I have two questions to bring up in Heaven. Not complaints, because we will have no complaints. And I’m not sure we will have questions. If we do, I’d like clarity on two topics: mosquitos and middle school. Was either one necessary? Wouldn’t the world have been better off without those little blood-sucking varmints and those in-between, off-balance years of middle school?
I was a nerd as an adolescent. Horribly shy. Had you asked me to choose between a chat with a girl and a root canal, I would have gone to the dentist. I had two bookworm buddies. We weren’t cool. We didn’t dress classy or talk the lingo. We studied. We actually had competitions to see who made the best grades. We sat in the front row of each class. We wore — hang on to your slide rule — pocket protectors! We were nerds. Which was fine with me until one geek moved away and the other got a paper route, and as quick as you can say “solitary,” I was. Bepimpled, gangly, and socially awkward.
I had one thing going for me: I could play baseball. Not great, but good enough for my father to convince me to try out for Pony League and good enough to get selected. Pony League, in case you don’t know, bridges those unwieldy years between Little League and high school. I was a newcomer on a squad of seventh and eighth graders.
The first day of practice was a cold day in March. The winter wind kept spring at bay. A blue norther dropped the mercury and bent the barely budding trees. Mom gave me a sweatshirt to wear. It bore the emblem of Abilene Christian College, a fine liberal arts institution from which my sisters had graduated and where I would eventually do the same. I was already in the car en route to the practice — my first practice with studly upperclassmen — when I pulled on the sweatshirt and saw the words “Abilene Christian.” I was mortified. I could not show up wearing a shirt that bore the name “Christian.”
Cool kids aren’t Christians. The in crowd isn’t Christian. I couldn’t debut as a Christian. The odds were already stacked against me. I was a Poindexter and a rookie.
The confession of what I did next might result in my defrocking. When Mom dropped me off at the practice field, I waited until she was out of view, and then I peeled off the shirt. I wadded it into a ball and stuck it in the base of the backstop. Rather than risk being left out by the team, I chose to shiver in short sleeves.
No, I’m not proud of my choice. The apostle Paul was speaking to the middle school version of Max when he wrote:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. — Romans 12:2
We can conform or be transformed.
On that day I chose to wad up the shirt.
Esther and Mordecai did the same. They disguised their identity. They conformed.
Does it trouble you to hear me say that? We tend to see Esther and Mordecai as rock solid. She, the female version of Daniel. He, a steel-spined Paul Revere. They never wavered, never floundered, never shirked their duty. They saved the Jewish nation, for crying out loud. Carve their faces on the Hebrew Mount Rushmore. They took a courageous stand.
But not before they didn’t.
Bible characters are complex. They aren’t one-dimensional felt figures that fit easily into a Sunday school curriculum box.
Moses was a murderer before he was a liberator.
Joseph was a punk before he was a prince.
Yes, the apostle Peter proclaimed Christ on the day of Pentecost. But he also denied Christ on the eve of the crucifixion.
The people of the Bible were exactly that: people. Real people. Like you. Like me. And, like you and me, they had their good moments, and, well, they were known to hide their faith.
Chapter 2 of Esther opens with the phrase “after these things.”
After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her. — Esther 2:1 NKJV
“After these things.” After what things? What events had transpired between chapters 1 and 2? A clue to the answer is found later in the text.
Esther was taken to King Xerxes at the royal palace in early winter of the seventh year of his reign. — Esther 2:16 NLT
Our story began in the “third year of his reign” (Esther 1:3). Four years have passed since Vashti’s humiliation of Xerxes. During these four years Xerxes made an ambitious but disastrous attempt to invade Greece. It’s safe to imagine him weary and dispirited. Upon his return “he remembered Vashti.” He realized that he had no queen. He entered the gilded gate to no outstretched arms. No wife gave him comfort or offered him encouragement. Perhaps it was a wounded ego that prompted him to take the advice of his counselors and replace Vashti with “someone else who is better than she” (Esther 1:19), code language for someone who will show up, shut up, and make the king look good.
The order went out to conscript the most beautiful virgins from the vast empire so Xerxes could make his choice. Estimates as to the number of candidates range from 400 to 1,460. 1 Bible class retellings of this decree fail to describe its atrocities. The girls were not asked to love him, just entertain him. The inexperienced and no doubt terrified candidates abandoned their own aspirations and dreams for the whims of an insecure monarch. Fail to be selected and the young woman would spend the rest of her life as one of his concubines. She could not return to her family. She would see the king only at his request. The children she conceived with him would be raised to serve the court but would not be considered heirs to the throne.2 She would never sleep with another man so that the king need never risk that another man, in the dark of night, be told that he was a better lover than Xerxes.3
Sickening, I know.
Into this toxic stew called Persia fell a Jew named Mordecai and his cousin Hadassah.
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. — Esther 2:5–6
You and I read that paragraph with no reaction. We might comment on the hard-to-pronounce names, but that’s it. But to the postexilic Jews? Trained in the ways of the Torah? Taught to cherish their identity as God’s covenant people? That paragraph would arch a few eyebrows and raise a few questions.
For example, why was Mordecai in the citadel of Susa? To live in the citadel was to live on the equivalent of Capitol Hill. The fortress was the epicenter of Persian influence and government. Most Jews, exiled as they were, lived away from the citadel, far removed from the heart of Persian power and politics. Mordecai not only lived in the citadel, but he was also “on duty at the palace” (Esther 2:21 TLB).
