Entering the Bible with Esther and Ahasuerus

Cory Driver contends that reading Esther intertextually, especially with Exodus and Leviticus, reveals the book as a dire warning about political idolatry.

What is the book of Esther about? Is it a love story, as One Night with the King would suggest? Is it a training manual for using sexuality to overcome evil? Is it a farce, another time when “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”? Or is there something else going on? Reading Esther intertextually, especially with Exodus and Leviticus, reveals Esther as a dire warning about political idolatry. 

The story

Famously, God does not show up in Esther, at least the unexpanded versions. But there is a god in the book, to be sure. The linguistic connections between the material culture of the tabernacle and Ahasuerus’ pleasure palace are intentional and unavoidable. Just as God ordered a worship space to be set up with blue and violet cloth (Exodus 35:25, 39:3), attached by cloth loops held by precious metal rings (Exodus 26:6), and supported by special columns (1 Kings 7:15), Ahasuerus set up a feast for the people of Susa, and decorated it with violet cloths, supported by metal rings, around decorative columns (Esther 1:6). Just as God’s sacrificial service was conducted with golden vessels (Exodus 37:16), Ahasuerus’s service was conducted with gold vessels (Esther 1:7). 

The similarity of the descriptions of the material culture for God’s worship and for Ahasuerus’ self-worship led the rabbis to speculate that they were the same curtains, rings, pillars and temple vessels (BT Megillah 12a). The Babylonians had taken the temple wealth when they conquered Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:17-23). When the Persian/Medians conquered Babylon, they inherited God’s textiles and dishes. In a literal way for the careful reader, Ahasuerus is presented as wearing God’s garments, and drinking from God’s cup. Ahasuerus inhabits God’s place in this story. 

Moreover, the central climax of the plot surrounds the issue of limited access to Ahasuerus (Esther 4:11). Anyone who approaches without welcome is liable for death! So, after much fasting and preparation, Esther puts on special clothing and dares to appear before the great king Ahasuerus in his palace/temple. She receives favor in Ahasuerus’ eyes and is pardoned for her trespass, moreover, Ahasuerus grants her and the Jewish people life (Esther 5:1, 7:3-4, 8:11). The donning of special garments, entering into the presence of the great king, and beseeching the divine for forgiveness and national life is intentionally patterned on the High Priest’s activities in the Yom Kippur ritual from Leviticus 16:2-19. Esther acts as the High Priest when she intercedes for her people with Ahasuerus acting as God. 

To a certain extent, it works! The Jews of the 127 provinces are saved! They can conduct anticipatory self-defense, and kill all those who would seek to kill them. But, in the end, they are still subject to Ahasuerus’ whims. They are still servants of the great king—who is not God. Mordecai and Esther have traded in their Hebrew names for Persian names. They are not free and neither are the hundreds of other women who Ahasuerus raped by royal proclamation and then kept sequestered for the rest of their lives in his harem (Esther 2:14). Esther prayed to Ahasuerus for deliverance, and received it—this time…

In our context

The success of Esther in temporarily stalling the violent Jew-hatred that rises in every generation makes the overall message of the book of Esther a bit more difficult to see: God is not here. This book is a warning about political idolatry. And to be fully honest, sometimes political idolatry works in the short run. 

If we think about electoral politics in the U.S., or Ireland, Poland, Brazil, Israel, Egypt or any number of other places, it is not too difficult to think of those who borrow and pervert the usage of the things of God—the Bible with a couple deracinated verses, the cross as a sign of willingness to engage in violence, the language of exclusive orthodoxy. Instead of worshiping the one true God, and learning the habits of freedom and neighbor-love from Scripture, modern-day Ahasueruses use Bible and cross to create a cult of self for those who are looking for short-term political solutions, rather than long, difficult obedience. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).

If the text of Esther does not speak of God, it is not at all silent about Ahasuerus and his character. The man is, according to Scripture, a drunken idiot. After 180 days of partying, Ahasuerus held a seven-day after-party (Esther 1:4-5). Esther’s pivotal requests happened in the middle of another drinking binge (Esther 7:1-2, 7). This is not a man known for his sober wisdom

Not only was Ahasuerus perpetually in the cups, he did not know how to rule. When Vashti refused his order, he asked the advisors what to do (Esther 1:15). When Ahasuerus was lonely, his advisors had to tell him how to find a companion (Esther 2:2). When Haman offered to pay an obscene amount of money to commit genocide against Ahasuerus’ own subjects, Ahasuerus refused the silver and allowed the massacre to go ahead, without even bothering to inquire who the intended targets were [!!!] (Esther 3:9-11). When Ahasuerus wished to honor Mordecai for saving his life, he was unable to come up with ideas on his own, and asked Haman instead (Esther 6:3-6). When Haman assaulted the queen, servants knew they would need to tell the foolish Ahasuerus what to do (Esther 7:9-10). Even the political solution to the genocide that he had permitted, Ahasuerus left to the imagination of others (Esther 8:8). Ahasuerus was stupid and easily swayed by others as he had only one thought on his mind – his own carnal pleasures. This is not someone we should wish to pray to or look to for solutions. 

So, as we seek to truly enter the Bible, and inhabit the world of Esther, and allow her to inhabit us, we should start by being honest. Committing idolatry by worshiping political saviors sometimes works, in the short run. Sometimes, you receive permission to make political enemies suffer, and sometimes, you might even save your people from threats. But, Esther is not a recommendation for what to do, so much as it is a stark warning about what happens when we trade in the living God for petty gods. Esther will die in the palace, married to a drunken idiot. Mordecai will die in the gates, eternally alert for palace intrigue in a deeply corrupt and capricious political system. Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah will leave Persia, and do the difficult work of trying to convince the community to follow God instead of human leaders. Esther represents a Pyrrhic victory —focusing on Ahasuerus and forgetting about the God who saves. Let us learn the lesson that the book is teaching—in exile and wilderness, the empire offers the illusion of safety if we will idolize or bow to false gods and messiahs in the form of political leaders, business tycoons or Silicon Valley thought-leaders. Only God offers true freedom and eternal safety.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does what we think of Ahasuerus shape how we think about the rest of the book? Consider how you may have, in previous Bible study, thought of Ahasuerus. Is he a savior, a proponent of sex-slavery, a drunken fool, or something else?
  2. In the greatly expanded Septuagint version of Esther (carried forward into Catholic Bibles), both Esther and Mordecai pray to God, and God intervenes to stop Haman’s plans. Does including explicit mention of God—and particularly, prayers to God—in the story change its meaning?
  3. Some commentators have identified Esther as a sort of anti-Daniel. Both books deal with life in exile, and sections of Daniel touch on life in Persia, the setting of Esther; however, Daniel resists assimilation and prays to God repeatedly, even at the cost of his freedom. There is no such prayer in the traditional book of Esther, and assimilation is a means of survival for Esther. How might we see Esther and Daniel in light of each other, particularly with regard to survival strategies? Who is recognized as the power who grants life?
  4. Have you seen national or local political leaders borrowing from the playbook of Ahasuerus (using the things of God to support his/her/their own legitimacy and/or pleasure)? List some examples. How might the Body of Christ work together to insist on such materials not being co-opted to support political careers or agendas, but instead being used to build up the Kingdom of Heaven?

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