“I’m a romantic, and I kind of believe in this fairy tale. I think that’s always been to my advantage. If you can believe in something great I feel that you can achieve something great. I have that same belief system with everything, from career, to my life to my personal life, to everything. And I will do everything it takes to not fail. I did everything it took, but it still failed.”
Katy Perry’s breakout album was in 2008. She had another album in 2010, a movie in 2012 and just released a new album in 2013. She’s at the top of her career. How long will it last?
In Katy’s movie the topic of her quick marriage and divorce comes up, which is what she talks about in this brief clip. Her faith in her ability to deliver for herself the life she imagines is glorious is challenged. What will she believe in?
Katy here basically articulates a sense of personal exceptionalism. She would be smart enough, hard working enough and talented enough to dodge the pitfalls that others have succumbed to. She still believes in her own exceptionalism, even though she knows full well it has failed her. She won’t give up the quest for the inner ring, no matter what it costs.
Lewis observed a couple of things about “the inner ring”
Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.
Shelf Life in the Age of Decay
For the person who actually breaks into the Billboard charts they stay there on average between 4 and 6 years.
There is a clear bias against women in the entertainment industry when it comes to longevity. Vulture did a major story comparing the age of Hollywood leading men compared to their love interests. You can probably guess the results.
For ladder climbers, those piercing the inner ring they had better make the most of their moment on top because there will be someone younger, hungrier, angrier, more talented who is waiting in the wings to take the stage away from them. Some will last longer than others, but it always, always comes to an end.
Esther, 9 Years Later
Esther arrived at the top, doing what it took, sleeping with whom it took and is Queen of Persia. What’s next?
There is a small story about Mordecai uncovering a plot against the king. Xerxes we know will actually, years later be killed in his bed, but that’s outside the story of this book.
Mordecai reported the plot to Esther who reported it to the king who gave him credit for the revelation. The event was recorded but Mordecai was never rewarded for his good deed. We are not told when in the chronology this took place, probably a while before the rise of Haman. All of these events, like much of our lives, are washed over, pushed back, under, aside by the new events that the river of time keeps pushing into the now.
When the crisis hits, nine years will have passed since Esther’s big break, since her crown winner performance in Xerxes bed. We will learn that Esther will not have had contact with the king for a month, probably meaning that she was less important to him than nine years before. She was no longer new or young or special. It is likely the king was sleeping with others, entertaining himself with them. The age of decay had taken its toll. Sure she was still secure in the palace, had wealth, comfort, security, but she was no longer special, if special be measured by the devotion of her husband the king. She would need a self built on something else.
Mordecai threatens the male social hierarchy as Vashti had for women
As the story progresses we learn that a new strongman has arisen in the empire named Haman. Haman has won the king’s favor, probably in the ways that men climb into the inner circles. He, initially, is a male counterpart to Esther. Esther used her beauty, her complicity to the whims of men to pierce the inner ring. Haman likely used money and ruthless power to win attention and the position he now sought. Esther won a competition by beauty, Haman likely won his by destroying competitors.
The kind of competition that the quest for the inner ring requires means destroying those who may present a threat. The story goes that Mordecai, for a reason that is not disclosed, refused to honor Haman in public. While all others would bow showing submission to Haman when he passed in the streets, Mordecai would not.
People begin to notice this, just like they noticed when Vashti refused to perform before the men of Susa at the king’s request. The competitive relational economy of power and intimidation is being checked. If Mordecai would be allowed to defy the king’s command and not do obeisance to Haman, people all over would begin to resist. The fabric of the coercive empire, now among the men would be jeopardized.
Haman did not rise through the ranks but ignoring insults, turning the other cheek or being merciful. He devises a scheme to not only check Mordecai, but crush him. In the way of empire, my well-being at your expense, no rebellion can be tolerated and the retribution must be swift and catastrophic. It is not enough that Mordecai be confronted, his entire family group must be destroyed.
The Jews of course were famous for not playing along with the other religions. While all other cultures simply assimilated the gods and practices of other peoples, and added gods to ever enlarging pantheons, the Jews often resisted and continued to not participate in the public temples or set Yhwh next to Marduk or Ra. This was Haman’s chance to rid the empire of dissent and enlarge himself in the process.
The Amalekites in the Story of God’s People
Karen Jobes notes that Haman’s name in Hebrew means “wrath”. We’ve seen before that names in this book tell part of the story, King Headache, Queen Beautiful, etc. Haman will be the source of the danger that creates this story.
We learned early on that Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin from the clan of Kish. Careful students of the Bible will immediately recognize that this is no ordinary family. Saul, the first king of Israel was from the tribe of Benjamin and was the son of Kish (1 Samuel 9). General “Wrath” is said to be an Agagite, or a son of Agag.
Agag was a king of the Amalekites who fought against Israel and Moses soon after they left Egypt. Yhwh commanded Moses to record that Yhwh will blot out the Amalekites. You can find this in Exodus 17.
It’s a funny thing to ponder that Yhwh wants Moses and Israel in perpetuity to remember a promise to destroy the reign of a ruler (Amalek and his heirs). It is noted that Yhwh himself will do this, and this is the Yhwh that has been doing wonders left and right in the desert. Surely he could have finished the job at Rephidim there with Moses and Israel. It seems that what Yhwh is doing with Amalek is giving him a part to play in a VERY long story.
We will run into the heirs of Amalek again in 1 Samuel 15 where Saul is now tasked to finish the job of utterly destroying the Amalekites. Saul being tall, strong and kingly was Israel’s hope for military power and security and now he is called upon to deliver on that promise.
