It’s hard to ignore a woman with an entire book named after her. However while Esther has better name recognition than most women in the Bible, her actual story is often misinterpreted or forgotten all together. The book of Esther is ten chapters long and has a lot of plot points, but I’ll summarize the basics.
King Ahasuerus was both a doofus and a jerk. He was a foolish man who was intensely proud, romantically fickle, easily tricked, and maybe a drunk. The story starts with the King and Queen throwing His and Her banquets for a bunch of visiting guests. After several days of non-stop drinking, Ahasuerus demands his wife Vashti leave the girl party and come to the boy party for the express purpose of showing her off to all the drunken men. Vashti refuses and, as far as I’m concerned, deserves an Our Lady of Perpetual Respect candle. But the King was embarrassed and mad and decided to banish her forever. In his defense, he was encouraged to do so by his advisors, who were concerned that if word got out that the Queen refused to come when called, other women might suddenly realize they had the right to refuse their own husbands’ idiot commands.
But before long Ahasuerus realized it was kinda lonely not having a queen, and his attendees suggested a sort of unsettling version of Cinderella’s ball. All the beautiful young virgins were to come to his harem, get dolled up, and the prettiest would win the crown. It should come as no surprise that Ahasuerus thought this was a great idea.
Esther was a jew and an orphan, raised by her cousin Mordecai. She was taken with all the other girls, and eventually won the king’s favor and became queen. Once Esther is queen, there’s a whole middle part involving a guy named Haman who starts to hate Mordacai specifically and jews in general. There’s a couple of decrees and switheroos that I won’t get into, but the main issue is a plot to kill all the jews of the land.
To prevent the massacre, Esther needs to talk to the king, but she hasn’t been called to him in some time. The penalty for coming to the king without being called was death, unless the king pardoned you the moment you got there. Esther’s response was to ignore the law and take the risk, saying, “If I die, I die.” But she doesn’t die. The king pardons her for the intrusion, and through a series of cunning political maneuvers Esther is able to save the jews.
Not long ago I saw something in another church’s Sunday School room that listed Biblical figures and the traits to admire in them. It said things like “Be wise like Solomon” and “Be brave like David”. What did it say for Esther? “Be obedient like Esther.” Some people see the beginning of the book of Esther as highlighting the deference between Vashti who refused the King’s call, and Esther who answered it. Let’s ignore for a second that Esther was almost certainly forced to the king just like all the other girls, and let’s ignore any ideas about whether or not Vashti should have been following the king’s commands as an obedient wife no matter what, and that the king and his advisors are not written to be the admirable heroes of the story.
My real problem with summing Esther up as obedient is that it completely ignores the way more important traits she displays. She is brave, smart, and so loyal to her people she’s willing to give up the crown and die for them. Her bravest act is not to be obedient, but to break the rules. More importantly, Esther is almost universally seen as a fictional story meant to show jews how to behave in the diaspora. There is no real mention of God in the entire thing. It’s a morality play about how to get along in the world when you’re an outsider. And guess what? It may start with a bit of obedience, but it ends with defiance.