Esther: Harlot or Heroine?

Preston Sprinkle —  March 23, 2012

Moralism controls our reading of Scripture, especially the Old Testament. When we dust off the first 2/3 of the Bible and seek to find some spiritual wisdom, we often scurry to find examples of morally upright people. We want to be like Abraham, be like Jacob, and follow in the footsteps of Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, and Moses. And when we get to the book of Esther, the same moralistic lens remains plastered to our faces and we therefore see in this Persian queen an example of what we should do to be a good person.

However, the Bible isn’t primarily about what we should do, but about what God has done. God—not humanity—is the main character in the Old Testament, and he is always the hero. Sometimes he uses good people to do good things; but since there are hardly any good people, he ends up using messed up people to accomplish his will. And so he uses liars like Abraham, thieves like Jacob, and porn stars like Judah and Samson to accomplish his will. Because the Bible is not about God responding to our goodness, but about God using humanity to accomplish his will on earth DESPITE our moral bankruptcy.

And the same is true of Esther. The book of Esther is NOT about a morally upright girl whom God uses because she’s righteous. It’s about God using someone, who—like Judah (Gen 38)—is morally suspect. Here’s why:

First, Esther does not resist being taken into Xerxes’s (a pagan king) harem and participating in his beauty contest (2:8).

Second, Esther not only spent the night with the king before they were married, but of all the virgins that did the same, Esther “pleased him the most” (2:9, 16-17). I’ll let you do the exegesis on what went on that night, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t playing cards.

Third, after spending the night, Esther marries Xerxes—a pagan king—in blatant violation of Mosaic law.

Fourth, she wines and dines with the king (chs. 6-7), something that Daniel and his three friends explicitly chose not to do.

“But she didn’t have a choice,” you say. “She would have been killed if she resisted king Xerxes!” Yes, this is probably true. But does the Bible encourage obedience even if it costs you your life? Of course it does. In fact, Daniel and his three friends also lived under foreign rule and yet they resisted all sorts of pagan demands, even though it cost them their lives (or so they thought; Dan 1, 2, 3).

In the Hebrew Canon, the book of Esther is interestingly placed right next to the book of Daniel. And the two stories could not be more different. Daniel contains examples of some Jews who long for the land of Israel and stick to Mosaic law even if it costs them their life, while Esther contains examples of Jews who couldn’t care less about the land (why are they still in Persia when God has paved the way for them to return, Ezra 1:1-4?) or about Mosaic law. The two books are mirror opposites.

Ok, so maybe “harlot” is too strong. Esther wasn’t taking money for her services. But “heroine” is too strong as well, and certainly there is little about Esther that could be considered morally upright, according to the standards of Mosaic law. I certainly wouldn’t want my daughters to follow in the footsteps of Esther. But I would want my daughters to embrace the God of the book of Esther, who uses those who are morally inadequate to accomplish his will.

And that’s the point of the story. In fact, it’s the point of most stories in the Bible. That we have a God who is so powerful, so gracious, that our sin will not prevent him from fulfilling his promises to Adam (Gen 3:15), Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), and David (2 Sam 7:10-16), to redeem his good creation by using unusable people.

The beautiful point of the book of Esther—for you ladies out there—is that despite your sexual failures, your past (or present) addictions, the cuts on your arm, the slew of abusive guys that you’ve been with, God desires to use you. Because God delights in using sinful, messed up people to accomplish his will. There’s nothing you have done that disqualifies you from being a conduit for God’s sovereign rule over his earth.

So don’t try to clean up your act in order to earn God’s favor. Submit to Jesus. He loves you with a stubborn delight in spite of your failures. He not only loves you, but finds you to be precious, beautiful, and a perfect candidate for his favor. He—and only He—can clean you up, in spite of how unclean you are.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Kevin

    I am pretty sure that the Bible does not demand women choose death over rape or forced marriage. Also, in the Ancient Near East concubines were a sort of lesser wife. They did not have the status of true wives but there were intended exclusively for one man. I do not see anywhere in scripture where a concubine was treated as an adultress. Esther became a concubine the minute she entered the harem and would have live a celibate life (from then on) if rejected. The condemnation against marrying non-Jews was for the fathers not to give their daughters to them. The culture was such that the girls in these situations had very little control over what was happening to them.

