I enjoyed playing recess games with older kids. I enjoyed the challenge of playing above my skill level. I also enjoyed being underestimated if I could pull off a key play. This is what having an older brother does to you.
One of the games I would play was known as jailbreak. This game—think part dodge ball, part volleyball—is played with a volleyball on a volleyball court. And at Chaparral, one of the elementary schools I would attend, the good games were on the lower level (this school, built on a steep hill, had three). As I was typically one of the younger and smaller kids among those who enjoyed the game, I was typically picked last. I didn’t always come through, and I won’t pretend I did. The point wasn’t whether I would come through every time—what player does on a team?—but rather if I EVER could.
One afternoon, on a team of six or seven, I was the last player from my team on the court. The other team was down to four. Although my head barely rose above the bottom of the net, I was clutching that ball, moving back and forth, thinking about where to throw the ball and bust my team free so the game could continue. The other team looked amused, standing close to the front of the net. You could tell by their smirks and their taunts that they just wanted me to throw the ball so they could catch and end the game. I really wanted to wipe the smirks off their faces. Almost as much as I wanted to be the one who broke my teammates free from the sideline jail.
After what I’m sure was only a minute or two but really felt like a month, I foisted the ball over the net and, perhaps because the other team was thought I was a little weakling, it found pavement. My team cheered like they’d won the game, although all it meant was that the game would continue, and I got to feel important, which for me confirmed that I was useful enough on the team, regardless of my size.
The Old Testament is filled with people who are similarly underestimated, and the Book of Esther is named for one of the stronger, smarter ones.
Not every Israelite chose to return to Jerusalem. Some—for a number of reasons, perhaps some related to opportunities at prosperity—stayed behind in Persia. And although they were able to enjoy prosperity, not everyone was happy about their presence. So you can guess how long it takes for someone to do something about this. Thankfully, someone is in place to do something about this attack against the Israelites: Esther.
The Persian Empire’s King Xerxes had enough of his queen Vashti, who didn’t follow directions well (1:12), so he had her deposed before she inspired female disobedience in other women. So he conducts a search for a new queen, and he has virgins assembled within the empire and then groomed in his harem (1:22). Sort of like an ancient version of the story of Cinderella, but different.
Because he understood that her Jewish roots might work against her at some point, Mordecai, the uncle who raised her, concealed her Jewish identity and, because she becomes popular with the king (2:15), she is installed as queen (2:17). Her position here is a work of fate, perhaps, or divine intervention, as her position will become rather useful to the Benjamin tribe (and other Jews) remaining in the Persian Empire. One thing that is especially interesting in this book is that God is not mentioned once. Not at all. Perhaps the idea of fate alludes to him but he is absent, which suggests that what is accomplished is really a testament to Esther. So here’s what she has to deal with.
Haman, an honored nobleman, wants to punish all Jews because Mordecai would not kneel to him (3:2, 6). He informs the king that Jews are dangerous (3:9) and the king says to act on this warning anyway he sees fit (3:11). So Haman has an edict announced: kill all Jews by a certain approaching day (3:13). So while most of the Jews are in mourning due to this announcement, Mordecai decides to enlist the one person who is in a position to help: Esther.
Even though she has the king’s ear—she is the queen—she knows that asking for an audience without being called might cost her her life. She is subservient as a woman, and calling to him would be disobedient, as her predecessor proved. Because she’s intelligent (and she also realizes that as a Jew she will be targeted at some point), she devises a plan, which involves hosting a few dinners that slowly bring the king into her favor. Ultimately, she succeeds. The edict is overturned and Haman is hanged.
There’s a little more to the story—Mordecai is a strong helper, and Haman is actually responsible for letting his arrogance seal his fate too—but what she does is create a strong example of how to use your wits to accomplish something. Perhaps this is even more interesting because she does so without divine intervention. I won’t say that God is absent from her story, but it is curious that he is not prayed to or spoken of at all. Perhaps some people are merely in the right place at the right time, and, if they steel themselves they can contribute in a worthwhile way.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is not to underestimate someone, for that person might very well be the person who lifts you to success.
Next up: Book of Job. Can’t wait to see just how patient this guy was.