Almighty God, you are our King, Redeemer, Savior, and Lord. We welcome the presence of your Holy Spirit to lead and guide us in all areas of life. Help us to live into our true selves and to align with what is in your heart. Help us to be sensitive to the pain and joy of other women and men who are working in your church. Teach us when to embrace and when to refrain from embracing. We desire your perfect will in all things and at all times. Help us to tell our own stories and to be a witness to others of your greatness, faithfulness, and love. In Jesus’s mighty name, we pray. Amen.
A strong sense of identity is necessary for a woman to keep her balance in her calling and work … it’s about integrity, about staying true to this authentic personhood in the variety of life situations. … Jesus himself was the epitome of a person with a strong sense of personhood.
—Mary Ellen Ashcroft, quoted in When There’s Not Enough of Me to Go Around: Life Solutions to Perfectionism, People-Pleasing, and Performance Pressures by Ellen Banks Elwell and Joan Bartel Stough
It has been frequently pointed out that God makes no explicit appearances in the book of Esther. In light of this, Arie C. Leder states the following in his article “Historical Narrative and Wisdom”: “Wisdom categories have been employed to understand historical narratives in which God is not overtly active.” This Bible study brings the historical narrative of Esther into conversation with part of the wisdom tradition found in Ecclesiastes 3:1–8.
Introduction to the Book of Esther
The reader sees surprising glimpses of wealth, royalty, power, beauty, rejection, and deception during the reign of King Ahasuerus in the citadel of Susa in Persia (The NRSV, KJV, ESV, JPS, NASB, and other translations use the name Ahasuerus; the NIV uses Xerxes). As the balance of power in the region shifted from Babylon to Persia, many Jews remained scattered throughout the 127 Persian provinces. The Jews are quiet and hidden until the presence of evil manifests through the king’s highest official, Haman. One person brings about a significant shift in the narrative, showing human sinfulness and brokenness.
Major incidents occur inside and outside of the palace gates, all posing tension, chaos, and consequences.
We will explore two of those incidents in this Bible study. The first is when First Lady Queen Vashti, a Gentile, is presented with a command from the king to come to his banquet. The second incident occurs with First Lady Queen Esther, a Jew. Her cousin Mordecai stands on the outside of the gate. He commands her to go before the king to save her people. Each queen has a strong sense of identity and makes a decision about how to respond.
Through the stories of these two women in the book of Esther, women are encouraged to understand who we are and the times and circumstances in which we live.
Digging Deeper: Queen Vashti
Suggested text to read: Esther 1.
How do you respond when suddenly you find yourself in a compromising situation? Someone in a position of power and influence presses you to engage in something that goes against your values, your identity, and what God has created you to do? How likely will the way you handle this situation be influenced by pleasing others or choosing what you think is best for you? How willing are you to accept the consequences of your decisions, right or wrong? In light of these questions, let’s take a closer look at Queen Vashti’s dilemma.
When King Ahasuerus’s entourage of seven came to bring Queen Vashti to his “special banquet” wearing the royal crown to show off her beauty to a room filled with high spirited men, she refused. The narrative does not explain why she responded this way, but Queen Vashti made a choice not to succumb to the king’s pleasures, not to be put on display as the king’s trophy. She did the unthinkable by saying no, and she was willing to accept the consequences. Queen Vashti was on point. The king was up to no good.
Once Queen Vashti made up her mind, she was ready to deal with the consequences. She teaches us about the role of integrity and courage; integrity takes courage. Although the women at her banquet overhear the conversation between the eunuchs and Vashti, she stands alone. She speaks up, and she speaks for herself. She is not powerless against a powerful king. She knows what she will and will not do, even with the exertion of power. The timing is right. Her decision to refuse the king is considered wrong. Her act of protest has a widespread effect on “all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Ahasuerus” (1:16). Queen Vashti chooses to refrain from embracing the king’s demand. “Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Ahasuerus” (1:19).
Out of fear, King Ahasuerus’s advisers ironically made sure Queen Vashti’s act of protest received kingdom-wide attention in every household, the crown’s (futile?) attempt to keep the women in the kingdom in line, respecting their husbands.
Digging Deeper: Queen Esther
Suggested text to read: Esther 4–5.
