Sunday’s sermon: An Ominous Beginning

Esther Vashti“Assérus Chasse Vashti” by Marc Chagall, 1960

Text used – Esther 1:1-3, 8-12, 14b-22

  • I decided that since it’s summer, I wanted to try something a little different for sermons. As you all know, I’ve done a number of sermon series before, but I’ve never preached straight through a particular book of the Bible – front to back, cover to cover, end to end. Straight through. I thought it could make for an intriguing summer, so I started thinking about which book we could tackle over the next few months. → had to be …
    • Relatively short – btwn. various absences and other things (joint service in Aug., for example), it had to fit into 9 weeks  cuts out books like Genesis and Acts (too long!) but also Jude (too short!)
    • Something sort of interesting – something we may not have heard a lot from in the past  steered me toward the OT as opposed to the NT
      • Certainly stories in the NT that we aren’t super familiar with, but I think it’s safe to say there are more of them in the OT
    • And I wanted it to be something a little bit challenging – something that was going to make me think a little bit. And so I settled on … Esther.
      • Short … but not too short
      • OT book – last of the historical books (Genesis through Esther)
      • Book that we don’t hear often
        • Revised Common Lectionary: assigned series of Scripture readings for each Sunday used by a number of different denominations à goes through much of the Bible on a 3-yr cycle
          • 4 readings for each Sun.: OT, Psalm, Gospel, NT
        • Only bits of Esther that show up in RCL = a few short verses from chs. 7 and 9 – 1 little reading on 1 day in a 1095 day cycle … That’s all we get.
  • But there’s so much more to Esther’s story than just those few verses can tell! You see, Esther is this odd little book in the Old Testament that tells the story of Esther, Haman, King Ahasuerus, and Mordecai. It’s a captivating story of deception and intrigue.
    • Commantery description: It contains all the elements of a popular romance novel: a young and beautiful heroine; a wicked, scheming villain; a wise older father figure; and an inept and laughable ruler. … Beneath its lighthearted surface, however, the book of Esther explores darker themes: racial hatred, the threat of genocide, and the evil of overweening pride and vanity.[1]
  • Background for Esther
    • From intro to Esther in the New Oxford Annotated Bible[2]
      • “Esther is not a work of history but a historical novella, that is, a fictional story within a historical framework.”
        • E.g. – 1st verse of this morning’s Scripture: This is what happened back when Ahasuerus lived, the very Ahasuerus who rules from India to Cush – one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all.[3]  Sounds official. Sounds accurate. Sounds historical, right? Except that there was no Persian king known as Ahasuerus. There are a number of kings that this could be, but no one knows for sure. A fictional story within a historical framework.
      • Written in late 4th BCE
      • Hotly contested throughout the centuries  You see, Esther happens to be the only book in the Bible in which God is not actually involved on an active level. In fact, God isn’t even mentioned. Not one time.
        • Not fully accepted into Jewish canon of Scripture until 3rd CE – roughly 600 years after it was written
        • Protestant reformer Martin Luther wished it had never been written
      • So what does this ancient story of royal romance and political conspiracy have to tell us about our faith? That’s what we’re going to spend the summer figuring out.
  • Today, we get the story set-up.
    • Character introductions
      • King Ahasuerus
      • Queen Vashti
      • Eunuchs – typical servants of queens in ancient times because there was no need to worry about indiscretions/infidelity
        • Eunuchs = male servants who had been neutered, so there’s no danger of any inappropriate royal hanky panky
    • Also cultural introduction – story begins with dueling extravagant feasts and week-long celebrations (King Ahasuerus’ vs. Queen Vashti’s), endless supply of wine – “as much as each guest wanted,” and an intended showing-off of the queen’s beauty (and, by association, the king’s wealth in her jewels, robes, and other beautifying agents used on her such as perfumes, oils, etc.)
      • Introduces dual cultures: Persian (written about) vs. Jewish (doing the writing/initial reading)
      • Scholar: Through the description, we get a glimpse of the Persian character: ostentatious, showy, unbridled. This is in direct contrast to the usual Jewish values of modesty and self-restraint. Although disapproval is never directly voiced, the message is clear: Such opulence, while immediately awe-inspiring, hides an empty and probably corrupt core.[4]
    • Final introduction – two important themes that will run throughout book of Esther
      • Role/status of women
      • Power – the misuse and abuse of power, the shifting of power, implications of God’s power
  • The role and status of women is certainly not a new theme within the Bible. In fact, this theme is a bit of a roller coaster throughout Scripture.
    • Strong, powerful women of the Bible
      • Deborah[5] – only female judge who led a successful military counterattack against the Canaanite army in book of Judges
