Trauma and The Book of Esther
Growing up, I loved the book of Esther. This isn’t unique to me, even now as I am walking through Esther with my high school youth, a few of the girls have said it’s one of the books they have read over and over again, a consistent go-to when they check out during one of my lessons. You don’t have to search too deeply as to the reasons for Esther’s popularity with girls, the fact that it is one of two books of the Bible named for a heroine gives it an initial draw, but beyond that the story itself is a compelling one; it’s exciting, and scandalous, and darkly ironic and humorous. And when I was a child, it was romantic- a rags to riches story about how a low-status girl entered a beauty pageant and becomes queen. Kind of like The Bachelor meets Cinderella! What’s not to love?
As I grew, both in my faith and my ability to read with a greater comprehension of context, history and purpose, Esther remained one of my favorite books, but it took on quite a different flavor when I revisited it as an adult.
I was amazed to find that the characters that I thought I had known so well, had changed dramatically.
The King was no longer a romantic suitor. Rather, he was an oblivious, easily-manipulated drunk who embodied an intensely fragile masculinity- so much so that he was, with little prodding, convinced to sign off on a genocide; and I wonder how often were ancient rulers so terribly weak?
And Vashti! I found myself wondering so much about this woman; what was the cost of her no? What made her think she could say no? Had she done it before, would it have mattered if the King’s drunk loutish friends weren’t present to see his ego wounded? What happened to her? Was she banished? Was she downgraded from queen to one of hundreds of women in the harem?
Esther was no longer a beauty queen with a perfect pageant wave, suddenly she was a scared little girl, no older then the girls I love in the youth group. The face in my minds-eye moved from that of a Disney princess to something much more akin to a victim of human sex trafficking. I found myself lingering on that verse that was so innocuous to me as child:
“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 I wonder what did that “brought” and “taken” look like for the young Esther? Was she frightened? Did she wonder if she would ever see her home again? What of the other girls snatched from their homes and their families to be painted up and offered on a silver platter to a king? Or, perhaps, they felt very little because this was one of the best outcomes a woman could hope for? Is it that same Western Lens that sanitized the story originally that also breaks my heart for the trauma of the characters now?
At a conference I attended recently, one of the ways identified that oppressed people respond to trauma is to take on the habits of the oppressor. And I wonder, as I read of the months of beauty treatments and the way Esther dazzled everyone in the kingdom, how true this was of Esther. Was it just that she had a sparkling personality? Or was there something else entirely behind her fair façade? Did she smile with gritted teeth? Did she hang upon the words of the attendants as a matter of survival? Did she, at times, find herself enjoying it and then feel guilty?
And when it was Esther’s turn to ‘go before the king’ what did she feel? Was she scared? Was she wishing she could be somewhere else, or had she convinced herself that this is where she wanted to be, and, if so, I wonder if that is a habit passed on from generation to generation of occupied peoples as way to cope?
Obviously, we aren’t given answers to most of these questions that I now ponder as I read through Esther. And I know, that even the questions I ask are framed with a Western privilege that is far removed from the culture. But, despite the distance in time and culture, I can’t not imagine her as profoundly human. I have to assume she felt; and she felt and felt strongly. And, despite my perspective shift in the book, the deep resilience and humanity of Esther was clearer than ever.
This could be said of many books in the Bible, but this was a significant book for me because it was the first one to challenge how my western lens sanitizes Scripture, much to the detriment of its potency. I found that Christ spoke much louder to me in his word when I was able to lay aside a western, modern, and even at times “Christian” view of Scripture.
And that’s the power of Story. That’s the power of sitting with the weight of the lives that were lived and recounted on the pages of the Bible; to feel it deeply in my heart and my bones that I believe in a sacred holy text that is wrapped up in the flesh, blood, life, choices and trauma of real people.
If I can let the story speak to me, before I bring any subsequent theology to it, for me, that draws me closer to the heart of God in the story. When I can stop looking so hard for what God was trying to teach me, and just let the story God gave me speak on its own, my humanity starts to change in profound ways, the root of who I am changes, not just theology (all though that necessarily is impacted too).
I change, the way I see people changes, and the way I see God changes. God reveals himself through his word, which is comprised so much of story, and that changes how I see him. And when I sit with the overwhelming trauma of it all, when I don’t hurry towards redemption, when I wonder and ask and cry over the fear and uncertainty of the people in it, I feel myself anchored in the story even more.
God moves from being one caught up in mere theology and faith systems, and becomes a God entrenched in the mucky story of his people. He is a God who chose to reveal something about himself in the story of a young girl, living under a foreign power, who is trafficked from her home. And, even as I write that, as I come to that truth once again, I cry. Because the stories that God chooses to reveal himself in are not so far away from me as I once believed; they are not all wrapped in power and untouchable wordly strength, but wrapped in abuse, trauma, pain and powerlessness.
He reveals himself through Scripture like this, and calls it holy and sacred revelation. And this, more than anything else, makes me hunger for the rest of God’s story, and makes me believe that I have a place in it.