Mark Driscoll recently posted a heads-up about a sermons series he was starting, on the book of Esther for September 16. In it he gave several reasons why he was preaching on it and the framework by which he was going to preach. Over the course of his missive, which can be read here, he has said a few things which predictably raise some eyebrows. Specifically
Esther is painfully normal.…Her behaviour is sinful and she spends around a year in the spa getting dolled up to lose her virginity with the pagan king…Today, her story would be, a beautiful young woman living in a major city allows men to cater to her needs, undergoes lots of beauty treatment to look her best, and lands a really rich guy whom she meets on The Bachelor and wows with an amazing night in bed. She’s simply a person without any character until her own neck is on the line…
Esther has been grossly misinterpreted…Feminists have tried to cast Esther’s life as a tragic tale of male domination and female liberation. Many evangelicals have ignored her sexual sin and godless behaviour to make her into a Daniel-like figure, which is inaccurate. Some have even tried to tie her story in with modern-day, sex-slave trafficking…
Some people have called this intro a rape apologetic, while others have defended the view. Me? I figured I would offer a thoughtful exegesis to see which of these is correct. I will update this post once I hear the whole sermon, but I thought what little he has posted so far worth examining.
First of all, what are the circumstances that brought Esther to the harem? Without any action on the King, Esther would not have been in the position she was in. Rather, because she was a beautiful virgin with a beautiful figure, probably between the age of 13-16 years old, she was “sought”, “gathered” and “taken” by the Kings officers and put into the palace under the custody of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem. These men would have spread throughout the kingdom, with the intent of bringing women to the palace to have a single night with the King. It is unlikely that a Jewish girl with Jewish sensibilities would have purposefully sought out to be in the King’s harem. From a historical perspective, women did not have a choice in the matter, and there was no right of refusal. The king took what the king wanted, and there was nothing she could have done about it, and would probably have had herself and Mordecai executed if she refused.
Now, it is theoretically possible that she did seek out to be a part of the harem, but that is unlikely, and that would be a conclusion we would reach only if we were ascribing to Esther the worst possible motives and character-slighting opportunism, a woman with a whore’s heart who intended to use her sexuality to gain power and prominence. We have no reason to believe that is the case. Instead, we see the King telling his officers “Go get me beautiful virgins” and they did that, regardless of what the women thought about it.
Esther is taken into the harem where she would spend the next year going through an intense beauty regiment. She did not have a choice in this matter, and would not have been able to refuse participation. Somehow though, she managed to please Hegai and win favour. “And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. ” What specifically did Esther do to please Hegai? It doesn’t say. It would not have been anything sexual, as he was a Eunuch and he would have been tortured and executed if any impropriety was even suspected. More than likely, she possessed and demonstrated personality characteristics that won him over, such as kindness, gentleness, intellect, humour, compassion, or some other indefinable quality. The fact is that we don’t know what it is, and so we don’t get to craft a hermeneutic based on assumptions.
After a year of this routine, a woman leaving that Harem would bring a gift to the King and spend the night with him. Because Esther found favour with Hegai over the course of their year together, he also advised her on what gift to take. Hegai would have been in a unique position to best advise her of the Kings desires and preferences. As a result, she brought only what Hegai told her to, and its safe to assume that what she brought would have been intended to maximize her impression on the King. After a woman spends a night with the King, he would typically not call on her again. She was not free to go home, or back where she came from- to her family and loved ones, but would be relegated to a different harem, where the women who were “used” went, and would have to remain there for the rest of her life unless the king called on her again.
WHAT WENT DOWN
“Now Esther was winning favour in the eyes of all who saw her….And when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti”
Now if we were following Driscolls framework and unwarranted presuppositions, up to this point Esther had purposefully sought out to join a harem, cajoled Hegai into helping her, and then once she had her night with the King she, despite her virginity and sexual inexperience, managed to capture his attention in ways that other had not by being “amazing” in bed, presumably by being sexually adventurous, extremely eager, and using her body in a skillful way.
That doesn’t make ANY sense culturally, historically or contextually. I think a detail worth noting and which may provide some clues to how the king was pleased is the phrase “”Now Esther was winning favour in the eyes of all who saw her.” Because she was lovely and beautiful and everyone who saw her saw something special in her, that news would have invariably reached the King. I think its a safe bet to say that he probably would have known at least something about her, or heard back a good report regarding her, from Hegai or Shaashgaz or somebody else. This demonstrates a pattern that regardless of the painful, strange, disorienting and horrific circumstances Esther is going through, something exists in her spirit and actions that other people are able to connect to, and this would be something that the King would have noticed and have experienced as well.
In the case of Esther, she went into his bedchamber, they had sex, and over the course of their time together and probably in the year leading up to these events, something happened that endeared the King’s grace and favour towards her, to the point that he loved her more than all the women, she became the queen.