Saul in 1 Samuel 15 wins the battle but spares king Agag and the best of the plunder for himself. He then lies about it to the retired judge and prophet Samuel who famously catches Saul in his lie, takes a sword and beheads Agag himself. Samuel then proceeds to ritualistically tear the kingdom away from Saul.
The rising of a “son of Agag” at this moment in the story of the people of God seems exactly right. Esther and Mordecai in their practice and identity seem compromised by empire, like their (Esther is in the same family too remember) great ancestral relative Saul, and this compromise threatens to destroy the people of God. It has been threatening them in terms of their identity, but now with the Haman’s scheme at genocide against the Jews arising Mordecai needed to either die in resisting or completely relent, lose his identity, become indistinguishable and set Yhwh next to the gods of Persia.
What it Costs
Religions are common, simple things. At some point we all face the fact of the limits of our power. Whether our power comes from family, beauty, strength, power, the age of decay wears down what we individually possess or corporately possess and what we value is threatened. At this point in desperation we look for help from whatever corner it may seem available, and once all material sources are exhausted we look for supernatural assistance. We hope, that in some way, fortune may favor us again and we might be delivered.
Esther and Mordecai have conspired to hide her religious and ethnic identity (in the ancient world those two things were normally one) and it seems they have had little or not emotional allegiance to Yhwh or his people. Now in this moment of crisis Mordecai’s thin faith seems to be triggered. He begins to mourn in sackcloth and ashes until Esther’s handlers notify her that something is wrong with her cousin. He then reveals to her Haman’s plan and bluntly informs her that even her place in the palace might not protect her from this. The age of decay comes to all.
She now assesses her assets and notes that she may perhaps have fallen out of favor with King Headache. He might have a new honey and if that new honey is the jealous type, like Haman, showing up at the throne may mean her head. She, like Mordecai come to a defining moment. What will they be? Who will they be? Will they double down on the way of empire, and try to save their own skins, or will they begin to believe in a larger story and see that perhaps God has placed them here to rescue the weak at the threat of their life and well-being.
Esther arrives at her defining moment and embraces her identity, Yhwh, and her allegiance to her place in the larger story even at the threat of her own life.
Readers of the book of Esther have long noted the transformation in Esther at this point. Many have debated whether or not she should be considered the main (named) character of the story or should it be Mordecai? I think the question of character development is key here. Chapter 4 ends not with Mordecai commanding Esther, but Esther commanding Mordecai. This woman will be the savior of Israel because she will place her life on the line for her people.
This moment is a turning point for Esther. She goes from being the docile, plaything that hides her identity with God, who continually compromises with empire, and works to serve herself to a woman of glory and stature who risks her security and position for the welfare of the weak.
The Way of the Cross
NT Wright in an address he gave for a Calvin Seminary conference (starting at minute 39) notes that Christianity has always been a thing where its fruit is born in sacrifice.
Often the greatest fruit born in Christianity is the sacrifice done where God seems most absent. The cross of Jesus is of course the central example. Jesus cries out that the Father has forsaken him (Psalm 22) while Jesus is doing is greatest work.
Here in the Esther story, where even the name of God is not mentioned, and where the people of God seemed to have lost their identity and allegiance to God, God shines through when a Hebrew orphan girl decides to put her own place of power, security, and even her life at risk in hopes of saving the weak.
It is exactly here that we see the way of God as the way of the cross in the midst of the age of decay. It will be in this way that God not only turns the tide of compromise, which was the implicit, slow, hidden threat in the story, but also turns the explicit threat around.
It is often not until we realize that the way of empire (my well-being at your expense) is bankrupt and is no help against the age of decay that we eventually abandon our trust in our own resources and begin to practice the costly, painful path of Jesus. These are the moments when God produces glory in our stories, whether they are publicly known or not. These are the moments when God’s glory begins to be seen in the world and we want him not only because we need him in our weakness, but because we desire him for his beauty and his love. Our hearts turn from wanting him because he’s useful to us, to wanting him for himself.
To hear Katy (Hudson) Perry’s painful story about her divorce is sad. To consider that this sadness has not yet brought her to the point of abandoning her reliance upon her own resources is sadder still.
The deliverance from the threat of Haman in the story of Esther will have to wait for next chapters, but the deliverance we see in this chapter is perhaps the most significant. Mordecai and Esther have ironically been blessed by the age of decay and by their enemy Haman. They have, in his threat, been delivered from living in the twilight of God’s presence, in shadow of the empire, and have fled now into the glorious light of the cruciform way of God. Their bluff has been called, and they have been called to take a side, to make a choice beyond what will preserve basic biological life.
The moment of Esther’s delivery from the shadow kingdom is when she declares “if I perish I perish.” Esther has been delivered from the only threat Empire really has, the power of the sword. She now is a type of who will be a better king than her ancestor Saul. She redeems the kingship of Saul because she now acts like a true king, the type of monarch who will lay down her life for her people.
If it had not been for the Agagite Haman, Esther would likely never have become the true queen of her people. Yhwh seems patient and crafty in his use of the Amalekites. They even serve his purposes.
I recently found the story of Bishop Nikolia Velimirovich who lived from 1881 to 1956. He was a Serbian Orthodox Bishop who was arrested by the Nazis and spent time at Dachau after the German invasion of Yugoslavia. His prayers have been recorded and published. He prayed prayers like this:
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Esther was saved by Haman in a strange way because he drove her from her faith in her beauty, in the power it brought her, and in her imagination that by clinging to empire she could save herself. Thanks to Haman, she began to seek her future in the one who would not be named in her book.