Esther as Missionary

Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, August 8, 2015

Esther is a book that captures the imagination.

I say this without hard data, without the studies that link Esther and theological imagination, but I can speak to my own experience as a young girl. I was fascinated with the idea of Esther—a young woman who won a beauty pageant of sorts, but who was really an undercover secret agent on a mission from God.

A quick perusal of commentaries and even the adult Sabbath School quarterly leads me to believe that we still love this idea of Esther—this covert mission, undercover version, subversive story.

Yet the longer I spend with the book of Esther and the more I probe its story, I don’t see an undercover agent confidently working to save her people. I see a young girl caught up in a political whirlwind, likely confused and unsure, who doesn’t have an answer to a question that begs an answer:

Where is God? Are we, the Jews, still His chosen people?

***

One of the greatest challenges for Bible scholars, theologians, and readers of the text alike is this question: where is God? In the book of Esther, God’s name is never mentioned. Not once.

But there are plenty of other words mentioned. Words like “king,” “queen,” “military,” and “banquet” appear repeatedly. It is clear that there are major players and powers present in the book of Esther, but they don’t seem to be of the God-variety.

And this very well could be intentional.

***

After being in exile for several generations, King Cyrus issued a decree in 539 B.C., allowing for Israelites to return to their homeland. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the land being resettled and the people of God making a fresh start in their homeland.

But Esther and her cousin Mordecai were not among those Israelites who returned. There were plenty of Jews who had settled comfortably into their new surroundings and did not return home. And this is where the story of Esther picks up.

What does it mean when God has exiled you, but then you are returning the favor?

***

I don’t want to presume about the lives of Esther and Mordecai. They could have been devout Jews, but they could have also been indifferent towards God, too. After all, if one contrasts the story of Esther with the book of Daniel there are a few marked differences: no one prays in the book of Esther, no one has an apocalyptic vision, there is no mention of Esther’s dietary restrictions in the king’s court, and there doesn’t seem to be concern for Torah, or the law.

This all makes an impression on the reader; there is literary deftness in causing us as readers to feel the Exile; we sense the absence of God. We feel the oppression of an empire who issues edicts calling for genocide and rips women away from their homes to be sex-slaves for a powerful monarch. Where is God in this?

***

And yet, even in God’s absence, God is present.

Let that sink in: God’s name doesn’t have to be mentioned, God doesn’t have to have followers who are being perfectly obedient or interested in a covenant relationship with Him, God doesn’t even have to get the credit for how the story turns out for Him to be fully present and intimately involved.

This is the part of Esther’s story that I failed to comprehend as a child; I thought it was all about Esther doing great things for God! I was caught up in the subversiveness of the story, the high stakes drama, and the chutzpah of the heroine. But I missed the point of the story completely.

The story is not about Esther; the story is about God.

***

I could write for days about the workings of God in the book of Esther—about His undercover actions, about His subversions, about His will being carried out even without anyone knowing it. I could write about the literary devises in the story—the great reversal of fortune—how the Jews are saved and the tables are turned, which, by the way, is so like our God. I could write about how history is the long story of God’s work in the world, even when we cannot see it or if we choose to leave His work unacknowledged.

There is so much here to savor, so much to celebrate about our God.

***

The question of Esther still comes to us today, though. We’ve been asking questions about mission, about being missionaries, about being sent by God in this quarter. But I wonder: have we gotten the questions wrong? Have we made these questions about us, just like I once understood the book of Esther to be about Esther?

Because this point does bear repeating: This mission work is not ours, it is God’s. It is His mission, His work.

We can read the book of Esther and ask questions about what it means to witness and not compromise our beliefs; we can ask questions about what it means to witness and work under cover; we can read this book for missionary tips and tricks.

Or we can recognize that this story is all about God.

Even when it seems that He is absent, even when we don’t sense His presence or understand His plan.

Even when we look around us to the empires that we live under, to the horrible suffering and violence that is waged by the powerful against the powerless, God is still present.

Even if we think that the word missionary is out of vogue or if we flat out want nothing to do with Him, the story is still all about God.

And that is what I’ve discovered about the story of Esther.

That is what I have come to discover about our sometimes hidden, never absent, always present God.

Alyssa M. Foll is a staff chaplain at Adventist GlenOaks Hospital in the Chicago suburbs. She is an elder in the Burr Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church and enjoys reading, creative writing, and swimming.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7009

It’s better even than that - the “beauty pageant” that she won, wasn’t an innocent parade past the king and his officials. It was an overnight visit to his sleeping quarters. If she hadn’t won the role of queen, she would have been a permanent addition to the kings harem.

