There is an ancient Jewish practice called midrash – a playful way of filling out a story by adding scenes and dialogue not present in the original. The point of midrash isn’t to try and replace or contradict the original story, but to explore new ways that characters and themes of the story may have relevance in the present time. In her book Caretakers of Our Common House, Carol Lakey Hess makes midrash with an imaginative encounter between Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, after the first queen has been deposed and before the second queen has made a decision of how to respond to the threat of her people being destroyed. Hess imagines that although the women were quite different, and chose different ways of obeying their conscience, they were allies in their desire to preserve the integrity of their humanity. So by way of revisiting the character of Vashti and introducing the character of Esther, listen now to this midrash:
A little over two weeks ago leaders from the world’s most powerful nations gathered for the 33rd G8 summit. Inside diplomats and heads of state worked with issues such as climate change, AIDS relief in Africa, global poverty reduction, and missile defense. Pledges were made for certain relief efforts. A non-binding statement was issued for addressing greenhouse emissions – 50% reduction by 2050. Tony Blair called that statement a “major, major step forward.” Outside the meeting was a gathering of demonstrators and protestors from around the world. These groups used signs, costumes, and street theater to get their message across that they were not happy with what was and wasn’t going on inside the meetings. One of these groups, Oxfam International, had a group of 8 people dressed up as the leaders of the eight nations with each having a long extended nose like Pinnochio. Their message was that the leaders were continuing to lie about how much aid they were actually giving to poverty and aids relief efforts. One sign showed the large letters G-8 with the 8 being an hourglass with the sand almost emptied from the top. They were expressing that time is running out for the health of our planet and many of the world’s poorest and sickest people.
The book of Esther tells of two queens in the court of the Persian Empire. An empire that, at the time, ruled the entire known world. Recently we took a look at the story of the first queen, Queen Vashti, in chapter one. Vashti is credited with two actions, each giving an insight into her character. Her first action was to throw a banquet for the women of the kingdom, an alternative banquet to the one that the king and his men were throwing in the palace. Her second action was her refusal to come at the king’s command when he wanted her to dance and show off her beauty to impress his guests. This refusal of hers sets off a firestorm of paranoia among the king and his advisors. With a strong dose of satire the narrator describes the men plotting how they can save the entire empire from the dreaded event of other women starting to stand up for themselves in their own houses. They decide they must banish Vashti from being queen and must send letters to every house in the empire commanding that the men be masters of their own house.
Had Vashti been at the G8 Summit, she would have been one of those on the outside of the meetings, a strong voice of protest for the abuses of power and the hollow ring of the spin coming out of the mouths of national leaders. She didn’t buy into the world the king was trying to maintain. She refused to participate in a system where some were masters of the house and some were expected to submit all of their self to the will of that master. So she protested. She held banquets where women ate together and shared freely about their own concerns, and she refused to live under the status quo of her culture.
But most of the book of Esther is about the second queen, one very different than Vashti. A young woman who entered the Miss Persian Empire contest hosted by the king and got the kings vote as the most beautiful woman of the land. She was the one who replaced Vashti in the royal court, someone the king supposed would be more to his liking of what a queen should be. And in many ways, at least initially, she does seem to play the part. Esther’s place, her personality, and her calling really, was to be one who would have been on the inside of the G8 summit. Mingling with the heads of state, inserting her opinion and advice into the mix of policy proposals. Having real power within a system that was corrupted and being a presence within that system to work for good.
During Esther’s reign the leading issue of the day was quite personal for her. Haman, the arrogant second in command of the kingdom had convinced the king to issue a decree that the Jewish people should be wiped out, eliminated from the empire. Their crime came from a man named Mordechai, who happened to be Esther’s uncle, who wouldn’t bow down to Haman when he passed by. There is humor and satire throughout the book, especially around the arrogance of the king, his officials, Haman in particular, but this issue is a rather sobering one. With memories of the devastation of the Holocaust still strong in our day, and with the recent genocide of Rwanda and the current events of Darfur, the efforts to wipe out or silence an entire people is not just a distant tale.
So Esther finds herself in a precarious position. She is on the inside of the power matrix, but unbeknownst to the king and Haman, she carries with her the concerns of the outsiders. What is a Jewish Queen to do, an insider with an outsider’s perspective?
