Bible focus: Lessons from Esther
Posted by Mission Catalyst at 13:16 on 18th June 2010
Dr Debra Reid looks at how the concept of honour and shame is played out in the Old Testament book of Esther - and considers its relevance for mission today
The story of Esther concerns the fate of God's people living in the Persian empire.
At the centre lies King Xerxes who we first meet honouring himself by a series of banquets. When his honour is dented by Vashti, who does not comply with patriarchal expectations, Xerxes is furious and calls an advisory council that decides that Vashti should be deposed on account of the dishonour she has brought to her husband.
Exit Vashti. Enter Esther (chapter 2) and another banquet to honour the king and his newly acquired queen.
Next, Haman receives "a seat of honour" from the king (chapter 3) and now has power of his own. However, it is coupled with anger when his honour is affronted by Mordecai.
Haman demands that all the Jews are annihilated in revenge for Mordecai's action, asserting his concern for the "best interests" of Xerxes.
Haman plans Mordecai's death on the indignantly high gallows to bring ultimate shame upon him (chapter 5). Wrapped up in his own agenda of self-honour and enemy shaming, Haman does not see his impending downfall.
The reversal begins as Mordecai is honoured for his loyalty to Xerxes and is complete when Haman is publicly shamed by his death on the same high gallows (chapter 7). In what resembles another honour ceremony the king's signet ring is transferred from Haman to Mordecai (chapter 8).
Mordecai becomes prominent and powerful (9: 4) because "the king had raised him" (10: 2). The figures of honour are piled up: he becomes second in rank to Xerxes, pre-eminent and held in high esteem (10: 3). Unexpected things happen even in honour and shame societies.
How are the insights in Esther relevant for mission today in its various contexts? We need to recognise that:
- the interplay between honour and shame is a powerful force in some societies and this has long historical roots, often associated with patriarchy
- bringing shame is viewed as a grave offence which produces extreme responses often in the public domain
- within some societies there is a respected hierarchy of honour
- the motivation to respond to shame-exposure is related to the desire to protect such societies from their demise
- the recipients of shame and honour are not established once and for all: fortunes can change and indeed be reversed
We can celebrate the fact that God's honour is not hindered by structures, cultural peculiarities or ideological frameworks. His honour is intricately related to the glory of his Son, which will one day be revealed to all.
"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Timothy 1: 17)
Dr Debra Reid is a tutor at Spurgeon's College. For further exposition of this theme see Debra's Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Esther (IVP, 2008)