I’m pretty sure I remember exactly where I was when I realized that Esther 100% slept with the king before he chose her as his queen. I was sitting in a top-floor office in one of two villas on Chemin William Barbey in Chambésy, Switzerland. I lived on the bottom floor of the villa with some other office staff of the Switzerland Geneva Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this office was where I did my religious studies every morning before heading out into a larger office where I helped with legal, vehicle, and other assorted logistical issues for the mission. I don’t know exactly why I was reading Esther that morning—I think I’d been trying to make my way through the whole Hebrew Bible—but I do know that as I read the story, I picked up on one detail that I had never noticed before. It was pretty clear even in the dated language of the King James Version, but here’s how clear it is in the NRSV for Esther 2:
12 The turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women. 13 When the young woman went in to the king, she was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she went in; then in the morning she came back to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines; she did not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.
I’m sure there has been a lot of apologetic ink spilled trying to turn this into something else, but it seems pretty clear to me: Esther’s “chosen for such a moment as this” career begins with her going into the king as he tries out all the women in his harem, and she apparently made good enough of an impression during that single night for him to keep her around. What’s also clear to me is that there’s nothing in here to criticize Esther about: What’s icky about this, it’s a king who leverages his power to have sexual access to a whole collection of women and who reserves the right to throw them back into the second harem without ever seeing him again. Yet, it’s hard to imagine that Latter-day Saint (or other conservative Christian) leaders would see Esther as living the strict sexual ethic that has come to define conservative Christianity. That’s what bothered me as a missionary, during a time when I supported that strict sexual ethic: How could we lift up Esther as the clear heroine of this story that she is if she didn’t live by the standards that I had been raised to live by? (Though again, this is probably best read as systematic sexual assault on the part of the king, so my reaction was problematic for a number of reasons.)
This memory came back to me this week as I read about the inauguration of a new president of Brigham Young University, my alma mater. The official Church news release about the event includes this:
Like Esther of old, President Reese has been “raised up for such a time as this, a time where we contemplate the history of Brigham Young University as well as what prophets have asked this institution to become,” Elder Rasband said.
I can’t help but wonder if Esther would be a flattering comparison point for Latter-day Saint leaders if they recognized that Esther was sexually active in ways that their church doesn’t approve of. Of course, Esther is one of many women in the Bible who don’t live by the sexual ethic of contemporary conservative Christianity, but Christians have become good at ignoring those inconvenient facts in order to hold them up as heroines without yielding on their strict teachings. Yet, especially at places like BYU, that papering over matters. Elsewhere in the Church’s news release, we read this:
President Reese was also charged to be “the university’s chief moral and spiritual officer” and to teach and amplify the university mission with each member of the university community.
BYU is currently doing a lot to keep faculty and students in line with Latter-day Saint teachings, and “moral and spiritual officer” seems to me to be a clear reference to that. Yet, if President Reese is like Esther, maybe we should consider that part of Esther’s being “raised up for such a time as this” was a sex life that would have gotten her kicked out of BYU. There’s lots to love about Esther—and all the other women of the Bible whose stories we selectively edit—and I think she ought to be a heroine for all Christians (and not just!). Yet, there’s something self-serving and hypocritical about holding her up as an example without wrestling with the fact that her exemplary life doesn’t actually line up all that well with one’s beliefs about religion and morality.
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