On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”
—Esther 2: 2-3
Sometimes referred to as the “biblical Cinderella story,” the book of Esther is a tale about power, intrigue, identity, and courage—in short, the elements of any good drama. As the story opens, King Ahasuerus of Persia is holding a feast to celebrate the third year of his rule. He mistakenly believes that he has passed the point at which Jeremiah prophesied the exile of the Israelites would end: in reality, his count is a few years off.
Well into the celebration, when the king is “merry with wine,” he orders that his wife, Queen Vashti, be brought to him “wearing the royal crown”—and, according to some interpretations, nothing more. She refuses to appear. After asking his officials what should be done with such a disobedient wife, Ahasuerus has Vashti killed.
Then, when his drunkenness and anger subside and he realizes what he has done, the king instructs his servants to scour the countryside, returning with the most beautiful virgins they can find. At first her uncle and surrogate father, Mordecai, keeps Esther hidden, but she is ultimately discovered and brought to the king’s harem. There she and the other young women undergo 12 months of “cosmetic treatment” before being presented to Ahasuerus, who, after seeing all the candidates, selects Esther to be his queen.
Although Esther is quiet about her connection to Mordecai, as well as her identity as a Jew, she is still able to communicate with her uncle. Thus, when he hears of a plot to kill the king, Mordecai tells Esther, who in turn warns Ahasuerus. The murder plan is thwarted, the conspirators killed.
All appears to be going well until Mordecai refuses to pay homage to Haman, a high-ranking government official, and Haman, enraged by this act of defiance, asks for and receives permission from Ahasuerus to liquidate all Jews throughout the kingdom—all as retribution against Mordecai.
Once again, Mordecai gets word to Esther, this time asking her to intercede with the king on the Jews’ behalf. She is hesitant, given that appearing before Ahasuerus uninvited could result in her execution, but after three days of fasting, she complies. In doing so, Esther proves herself to be not only courageous, but also exceptionally shrewd. Rather than appealing to the king directly, she first asks him simply to attend a banquet she is preparing, and to bring Haman as well. This he does.
That night, however, Ahasuerus has a dream that causes him to remember the good deed done by Mordecai on his behalf. The next day, the king asks Haman what he believes the reward should be for a man who has served him so admirably. Thinking that the king is referring to him, Haman suggests giving such a man robes the king has worn, along with a horse and a crown. Ahasuerus agrees and instructs Haman to award these things to Mordecai right away. Circumstances are not looking good for Haman.
On the second day of the banquet, the king again asks Esther what she would like from him. This time she responds by petitioning him to rescind the ruling that would cause all the Jews in his kingdom to be killed. Shocked, the king asks whose idea this was, and Esther points to Haman. Ahasuerus then storms out, leaving the terrified Haman alone with Esther, pleading for his life.
When the king returns, he finds Haman in what appears to be a compromising position with the queen. In retaliation, he orders Haman to be hanged on the very gallows he has constructed for Mordecai. Mordecai, in turn, is rewarded with a position of authority just below the king’s.
The basis for the holiday Purim, which commemorates the delivery of the Jews in Persia, the story of Esther also illustrates what can be accomplished through a single act of courage—in this case, the courage to ask for what one wants. Buoyed by fasting and prayer, Esther selflessly acts on behalf of her people, knowing she has everything to lose and everything to gain.
O God, give us the courage to ask for what we need, to step out in faith even when it appears that in doing so we are stepping into the void.