Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Because our Lenten season is focused on “Telling our Sacred Stories”, I thought it would be helpful to review today’s text from the book of Esther as the Jewish community is preparing to celebrate Purim this week. They will commemorate the defeat of Haman’s plot to massacre the Jews. On Wednesday night the Scroll of Esther will be read and again on Thursday morning. I’ve always loved that during the reading of the story the Jewish community are encouraged to respond utilizing hisses, boo’s, and shouts of joy. So on this week when we in the United Church of Christ celebrate Women’s week, I invite you to hear two women’s stories from this ancient text.
Please join me in a moment of prayer.
The courtyard was ablaze with torches. The wine had been flowing for hours. The food platters were quickly replaced as the guests continued to stuff themselves long after they had appeased their hunger.
The energy within the opulent dining hall shifted as the men pushed themselves away from the table sensing that it was about time. No one commanded the attention at these stag parties quite like Queen Vashti. Each man knew the routine, but no one tired of the ritual. The bell near the king’s chair would ring signaling the seven palace Eunuchs to begin the entertainment. There would be a scurrying of servants moving about bringing in the instruments. Lighting would be arranged to set up an alluring environment for the dance of the queen. Everyone was familiar with the gentle ringing of the gold bangles lining the arms of the dancer. The fragrance of lavender filled the air as the Eunuchs placed huge bouquets into position to enhance the gossamer costume that Vashti would be wearing.
The sense of enthusiastic anticipation began to wane as it became clear that the musicians were no longer building towards a dramatic entrance. They were attempting to cover up the fact that they didn’t know what to play next. The rest is a blur. The king pounded the table and went into a rage. The waiters chose to hide in the kitchen. The king’s closest advisors gathered around—all obviously disturbed.
As the king struck his wine glass on the table and demanded an explanation for Queen Vashti’s “no”, the guests found themselves miserably uncomfortable. Observers of the fall of the rebellious queen were dumbfounded as well as frightened.
One of the king’s confidants moved into action. In a firm voice he made the pronouncement that Queen Vashti had wronged not only the king but also all the princes. His voice droned on with a punitive tone announcing how the Queen would be handled. There was also a warning directed to all the princes gathered that this behavior was not to spread into their homes. With a swagger in his step, he announced that Queen Vashti would be banished from the palace.
Every three years the story of Esther is told through the lectionary readings. However, the first chapter, the story of Vashti, is not included in the readings. Historically, Vashti hasn’t been considered critical to the story. She became unknown. History has often been controlled through the record keepers…those who determine which chapters are important and which are not. On one level, the story makes clear to the members of the harem that to refuse an order, one could expect to turn in their Nordstrom Credit Card and be banished from the palace.
On a deeper level, Vashti’s story carries permission for women to protect their own bodies. Vashti chose to resist the king’s control. I suspect she didn’t start out with a long range plan to defy the king. I believe that she, like Esther, came into the court young, naïve and blinded by the opulence of palace living.
The chance to trade in cheap cotton dresses for silk robes and have a staff of attendants had to have been intoxicating.
So, which party was it that began to break the illusion? Which night was it parading before the drunken king and the gawking guffawing, joking princes of the court did she become aware of her own imprisonment? When was it that she awoke to the loss of her own soul?
Whether we are women or men, Vashti is part of all of our stories as she stands alone, speaking her “no”, surrounded by a circle of seven who were shocked to hear her refuse to say “yes” to the system. As they pleaded and plotted to buy her “yes” they were also pleading and begging for their own continuing role in the dysfunction of the palace.
On Friday night I watched Diane Sawyer’s documentary titled “A Nation of Women Behind Bars.” We have more women behind bars than any other nation. 39% of those women have experienced abuse before being incarcerated. I was reminded of the document I signed last fall which called for churches to speak out against abuse. I am reminded with the story of Vashti of how often over the years I have heard the stories of women and sometimes men, who have been too young, or too intimidated or too confused to say “no”. Part of working through the pain of abuse is overcoming the cultural myths that suggest that if we cooperate and play according to the rules that nothing bad can happen.
