Many know the story of Queen Esther from the Bible. However, often our own culture and struggles can lead us to “discover” lessons that are not part of the text, or miss important details that are. Often in churches, Esther becomes obscured to the point where this brave woman who was mightily used by God becomes passively subject to the decisions of men.
For example, a marriage book released recently by a popular pastor and his wife used the story of Esther to promote obedience to one’s husband, contrasting disobedient Queen Vashti with a “submissive” Esther. Is submission to one’s husband truly the lesson of this narrative?
Esther, also known as Hadassah, was an orphan, one of the Jewish exiles living as a minority in Persia. Against all odds, she married King Xerxes in 480 B.C. and became queen. However, her life and standing were immediately threatened after she took her position. She was replacing Queen Vashti, who had refused to obey Xerxes when he attempted to show her off to his drunken male guests.
After Vashti had refused to obey her husband and was exiled as an example, an edict was sent out in many languages declaring that every woman honor their husband so that “every man be master in his own household” (Esther 1:22). Esther was aware of the cultural expectation of wifely submission. In addition, a Persian official named Haman sought the annihilation of the Jewish minority, so he hatched a plan to kill the Jews. However, God had a covenant with his people that he intended to keep and he worked through Esther to save them.
When Esther heard, through her cousin Mordecai, about Haman’s plan to kill the Jews, she realized she was her people’s only hope. After fasting for three days and nights, Esther put on her royal robes and disobeyed her husband’s law by entering the king’s inner court without being summoned. “If I perish, I perish” was her mindset (Esth. 4:16).
The king spared her life, and she cunningly invited him and others—including the court official who was plotting the destruction of her people—to a banquet. At the banquet, the king asked what she desired, and she responded by inviting him to another banquet where she would tell him what she desired. At the second banquet, the king again asked Esther “What is your wish…what is your request?” She “wished” that her life be spared and “requested” that her people not be massacred (Esth. 7:3). When asked who threatened her life, Esther exclaimed “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!”
Haman pleaded with Esther for his life, but the king thought he was assaulting the queen, so Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Esther’s cousin Mordecai (Esth. 7:10). Next, a new edict was sent, in many languages, declaring that the Jews could destroy and plunder any province that decided to carry out Haman’s planned genocide. As a result, the edict garnered support for the Jews from the provincial officials and governors.
Esther was a woman of risk. While she treasured and responded to the counsel of her cousin Mordecai on several occasions, she also revealed much wisdom and daring by disobeying her husband at a key moment. God calls husbands and wives, and all his people, to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) and to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13-16). However, there are times when we are called upon to not submit (Gal. 2) and in this instance, Esther acted apart from the rule of her husband and king in order to accomplish God’s will.
Women throughout the world are continually facing situations in which they are called to take a stand. In the late 1800’s, Sarah Grimke, a Quaker woman, called women in the United States to preach against the evils of slavery in their “churched” homes and communities. In the 1940’s, Corrie ten Boom defied her government by saving many Jews from certain death, and she defied the theology of many churches when she preached the love of God around the world.
As believers and priests (1 Pet. 2:5) living in a broken society, women have the responsibility and calling to act. The ministry of women is much like the challenge faced by Queen Esther, who had to face the king to plead the case for her people in a way that was not culturally acceptable. She realized that her actions could cost her life—“If I perish, I perish.”
“Women who are called should therefore courageously take up the mantle lest people perish when they could have passed to them the living message of Christ” (Rev. Judy Mbugua).