Some of you may be his enemies today and not even know it. Some enemies of the Gospel work in church, sadly. But when you know that is your situation, you realize that life from our view looks like this: AV rear of rug. But God sees this: AV of lovely front of PERSIAN rug! Same rug, different view. I am learning to anticipate by foresight what one day we’ll all appreciate in hindsight. God makes his enemies serve his ends.