    Also the text says that Esther won favor (hen) and kindness (hesed) from the king. These are not words associated with lustful sexual satisfaction. The indication from the text is that what won Esther favor was not that she treated him to a night of wild sex, but that she had beauty both inwardly and outwardly and all who came in contact with her could see it.

    I am not saying that there was not sexual activity when her time came, but that she already was a concubine and that activity would not have been considered sinful for a woman already in that status.

    For people to see Esther as a harlot of sorts is to read modernity into the ancient text.

  • claire linton

    Sorry, I meant to post the below comment here!

  • yvonne wilber

    You say, Preston, you would not want your daughters to follow in the footsteps of Esther. Let me get this straight. How old is Esther? 13? 15? What is her response to being kidnapped from her home to become a sex toy to a perverted pagan king? (Oh yeah she goes right along with it, because the makeup and new clothes and the possibility of becoming the queen is sooo worth being raped by some 40 year old creep.)

    Did you see The Hunger Games? In it is a scene where Katniss, a 16 year-old girl is waiting to enter the arena where she is expected to fight to the death. She has been wined, dined, trained in the arts, and groomed by her eunuch. And in this scene she is absolutely terrified. This is how I picture Esther as she prepares to enter the king’s chamber. There is nothing more dehumanizing for a woman than to be used as a sexual object, and our romanticized image of a harem is an injustice to every woman who has experienced that humiliation. Despite how you may “exegete” the passage, it is impossible to know how or why Esther pleased the king. We know he liked beautiful women, and are told she was very beautiful and was groomed by her eunuch. But to insinuate that Esther pleased Xerxes for any reason other than that goes beyond the text.

    Should Esther have refused to go along with the king’s desires as Daniel and his friends had because she had the moral responsibility of a Jew? “Now Esther had not disclosed her people or her lineage, for Mordecai had instructed her not to do so.” “Esther was still not divulging her lineage or her people, just as Mordecai had instructed her. Esther continued to do whatever Mordecai said, just as she had done when he was raising her.”

    Would you not want your daughters to respond this way? Esther was a young girl and was doing what she had been told by the man she trusted and to whom she was indebted and in submission. She was not a harlot. Not even close. She should not be caricatured as such. And as the story is told, later she does reveal her heritage and lay her life on the line.

    Preston, I know you believe these stories that were “written for our instruction” are about real people. People who were violated, hurt, threatened, frightened, and subjected to evil. Did they participate in evil? Yes. Were they perpetrators as well as victims? Of course. But they were real human beings who struggled and bled and wept, not just characters in a drama at whom we can wink and call names and point out how sinful and messed up they were and yet God used them to accomplish his will.

    I believe the message of the Bible is God delights in loving sinful and messed up people and he took on human flesh to enter into our world and show us what it means to truly be a human being. Not so he can “use us,” but to restore us to be the image bearers he created us to be, that the whole world will be filled with his glory because human beings- the Imago Dei– are here in union with him. And that some day we will have a world where terrified and exploited 14 year old girls won’t be forced to have sex with powerful men, and then admonished for not being morally upright.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      As always, Yvonne, thanks for weighing in! Some very good thoughts here.

      I…think we’re in agreement. But several statements suggest otherwise. I’m having troubling sorting out, though, where exactly the agreement and disagreement is.

      You said: “(Oh yeah she goes right along with it, because the makeup and new clothes and the possibility of becoming the queen is sooo worth being raped by some 40 year old creep.)” I take this as a sarcastic correction to my reading of Esther (I am right?). But I don’t think I said anything in the post that suggested that this was Esther posture.

      I haven’t seen the Hunger Games so I didn’t read your paragraph. Spoiler alert.

      You said: “Should Esther have refused to go along with the king’s desires as Daniel and his friends had because she had the moral responsibility of a Jew?” Not really. It’s not her ethnicity that dictates her morality, but her devotion to Yahweh (or lack thereof)–whether a Jew, Moabite (Ruth), or Canaanite (Tamar). So I don’t think that her obedience to Mordecai takes away from the point I was making in the post.

