Esther and Work

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Working Within a Fallen System (Esther)

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The Book of Esther begins with King Ahasuerus (known to history outside the Bible as Xerxes) throwing a lavish party to display his glory (Es. 1:1-8). Having consumed ample amounts of wine, Ahasuerus commanded his servants to bring Queen Vashti before him in order that he might show her off to the other partygoers (Es. 1:10-11). But Vashti, sensing the indignity of the request, refused (Es. 1:12). Her refusal disturbed the men in attendance, who feared that her example would encourage other women in the kingdom to stand up to their husbands (Es. 1:13-18). Thus Vashti was “fired,” if you will, and a process was begun to find Ahasuerus a new queen (Es. 1:21-2:4). To be sure, this episode depicts a family matter. But every royal family is also a political workplace. So Vashti’s situation is also a workplace issue, in which the boss seeks to exploit a woman because of her gender and then terminates her when she fails to live up to his fantasies.

But who would succeed Vashti? A beauty contest was held to locate the most beautiful virgins in all 127 provinces of Persia, and Esther was among those brought to the palace to undergo the year-long beauty treatment required before presentation to the king. At the end, Esther finished first in the pageant and was crowned queen of the realm. The one fact about her that remained hidden, at the request of her cousin and guardian Mordecai, was that she was a Jew. (Es. 2:8-14). Although she is the apparent “winner” of the contest, she is nonetheless caught in an oppressive, sexist system, soon to face sexual exploitation at the hands of a selfish tyrant.

Although Esther remains subject to this oppressive system, she now enters the palace with its access to high power and influence. She does not seem interested in whether God has any plan or purpose for her there. In fact, God is not even mentioned in the book of Esther. But that doesn’t mean that God has no plan or purpose for her in Ahasuerus’ court. As it happens, her cousin Mordecai after some time comes into conflict with Ahasuerus’ highest official, Haman (Es. 3:1-6). Haman responds by plotting to kill not only Mordecai, but the whole Jewish people (Es. 3:7-15). Due to the intractability of the Law of the Medes and Persians, once Xerxes signed the edict approving this (not knowing that his queen was one of the hated Jews), nothing could overturn it.

The edict is proclaimed in several cities and provinces, causing the death of many Jews, and when Mordecai hears about this, he sits in the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes. Hearing of this, Esther sends to find out what is wrong with him, and he sends back word of the edict, asking her to intervene (Es. 4:1-9).

Esther protests that getting involved could jeopardize her position, and even her life (Es. 4:11). Already she seems to be losing the king’s interest, having not been called into his presence for the past 30 days. It is inconceivable that the king is sleeping alone, therefore some other woman or women have been “called to come in to the king” (Es. 4:11). To intervene on behalf of her people would be too risky. Mordecai responds with two arguments. First, her life is at risk, whether or not she intervenes. “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. . For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.” (Es. 4:13-14a). And second, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Es. 4:14b). Together, these arguments lead to a remarkable about-face by Esther.  Titled “queen” but still subject to the absolute whim of the king, Esther cannot imagine that she can do anything about the decree.But she finally agrees to go to the king, asserting to Mordecai, "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). Esther has to make a choice. She can continue to conceal her Jewishness and spend the rest of her days as first lady of Xerxes' harem. Or she can take her life in her hands and do what she can to save her people. She comes to understand that her high position is not just a privilege to be enjoyed, but a high responsibility to be used to save others. Her people are in peril, and their problem has become her problem because she is in the best position to do something about it.

Notice that Mordecai’s two arguments appeal to different instincts. The first argument appeals to self-preservation. You, Esther, are a Jew, and if all the Jews are ordered killed, you will be found out and slain eventually. The second argument appeals to destiny, with its hint of divine service. If you wonder, Esther, why you of all young women ended up the king’s wife, perhaps it is because there is a larger purpose to your life.

