This chapter in Esther made me think about exile, and what that looks like, and the compromises that it forces people to make. For a people in exile, nothing is within their control. Uncertainties abound. There are lots of unknowns. If you are in exile, you aren’t in your own homeland. You are in a land belonging to someone else. You must play by other rules – if you are going to play at all.
It seems that one of the points of exile is to get people to assimilate, to absorb the exiled peoples into their new culture. The ruling class wants the exiles to begin to blend in – and to lose their distinctiveness. It wants them to lose their old identities.
Esther is interesting in this regard. I wonder about her own identity. She clearly identified with the Jews. She had both a Jewish and a Persian name. Her relative and guardian Mordecai could trace his own lineage back to the tribe of Benjamin.
But Esther’s identity was hidden. I assume this was strategic – to not let the ruling class know that she was among the descendants of those who were “carried away” from Israel.
Carried away. That’s probably the best way to describe what it’s like to be in exile – and what Esther’s life seemed to be about. To be “carried away.” That phrase is used three times in one verse in chapter 2. People in exile are just carried away and put into a stream that they don’t control.
I went kayaking once and found myself tossed into the Colorado River. My kayak was long gone, and I was being carried away by the river. All I could do was what I knew to do – to point my feet downstream and bounce off every rock until I finally reached the river’s bank. I survived.
Maybe Esther was simply doing that. An exiled Jew in a foreign land, just trying to survive.
I don’t know what her hope was. I’m not sure she wanted to be entered into King Ahasuerus’ harem. That doesn’t seem to be a good place to be. For a Jewish woman, it must have been a terrible place to be. Sexual purity is important to God’s people. And in those days, so were the dietary laws. Esther went into the harem likely knowing she was about to violate the Law of God.
I wonder whether she turned her head when Hegai provided “her portion of food.” And I didn’t see her resisting the whole purpose of the harem. When her time came, she complied with the regulations – “in the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return.”
I wonder what the temptation was like simply to assimilate, to blend in, to let go of her old Jewish heritage and to embrace her new Persian reality.
At the end of all this was an intermarriage. Esther found herself the queen of a pagan king. We know from our readings of Ezra and Nehemiah what God thought about intermarriages. Esther was in a difficult spot.
Is this what it means to be “carried away” into exile in the fullest sense? Things seemed so out of control for Esther. She was forced to make compromises. She was forced into servitude. She was forced to make some questionable choices.
At the same time, there were some things she could control. One of those, I see, is her identity. She did control that. She let her Jewishness remain hidden. And her identity later would become important. I wonder whether Esther foresaw that.
Another thing I noticed in Esther’s story is the ridiculousness of chapter 1 seemed to turn around slightly once Esther became queen. Is that a coincidence? King Ahasuerus held a great feast after naming Esther his queen – and he cut the people a tax break and “gave gifts with royal generosity.” That was a pleasant change from what we had seen out of the self-indulgent Ahasuerus so far in this story.
Meanwhile, Mordecai (Esther’s relative and guardian) bailed out the king. He may very well have saved the king’s life – with the help of Esther. It seems that the closer the Jews moved to the seat of power in Persia, the better things got for everyone. Is that a coincidence?
I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about this chapter.
The disciple Peter is an interesting individual, too. I don’t know if Esther sheds some light on Peter, or the other way around. Jesus once told Peter about Peter’s future. Jesus said that when Peter was young, Peter was free to dress himself and to walk about wherever he wanted. But when Peter was old, Jesus said, Peter would do nothing more than stretch out his hands and allow others to dress him and to carry Peter where Peter did not want to go (John 21:18-19).
Carried away in exile? Is this simply what it is like for a child of God living in a fallen and morally bankrupt world?
In one of his own letters, Peter wrote to Christians who were scattered across the world. He called them the “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” Just as the Jews were scattered across the world by exile, so were the Christians by persecution. As you read the newspapers and consider the influence of the world on you, do you ever feel as if you are an “elect exile”? Do you ever sense the world trying to carry you away?