Christians Have Fallen in Love With Queen Esther, Purim’s Jewish Heroine
In recent novels, sermons, and Bible-study guides, evangelicals and mainline Protestants alike find inspiration in the biblical tale
In Hadassah: One Night With the King, a popular 2004 novelization of the Book of Esther, the queen describes her first night alone with the king of Persia. Apparently she had a great time:
… our mutual hunger raged unchecked—at no time did I even think of demurring or becoming submissive, for my desire for him was genuine. I had fallen in love with him. I had seen past his outer facade … and now I had reached his heart.
This isn’t the same meek, pure Esther most Jews are familiar with from the story of Purim, the woman Jewish girls throughout history have wanted to emulate. This Esther is a bundle of raging hormones, swept away by the handsome and powerful Xerxes (or as Jews know him, Ahasuerus).
But the Esther in this novel is different from the heroine we’re familiar with in another significant way. Later in Hadassah, Esther is depicted on her walk toward Xerxes to request a private banquet with the king and Haman. She teeters between life and death, as anyone who approached the king unbidden risked being put to death immediately. The original telling of this moment in the Bible portrays both Esther’s fortitude and her resignation to her fate: “If I perish, I perish,” she famously says. But in this novel, Esther seems to embrace her possible death:
[I]t was not until then that I remembered it all again. That the King of Kings was my father, that he missed me and longed for my presence as dearly as my own father had—and as urgently as I had come to crave the presence of Xerxes. And just as I had come to anticipate those times of fellowship with Mordecai and [Hathach]—simply basking in the warm glow of their nearness—G-d looked forward to my being with Him.
Suddenly, this most Jewish of all heroines is anticipating her death and looking forward to the day she is reunited with her God. The woman Jewish girls have revered since the days of the first Purim carnival suddenly seems so … Christian.
The Christian tone of Hadassah is due to the fact that the author is Tommy Tenney, a Pentecostal preacher and writer whose “God Chasers” book series has sold millions of copies. The popularity of Hadassah spawned a 2005 sequel and a 2006 motion picture with appearances by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
The Christianized Esther depicted in Tenney’s novel may be unfamiliar to Jewish readers, but she is far from unique. In the past decade there has been growing attention given to Esther by Christian authors, pastors, and Bible-study leaders.
Since Tenney’s book came out, Esther has been the subject of countless Christian Bible studies, sermons, and online discussions. Beth Moore, the closest thing evangelical Christianity has to a contemporary, female Billy Graham, wrote Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman in 2008, and since then hundreds of churches have used her book as the basis for their own study of Esther.
Some other churches use Espresso With Esther, a 2006 Bible study by Sandra Glahn—whose Coffee Cup Bible Series also includes Premium Roast With Ruth and Mocha on the Mount—as their guide to the text. Brenda Salter McNeil, a pastor and a professor at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college, has given several prominent sermons about Esther during the past few years and, as of 2012, was writing a book about her. And two years ago, Mars Hill Church, a nondenominational, fast-growing mega-church based in Seattle that includes 14 campuses in five states, launched a controversial 12-part sermon series about Esther by Pastor Mark Driscoll, who described the topic on the series’ website as “the toughest Bible book I’ve ever preached” and “the most head-scratching, jaw-dropping, heart-changing sermon series we’ve ever done at Mars Hill.” Driscoll’s description of Esther as a woman of sexual depravity precipitated even more online commentary about Esther from a Christian perspective, most notably from the popular blogger Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a five-part “Esther Actually” series, where hundreds of commenters debated Esther’s context and her relevance to modern life.
In 2008, Esther even entered the realm of Christianity and politics. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin embraced Queen Esther as a role model. According to Vanity Fair, Palin asked several pastors for examples of biblical leadership that she could strive to mimic. “Quoting scripture,” writer Michael Joseph Gross explained, “the pastor told Palin that she, like Esther, had ‘come to the Kingdom for such a time as this.’ ” Many Palin supporters took up this comparison, and Palin herself encouraged it, noting that she often chose the Book of Esther as bedtime reading for her daughter Piper.
Christians are definitely having an Esther moment. While Tenney, Moore, Driscoll, and Held appeal primarily to evangelical, often conservative Christians—albeit through very different approaches—Esther has made her way into the consciousness of liberal and mainline Protestants as well. In recent years, she has been the basis of sermons by clergy who lead congregations as diverse as the 15,000-member, nondenominational McLean Bible Church in McLean, Va.; the mainline Redland Baptist Church in Rockville, Md.; and Presbyterian Welcome, a New York-based group with a special focus on supporting LGBTQ youth, among many others.