1. Driscoll says “Her behaviour is sinful and she spends around a year in the spa getting dolled up to lose her virginity with the pagan king“
I find this assessment to be bizarre and unsettling. To quote Dave Kludt from his excellent blog here “It ignores the narrative storyline clearly showing that Esther was taken, forcibly relocated and coerced into a place of physical and sexual submission by a drunken and despotic fool of a man who used power to get whatever he wanted.” . If a man takes you against your will with the purpose of having sex with you, that’s his sin, not yours. Could she have escaped? It’s extremely doubtful. The harems were highly guarded and impenetrable, but even if she could, she would have invariably been caught and executed. And even if she wouldn’t have been caught, but felt like she would and so chose to remain in the harem, that is not a sin. Its not a sin to choose to endure rape and sexual coercion over a slim possibility of escape. Furthermore, she’s not spending a year in a spa getting dolled up, she is made to undergo what is essentially a pre-rape regiment for a year against her will. She can’t refuse. Every time she soaks in myrrh spices she knows its purpose is to prepare her for non-consexual sex with a rapist who would have taken hundreds of women against their will both before her and after her. Did she enjoy the treatments? It doesn’t say. Did she come to enjoy them? It doesn’t say. We don’t read things into this, and for that reason we have no right to favourably compare it to something that is universally looked upon with favour.
2. Driscoll says” her story would be, a beautiful young woman living in a major city allows men to cater to her needs, undergoes lots of beauty treatment to look her best, and lands a really rich guy whom she meets on The Bachelor and wows with an amazing night in bed.”
No. That comparison is sickening and ludicrous and has so many things wrong with it. First, she wasn’t “living in a major city”. She was somewhere, in the country or city, and then was taken into a fortress that she can’t escape in that city. Second, she is not “allowing men to cater to her needs”, she is put in a position where men must serve her in this manner or be tortured, and she must consent to their orders. Third, she “lands a rich guy,” in the same way that a woman walking alone in the park is shoved into a van and gang-raped at knifepoint can be said to have “landed a guy”- two of them in fact. In fact that can be our new euphemism for sexual violence and kidnapping. “Did you hear about that girl? It was late at night…she landed a guy.” Fourth- “meets on the Bachelor”? Why do all of Driscolls language and ideas presupposes a purposeful choice on Esther’s part to be part of the harem? Women seek out to be on the Bachelor. Esther did not seek out to be part of a harem. Fifth “wows with an amazing night in bed”. This ignores the pattern of her ability to find grace and win favour with all the people that she encounters over the course of her imprisonment via non-sexual means, and that this more than likely would have contributed a hefty portion of why the king found favour. Also, the king would have had thousands of concubins at his disposal to copulate with, and so Driscoll boils down her ability to find favour with him as by being better in bed than those thousands. That was the source of her salvation and worth- the fact that she could out-maneuver and outperform everyone else sexually. She out-sexed them all! That’s how he plays it, without considering that it may have been something else.
3. Driscoll says “Feminists have tried to cast Esther’s life as a tragic tale of male domination and female liberation”
I’m no particular friend of feminists and think the hermeneutic of female liberation is a terrible lens to read the Bible through. But don’t we see a clear pattern of male domination? The man with the power uses his soldiers to take women against their will and has sex with them. That is a man with all the power dominating and crushing the women who have no power. Its abhorrent.
4. Driscoll says “Many evangelicals have ignored her sexual sin and godless behaviour. “
Again, she only has sexual sin if you purposefully read into this the worst possible scenario and give her the worst possible qualities and characteristics. At face value, and at a deeper level, there is no sexual sin here. There is no Godless behavior. There is only self-preservation and strength by doing what must be done to survive, and faithfully enduring these evils that were foisted upon her so that God’s people might be delivered from the hands of their enemy.
Mark Driscoll has taken a woman who is brave, courageous, intelligent, a woman of character and virtue who flourished despite her oppression, a living hero and example to many, one who has risked her life to save her people from genocide, and created a campaign of scorn, shame and slander against her. He has recast her in the most unflattering light possible with no reason to do so. In doing so he has patently either ignored or embellished details about her life and circumstances to sit his hermeneutic framework.
Not only that, but where is the Lord in all of this? The story of Esther has always been one of God’s sovereignty over the entire situation and his protection of his people. God saving them and keeping a remnant and protecting them against their enemies is a theme that we see over and over. Its not simply a case where a woman, through her own abilities and “unique skillset” saved a people, but rather that the Lord is always in the act and process of saving and preserving his people. The fact that he reached down to a young woman in a despairing circumstance is beautiful and powerful. Though God is not mentioned in this book, his divine providence and mercy is on full display. Is there any doubt that the Lord’s hand was on this woman? That he was guiding this all? I know Mark affirms that, and I’ll hold off judgement in that respect until the sermon series, but that seems to be curiously absent from this.