Vashti didn’t ask for a choice; she took it. When Vashti chose to go against the dominant value system, she said “yes” to the beginning of herself. We can be sure that not all of the palace women were celebrating Vashti’s stance. She threatened the whole system. Not everyone has the courage to speak their “no”. Vashti risked being discounted, becoming invisible and losing her life, yet her story lives on in the Jewish celebration of Purim.
What is not addressed by scholars, but what I believe is the truth is that Vashti’s “no” paved the way in some mysterious manner for Esther to say “yes” to living into her role as Queen in a new way. Esther’s story started out very similarly to Vashti’s.
However, Esther had Uncle Mordecai who played a significant mentoring role in her life. Although he recognized her attractiveness, he helped her to not be trapped by her beauty. Mordecai was skilled at operating within two cultures, two worlds and two value systems. Upon winning a palace beauty contest, Esther left her family and friends behind and began her journey into the world of the palace.
There is a critical point in the story when Uncle Mordecai learns through his palace pipeline that Haman, a golfing confidante of the king, is planning to kill all the Jews, including women and children. Haman’s plan also included plundering all their possessions.
Uncle Mordecai’s response was to arrive at the King’s Gate in sackcloth and ashes as an act of mourning. Esther made a determination that the best way to handle this situation was to send some new clothes down to Mordecai and send him on his way. However, her trusted servant came back and reported on Haman’s evil plan and Mordecai’s request that she intercede on behalf of her people.
Her first response was “no”. It was logical and rational. She pointed out the obvious—anyone who approached the king un-summoned could be executed on the spot. Mordecai’s argument was that either way, Esther might be killed. His take on the situation was that perhaps she had come to her present position for just such a time and purpose as saving her people.
Whether it happened consciously or unconsciously, Mordecai challenged Esther to claim her own power. In order to choose life for herself and for her people she was called to claim the power that resided within her. Upon saying “yes” she began making the decisions. She did not move into the process by herself. She insisted that all the Jews in Suza, including herself, observe a three-day fast. Their stance was in contrast to Haman’s stance. Haman represented a closed political system based on control and power. Esther and her people set food aside in order to focus on that which offered greater sustenance. Through fasting, she entered into a partnership with her people. Although there is no mention of God in the book of Esther, I believe that she was grounded in the Holy One when she appeared before the king looking her regal best. She had a simple request: Please come to dinner.
In some mysterious way, the energy and spirit of Vashti were with her as she went about following her call. Esther had the ability to trust her own sense of timing, and unlike Vashti, she had the gift of patience and she had support. She understood the culture of the palace crowd.
The outcome following two dinners was that Esther unveiled Haman’s plan. Haman was ultimately ordered hanged on the gallows he had built for Uncle Mordecai. His wealth was turned over to Esther. The key to Esther’s ability to confront the enemy was that she met the two most powerful men in the kingdom not as an equal in their system, but as a partner in God’s system. She became a leader in breaking out of bondage…her own bondage as well as the bondage of her people.
As always, we’re invited into the story. When is it that we’ve been faced with a tough decision that demanded a great deal of courage in order to make some kind of crossing in our lives?
Perhaps you are facing a Vashti moment…a moment when you are being invited to say “no” in order to not compromise who you are as a son or daughter of God. Perhaps you’re facing an Esther moment. Is there a part of your identity that you are being called to claim in a new way? Remember the words offered to her “For such a time as this have you been called.” Like Esther, we need to take the time to ground ourselves in God in order to have clarity. May God grant us the courage to speak our truth. And, as a community of faith, may we step forward to support those who feel called by God to speak their truth in a new way. Amen.
Braided Streams: Esther and a Woman’s Way of Growing by Marjory Zoet Bankson