The Gospel Coalition, working hard to polish its shining reputation as a tool of the Cultural Marxist Left, has published a new article reinterpreting the Biblical narrative of Esther as a book where “the degradation of women feels so commonplace that it can be difficult to read.”
While there are a few decent, if platitudinous, points in the article, the overall work is marred by a palpable eagerness to relate the Bible to the #MeToo movement; and by a bad misreading of the text.
Meredith Storrs, writer of the article, misreads Ahasuerus, Vashti, the king’s counselors, the situation in the Persian court, the themes of the book, and even Esther herself.
To be fair, some of her interpretations are commonplace, but no less misleading. Here’s how she understands Ahasuerus, the king of the Persian Empire:
“King Ahasuerus needs a new queen because he dismissed his first wife for refusing to parade herself for his drunk friends…So he issues an edict that all men are to be ‘masters’ in their homes, and he rounds up the unmarried women in the country for his personal harem… King Ahasuerus…behaves according to every whim, with a crowd of cronies cheering him on…He orders Vashti to parade her beauty.”
Ahasuerus, Storrs tells us, is guilty of “injustice done to Queen Vashti” and “abuse of power” so great that she wonders “why doesn’t God destroy” him.
But do the actions of Ahasuerus and of his closest advisers really fit the #MeToo narrative of powerful men abusing socially disadvantaged women?
Storrs’ interpretation is a reading informed much more by modern conceits, Hollywood films (Storrs actually uses the words of the title of one of them, One Night With The King, in her article), and pure speculation—not by the actual text of the Bible.
In short, this reading of Ahasuerus is little more than imaginative fiction.
Storrs, like many others, cannot escape a modern knee jerk reaction at the king’s call to Vashti to appear before him. She and her TGC publishers can imagine only evil behind such an action.
But why? What is so wrong about a king wanting to bring his bride before the people of the kingdom? Or for the people to want to see their Queen? Or even for the king to want to show off the beauty of his Queen? Is that really wrong? If you think so, consider Psalm 45:
“Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house; So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him. And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour. The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold. She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee. With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king’s palace.” (Emphasis added.)
Something very similar is going on in Esther. We are told that the king commanded his servants “To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on.” The typological connection with Psalm 45 is hard to miss (and there are other reasons for seeing Ahasuerus, in this story, as a type of Christ, the King of Kings; but there is no time to go into that here).
Again, there is no need to import an unduly critical view of Ahasuerus. Indeed, as Matthew Henry has observed, “Josephus says…[Ahasuerus] had a strong affection for Vashti, and would not have put her away for this offence, if he could legally have passed it by.”
There is no hint that this was a drunken party, as Storrs suggests, and let’s be honest: the only reason we assume it was is because we live and move within the teetotalling atmosphere of American evangelicalism. Indeed, contrary to the custom of many ancient and modern kings, who forced the nobles to drink as much as the king, even far past their ability to handle it, we are told in Esther that “…the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure” (Esther 1:8, emphasis added).
This was actually a rather sober and restrained affair, all things considered.
So, this was no Persian bacchanalia. Rather, the king wanted the Queen to join him at the feast, to be hailed by the “princes and people” of the kingdom, and to display her beauty. He was proud of her, in other words. What on earth could be wrong with that? Wives are the glory of their husbands, after all, as St. Paul teaches:
“…the woman is the glory of the man” (I Cor. 11:7).
Nor should we take seriously the silly suggestion, made by some (though not, to her credit, by Storrs), that, when the king asked Vashti to appear “with the crown royal” that this meant she was to appear in only the crown, and nothing else. The Bible says absolutely nothing like this. Again, the king made a perfectly reasonable request of his Queen: that she appear at the great feast—this was the seven-day feast given for all the people of the city, and the king wanted her to appear, not only before the nobles, but before all the people, who surely would love to see their Queen, as people today still love to see royalty and even, strange as it may seem, politicians.
But she refused. We are not told why and can only speculate. To have made such a bold and public defiance of the king argues for a high pride in Vashti: Perhaps she was of a noble house that was in some competition with Ahasuerus? Perhaps she opposed some public policy of his (as suggested in a recent film adaptation of Esther)?
Whatever the reason, it is not that important. The Bible simply gives us the fact that she rebelled against the king. Obedience to the king is an important theme in the book of Esther. We are invited by Scripture to contemplate the folly and consequences of rebellion against legitimate commands.
Nor is this requirement limited to women, even in the book of Esther. Mordecai is guilty of the same fault as Vashti: refusing to obey a legitimate command of the king (to bow before Haman).
It’s important to note Storr’s treatment (common enough, to be sure) of Vashti and her husband in Esther: He was at fault, while she was noble for her disobedience, despite the fact that, as Peter teaches, even the wife of a disobedient husband—disobedient to God—should attempt to win him by her quiet and submissive attitude:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (I Peter 3:1–2, emphasis added).
In other words, even if Ahasuerus were a drunken, creeptastic cad, it would not have excused Vashti’s disobedience. Not that Vashti would necessarily have known this; but Meredith Storrs and the TGC people certainly should have, and this ought to have affected how they interpreted Vashti’s actions.
Storrs portrays Ahasuerus’ counsellors as a “crowd of cronies cheering him on,” but also afraid that their wives will start getting uppity toward them after hearing what Vashti did, resulting in their recommendation of “legislation to control her” and “an edict that all men are to be ‘masters’ in their homes.” (Note Storrs’ scare quotes.)
