I paused and looked out over the small crowd of children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Sunday school room, waiting for their response. I played the role of narrator in a short play about the book of Esther, and as I’d just said the name “Haman,” I was waiting for the hisses and boos. Sure enough, they came.
“Sssssss.” “Boo for Haman.” “Bleahh!” the children screamed, some actually shaking their fists in the air and flinging thumbs down in front of their bodies.
We’d prompted the children for this response before the start of our volunteer production. During my research when writing the script, I found that Jewish audiences often hiss at the name Haman when the book of Esther is read during Purim. And since watching the play meant the children of our audience would have to sit still for close to 30 minutes, they relished the opportunity to shout and scream at the antagonist of our story.
Written as though commissioned by Hollywood itself, the book of Esther is full of action and intrigue, treachery, and heroism. Known as the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned, we see his invisible hand moving throughout the circumstances of the book, like a director calling shots behind the scenes: Exiled Esther chosen as queen, evil Haman plotting murder of the Jews, and Esther’s uncle Mordecai foiling an assassination attempt on the king, just before Haman could fulfill his evil plan. Then there’s the king’s sleepless night where he discovers Mordecai’s good deed gone unrewarded, and even the extension of the golden scepter, rather than sudden death, when Esther dared approach the throne without invitation.
When Mordecai utters the most famous line of the book—”And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”—who could help but think: Surely this is a story about God putting his people in positions of power in order to carry out his will.
But as I’ve returned again and again to this story, I’ve begun to see more than theatrical possibility and happy endings. I think back to our Sunday school production and the children hissing wildly at the young man wrapped in a bed sheet playing the role of Haman. Had we done them a disservice with our G-rated version of the story?
For instance, when would those children sitting criss-cross-applesauce in a comfortable suburban church finally understand the genocide that Haman, right-hand man to Ahasuerus King of Persia, attempted to inflict on the Jewish people? Who would tell them about Mordecai’s alternate plan that led the Jews to execute Haman’s sons and kill hundreds of Persian men? And even more, how long would it take for them to finally understand that the beautiful Queen Esther hadn’t simply run for queen in a royal beauty pageant, as we’d suggested, but was an exiled orphan who’d been kidnapped, enslaved, and raped repeatedly by the king whose favor she’d won.
For me, it took decades.
Each time I’d hear a pastor or speaker encourage us to use whatever privileged position we found ourselves in for “such a time as this,” I knew they’d eventually talk about the book of Esther and the young girl who became queen. But something never sat well with me. If Esther had such a position of honor and held the power she needed to save her people, why did Mordecai have to talk her into wielding it? And if the king loved her so much, why was it so risky for her to talk to him? And really, why was the book named Esther anyway, since it starts and ends with detailed descriptions of how great those two men are?
Over the years, I’ve come to see this book not as a call for us to use our positions of power and privilege to do God’s work, though I certainly believe he calls some of us to do that. But if this book were about the powerful and privileged, then it would have been named Ahasuerus, or more likely, Mordecai, who was promoted to Haman’s position after his execution. Rather, I believe the book of Esther was so named because it shows us how God shelters the weak among us, the vulnerable and unprotected, and uses their humble faith to do his work and speak truth to power.
Sure, Esther was chosen as the new queen of Persia. But considering what happened to Vashti, the queen before her, who was vanquished because she refused to dance for the king and his drunken entourage, Esther remained exposed to the violent whims of the man she was forced to sleep with. And while her proximity to the king offered the possibility of his ear, she was never promised an audience with Ahasuerus. In fact, she was to come only when he called her, and then likely only for his pleasure. To dare to approach the king on her own terms, much less speak to him and ask for a favor, could have resulted in her death.
Indeed, Esther was used by God to save her people, but not without great risk and not without the greater protection that only the invisible God could offer.
If I could go back and rewrite that play about Esther, I’d spend more time reflecting on the fear and loneliness she must have felt to be orphaned at such a young age and then swept up into the king’s brothel. I would wonder more about her faith, exiled as she was from Israel to a foreign land, and focus more on her request to have the people fast (and presumably pray) for her, when God seems otherwise absent from the story. I might even make up a possible scenario in which Esther asks God for a burning bush or a vivid dream to lead her confidently to the king, much like Moses and Joseph received when they were called on “for such a time as this.”
But I would also tell the children this, for their own lives: God rarely calls us from positions of power and privilege to do his work. Rather, like Esther, we are called “for such a time as this” from the midst of our spiritual poverty. It’s through God’s own power, not ours, that he moves us into proximity with his plan. He’s the one who makes speaking truth to power possible, not our political prowess as some have suggested. And it’s his protection that keeps us safe even when life’s circumstances leave us vulnerable and exposed.
Image from Unsplash