      This is really the one main point I wanted to point out. There is no clear evidence that Esther demonstrates devotion to Yahweh. Maybe she’s a victim, maybe she’s a willing participant. The text isn’t clear. But the text is clear that nothing she does is in response to her devotion to God and several things she does it directly violates the Mosaic law.

      You said: “She was not a harlot. Not even close. She should not be caricatured as such.” I settled this in the post; the title was intentionally overstated.

      “I believe the message of the Bible is God delights in loving sinful and messed up people and he took on human flesh to enter into our world and show us what it means to truly be a human being. Not so he can “use us,” but to restore us to be the image bearers he created us to be, that the whole world will be filled with his glory because human beings- the Imago Dei– are here in union with him.”

      The bolded part is a false dichotomy. I obviously agree with everything you said here–theologically–but Esther emphasizes the “using us” part much more than the latter.

      Your last line: “And that some day we will have a world where terrified and exploited 14 year old girls won’t be forced to have sex with powerful men, and then admonished for not being morally upright.” Ok, I think I see your point now. You’re emphasizing more of the victim aspect of the story, and you may be onto something her. In fact, I’ve moved more toward this view recently than the strict “morally corrupt” view, though my post, perhaps, still holds on to the latter. If anything, I think we still agree (though I’m not entirely clear) that the book of Esther was not written to give us a bunch of examples of how to be godly people. This was the main point of the post, to show that Esther does not showcase blazing morality. I’ve emphasized more “immorality” in the post, but you do bring up a good middle ground, so to speak, that there is also (I would say “also” and not “rather”) an element of victimization that cultivates a longing for peace and restoration. This is a great point. I may use it in my next lecture on Esther!

      All in all–to sum up my point as succinctly as I can–the book of Esther portrays a Jewish culture that has succumbed to its pagan environment and has lost touch with its devotion to Yahweh. In this sense, Esther is a product of this culture. And the beautiful point is that God can work in and through such dim circumstances to accomplish his will.

      • yvonne wilber

        Yes, yes. I agree with your last paragraph, and I do agree that I made a false dichotomy. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. For some reason during this season of life I am particularly sensitive to victimization (remember our recent conversation about Gomer?). And I am so deeply impacted by God’s promise to enfold us into his life when what has been inaugurated is fully realized and Christ becomes all in all. No more crying. No more shame.

        I agree that just using the Bible as a way to moralize by finding “moral” examples is not the way to handle the Old Testament (especially when, as you point out, the examples are amoral at best and immoral at worst). Reading the Bible as a rule book just doesn’t work.

        Thank you for your irenic response, our conversations are always helpful. And, btw, my allusion to the Hunger Games didn’t contain a spoiler unless you have absolutely no idea of what the movie is about. And if that is true you must live under a rock.

        • yvonne wilber

          Oh, and the Hunger Games paragraph explains my obviously sarcastic correction to your reading. Maybe if you read it you will understand what I was reacting to. And yet… I admit… maybe to be in the King’s harem was “worth it” to some of those girls. I don’t know. But what I do know is it was evil regardless.

        • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

          Just finished Hunger Games last night (the book), so now I’m ready to see the flick.

          As always, great dialogue over some tough and sensitive issues.

          p

    • claire linton

      I’m writing a paper on the morality of Esther and Mordecai. This article is basically my whole thought process! Thank you for your perspective at the end.

      I was wondering, though, in my research (I have to have three credible sources like Bible dictionaries and commentaries) I have not found anyone questioning her behavior! I was astonished. Do you know why that might be? Are scholars mostly desensitized to the immorality of that culture? Or am I just looking in the wrong places? Any insight would be so helpful! Thank you for writing!

      Claire

  • Adam F

    I personally think they were playing Scrabble :)

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Ya, that Hebrew word could go either way…hmmmm.

  • Lance Hancock

    Bro, the application in the last two paragraphs is awesome. Such good insight, thanks!

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks for dropping in, Lance!