The people of Israel had been taken into captivity in Babylon, roughly what is today Iraq. It is during this time of captivity in Babylon that many of the prophets we have heard from over the past several weeks – Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and so forth – wrote, longing for a return to their promised land. Unlike the prophets, the book of Esther doesn’t directly address a longing for return to the promised land, but it does tell a story of the survival of the Jewish people amidst the dark oppression of living as exiles in a foreign, and at times unwelcoming, place.
This morning’s reading comes from Esther 4:1-17, nearly halfway through the story. The Persians had since conquered the Babylonians, and today’s story takes place in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire. The King of Persia has conducted a nation-wide search to find a new Queen … and he selects the beautiful young Esther, who becomes Queen of Persia. Now, the King doesn’t know she is a Jew, and in the course of his rule as King, he approves a request by one of his trusted advisors, Haman, to slaughter all the Jews in his kingdom.
Upon hearing news of the impending massacre, Mordecai - Esther's uncle who raised her, and who is still a "commoner" even though his niece is now the Queen - puts on sackcloth and ashes, and publicly weeps and wails standing at the palace gates. He pleads with Esther to go to the King to get him to change this deadly decree. Yet Esther is not sure she can, for going before the King without being summoned is punishable by death - even for the Queen.
(Many thanks to the Rev. Chris Duckworth, pastor of New Joy Lutheran Church in Westfield, IN, for graciously sharing the above summary and introduction to today's reading.)
Read: Esther 4:1-17
Times were most certainly dark for Esther. Maybe it doesn’t seem so because this unknown Jewish girl has risen to the position of queen. The way I glossed over it, it almost sounds like a rags to riches fairy tale, but that’s not quite the case. The previous queen, Vasthi, the one whom Esther replaced, was banished from her position and from court because she refused to come be displayed before the king and his friends and advisors in the middle of a drunken feast. To find a replacement the king gathered young girls, kept them under his control for twelve months, then one by one spent time with them to decide who would be his queen.
The lines are not hard to read between. There is nothing pleasant about how Esther has ended up as queen, and from what she reports to Mordecai about her inability to even speak without fear of punishment, there is very little pleasant, very little freedom in her position as queen, either.