Disney movies. For the most part we feel comfortable taking our kids to them. The language is decent, the plots are kind with the good guys winning at the end, and there is a lack of ambiguity in them. The right people do the right things--they may wander for a bit, but they get back to it in the end. Meanwhile, the bad folks get what is coming to them--gently.
Sometimes people look at the Bible and the stories it contains with Disney eyes. We expect everything to be done decently and in good order. There are to be no shades of gray. The good people do good things, the bad people do bad things, and all turns out right in the end. But the truth is that looking at the Bible with Disney eyes glosses over a lot of what makes us uncomfortable or makes us ignore what is uncomfortable. Not only so, but in putting a Disney gloss over the Bible we miss that God not only calls people in the Bible to struggle through and figure things out, he calls us to do the same. Or putting it another way: the Bible doesn't offer all the answers. Instead what God often does is call us to think, struggle and do the best we can to come up with answers that seek to honor him, do good for others, and bring his redemption to the world. In the Bible this kind of person is known as a person of prudence (see Proverbs 1.1-8)
There are few places where we feel this more than in Esther's rescue of the people of Israel. The simple truth is that this rescue feels like an improper rescue i.e. it lacks all the clean lines of morality, the proper references to God and more. We like our biblical rescues to be Disneyesque, but a close read of Esther takes it out of Disney and into a movie we wouldn't want our children to go to. Let's take a look:
1. Esther is taken into the king’s harem. Now things get a bit uncomfortable—after all, what is a nice Jewish girl doing in the harem of gentile king? The truth is that some Rabbis have asked basically that question. One Rabbi in the Middle ages wrote, “When Mordecai heard the king’s herald announcing that whoever had a daughter or sister should bring her to the king to have intercourse with an uncircumcised heathen, why did he not risk his life to take her to some deserted place to hide until the danger would pass?.... He should have been killed rather than submit to such an act…. Why did Mordecai not keep righteous Esther from idol worship? Why was he not more careful? Where was his righteousness, his piety, his valor? Esther too should by right have tried to commit suicide before allowing herself to have intercourse with Xerxes. P. 101 NIV Application CommentaryThere were any number of Rabbis, not to mention Bible translators who have first questioned what Mordecai and Esther did and in the case of the translators, tried to make things look better by adding a verse here or there or getting rid of a verse here of there.
Be that as it may, we’ve got this nice Jewish girl in the harem of a gentile king. Now what—well, God seems to get to work. Mordecai and Esther make their choice and now God works in the context of that choice. Look at Esther 2. "When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. The girl pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem." (Esther 2.8-9 NIV) Go back to Daniel 1. "But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel…." (Daniel 1.8-9 NIV) God at work, at work making the officials favorably disposed toward his kids who find themselves in foreign situations. Now again, most of us are more comfortable with Daniel here, with God stepping up to the plate for Daniel, after all, he’s a good guy, who is determined to stay faithful to God no matter what the cost. Esther on the other had as we are told in Esther 2.10, hides the fact that she is Jewish which probably means that unlike Daniel who struggles to stay pure, that Esther probably eats food she ought not to eat, does things she ought not to do, and doesn’t pray in the manner prescribed, and a bunch of other stuff besides.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this is that back in Israel Ezra is decrying intermarriage (Ezra 9.10-12). While he cries out, Esther is making all the right moves to do what Ezra says shall not be done. And Esther does it at a time when things really are not desperate (they will be, but she doesn't know that). And when times do get desperate Esther tries to get her uncle to find another way to deal with the situation (Es. 4.12-14). Mordecai’s take--relief and deliverance will take place for the Jewish people, I think the best option is for it to come through you as the queen, I think that maybe God has put in you in place for such a time as this—but if God doesn’t use you, he will rescue us in some other way. If that is the case, then why doesn’t God choose another way, why does he continue to work through Mordecai and Esther who have made choices that would make many of us blush?
The answers don't come in the book. Maybe God is just letting us know that he will do his work, even through imperfect people. Maybe God is letting us know that he will do improper rescues that need some forgiveness in the midst of them. Or perhaps God knows and understands that in life choices are not always as easy as we’d like them to be, that life is not as black and white as we’d like it to be and he wants us to know that when we struggle with making the right choices that seek to honor him, to live in a way that brings about his kingdom, that when we do that he can still work through our less than perfect choices. Whatever his reason, an improper rescue is the way of this day and the author never takes the sharpness off and lets us move back into the world of Disney.