Your heroes are dead. You can look for them, but they are buried in the soil of your childhood memories.
I suspect, however, that something even more heroic is taking their place.
The story of Esther is a perfect example. Too often, in the Bible, we go looking for human heroes. We oversimplify and gloss over uncomfortable details in order to find role models to emulate. Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong direction. Sometimes the true hero is hidden out of sight.
Esther is a challenging book. Like so many other stories in the Bible, it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It tells what happens, not necessarily what should happen. It is not meant to be a model for us to replicate, so much as a story that gives us insight into the God who works in our individual lives.
I can still remember the story as portrayed by children’s books, such as the blue-covered Bible Heroes by Uncle Arthur. The funny thing though, is that although I’ve heard the story retold countless times in sermons and devotionals, it hasn’t changed much. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
- King Ahasuerus takes center stage. He is generally good but largely ignorant of what is going on around him. He does, however, play a very important role in hosting a Disney’s Cinderella-style ball to find a new queen. This occurs after…
- The story’s minor villain Queen Vashti, causes trouble for the king because she is proud and defiant. Thankfully, she is removed to make way for…
- Esther the hero! She is a woman of faith and prayer, who trusts in God to intervene in her life. Because of this spiritual strength, she is able to save her people from certain destruction at the hand of…
The main villain Haman, who hates the Jews and has worked out a plan to have them all killed. His obsession with committing this genocide begins because…
- The honorable and righteous secondary hero Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman when he passes by. Instead he does all he can to honor God’s character. He has also raised Esther and continues to advise her during the challenges of this story.
Sounds pretty nice, right? Except, the reality is a bit more complex. Here’s a version a little bit closer to what we actually find in the Bible:
- King Ahasuerus, like most men in power, is accustomed to abusing his privileges and listening to the poor advice of the chauvinistic and insecure men he surrounds himself with. When Vashti refuses the king’s order, one of the “wise men” is concerned other women will show similar contempt for their husbands, and he laughably suggests Vashti be permanently dismissed “so all women will honor their husbands from the least to the greatest” (1:20). Go home dude, you’re drunk. Or better yet, go to marriage counseling.
- Queen Vashti stands opposed to this power mindset, perhaps not as carefully and wisely as Esther does, but nonetheless, she exhibits courage and decency when an inebriated Ahasuerus calls her to be flaunted like a prize pet or sex object in front of his equally drunk friends. Some commentaries suggest that the order to “bring Queen Vashti before him with her royal crown” (1:11) implies that her crown was the only article of clothing she would be wearing. Regardless, the request is not a respectful one. When taking place in such a power-imbalance, this should be setting off all our #metoo alarm bells. Sadly, Vashti falls victim to this abuse of power but does so with dignity and respect. Notably, she is the only one of the five main characters who doesn’t resort to violence to resolve her difficult situation.
- Esther also falls victim to the continued abuse of power. Rather than a fairytale princess-falls-in-love-with-the-prince experience, it appears she is taken by force to be a part of the king’s harem—something more akin to sex slavery than a storybook romance. Esther, like Vashti, however, displays many admirable qualities in the face of such hardship and oppression. She is courageous, clever, self-sacrificial, and a strong leader. What we don’t find, though, are any overt indications that she is a woman of faith. She is not necessarily the spiritual hero of this story. In fact, nowhere in this book is God or prayer even mentioned. While she does call for her people to fast, we’ll soon see why there is a reason to question the spiritual motive behind such a request. Why do I say this?
- Because of Mordecai. While Esther was probably just an orphaned teenager, Mordecai was responsible for his actions including his decision to remain in Medo-Persia after God had already called the exiles to return home (as recorded in the books of Ezra and Zechariah). For them, their religion had become more cultural than spiritual. Many Jews refused to return, perhaps having grown accustomed to a new lifestyle less influenced by their faith, and ignored God’s warnings to escape persecution.
- Which leaves Haman—who is definitely a bad guy with murderous intent—but to be fair is a descendant of the Amalekites, who have long been engaged with the Israelites in deadly exchanges. Revenge—though not admirable—makes sense for his character.
Now let’s look at how all these pieces come into play.
The plot progresses, full of irony and unexpected twists. Esther takes center stage with her courage and cleverness to set up both Ahasuerus and Haman for the surprise ending to her subversive plotting to save her people. And it’s awesome, right? The villain is stopped! The king really does love Esther! Genocide is averted! Now everyone can live in peace, right?
Not so quick. While that may be the ending to the children’s version of this story, the Bible version continues, revealing more about these characters. To be honest, more than we’re maybe comfortable with.
Esther gets permission from Ahasuerus for the Jews to defend themselves on the day Haman had set for them to be destroyed. This seems like a reasonable request for self-defense. Nonetheless, the resulting bloodbath doesn’t seem to be enough. Esther asks for a second day for the Jews to kill and destroy their enemies. Was this request made out of fear? Or perhaps it was an attempt to use their newfound power to secure safety for their people? Either way, it is ironic that the position of power held by Haman is now held by Mordecai, to similarly violent ends. By the conclusion of the two days of carnage, over 75,000 of their enemies lie dead in the streets (9:16).
Now I’m not sure what to do with this story. This is messy. The line between heroes and villains has been significantly blurred. I think I’m supposed to be cheering for Esther and Mordecai, but I’m feeling sick at the thought of how they too bought into the use of violent power that was so prevalent in their enemies. And what am I to think about God in all of this? Is this what God wanted?
First, I’m totally okay with the fact that the protagonists of this story aren’t super heroic after all. Again, as in so many other biblical accounts, if we’re looking to the humans of the story to be the heroes, we’re looking in the wrong place. The story of Esther is not the story of spiritual heroes; it is the story of humans making very human choices. Some good, some bad. Actually, a lot bad. Yet God still works to protect his people and provide for them. God is the unseen and unmentioned true hero of this story.
Second, considering the teachings of Jesus on loving your enemies, I can’t conclude that this is ideally what God wanted from this situation. I can’t conclude that this is how Jesus would want his people to use power. Does this raise even more questions? Yes, and I’m okay with that too.
What I can conclude, however, is that God is committed to keeping his promises and partnering with flawed and broken people. The fact that this whole story exists because God intervened on behalf of people who had ignored his commands actually gives me hope. My story is messy too. Sometimes I feel like a hero and a villain at the same time. I find myself glossing over details and trying to tell a story that puts me on top, but the truth is I don’t have to be super heroic. It is the abundant, more-than-heroic life of Jesus that transforms my story. His life turns weakness into strength and defeat into victory—a life partnership based on His goodness and faithfulness, not ours. This is the story Jesus invites us into.