A Sermon on the Women of the Megillot

A lot of this research I have been doing revolving on ‘Preaching on the Women of the Bible’ revolves around the criteria for my assignments in ‘Introduction to Preaching’, so that’s why it seems like this Spring they keep coming up over and over again. Eventually, after this semester, I hope to move onto other projects, but below is a sermon on Esther 2:5-8, 4:13-17, and Ruth 1:15-17, with references to Lamentations and Song of Songs.

A lot of it is the same information previously used in my Atmosphere of Allusions posts, but just newly synthesized in various ways to meet the demands of context in daily life. This was preached about a week ago.

The holiday of Purim, whose origins the book of Esther explains (9:23-26), was just last week, about ten days ago or so (March 12th), and the Jewish tradition is to read the book of Esther every year on that day. There are four other books like that: Ruth, Lamentations, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, that are read on specific holidays, called the ‘Festal Books’ and we’ll be looking at these too today. And these books aren’t quite like the letters of Paul; this is the world of story and poetry.

And, what inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write his famous books, “Lord of the Rings”, was the conviction that what the world needs is stories, and good stories. Stories actually change lives. Good stories change lives better than bad stories.

So, if you would, please turn in your version of the Scriptures to Esther, chapter 2, verses five through eight. And while you’re turning there I would like to introduce you to the world of Esther. We’re going to look at the ‘Laws of Love and Loyalty’ today. And the world where Esther lives is one where the people of faith in the one, true God are not in the majority. In fact, they are in exile. And the world isn’t particularly moral either.

At the very beginning of chapter two we get these hints that the King is actually a lot like Pharaoh. And you’ll see how important that is in a moment. When it says, “Let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to the citadel of Susa, to the harem,” (in 2:2), the same term was used when Pharaoh gathered grain for his empire.

We can rightfully say that “Xerxes gathered girls like Pharaoh gathered grain (Gen. 41:35).” The satire of this statement in Esther is striking. This isn’t a positive representation of the world around. So, the question is, what are people of faith going to do within this world? What is Esther going to do in the world she lives? And it asks us to question “what are we going to do?” in a world where we believe too that God has put us here “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:13-17). Read 2:5-8 with me.

“Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah. Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died. (NIV)”

We’re introduced to four aspects of background information here:

  • Mordecai is from the tribe of Benjamin (and by family extension, so is Esther)
  • Esther had a ‘lovely figure and was beautiful’ (She’s talented, to whom much is given, much is required).
  • Esther is an orphan (which advances the story of her life, since Mordecai raises her)
  • Esther is a Jew, her name is Hadassah.

I have always wondered why we call Esther by her foreign name (Esther) rather than her Hebrew name (Hadassah), while Daniel also has two names, but we call him by his Hebrew name (Daniel), rather than his foreign name (Beltezshazzar). Yet their names are telling for the way they approached life, cultural integration or separation. They both are stories that end with a Jew at the right hand of the Empire’s king. And they both imitate the virtue of Joseph, who was second in command just underneath Pharaoh in the Egyptian empire many years before.

Of course, Esther and Mordecai are both from the tribe of Benjamin, and throughout Scripture Benjaminites are known for two kinds of character traits, being clever (for better or worse!), and basically being abnormally talented in general. These are probably qualities Mordecai and Esther are going to possess (and as we find out time and time again in the book, our suspicions are confirmed). Esther had a gift, her beauty, but the other gift that isn’t mentioned in the text is courage. Esther might not have had many other talents, but she had courage, a courage that she wasn’t born with, but one she developed and was created.

But notice the double-descriptor here, how there is two phrases to describe how pretty Esther is, ‘lovely figure’ and ‘beautiful’. Scripture is reminding us of Scripture. The Bible is connecting two stories for us. The Bible, like a lot of ancient literature, doesn’t give physical descriptions much unless they’re important to the story. It’s not like a novel, like Chronicles of Narnia, where descriptions are given for the sake of vividness.

These descriptors tend to advance the plot. Just by happenstance, I had been reading in Genesis about the same time as Esther, and I’m not sure if I would have noticed this had I not been. But basically I remembered those were the exact, same words used to describe Rachel. If you were to turn to Genesis 29:17, you can see for yourself that the author is totally drawing attention to the Genesis story. The double description is the hint.

So, apparently, we’re supposed to remember Rachel as we read Esther. I’m reminded of something Mark Twain said, which as paraphrased is, “History doesn’t exactly repeat, but it does rhyme.” And Esther is like Rachel because she loved her ‘children’, children, figurative children, so much that she was willing to die for them. You see, if the world loved their families and their friends and their people like that, it would be a better place. The Christian faith has always been built upon self-sacrifice.