      • Ruth – greatest daughter-in-law of all time who leaves her homeland, her people, and everything she knows to follow her mother-in-law and ends up not only caring and providing for her mother-in-law but also contributing to the lineage of the Messiah
      • Mary Magdalene – woman who struggled with not just one but seven demons until Jesus cast them out of her[6]; chose to follow Jesus along with a few other women; remained with Jesus to the very end, kneeling at the foot of the cross (again with a few other women and the beloved disciple) even after all the other disciples had fled; was one of the first to the tomb to discover the resurrection and the first to spread the news
    • Flip side: oppressed and mistreated women of the Bible
      • Hagar[7] – Sarah’s servant who is first forced to give herself to Abraham to produce an heir (Ishmael) when Sarah is unable to get pregnant and later abused and banished for having that very same heir after the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac
      • Leah[8] – Laban’s oldest daughter; “the bride that nobody wanted;” Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first before he is allowed to marry her younger, prettier sister, Rachel; continues to suffer resentment and mistreatment as she is able to bear Jacob’s children while Rachel remains barren
      • Hemorrhagic woman[9] who approaches Jesus for healing – powerful stigma of her bleeding disorder kept her shunned and isolated for more than 30 years, so much so that she felt she wasn’t even worthy of any of Jesus’ time, just a hasty and superficial brush of her fingers on the fringe of his garments
    • And in our Scripture reading this morning, Queen Vashti could fall under both of these categories.
      • Strong and powerful in her denial of King Ahasuerus rude and demeaning demand: [Queen Vashti] was gorgeous, and [the king] wanted to show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests. But Queen Vashti refused to come as the king had ordered through the eunuchs.[10]
      • Because of that assertion of power, oppressed and mistreated – after her refusal, eunuch to the king: “[The royal order] should say that Vashti will never again come before King Ahasuerus. It should also say that the king will give her royal place to someone better than she. When the order becomes public through the whole empire, vast as it is, all women will treat their husbands properly.” … The king liked the plan, as did the other men, and he did just what [the eunuch] said.[11]
  • In this interaction, we get a glimpse of one of the many places that faith is implied in Esther.
    • You see, King Ahasuerus has the power to dethrone his queen and basically banish her for the rest of her life. – powerful punishment because women had no way of providing for themselves in this society  If she had no other family to return to – no surviving male relative such as her father, a brother, an uncle, etc. – Vashti would have had to resort to begging on the street in order to survive. That’s the power of the king.
    • However, the idea to dethrone and banish Vashti didn’t actually come from the king. It came from one of his advisors! One of the eunuchs on his court.  regular occurrence throughout Esther – learn that King Ahasuerus is a high suggestible man, other people always telling him what to do
      • This implies that King Ahasuerus power is fleeing – that it is weak, that his rule is a sham because he’s so heavily influenced by those around him that he’s not really the one making the decisions. And in this implication of the king’s frivolous and phony power, the writer of Esther was relying on the reader’s knowledge that God’s power is greater.
        • Not subsequent to the suggestions and manipulations of others but omnipotent
        • Not fleeting as King Ahasuerus rule surely will be in the grand scheme of things
        • Not fickle or petty or vindictive like King Ahasuerus power
      • In contrast to King Ahasuerus, the God that the readers know – those who read it for the first time and we who read it today, is an almighty and everlasting God, a God of justice and mercy who gathers in those who have been tossed out by society.
        • Knowledge that we readers will need as we continue through the rest of Esther’s story
          • Injustices
          • Evil dealings
          • Violent actions
        • Knowledge that carries us through our days as well
          • Our own injustices
          • Our own day-to-day dealings that frustrate and hurt and anger and challenge us
          • In the face of all of the terrible things that we see in the world – war, oppression, starvation, abuse, neglect, bullying, poverty, and so much more – we carry with us the reassurance that God is stronger. God is compassionate. Unlike King Ahasuerus, whose only desire was for a good party and to impress his guests – whose need to assert his power and dominance ended up costing him his beautiful queen … unlike this vain and volatile king, God’s heart cries out for justice and mercy and care for all creation. Amen.

[1] Sidnie White Crawford. “The Book of Esther: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 3. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 855.

[2] “Introduction to Esther” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, 3rd ed. (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001), 708-709.

[3] Est 1:1.

[4] Crawford, 880.

[5] Judges 4.

[6] Lk 8:2.

[7] Genesis 16.

[8] Genesis 29.

[9] Mk 5:25-34.

[10] Est 1:11b-12a.

[11] Est 1:19b-20a, 21.