I’m often asked why there are so few women in the Bible. Sure, there are some. There’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. There’s Eve, of Adam and Eve, and Martha who cleaned the kitchen while others surrounded Jesus. There’s Sarah and Abigail, Hannah and Elizabeth, and more.
There are actually a fair number of women mentioned in the Bible, but the tricky thing is they are usually not at the foreground, and sometimes they don’t even have names. They are mentioned in passing, or as someone’s spouse, but rarely in their own right. And so when I hear people, especially our younger girls, ask me where the women in the Bible are, it takes some explaining.
When the books of the Bible were written society was, of course, very different. Women were not their own people. They did not have the rights that women do today. And when they did act with agency our courage, it wasn’t always treated as a good thing. And even though it is very likely that Jesus’ disciples included more than just the 12 men he gathered around itself, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about them. It took something incredibly huge for a woman to get her due in the Bible.
But there are two books in the 66 book Protestant canonical Bible where that pattern is reversed. Both are named after women. One is Ruth, a book about a woman who converts to the Jewish faith. Ruth later refuses to leave her new beliefs behind when her husband dies. She is an unlikely hero, a convert who upholds the law with a vigor most born into the faith do not.
But as much as I like the story of Ruth, it’s the other book named for a woman who never fails to capture my imagination and awe. And that’s the story of Esther.
Esther was an orphan, a Jewish girl growing up with her cousin Mordecai in exile in the Persian empire. And the king at the time gets frustrated with his queen, who won’t do what he says. So he gets rid of her and looks for a new queen. And Esther is just the woman to fill the role. But her cousin tells her, whatever you do, don’t tell him you are Jewish. That will put you in danger.
About that same time Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king, and foils it, and Mordecai is made an advisor to the king. But the king has another advisor too, a man named Haman. And Haman loves power. He expects everyone to bow down to him. But Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, refuses. And this enrages Haman so much that he decides to kill not just Mordecai, but every Jewish person.
When Mordecai discovers this he goes to his cousin and begs her to get the king to intercede. But the wife of the king can’t just go to her husband. She has to be summoned first. So she has Mordecai tell all of the Jewish people to fast and pray for her for three days. And on the third day, she takes a risk, and she goes to the king and invites him to a feast. And he accepts. And at that feast she invites him back again to a second one.
In the meantime, Haman is still angry. Mordecai still won’t bow down to him, and so he is so mad he starts to build the gallows on which to hang him. And that same night, the king can’t sleep. And he’s looking for anything to put him to sleep. And so he has the court records read back to him. Anything to sleep right? And he discovers that he had never rewarded Mordecai for helping him.
And so everyone ends up back at the second feast. Esther, the king, Haman, and Mordecai. And at that banquet, Esther tells the king the truth about who she is. She tells the king that Mordecai is her cousin, and like her he is Jewish. And she tells the king that Haman wants not just to kill Mordecai, the man who had saved him, but all of the Jewish people as well.
And the king, knowing now who is wife is, and knowing that he still owes Mordecai for saving his life, decrees that the Jewish people can now stand up for themselves against attacks. And Mordecai takes a prominent position in his court. And Haman, the man who would have killed an entire people, ends up suffering the same fate he wished for Mordecai.
That’s the story of the book of Esther. It’s one that every year our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate during the festival of Purim. Purim is a festive day. It’s when the faithful throw feasts, dress up in elaborate costumes, and drink. In some cases, a lot. A Jewish friend of mine in college told me once that Purim was the only day of the whole year when it was considered acceptable to get drunk.
We don’t have a holiday like that in the church, if you were wondering.
But, the fact the story of Esther is celebrated with such joy and celebration is something that should not be overlooked. Because Esther, is about as close to a female superhero as we get in the Bible. She not only saved herself, and her cousin. She saved her entire people.
And she did it in the most amazing way. She didn’t do it with fancy weapons. She didn’t do it with an army. She didn’t do it with a costume or a cape. She did it by doing this: standing up and telling the truth.
Esther told the truth to a king that she knew did not want to hear it. She told it knowing that it could have gotten her killed. She risked everything to tell it.
And the most amazing part is that she didn’t have to.
Esther had all that she needed. She was the queen. She had wealth. She had relative safety. She had the protection of the king. All she needed to do was keep her mouth shut, and she would have guaranteed that safety for herself.
But Esther couldn’t do that. She couldn’t see her cousin killed, and she couldn’t see her people exterminated. And so, even though it was a risk to even go into the king’s presence and invite him to that feast, she did. She took her own life into her hands and dared to stand up and in front of the powers that be in order to save others.
And then again at the feast, Esther stands up and tells the king, tells the world, her truth. And once again she is taking her life into her hands. But she manages to save her people. And all these centuries later, her people still celebrate her.
But when her cousin had first come to her and asked her to do this thing, when she stood trembling in front of the king, when she opened her mouth to speak those words, she didn’t know how things would turn out. Not only did she stand to lose her life, but she held the lives of her people in her hands.
So why did she do it? Why not just be quiet, and let someone else be the hero?
Audre Lorde, the poet and civil rights activist, has an often quoted line: “Your silence will not protect you.” That has become a sort of rally cry for many different movements over the past few decades. Your silence will not protect you, so refuse to stand down, refuse to be quiet, and refuse to hide.
I think that her quote could use one qualifier. I think the truth is closer to this: your silence will not protect you…for long.
Because we have all been silent sometimes when we have wanted to call out our truths. We have all seen something unjust without speaking up. We have all, at times, waited for others to be the hero. And in those moments, we have been safe.
But if we are honest with ourselves, that safety does not last long. It lasts only as long as it takes for our conscience to catch up with us. And only as long as it takes to see the toll that our silence has taken on others. And then, we really understand, that our silence will not protect us, just as it will not protect others.
Pastor Martin Niemoller, who lived in Nazi Germany, once wrote a statement about his own silence in the face of the
atrocities he was seeing:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemoller ended up spending seven years in a concentration camp. In the end his silence did not protect him. But he survived the camps, and he became reflective about his silence. And part of his legacy became regretting that silence, and apologizing for it. In fact, after the war, he wrote that whenever he met a Jewish person, he said this: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’
Downstairs this morning our elementary-aged children are learning the story of Esther. They’re learning it in a fun, age-appropriate way with crowns and costumes. But I hope that, at some level, they’re learning more than that. I hope they are learning that in the end, God made them for more than silence. God made them for courage.
I think our Jewish friends are right when they throw a party every year and retell this story. And I pray for our kids that if only they can learn what Esther learned. If they can learn to be people of courage and not people of silence, then I think that means today’s lesson will have been learned. that means we are raising children who will make this world a little better. If that happens, then surely that is worth a celebration. Amen?