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Is it too far fetched to think that Jesus felt like an exile in Israel?
It seems that many in the denomination feel like an exile among SDA members.
Think about this question for Sabbath school…“Do you feel like an exile in your own church?”

Fellowship…???
Amos 3:3 Can two walk together, except they be agreed?

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Lady Esther ain’t no missionary!
Esther played the whore ,deliberately preparing herself for six months to fornicate.
God blessed and all is well, the means justifying the end,
Saving her people was worth it all wasn’t ?
For those who take all this literally rather the an allegory, indications are she was not noble not pure and no different to a typical fornicator of today; nothing missionary about Esther except may be her position with the King.

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If the author of the essay is correct, your (and my) sentiments about Esther, all the eroticism and male narcissism of the story, simply underlines God’s greatness, exploding our narrow view of God. It is exactly this which makes the story so subversive, so challenging… We might recognize ourselves in it, but find it difficult to recognize God - because the story just doesn’t fit. How great is our God!

Ps.: as to the topic “missionary” I already wondered a few times what the selection of the author of the Sabbath school lesson is really trying to tell us… Quite subversive all around.

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Thanks for a lovely devotional, Alyssa–it is marvelous to recognize God is working His purpose out in and through all our secular and self-serving decisions. I’m glad, though, that we don’t have to read the book of Job without the prologue and God’s speeches at the close of the book.

The ancients were rather bothered by God’s absence from the text of Esther. One recalls that in the Greek version (the Septuagint), God is not absent. Esther observes the Jewish dietary laws. When she fasts before approaching the king, she also prays, telling God how loathsome the touches of the uncircumcised are to her. (When she approaches the king, he scowls and she swoons, which melts his heart.)

I really like your suggestion that we need to do some editing of the way we tell our own life stories–to reorient them around God as focal character.

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This is a fantastically perceptive essay - it really brings out all kinds of things, searching below the surface of the story. But I guess I have questions about the conclusion that mission is all about God. God’s created wonders are there for everyone to behold, but a world that worships science doesn’t see the testimony of His power. If we don’t witness to God, who will? I felt the end of this commentary was a little bit of a let down. Still, thanks for the very thought provoking writing.

Do you mean the missionary position?

I would get a kick if you said this in a live Sabbath school class. I wonder how many would shriek first, then run up to the elders or pastor and gripe about your comment. They might complain…“This church is not a safe place! We need to be very careful and only parrot the usual clichés and institutional religious lingo”.

Heads up. I want to call attention to the phrase that is getting more usage in these times.
“It’s all about”

This is a broad brush, blanket, generalization expression that seems to counter elaboration, reasoning and scrutiny of thought.

I would think that most if not all have heard this in Sabbath school or sermons.
Actually it is summary fiction.
Have you heard…

It’s all about God
It’s all about Jesus
It’s all about love
It’s all about grace
It’s all about the cross
It’s all about the blood

If it is ALL about anything, then can it be partly about anything else??

The word God is not used once in Esther and usually the book is mentioned as a reminder of the Purim celebration…
yet…it’s all about God??

Ever heard the expression…Is it essential to salvation"?

Like…this is a low priority, moot point so don’t push Jesus off the front burner to place this on it.

Should these points go unchallenged because …“it’s all about God”?

Andreas,

As I mentioned before,

Most discussion related to the lessons will not be oriented to missions or outreach.
It will be cut and paste comments or speculation on certain aspects of the characters in each lesson. SDA only give token lip service to outreach.
Basically this whole quarter will be just a regurgitation of religious history.
What the impact of the lesson should be is how a consecrated, compassionate follower of God can be a strong influence, for good to persons in high positions of power. Also what can be discussed is the challenges and obstacles in achieving this.

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I am not quite sure whether you allowed the story of Esther to sink in - beauty pageant with very sexual overtones - nothing missionary there. Or how about Jonah before - the run-away prophet who didn’t preach gospel, but doom (despite knowing better). Or Naaman - another quite subversive story, coming to think about it…
Actually, in my church we have extremely lively sabbath school discussions about how different “mission” is when we look at God. As the author of the essay put it: the story of Esther is about God. Mission is not about us and what we do. It rather is about God and how he acts and intervenes, no matter what we do.
Thus I would suggest it is the awe for God’s greatness which in the end will make us missionaries, not trying harder to fulfill the lay activities leader’s (or GC’s for that matter) demands.

