This post addresses the issue of sexual assault and/or violence, which some survivors may find disturbing. Please do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
On Monday, I wrote a long post asking whether we live in a rape culture. Before you react to that query—with all the preconceived notions you may or may not have about that term—go read the post. But as I explained there, that topic didn’t come out of current events as much as from my recent study of the Book of Esther.
Today, I want to talk about Esther’s story. Why? Because we learn from stories in the Bible about who God is, how He intervened and didn’t, what good and bad choices His people made, and how their ongoing failures demonstrate our desperate need of a savior.
Plus, these biographies help us launch conversations about how sex should be treated in our culture today.
The Typical Tale of Esther
Esther was a young Jewish woman living in Persia during the time of exile. Her parents died, and she was taken in by a cousin, Mordecai. When the king was looking for a new queen, pretty women were taken from their homes to the palace and tried out for the role of queen by spending a night with him.
Esther was among those auditioning, and she impressed everyone in her presence, including the king who chose her as his next queen.
Later, when the Jews were at risk of being destroyed, Esther risked her own life and convinced the king to backtrack on his decree, thus saving her people.
That’s how the tale was told to me and many others for most of our lives.
An Intro to the Real Story
Before we begin, I want to point out that Esther isn’t even her name. It’s Hadassah.
Her name was changed from a Jewish to a Persian name, perhaps to keep her safe. Now, this isn’t sexist, because it happened to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, whom you probably know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But I prefer to tell their tales with their real names. So from here on out, I’ll be talking about Hadassah (aka Esther).
Now maybe it was all those current events, or the stories I’ve heard from wives who write me about their trauma, or certain aspects of my background that I’ve been revisiting lately with fresh eyes, but when I read the Book of Esther this time, I was struck, hard, by the horrors of this one woman’s life and what it meant for all the other women living at that time.
If you want to know what a rape culture is—that is, a culture that normalizes or downplays nonconsensual sex—Hadassah lived in it.
A Foolish, Drunken King
I’ve watched enough Disney princess movies to know that hardship often comes before the realization that one is destined to become queen! Okay, fine, those are fairy tales. But still, I don’t imagine a commoner-to-queen story will come without some struggle. But Hadassah’s story isn’t struggle so much as gambling with your life.
King Xerxes was hardly Prince Charming. Rather, he was a drunk who allowed himself to be persuaded this way and that by his advisors. And he had the power to destroy, through exile and murder.
Indeed, the king exiled his first wife for her unwillingness to be paraded around in front of a bunch of his drunk friends. Warned by advisors that letting the queen get away with such behavior (you know, setting a reasonable boundary) might encourage other wives to disobey their husbands, the king then declared that “every man be master in his own household.”
By master, no one here means leader. I almost imagine this scene as a bunch of cads in a pub ranting about disobedient women needing to be put in their “proper place,” and the culmination of that conversation being a royal decree that came with serious consequences if one disobeyed.
So when Hadassah is taken to the king, what did she think of him? Might she have been enamored of him and/or his position? Could she have been a willing participant in what happened to her? Was she happy to be chosen and made queen?
Like the story of Bathsheba, we’re not told. But at least King David had been and would be again a man of God, while King Xerxes was a foreign, pagan, alcoholic king who had seen fit to force women into subjugation by their husbands. I have a hard time believing Hadassah fell in love with that.
Rather, she was taken into the palace because she had no choice but to “try out” for the role of queen; that is, the king’s trophy wife.
A Woman Taken by the King
In two separate verses (2:10,20), both before and after she becomes queen, it says that Hadassah concealed her identity because Mordecai advised to keep it hidden.
Now, Bible authors often use specific words or phrases to subtly reference other passages in the Bible. Those deeply familiar with the Torah would recognize similarities and note parallels between stories or commands.
Are there any stories or passages with similarities to the story of Hadassah? Well, here’s another beautiful Hebrew woman instructed to conceal her identity and taken by the king ruler into his house. Note the similar wording between this passage and the next one from Esther.
When [Abram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.Genesis 12:11-16
And now from Esther:
The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. 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. Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.Esther 2:7b-8
But wait, Mordecai took Hadassah in as his daughter, while Sarai was Abram’s wife. Except…
While studying the Book of Esther, I came upon an interesting angle. Specifically, it’s possible Hadassah was not like a daughter to Mordecai, but rather his wife. I stress possible because, with the information we have, we cannot know for sure, and it’s not how biblical scholars have typically interpreted the passage.
However, the Babylonian Talmud (one of the two major Talmudic texts) translates that passage as Hadassah being taken as Mordecai’s wife.
And consider Esther 2:7: “He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.” Why bring up her beauty if Mordecai only took her as a daughter? But if she was his wife, that makes a lot more sense.