All of this feeds into a feminist rendering of the story.
The counsellors did point out that Vashti’s example would breed imitation among the women of the empire, which is surely true: people do follow the social and moral examples of their leaders. And such rebellion would certainly lead to strife in the home, just as mutiny leads to the breakdown of order and legitimate chain of command on a ship.
In short, the royal counsellors had a reasonable concern about allowing Vashti’s rebellion to go unchecked; but we moderns, infected by the disease of Feminism, can only see such men as weak and foolish.
“It is the interest of states and kingdoms,” Matthew Henry writes, “to provide that good order be kept in private families.”
Sit down and read the book of Esther. My eleven-year-old daughter did it recently in one sitting. It’s not that long. When you do, ask yourself: where is this “degradation of women” that is “so commonplace that it can be difficult to read?”
The truth is, there is no “degradation of women” in the book of Esther.
That’s just not what the book is about.
While Storrs (and others) imagine a scene of armed guards chasing women through the streets, kidnapping them for the king’s beauty contest, the Bible says absolutely nothing about this. As even Storrs admits: “The text simply offers, ‘Esther also was taken into the king’s palace.’”
It’s also possible that young women were as eager for a spot in the “beauty contest” as young singers are for a shot at auditioning for American Idol. A chance to become the Queen! And after all, even those who failed to nab the grand prize were rewarded with a year-long beauty makeover and a life of luxury and ease as one of the wives of the king.
Not that such a lifestyle is good from a Christian perspective, which has always insisted on a monogamous view of marriage. The point here is simply that there is no indication in the Bible that women had to be forced to participate—that notion has to be imported into the text from the outside to comport with a narrative of the ever-pure angelic female nature and the ever-malevolent devilish male nature.
Men abuse women. That’s just what they do.
Indeed, this whole Persian Idol queen-search is described by Storrs as “a sexual audition. One night with the king to prove your worth before each losing contestant joins the harem, another concubine among many.”
Matthew Henry once again provides a helpful antidote to this approach: “Every one that the king took to his bed, was married to him, and was his wife of a lower rank, as Hagar was Abraham’s; so that if Esther had not been made queen, the sons of Jacob need not say that he dealt with their sister as with a harlot.”
To her credit, Storrs does write this:
“I’m struck by the great tragedy of certain feminist ideology that says men are the issue and that getting around or walking over them is the best solution. The problem of sin is much deeper and more insidious than the bad behavior of a few men or even the systemic inequalities perpetuated by generations.”
But even here she assumes the feminist narrative of “systemic inequalities perpetuated by generations.”
Those “inequalities” are generally the result of God-given differences between male and female—differences that are simply intolerable to all brands of feminism, even the Feminism Lite of the evangelical world.
Storrs isn’t just talking about genuine abuse of women here—violent beatings or sex slavery. Here are the kind of “inequalities” she has in mind:
“Women, the same is absolutely true for you. Those times you felt passed over unjustly at work, the depravity you experience in catcalls and wandering eyes, and even in the midst of violence and abuse, God has not forgotten you.”
“Being passed over unjustly at work.” Here again, we’re assuming the narrative that women must find fulfillment outside the home and the disproven idea that women are being systemically discriminated against in the workplace.
What are we to learn from Esther? Well, among other things, that God’s “plan has been for men and women in his church to collaborate on the work he assigns.” Men are not described as leaders in Storr’s article, but simply collaborators. The Fall of Man has damaged this relationship of equals—but thank God we have #MeToo to help reverse the Edenic curse!
“Part of the curse in Eden was a rift in the holy way of relating male to female. The #MeToo movement has exposed ways in which men have leveraged social or physical power against the very women God designed to work alongside them.”
With a distinctly Beth Moore-type imaginative flourish, Storrs tells us that the writer of Esther “wants to show us the depths of despair from which God raises up Esther for his good work. He wants us to feel pained by injustice so that God’s final justice triumphs. And as we stare deeply into the eyes of Esther’s pain, perhaps even seeing the reflection of our own, the text points us forward to God’s final, sweet redemption through Christ.”
In context, the actual injustice of the book of Esther—Haman’s murderous plot to destroy God’s people—is not the “injustice” Storrs has in mind at this point in the article, as she hasn’t even mentioned it yet. Rather, she has been writing about the “injustices” of Esther’s personal life, “when the guards knocked on her door” or because she has been “displaced from her homeland” or “an orphan displaced from her first home.” “Gone are any dreams she may have held of carrying on the legacy of her people. Now, in the clutches of the king, she has no hope to fulfill her calling.”
No notion of a lost opportunity for Esther to “fulfill her calling” is indicated in the Bible itself. The book of Esther tells two stories—the story of Vashti’s rebellion and replacement by Esther, and the story of Mordecai and Esther foiling Haman’s plot to murder the Jews—and while there are many theological and literary themes and images at play, the book certainly focuses largely on God’s deliverance of His people even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Instead, The Gospel Coalition gives us an essentially feminist retelling of Esther, with an uncritical nod toward the #MeToo movement, from yet another female Bible teacher.
Given this decidedly unhelpful interaction with the Scriptures, it is perhaps more than a little ironic that this TGC article closes with these words:
“Keep asking these difficult questions, women. They’re a blessing in our churches….”