We ourselves are in a very similar world to the one where Esther lives. You have been born as an orphan or a queen for such a time as this. The world you live in isn’t a world where the government has faith, nor always does things the way God intends. But let me take you to the passage where Esther steps out in courage and in faith, 4:13.

Mordecai, sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

When Esther says, “If I die, I die” she is copying the same form of Jacob’s cry in 43:14, when Benjamin was to be sent to Egypt with Joseph’s brothers. You see, she says the exact same thing Jacob does when he is finally willing to release Benjamin to save his brothers (Genesis 41:35). She willingly puts her life on hold, at risk for those she loves.

Notice the similarities to the Book of Ruth. And yet, the differences are just as telling. There is good reason these two books act as a pair, as a tandem. Ruth is the foreigner among Jews and Esther, the Jew among foreigners. Ruth’s questionable ethnicity is out in the open, yet suspicious, while Esther must hide her identity, revealing it only near the end. Both have significant female characters that disappear right away after being introduced (Vashti, and Orpah), and a male antagonist, imposter saviors (Haman, Elimelech). And Ruth knows like Esther that she could die too. But listen to her response.

 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

That’s the kind of love that changes people’s lives. That’s the kind of friendship. The girl who had nothing, nothing but love for a bitter old woman, is the one who caused the most change for her family, community, and nation. Whether you are wandering in the desert, or queen of the world, the laws of love and loyalty apply to you today. Sometimes I think the church supposes it needs more programs, more people, more resources, more wealth, to truly make a difference, when really all it needs is devout friendships, the strong bonds that are forged with people by being loyal to them, Ruth and Naomi, Esther and her people, looking out for their good.

And of course, there is a place for all the former things, but the priority is on how we relate to each other, at whatever cost. Ruth knows she has options, and opportunity, and suitors back home in Moab, but she knows that Naomi would surely die if she wasn’t there with her. And so too Esther, knowing that her people were at risk, risked her own life for theirs.

So, do you identify with God’s promises and covenant people even when it requires great personal risk? Do you identify as a Christian even when it’s means you have to risk your image or important part of your life?

You can turn if you want over to Lamentations 1, the very first verse; I’d like to read you a bit about what it is like to lose everything.

How deserted lies the city,

once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,

who once was great among the nations!

She who was a princess among the provinces

has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,

tears are on her cheeks.

Among all her lovers

there is no one to comfort her.

All her friends have betrayed her;

they have become her enemies.

This is was it feels like to be abandoned. This girl is only a poetic description of what Israel was like, but it is rooted in real human experience. See how closely to the beginning of this poem is the phrase ‘her friends have betrayed her’. That’s what it feels like to be betrayed. That’s why Christian friendship is so important. In a world that does this to each other, courage and virtue, and love and loyalty are what sets Christians apart. Why has God made a world where so much pain and evil exist? C.S. Lewis gives an answer to that it is so the best and brightest virtues shine through. You see, courage like Esther, courage like Ruth’s. That’s how we alleviate the physical and emotional sufferings of the world, by love and self-sacrifice.

In Song of Songs, verse six it tells us about what the church is supposed to be like. The beloved girl, who represents the church in many ways, is said to be taking care of her mother’s sons vineyard. I know poetry is hard for people sometimes, but there is a double-meaning embedded in the verse. You see, ‘her mother’s sons’ means ‘her brothers’, and ‘caretaker’ is the same thing as ‘a keeper’. You see, she is quite literally ‘her brother’s keeper’. And at the end of the book, she gives away all the rewards of her own vineyard to Solomon.

“But my own vineyard is mine to give;

the thousand shekels are for you, Solomon,

and two hundred are for those who tend its fruit. (SOS 8:11)

Just like the end of Ruth and Esther; the end of both these books talks about the blessing of somebody else. Mordecai is elevated to a place of honor at the end of Esther, and so is Naomi at the end of Ruth.

The Christian faith has always been built on the virtue of self-sacrifice, and selflessness, and being a ‘brother’s keeper’, the famous phrase from the story of Cain and Abel. When asked if you are your brother’s keeper, you are, and Esther was, and that’s why she had to risk her life.

So, as you go out into your communities, as you converse with your friends and live with your families, remember that as Jesus says, you live by dying, and you gain by giving. Esther did it, Ruth did it; and ultimately, Jesus did it too. So live like them. Let us pray to close.

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