Maybe Esther did go to Vashti at night to get advice. A sister to sister session of conspiracy to protect women and men against senseless destruction. Midrash is a fun way of exploring where a story could have gone. If she didn’t go in person she certainly went in spirit. Looking for role models and examples of how to act with strength and integrity. But the turning point in the official story that we have comes during a conversation between her and her uncle Mordechai. It seems that the Jews only real hope is that Esther make a move that could very well cause her to be the first casualty of the slaughter – appear before the king unannounced and unrequested in an attempt to win over his favor and thereby save herself and Mordechai and all their fellow Jews. For good reason, Esther is not exactly jumping to do this. Mordechai’s closing words to her, however, present the argument that seals it in her mind that this is something she must do. After describing the gravity of the situation, uncle Mordechai says to his niece, Esther, the queen, and I love how the NRSV phrases it, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Who knows? Maybe winning the beauty contest was about a little more than just winning a beauty contest. Who knows? Perhaps you being in a position of power, a place of influence, on the inside of key decision making processes, maybe there’s some kind of broader calling at work here and now is the time to take all the gifts you’ve been given and use them for good. Who knows, my niece Esther, your majesty, maybe all of my work in raising you since you were a young girl was so I could let you go to do your own work, and maybe right about now is when that work for you to do, that only you can do, has arrived in front of you. For such a time as this.
Esther’s response is resolute. “Then Esther said in reply to Mordechai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’
One of the most notable aspects of the book of Esther isn’t something that is in the story, but something that is missing from the story. Esther is the only book of the Bible not to mention the name of God. God, by name, is nowhere to be found in any of the verses and chapters. The name of God does not come off the lips of Esther or Mordechai or the king, or Queen Vashti, and is not used by the narrator. Everything that happens is credited to human agency. There are plenty of chances for God to get at least an honorable mention. The narrator could have said “But God gave Queen Vashti the strength to refuse the king’s orders.” But the story just says, “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.” Mordechai could have prayed that God would intervene and deliver the Jews from being destroyed, but instead he went to Queen Esther asking for her intervention, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” There could have been a short scene with Queen Esther getting a visitation by an angel telling her exactly what God wanted her to do, but there is no such scene. She makes the decision that she will go before the king and ask that her people be spared. There is no sign of having divine reassurance that everything will turn out alright. She knows she is acting against the law. She knows her life and all the Jews’ lives are in danger. But she is still resolute in her decision. She says, “if I perish, I perish.”
The story of Esther carries with it an overarching theme of human responsibility. As hard as it may be to swallow at times, we carry with us a responsibility for helping to shape our world. Esther had a real decision to make, and her decision had real consequences on real people. She had real power, and with that power she realized that she had real responsibility. She had no guarantee of success. But she did, at that crucial point, accept, in the words of Mordechai, that she had come to be who she was, where she was, for just such a time as this.
I used to read a column in a weekend magazine called “Ask Marilyn.” I haven’t seen it in the Enquirer Sunday paper, but I may be missing it. Marilyn Vos Savant has one of the highest IQs of anyone alive, and people write into her column with all these math puzzles and word riddles for her to try and solve. Of course, the ones she prints she has a 100% success rate, so it confirms that she is indeed brilliant. But one time I remember someone asking her the question: “In your opinion, what makes a person wise?” A good question. I was curious to see how she might think of the difference between between smart and being wise. She answered in one sentence. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “A person is wise if they are able to interpret what are the most important issues of their own day and to act accordingly.” “A person is wise if they are able to interpret what are the most important issues of their day and to act accordingly.”
In this wise response, I hear the echoes of that phrase, “Perhaps you are who you are, having what you have been given, for just such a time as this.”
Most people never get the opportunity to have the ear of a king or to make it inside a G8 summit, but in this incredibly complex web of relatedness that is contemporary life, where we are all connected and where, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “what affects one directly, affects all indirectly” we all have the gift of responsibility of caring for what is most important. Our families, our church community, our city, our earth, our small plot of land. We are all on the inside of making key decisions about how our world is being formed.
It is our gift, our opportunity, our joy, to be given responsibility to live in such a time as this. A responsibility that is ours not because God is somehow absent or silent or distant or uninvolved. But because God is so present within us that it is our very hands that act as the hands of God in this world. Our very bodies inhabited by the Spirit of creation who calls us to participate in continuing to create the world. Co-creators with Christ whose love makes all things new. The urge of Divine compassion, expressing itself through us, multiplying itself among us. God may often be absent in name, but never in presence.
I’m not sure if it has come with having a baby, or from reading certain authors — or what it is that is bringing this about, but I am becoming more and more convinced that everything we do, no matter how small, is of great worth. That pouring love into a small child, or planting your own herbs to eat and enjoy, or getting to know your neighbors, or making any kind of decision based on concern for the common good and not just self gain – that every time we accept that we are where we are for such a time as this – that this is the way hope is kept alive and the way we become truly human. That positive change doesn’t primarily happen in a linear cause and effect way, but jumps out in multiple directions in unpredictable patterns. The issues of our time are massive, but we need not wait on those with power to shape up before we can truly live. “Who knows? Perhaps each of us have great power each day to be the presence of God in our world.”