Take the Women (Esther 2:1-8)
TW: rape, slavery
Here we are, in our second week with the book of Esther. And this is where things get pretty dark. Last week, we looked at the story of King Ahasuerus and his officials and Queen Vashti—the most powerful people in the kingdom. This week, we focus on the least powerful people in the kingdom—the oppressed and the enslaved.
I want to set the scene and give some context for this story. We're in the Persian empire after the Babylonian exile. We talked about the Babylonian exile before when we looked at Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. As you'll recall, the Babylonians defeated the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and deported many of the people.
This destruction of the temple and deportation of the people created a time of theological crisis for the people of Judah and Israel. They asked the question: Where is God? Where is the all-powerful God, if the temple can be destroyed?
Esther is a novella set in the context of this exile. It's probably a work of fiction, with some true historical elements.
Esther is an orphan. She is marginalized and powerless. Her status here is the Jewish people's position, as marginalized and powerless in the exile.
Churches don't often preach on Esther, and when they do, they often do it badly. In this passage in particular, many people say this is an introduction to Esther and Mordecai—which it is. This is the first time we see Esther and Mordecai, who will be two key players going forward.
But this is also about the women. This is about the women who were taken. And some commentaries and sermon series call this a "Miss Persia" competition. Or compare it to a reality show like The Bachelor, making this into a joke.
I think maybe the reason that they do this is because this is so uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable to look at this story. So they minimize it and make it a joke.
And some commentaries have blamed Esther for her participation in this. We are going to try not to do any of those things.
This is part of a larger story about generational trauma.
The Hebrew is here is unclear; it actually says that Mordecai is among the people taken into exile. There have been a lot of conversations about that because historically it doesn't make sense. If Mordecai was among the people taken into exile, it would make him over 100 years old.
There are various ways that people try to get around this and fix it. They dismiss it as a clerical or editorial error. The NRSV translation changes it to say that Kish, Mordecai's great-grandfather, was actually the one taken into exile.
But I think that this ambiguity says a lot about how we experience trauma. Trauma impacts families for generations. We know this on a personal level, for those of us who have had trauma earlier in our families. And we now know it on a genetic level, that there is impact for generations when something traumatic has happened.
So, something that may have happened to Mordecai's ancestor feels like it happened to him. And in a way, it did.
Within this context of generational trauma, there is a new trauma layered on: the taking of the young women. Our passage says, "Gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa."
When I read this, the word citadel stood out to me. A citadel is a fortress, usually on high ground, protecting or dominating a city. In Hebrew, it can also mean palace.
I pictured all of these women being taken to the citadel, and the Jewish people and others in the land—the people who were dominated—the families and friends of these women looking up to the citadel, that place that dominates the city, and wondering what happened to these women.
Historically, the Persians were famously tolerant toward the Jews. They treated them much better than some of the others who conquered the Jewish people. But it doesn't matter how benign the system usually is. When a king has full control, the people have to do what he says.
In this case, the young women had to do what he said.
This is the part of slavery that we often want to turn our heads from: owners using women's bodies. For work, for sex, and for children. On a large scale, this is too much to comprehend. So we look at individual stories, like Esther.
Another individual story that I want to lift up today is Sally Hemings' story. Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman of mixed race who was owned by Thomas Jefferson. She mothered six of his children. She was one of the millions of women of African descent enslaved in our country.
I had know about Sally Hemings, but I was reminded of her recently because of an article in Teen Vogue. I don't know if you've been looking at Teen Vogue over the last few months, but they are doing an incredible job.
This Teen Vogue article's title was "Why You Can't Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a Mistress," by Lincoln Anthony Blades. He was responding to articles saying that Jefferson and Hemings had an "affair" and that she was his mistress. He said:
As a slave, Hemings was not afforded the privilege of self-determination, meaning she didn't do what she wanted; she did what she was told. The word to describe that type of interaction is not 'affair'; it's rape.
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=esther+2%3A1-8&version=NRSV This is the horror and the sin at the foundation of our country. That white people owned Africans and people of African descent and used them however they wanted.
This is what it means to have slavery. That when a person owns another person, he can do whatever he wants to her. Sell her or her children, torture her, or rape her. And I picture Sally Hemings' family and friends looking up to Monticello and wondering what is happening to her.
Last week, we lifted up a woman who said no—Queen Vashti, who said no to the king. This week, we bear witness to women who did what they had to do to survive.
For Esther, to disobey the king's order would have been suicidal. And while this story in Esther probably is not historically true, it points to a deeper truth: the stories of these women who were enslaved and survived.
We lift up the names that we know, like Esther, also called Hadassah, and like Sally Hemings. And we honor those whose names we do not know. We face the ways that people used their bodies, without making uncomfortable jokes or minimizing their experiences. We recognize their pain, their struggle, and their strength.
This is holy work.