At long last, Esther identifies herself with her people. In this sense, she takes the same step Jesus was to take at his birth, identification of himself with humanity. And perhaps this step is what opens her heart to God’s purposes. Identifying now with her people’s mortal peril, Esther takes on the service of intervening with the king. She risks her position, her possessions, her life. Her high position now becomes a means of service, instead of self-service.[1]

Esther’s service corresponds to today’s workplace in several ways:

  • Many people — Christian or not — make find themselves ethically compromised as a result of their work history. Because we all stand in Esther’s shoes, we all have the opportunity — and responsibility — to let God use us anyway. Did you cut corners to get your job? Nonetheless, God can use you to call an end to the deceptive practices in your workplace. Have you made improper use of corporate assets? God may still use you to clean up the falsified records in your department. Past  accommodation to a sinful system is no excuse for failing to heed what God needs from you now. Prior misuse of your God-given abilities is no reason to believe you cannot employ them for God’s good purposes today. Esther is the model for all of us who have fallen short of the glory of God, whether by choice or by necessity. You cannot say, “If you knew how many ethical shortcomings I made to get here — I can’t be of any use to God now.”
  • God makes use of the actual circumstances of our lives. Esther’s position gives her unique opportunities to serve God. Mordecai’s position gives him different opportunities. We should embrace the particular opportunities we have. Rather than saying, “I would do something great for God, if only I had the opportunity,” we should say, “Perhaps I have come into this position for just such as time as this.”
  • Our positions are spiritually dangerous. We may come to equate our value and our very existence with our positions. The higher our positions, the greater the danger. If becoming CEO or getting tenure or keeping a good job becomes so important that we cut off the rest of ourselves, then we have lost ourselves already.
  • Serving God requires risking our positions. If you use your position to serve God, you might lose your position and your future prospects. This is doubly frightening if you have become self-identified with your job or career. Yet the truth is our positions are also at risk if we don’t serve God. Esther’s case is extreme. She may be killed if she risks her position by intervening, and she will be killed if she doesn’t intervene. Are our positions really any more secure than Esther’s? It is no foolishness to risk what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose. Work done in God’s service can never truly be lost.

For Esther and the Jews, the story has a happy ending. Esther risks approaching the king unbidden, yet receives his favor (Es. 5:1-2). She employs a clever tactic to butter him up over the course of two banquets (Es. 5:4-8; 7:1-5) and to manipulate Haman into exposing his own hypocrisy in seeking to have the Jews annihilated (Es. 7:6-10).  The king issues a new judgment delivering the Jews from Haman's scheme (Es. 8:11-14) and rewards Mordecai and Esther with riches, honor and power (Es. 8:1-2; 10:1-3). They in turn improve the lot of Jews throughout the Persian Empire (Es. 10:3). Haman and the enemies of the Jews are slaughtered (Es. 7:9-10; 9:1-17). The dates of the Jews’ deliverance — Adar 14 and 15 — are marked thereafter as the festival of Purim (Es. 9:17-23).

Much of this section is drawn from Alice Mathews, "Esther: A Harem Girl Grows Into a Powerful Queen (Esther 4)," in Women Workers in the Old Testament, https://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/women-and-work-in-the-old-testament/esther-a-harem-girl-grows-into-a-powerful-queen-esther-4. A few ideas in this section are drawn from the sermon, “If I Perish, I Perish,” by Tim Keller, preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York on April 22, 2007, available for download at: http://www.gospelinlife.com/if-i-perish-i-perish-5610.html.

God’s Hidden Hand and Human Response (Esther)

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As noted earlier, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther. Yet it is a book of the Bible. Commentators therefore look for the veiled presence of God in Esther and generally point to the crucial verse: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this?” (Es. 4:14). The implication is that she has come to her position not by luck, or fate, or by her own wiles, but by the will of an unseen actor. We can see the divine handwriting on the wall here. Esther has come to her royal position because the “good hand of God was upon [her],” as Ezra and Nehemiah might have said (Ezra 8:18, Nehemiah 2:18). 

This challenges us to ponder how God might be at work in ways we don’t recognize. When a secular company eliminates bias in promotions and pay scales, is God at work there? When a Christian is able to end deceptive record-keeping practices, does she have to announce that she did so because she’s a Christian? If Christians have a chance to join with Jews and Muslims to make a case for reasonable religious accommodations in a corporation, should they see it as a work of God? If you can do good by taking a job in a compromised political administration, could God be calling you to accept the offer? If you teach in a school that pushes you to the limits of your conscience, should you seek to leave, or should you redouble your commitment to staying?