He worked for Xerxes! Mordecai placed himself in the thick of the political thicket. Again, you and I are twenty-five hundred years and thousands of pages of history removed. No big deal. Good for you, Mordecai. You’ve made the big time in a foreign land. But to the Jews? That was a big deal. Remember, to be a Jew was to be called out and set apart. But Mordecai was on the payroll of a pagan king.
What’s more, he had a pagan name! “Mordecai” was an adaptation of “Marduk,” a Persian male deity.4 Mordecai’s theonym memorialized a foreign god. Would a modern-day Jew name his son Muhammad? Would a God-fearing Jew in our day work for the Iranian military? Not likely. Then how do we explain a Jew named after a pagan numen and living on the Persian payroll?
An answer might be found by returning to the hard-to-pronounce words. Mordecai was the “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” (Esther 2:5–6). Mordecai was three generations removed from Jerusalem, plenty of time for the lines of Hebrew distinctiveness to fade. Living out the pagan name he was given, Mordecai went clandestine with his convictions. He had wadded up the sweatshirt and stuffed it at the base of the backstop.
He instructed Esther to follow suit.
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. (Esther 2:7)
Hadassah comes from the Hebrew word for myrtle. According to some rabbinical commentaries, myrtle implies “righteous.”5 The name fits. Hadassah will soon take a righteous stand.
But she was also called Esther in deference to the Persian goddess Ishtar.6 How did she get this name? And how do we explain the decision of Mordecai to enter Esther in the contest to be queen of Persia?
When we first met Xerxes, you’ll recall that he gave Vashti the boot because she refused to behave like a sugar baby. Next he solicited all the young beauties of Persia to apply for the now-vacant position.
When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. She pleased him and won his favor…
Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. — Esther 2:8–10
Let’s tally this up. Mordecai hid his heritage and taught his young cousin to do the same. He entered her in a bachelorette contest, knowing that the competition included a night in the bed of a Gentile king. He told her to show him a good time and keep her nationality a secret. She complied.
What in the world is going on here?
Like the Babylonians before them, polytheistic Persians did not require their conquered peoples to give up their gods. Go ahead, they said. Sacrifice to your cow, pray to your moon, bow before your goddess; just worship the gods of Persia too.
This proved problematic for the Jews. According to their Torah there was only one God. Every Jew worth his matzo bread quoted the Shema twice daily:
Listen, people of Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. — Deuteronomy 6:4–5 NCV
They were to worship Jehovah God only and have no other god before Him. So how were they to behave in Persia? The question of the psalmist is the question of the book of Esther.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? — Psalm 137:4 NKJV
How does a person of faith live in a faithless world?
The initial response of Mordecai and Esther was disguise and compromise. The soft butter of their convictions melted against the warm knife of pragmatism.
Why risk angering the king?
What good comes from disclosure of the truth?
I can worship the Persian gods and God, right?
I can change my name and work for the king, right?
I can keep my identity a secret and sleep with the king, right?
They created a world of hidden identity. Mordecai kept his Hebrew ancestry a secret. Esther maneuvered through the queen-search contest without disclosing that she was a daughter of Abraham. By the time we meet Mordecai and Esther, they’ve buried their Jewish identity beneath several layers of compromise.
Which brings to mind another question for me to ask in Heaven. In addition to clarification about mosquitos and middle school, I’d like a moment with Mr. Mordecai. “Why did you do it?” I’d inquire. “Why let them take her? You knew what would happen. She would be spruced up for one night and then lose her virginity to a brute. Unless selected as queen, she’d spend the rest of her life as a cloistered concubine. How many laws of the Torah did you violate?”
I’m thinking Mordecai would respond in one of two ways.
- “Max, you weren’t there. You don’t know how crazy Xerxes was. He was a fickle, psychotic dictator. In this way my precious Esther would at least be safe. That’s why I told her to tell no one that she was a Jew. I wanted to protect her.”
Or . . .
- “Max you don’t get it. This was all a part of my plan. I worked in the palace. I made friends with Hegai, head of the harem. I told him about her and her about him. We set the whole thing in motion. But if he knew her nationality…”
- Mordecai might very well say, “Lucado, who are you to question me? You’re the one who was too embarrassed to wear the sweatshirt.”
He would be right to push back. The compulsion to hide our identity as children of God affects us all. Not in Persia but at work, school, on the bowling league, and in the Pony League. But at some point each of us has to figure out who we are and what that identity means for our lives.
We face the identical temptation that Mordecai and Esther faced. Our society permits all beliefs except an exclusive one. Do whatever you want as long as you applaud what everyone else does. The incontestable value of Western culture is tolerance. Ironically, the champions of tolerance are intolerant of a religion like Christianity that adheres to one Savior and one solution to the human problem. To believe in Jesus as the only Redeemer is to incur the disdain of Persia.
Are we not tempted to peel off the sweatshirt? In such moments God’s message is clear: remember your name.
What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it — we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. — 1 John 3:1 MSG
- Joyce G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 66.
- Karen H. Jobes, Esther, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 110.
- Yoram Hazony, God and Politics in Esther (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 18.
- Iain M. Duguid, Esther and Ruth, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 21.
- Rabbi Meir in the William Davidson Talmud, Megillah 13a, p. 4, https://www.sefaria.org/Megillah.13a?lang=bi.
- Duguid, Esther and Ruth, 21; Jobes, Esther, 96.
Excerpted with permission from You Were Made for This Moment by Max Lucado, copyright Max Lucado.
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‘Fess up if you’ve balled up a metaphorical sweatshirt before, too? Let’s not do that anymore! Let’s stand up loud and proud as believers in Jesus and make the most of the moment we were made for! Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full