Purim is certainly a joyous occasion in the Jewish household—complete with costumes, feasting, and drinking (until said costumes get snug and uncomfortable).
Of course, no celebration of Purim is complete without the traditional reading of the story of Esther.
Ironically, despite being the namesake of the book, Esther’s (aka Hadassah) role is frequently disregarded. Instead, we often pit good versus evil: Mordechai versus Haman, and treat Esther like the cute Jewish cheerleader on the sidelines.
But to push Esther out of the limelight is to underestimate the power of the story.
She is one of the few, true heroines of the Tanach. And, from what we read, her story isn’t exactly as pretty as her face. It’s gritty and (unfortunately) relatable to readers who may have rocky histories of their own.
Here’s a few things Esther went through:
She lived in exile.
Esther, along with a significant amount of the Jewish people, lived scattered throughout Persia after the Babylonian exile. Although they had been granted freedom to return to their homeland, many of the Jewish people stayed in exile rather than go back to a war-torn Jerusalem.
She was an orphan.
According to Scripture, Esther had no parents. She had lost both her father and her mother and was raised by her older cousin, Mordechai. (Esther 2:7)
She was taken captive.
The Persian King, Xerxes (aka Ahasuerus), was displeased with his wife and sought her replacement. So, naturally, he made a decree in order to gather to himself all suitable virgins in the region.
“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.” (Esther 2:8) We read in Scripture that Esther was young and exceptionally beautiful. We can also see that, from the language used here, Esther didn’t have much say in the matters that unfolded. She most likely didn’t submit a resume or raise her hand excitedly at the decree. She was young, she was pretty, and she was taken.
She was raped.
This part comes as a shocker to people—even to those who have read the whole Megillah as part of their yearly Purim celebration. But the Scriptures are pretty clear about what happened, “Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus …Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women’s quarters to the king’s palace. In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name.” (Esther 2:12-15)
The virgins, who were all quite young, were escorted to the king, who is said to have been approximately 40 years of age at the time. They were taken one by one, for him to sleep with and then be done with. They didn’t return to the other virgins, but instead were added to the number of the king’s other concubines (aka sex slaves without wife status). No other man could ever be their husband, and they never saw the king again unless he was “pleased with them.” In short, the king test-drove all the models before making his purchase. And he “purchased” Esther and used her to replace his former Queen.
She risked execution.
When Mordecai learns of Haman’s (the king’s advisor) plot to annihilate all of the Jewish people, Esther is pushed to center stage. Mordecai sends the Queen a message, telling her to throw herself before the king and beg for mercy on behalf of her people. But this wasn’t as easy as it may have sounded. Esther knew that anyone who approached the king without first being summoned was killed—unless the king was in the mood to extend his scepter and spare their life. What Mordecai was asking her to do could easily be the last thing she ever did.
But Mordecai said: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Hello, Jewish guilt.)
So Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish people fasted and prayed. And Esther went before the king.
And the king held out his scepter. He heard her case, and granted her requests.
Esther wasn’t a cheerleader. She wasn’t Mordecai’s sidekick.
The Lord used both Mordecai and Esther in a powerful way to deliver the Jewish people from obliteration.
He chose a woman who had everything taken from her—her parents, her freedom, her virginity—and He gave her everything. He used someone who, due to gender, culture, and circumstance, was powerless and invisible and made her the pivotal, formidable heroine.
As 1 Corinthians 1:27 says: “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”