And that would make Hadassah’s story even more analogous to Abram and Sarai. In which case, Mordecai’s motivation to conceal Hadassah’s identity may have been the same as Abram’s.
The Identity of Hadassah
Now some say that, whether Hadassah was Mordecai’s wife or daughter, he loved her and perhaps wanted her to conceal her identity to remain safe in the palace. After all, “Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her” (2:11). But an alternative or supplemental option is that Mordecai might have appreciated an “inside man” in the palace in case things went poorly for him because of his known identity as a Jew.
Perhaps, like Abram, Mordecai was at least willing to use Hadassah to save his and/or his nation’s hide by gaining the king’s favor.
That view would also work with the text, as Hadassah—rich as she becomes—remains at the beck and call of a drunken, angry king, while she “set Mordecai over the house of Haman.” Just like Abram:
And for [Sarai’s] sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels, and Abram kept all of that when he left Egypt.Genesis 12:16
Both Hadassah and Sarai were taken into a ruler’s house, were sexually used by men to save others, and the men who had cared for them before profited in the end.
A Lack of Sexual Consent
Yet, it seemed that Hadassah went along with all this—at least nothing in the text says she spoke up against it. So might Hadassah have consented to sex with the king?
Even if she technically did, she didn’t have a choice. She was expected to sleep with the king according to his timing, desires, and ways, without regard to any rights she might or should have had.
And since being taken into a harem would be ruinous for a Jewish virgin and adultery for a Jewish wife, it’s far more likely that she shut up and put up only because she didn’t want to be cut up.
Again, we expect that from the king. But perhaps Mordecai would show more compassion for her situation? Perhaps?
But once the king issues a decree to kill the Jewish people, Mordecai pleads with Hadassah to intervene. When Hadassah explains that she could be killed for approaching the king without permission, his response isn’t, “My dear daughter [wife], if only there was another way.” Nope, he says:
…“Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”Esther 4:13-14
And this time, that plea didn’t sound quite as heroic to me. It’s certainly not sympathetic. This time, I found myself wondering whether Mordecai was cashing in on having that inside man and guilting her into putting her life on the line?
Now I know this is a harsh reading of the text, probably unlike what you’ve heard before. But it isn’t an unreasonable interpretation. It is a possibility. It is something to consider the next time you read through the Book of Esther. And none of it dismisses the courage Hadassah showed and what God accomplished in saving His people through one young Jewish woman in a Persian palace.
Sexual Assault Then and Now
Did every man in Bible times treat women so poorly? Absolutely not. Good men have existed in every era!
But Hadassah’s culture permitted sexual misuse, abuse, and even rape—because women were to obey their husbands or risk life and limb. Those who wanted to force sex upon women could do so without great fear of retribution.
And here’s the thing about sexual assault (and harassment, for that matter). It often happens a lot like it unfolds in the Book of Esther:
- Men and/or women view the genders as Us/Them
- Others’ value is based on what they can do for someone
- People misuse their power to gain advantage over others
- Another’s career, family, or survival is held hostage by the perpetrator
- People who know or should know don’t come to the rescue and/or demand justice
What irks me and aches me is how little Hadassah felt that she had a choice—and how often that same feeling has been shared by women throughout history. Including in our day.
After typing that last bullet point above—”People who know or should know don’t come to the rescue and/or demand justice“—I had to stop and cry. Yes, cry. Because when I was much younger, I personally knew about two women sexually mistreated and had no idea what to do about it. If I could go back and do something, anything, to come to the rescue and/or demand justice for these women, I would.
Back then, and given their stories, it would have been hard to report and prove what had happened. Still, I know what happened, and I live with not having done enough.
An Ally for Hadassah
The point of the Book of Esther is not that the Jews showed heroism, through Mordecai and Hadassah, while in Babylonian Exile. The point is that God used even the worst of circumstances to bring about His sovereign plan, and even when it felt that God might be absent, He was there. What happened to Hadassah was not okay—not by a long shot—but God knew her pain, stayed beside her, worked through her, and welcomed her home when her time here was done.
We cannot be an ally for Hadassah, but we can be an ally for others like her. Whether women or men, sexual assault has impacted far too many people.
I don’t know what that looks like for each person. But I think it begins with recognizing where our own culture has fallen short, especially our church culture. Would someone feel they could reveal that they were a victim-survivor of rape? That they had endured sexual assault or harassment at the hands of a fellow Christian or family member? Would they feel that they had a choice—that their consent mattered?
Someday, maybe we’ll sit with Hadassah and she can tell us the full story in her own words. I’ll surely have to backtrack on something I said here, but I suspect the main idea remains: Because you matter, your sexuality matters. Your consent matters. And that should never be taken from you.