How might you think or feel if asked to give up a place of comfort for a season of uncertainty? What safety nets do we depend on instead of depending on God, our lifeline? How empowering is it to take a look backwards to see God’s activity in your life before moving forward? At what point are we willing to give up our comfort for the good of others? In light of these questions, let’s take a closer look at Queen Esther’s dilemma.
While what might seem like a dark cloud is hanging over Vashti’s head, Queen Esther finds herself in the spotlight after learning from her cousin-guardian Mordecai about the impending annihilation of her people, the Jews. Although Esther is the queen of a Gentile nation, she is a Jew by birth. Hadassah, Esther’s Hebrew name, means “myrtle,” like an evergreen; myrtle symbolizes peace, joy, generosity, and justice. Her Persian name, Esther, means “the star.” Biblically speaking, God uses his stars.
Esther 4:13–14 is where we see Mordecai making a subtle yet compelling connection to the Divine for Queen Esther: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” God is in this!
Mordecai’s response falls heavy onto Queen Esther’s shoulders. Up to this point, she has not revealed her ethnicity to the king. She is in a position to save her people. Queen Esther is no longer that powerless young woman brought to the king’s harem. Hegai, who was in charge of the harem, prepared First Lady Queen Esther well. Persian customs and culture are no longer foreign to her.
In Esther 4:15–16, Queen Esther calls for the Jews in Susa to fast for her, eating and drinking nothing for three days and nights. She says, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” There are sighs and relief. It is time to embrace the moment!
Queen Esther strategically sets the stage for her own banquets. It came at the right time, with the right audience and under the right circumstances. She is intelligent, courageous, and patient. Psalm 141:9–10 says, “Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, from the traps set by evildoers. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass by in safety.” Haman is exposed and put to death on the erected pole in his front yard, but the order to destroy the Jews still stands.
Esther pours out her heart by falling at the king’s feet, weeping and pleading mercy on behalf of her people. Her act of desperation is not a selfish move on her part. Queen Esther’s tears cease as she arises in response to King Ahasuerus lowering his scepter, granting her the audience she desires. Favor follows Esther from the moment she came to the royal palace. The king’s edict made it possible for the Jews to protect themselves and to be safe in every city in the kingdom. Queen Esther’s actions help change the fate of her people.
She Is Called and We Are Called
In our society, there is a notion that women should be passive and allow men to do whatever they desire. Or, maybe, an attractive woman is not taken seriously as an intellectual or as a businesswoman, and she is told she got ahead on her looks alone. In times of chaos and complexity of life in America, many women hear statements like “Go home.”
Esther and Vashti were not passive pawns in the Persian Empire. They leveraged their power to do good for themselves and others with less influence. Recently, in the United Kingdom, Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, desired to “step back” as senior members of the royal family, which came as a great shock to Queen Elizabeth II and the world. The couple’s decision to relinquish this birthright will have a tremendous effect on their lifestyle and relations with the monarchy. Claims of racism against Meghan as well as Harry’s childhood memories of the paparazzi chase that killed his mother, Princess Diana, were significant factors for refraining from embracing a lifestyle of royalty.
Today, women are saying no, and some men are speaking up with them. Sometimes we have to give up something good in order to receive God’s best for us.
When conversing with young, aspiring Christian leaders, they express a desire to hear the voices of women and men who have stories about God’s assignments for “such a time as this” (4:14). They want to know how you honored your call and used your God-given gifts. Women in a male-dominated environment have usually experienced many challenges. They want to know what sustained you.
It is vital for women and men who support women in leadership to share these incredible stories. Sometimes it takes just one person to change the trajectory of our God stories. Who needs to hear your story? Is it time to be silent or time to speak?
As women called to lead, we must be women of integrity. We cannot allow individuals to lead us into situations in which we are not supposed to be. We must know who we are and live into it. May we long for making lifegiving and sacrificial decisions as we lead and serve in God’s world.
Faced with their unique circumstances and challenges as women called to lead, the stories of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther interact with our own stories. Faced with our unique platforms, situations, and challenges, we are inspired to discern our times to embrace and times to refrain from embracing.
Even in Jesus’s ministry, there were times he embraced and times he refrained from embracing.
- In what ways do integrity, values, courage, and shame intersect in our stories?
- Where are women, men, girls, and boys experiencing abuses of power—in your community, your church, your country, the world?
- Where in your life might God be calling you to act “for such a time as this”?
- What surprised you in this Bible study session?
- What do you hear the Spirit saying to you/your family/your church/your community?