Monday, June 8, 2015

Esther in the Bible: An Example Then, An Example Now

Picture of Liya Kebede edited to look like a mosaic. This is how I imagine Queen Esther

Like many Christian females, the Book of Esther is one of my favorites in the Bible. Often, the story of Esther is explained to us (females and males alike) as a romantic love story. But as I've read this book of the Bible more and more, I've come to realize that generalizing it as a romance actually trivializes the greater picture being shared. First of all, a detailed reading -- even a simple reading -- of the book of Esther doesn't offer much in regards to heartwarming romance. If one focuses simply on the "romantic" relationships covered, one would find a story of a king who had his wife banished for not showing off her beauty at his command, engaged in a replacement search by (likely) legalizing the kidnapping of beautiful virgins for him to sample for a year, and finally choosing one out of the bunch. In addition, a historical study of King Xerxes reveals that he was temperamental at the least and maniacal at the most.

So even if the Book of Esther is a story simply about a Jewish woman's relationship with a Persian king, it still isn't a romantic one. Therefore, it is my opinion that the Book of Esther is less about romantic love and more about character, protocal, and wisdom, particularly in the cases of Esther and her  uncle, Mordecia. The first indications of Esther's exemplarary character and wisdom occurs when all of the concubines-in-training have the opportunity to take anything from the harem they would like to keep for themselves (in the event they were not chosen as his bride). While most of the concubines-in-training presumably took items of great material value (i.e. jewelry, fine clothing, etc.), Esther instead consulted with the King's head eunuch on what to take, obviously wanting something that would be pleasing to the King instead of pleasing to herself. In following his advice, she gained the favor of everyone who saw her, and the king as well, for she was chosen as the new Queen of Persia.

After this, the story focuses (for a moment) on the integrity and bravery of her uncle Mordecai, who overhears a plot to assassinate the King and reports it, gaining kingly favor of his own (though it was forgotten for a moment). It is no wonder that this was the man who Esther chose as her confidant and advisor, for not only had he raised her as his own daughter, he was wise and intelligent as well.

But the peak of this Book of the Bible occurs when a Persian courtier makes it his mission to destroy the life of Mordecai in particular and the Jews as a whole. This courtier (named Haman) is able to use his influence on King Xerxes to pass an unrevokable law allowing all Persians to participate in a genocide of the Jews on a particular day. This edict is confusing news to the kingdom, but horrifying news for the Jews, inducing Mordecai himself to wear beggar's clothing and wail in front of the court. It is at this moment that Esther's faith and bravery are tested by the guardian who raised her.

Mordecai, upon being summoned by Queen Esther's eunuch for an explanation of his strange behavior, sends back a message demanding that she enter the king's presence and defend her people. Esther reminds Mordecai (through a return message) that the Persian law states that anyone who goes to the king unsummoned is at risk of being put to death unless the king raises his scepter to indicate that he wishes their lives to be spared. Mordecai then explains to her that if she allows her fear to keep her from doing the right thing, she will ultimately fall as well. Esther responds by secretly having the Jews fast and pray to God. Then, she goes to the king unsummoned, using his decision to spare her life as a prelude to her plans, by inviting him and Haman to a series of bountiful feasts .

Over the course of these meals, she weakens Haman's shrewdness, giving him the impression that he has favor in her eyes. But at the last feast, Esther finally confesses to Xerxes that she (his favored wife) is in fact a Jew, and is therefore fated for death because of a law that Haman had induced him to pass. Xerxes immediately decides that Haman is an enemy of the state (by indavertently plotting the death of the Queen of Persia). Haman is therefore sentenced to death, and the Jews are given permission to defend themselves against their attackers.

All of these events prove a multitude of wisdoms on the part of Esther, as listed below:
  1. Esther understood how to wait for the truly valuable things. While some of the women in Xerxes' harem focused on the silly value of material items they could keep for themselves, Esther focused on the big picture of figuring out which items would ensure she was chosen as Queen. It also allowed her to have more "power" than she would have in being arrogant and boisterous.
  2. Esther was a humble and reserved person. She could have easily used her position as Queen to gain a sense of importance and narcissim, but she did not. She allowed Xerxes (the true ruler of Persia) to be the face and leader of the country, while she acted simply as his wife. Her humility was probably a great contrast to that of Xerxes' previous wife Vashti.
  3. Because of her humility and reserved nature, Esther was able to take advise from the one person who had proved his loyalty to her, her Uncle Mordecai. This was a man who had presumably sacrificed his personal life to be her guardian, for there is no mention of a wife or any other children. So Esther was wise enough to know who was really for her, instead of simply being enamored those who flattered her vanity. This was also demonstrated in the fact that she used her time as a concubine-in-training to gain favor with the eunuchs of the court, who probably had access to all sorts of wisdom and court secrets.
  4. Esther was obviously a person who followed protocal to a tee. This is demonstrated by the fact that she hesitated to break protocal even when it could mean saving her own people. Still, Esther recognized eventually that courage and righteousness are to be placed above securing one's favor or position. So she risked her own life to save those of her people. Her integrity (in following protocal and being a humble person) were recognized by King Xerxes, for he spared her life when she broke the rules and approached his throne unsummoned. I imagine he was thinking to himself  "Something must truly be wrong if Esther is breaking protocal to approach me, for this is not like her at all." You see, when you are a person of high moral fiber, people know you are not the type to cry wolf or be melodramatic: when you finally speak out, they listen, because they know it must be a serious issue.
  5. In regards to how she handled Haman, Esther demonstrated why you should never let your enemies know that they are in fact your enemy (and you, therefore, are theirs). Haman was obviously a shrewd and subtile person, so Esther recognized if she had simply allowed her emotions to push her into an angry confrontation, he might have had time to thwart her attempts to save her family. He could have had her framed for a crime, or even accused her of being a traitor to the throne. Instead, she plied him with wine and food, and distracted him from his evil plotting by stroking his ego. By the time she sprung the truth on him and the King, he was completely caught unawares.
  6. Finally, Esther demonstrated that though she was not without fear or anxiety, she was the type of person who could overcome such blinding emotions in favor of morals, character, and justice.
In conclusion, I have to say that this particular book of the Bible has been frequently on my mind. It may sound odd, but I think the way that Esther navigated court life is a good example for anyone working in something like Corporate America or any type of business environment. Such people could benefit from using the qualities Esther demonstrated, as follows:
  1. Keep the big picture in mind. Don't let a shallow increase prevent you from getting a more substantial and lasting one.
  2. Be humble, but be wise.
  3. Pick your mentors with care. Pay attention to who is proving (through actions) their loyalty to you and avoid the ones who simply stroke your ego.
  4. Always follow protocal and policy, unless it means sacrificing your character and morals. In such cases, breaking protocal will be more beneficial either immediately or in the long run.
  5. Don't be quick to "claim" enemies. If someone hates you, or speaks ill of you, keep the fact that you know about it to yourself. Once you declare battle against someone, you will find yourself in a war you probably aren't able to win, especially if they have more practice at being sneaky, conniving, malicious, and vengeful.
  6. Don't let emotions hold you back. Always think with your head and your conscious congruently. The heart is too emotional/irrational to be on the same level as head and conscious. Don't eliminate your heart alltogether, for you don't want to be a cold or unfeeling person. Just avoid letting your heart rule your life.

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