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Sorry, only noticed the post after I wrote my answer to your reply to me.

These kind of statements ought to be challenged, for sure - because they probably are meant to make us think. My conclusion might differ from yours… But honestly, the story of a young girl, ready to join the king’s harem at the suggestion of her uncle, who later on is saving her own back by some shrewd plan - without ever addressing God … that wouldn’t be a mission story … except if you saw God behind it all who is so much bigger than our neat and clean theology.

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For years I have pondered the similarities between Esther’s story and Sheherezade’s, and wondered if there might be a common literary prototype behind both stories. Purim falls during the same time of year as the Persian Nowruz, and I’ve wondered if Esther’s story may have come about as a Jewish alternative or counter-story to the Zoroastrian celebration. I’m certainly no historian or theologian, but I love to wonder about things.

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Bravo Alyssa, “you must have been a wonderful child”!
I see no reason to believe that Esther was decadent or seductive. On the contrary. Ch 2:9 tells us that she was pleasing, and that actually means “she lifted up grace before his face”. Verse 8 explains that she “was taken” and the Hebrew meaning doesn’t exactly connote volunteerism. More likely taken against her will. And she refused anything elaborate to the eunuch in charge of her (2:15); she humbly asked for his suggestions. She won everyone’s favor., evidence that she had a lot more to offer than seduction. She was raised by a Godly Jewish cousin, so I believe that it is acceptable to assume that she was a reflection of his convictions and His purity. For her to marry or become concubine to a Gentile would be starkly against the Torah, which she was a student of, so is it reasonable to assume she wasn’t promiscuous?

But I am with you. It is an incredible chronicle of God’s powerful, intimate involvement in His people’s lives. Mordecai and his countrymen were on the brink of extermination and the next thing we know, he is second in rank only to King Zerxes in the Empire of the Medes and Persians. Wow! Esther is reigning queen. Haman is hung on the very gallows designed for his archenemy, his 10 sons are executed, and over 500 of the biggest trouble makers are destroyed. Ah, the Providence and Sovereignty of a loving and just God!

The king had endless access to endless physical beauty. Something about this Jewish girl utterly captivated him that the others simply didn’t possess, something that surpassed her physical countenance. I’m suggesting that it must have been the pure, godly beauty that comes from within. Which I suggest makes it safe to assume that there was a lot more morality going on than some have speculated here.

We know several couples made up of a believer and a non-believer. In each case, the wife is the Christian. In each case the husband has privately said to me " I had never met anyone like my wife before I met her. (Attributes that go way beyond the physical.)

Precisely…that is what I meant…lol…

Alyssa, your essay/article was excellent! I am a Chaplain also, and I find that we do not have to reveal everything about us to everyone all the time. It’s about Jesus and His love, not us as a first priority. I really appreciated the way you emphasized how Esther revealed in her life the character of our God. Mordecai had warned Esther not to reveal her identity. The fact is that the Bible does not tell us the reason for his words to her. We can see with the example of Jesus, one does not have to reveal everything at once in every circumstance. Discretion is a virtue.
“Christ was far more reserved when He spoke to them. That which
had been withheld from the Jews, and which the disciples were afterward enjoined to keep secret, was revealed to her. Jesus saw that she would make use of her knowledge in bringing others to share His
grace.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 190.

at best the story of Esther is an illustration of the providence of God. Luther desisted the book. It’s culture and ethics is far removed from New Testament theology… The term missionary in the Christian ethos means to carry the Good news of Salvation into eternal life by trust in the totality of the Christ event…Yes of course Esther brought salvation to the Jews in a captive land. The story of Ruth is richer in a metaphorical,sense. Tom Z

All through the Hebrew Bible, the end justified their actions–which were to save Israel, not God, but His Chosen People.

How many would send your daughters to a beauty contest with their future being the queen? Good idea? Why not, if it saves your people?
The OT was never about an individual as important, but always a people; and is that not the Adventist idea of a “remnant” the chosen few? Deception for noble purposes is winked out: cover up that EGW plagiarized almost entire books and continue to sell them as all from God in vision? Continue to cover up fraud and mismanagement of God’s money? But the remnant are God’s chosen people today.

Scheherazade and Esther likely were derived from the Persian tales.