Given Christianity’s history with the text of the Book of Esther, this moment may surprise people of all religious persuasions. As Christian author and book editor Joel J. Miller described on his Patheos.com blog last year:
John Calvin did not include the book in his biblical commentaries and only referenced it once in the Institutes (see 4.12.17). Though he included it in his Bible, Martin Luther was highly ambivalent about it. “I am so great an enemy to … Esther, that I wish [it] had not come to us at all, for [it has] too many heathen unnaturalities,” he said in Table Talk 24. And in one exchange with Erasmus he said it “deserves … to be regarded as noncanonical.”
So, what do today’s Christians see in Esther that their church fathers missed?
Contemporary Christians view Esther as a complicated hero, but one who provides an exemplary model of upright, faithful behavior. She is seen as an example of how people can become awakened to their true roles in life, stop hiding their true selves, become a leader when needed, and act outside of personal interest. “Esther calls us to think beyond our individual lives,” Moore’s Bible study begins, in an introduction by her daughter and research assistant. (The book ends with a recipe for hamantaschen.)
Esther is also seen as a model of obedience to God. “Esther was obedient to God’s will and in that way saved her people. That’s the moral lesson that you learn—to be obedient to God’s will,” explained Pastor Debbie Blue, the spiritual leader of the House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minn. Moore assesses the Book of Esther similarly: “A paramount theme in Esther is what God can do when we resolve to obey and ‘if I perish I perish.’ Anytime He calls us to die, His purpose is to reveal larger life.”
Esther’s femaleness is crucial. “For evangelical women, there haven’t been that many biblical heroes that evangelical women can emulate,” explained Jana Riess, a Christian author and religious publishing expert whose latest book is The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less. “Esther is not a victim; she takes charge and saves her people.”
Blue, who recently added her voice to the myriad Christian clergy preaching about Esther, agreed. “More interest in women is starting to happen in evangelical circles. They are looking for strong females in the Bible,” she said. “Even though Esther at first seems like she’s happy to be a beauty queen, there is a turn and she takes it in a different direction. There is a waking up,” said Blue, that Christian women are inspired by.
Many Jews may be unaware that Esther has taken on new status among Christians, but not everyone is surprised. “Esther is this remarkable, richly developed female character in the Bible,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL, a Jewish think tank and leadership training organization. “It’s a great story—there’s sex, politics, boundary-crossing behavior. Why wouldn’t Christians be paying attention? It’s their story as much as ours.”
Hirschfield maintained that non-Jews have always been enamored of Esther and that one need look no further than medieval and Renaissance painting for proof: “Positive portrayals of Esther are legion in Renaissance art,” he said. Indeed, masters from Michelangelo to Tintoretto to Rembrandt have painted images of Esther, many depicting the same scene as the Tenney novel when Esther approaches King Ahasuerus.
But some observers see the Christian embrace of Esther as especially relevant to our era. Christian and Jewish commentators alike are quick to point out that Esther is the one book of the Bible where God is not mentioned. Riess surmised this very absence is what is engendering this current revival of interest in Esther and adds that the story may even be a good outreach tool. “Evangelicals are enamored of the character now because we are living in a very secular culture,” she suggested. “Esther is a story that can speak to secular young people in a way that other biblical characters cannot.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs at the Velveteen Rabbi and has written about Esther for both Jewish and Christian audiences, agreed that Esther can be a religious touchstone in a secular world. “The story is about being true to who you are and navigating the non-Jewish or multifaith world in a way that is true to her. She doesn’t leave her Jewish world, but she’s ready to leap into this wild secular adventure,” Barenblat explained. “Esther is a model for those of us who want to live in the world but still want to retain our connections to where we come from.”
Though Christian hero may not be the role most Jews are accustomed to Esther holding, ultimately, Christians and Jews understand the deeper meaning of Esther in a similar way. Just as the Christianized Esther depicted in the Tenney novel found God in the most secular of environments, rabbis have taught that God is present in the story of Esther despite his absence from the Megillah. “Divine presence permeates the story,” Barenblat explained in her contribution to Held Evans’ blog series. Hirschfield agreed: “Like the Christian authors, the absence of God doesn’t trouble the rabbis,” he said. “The absence of God as a character doesn’t mean the absence of God in the world.”
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Why read the Talmud as a secular Jew? In part, for its expression of an independent Jewish creativity and spirituality.