Queen Esther, Crafting her People’s Destiny
Musings in CMi and the Bible is a 12-part series on each of the 12 Dimensions of Culture of the Cultural Mapping Inventory (CMi). You can find the overview article here.
The book of Esther is a fascinating book in the Bible. It is the story of an orphaned girl from a subjugated people, who became the queen of Persia and saved her people from destruction. If you have time, read it before continuing this article. It’s only 10 chapters long, all storytelling. As a bonus, read 1 Samuel 15 too, for that is where the plot begins.
The whole story breathes a Power/Fear worldview with Honor/Shame mixed in. In this article we'll focus on the Destiny Dimension, looking at Agency by an underdog in a Directed Destiny world.
The Destiny Dimension
The Cultural Dimension of Destiny looks at your locus of control. Are you in control of your life and future (Directive Destiny-oriented) or is someone else in control (Directed Destiny-oriented)? This someone else can be another person, fate, karma, a god, etc. Of course, every Christian who takes their faith seriously would say that God is in control of their lives, yet a lot of (Western) Christians are still Directive Destiny oriented in their cultural mindset and act accordingly in daily life.
In a Directed Destiny oriented culture, there are always some who are in charge of their own life – the leaders, the top dogs – and they are many times the ones who control everybody else’s life. – Your position in society decides how much control you have on your life. In Directive Destiny oriented cultures, everyone has a sense of agency, a sense that they can control their future, if they put themselves to the hard work of doing so.
Agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. Someone with full agency is autonomous, can do what they want, when they want and where they want. Someone with zero agency is either in a vegetative state (no capability) or in complete bondage (no ability to act on one’s will).
The story of Queen Esther (Esther 1-4)
The Persian society was a patriarchal society, where men had dominion over the women, husbands over their wives and fathers over their daughters. Wives and daughters were often viewed as property rather than family members. This doesn’t mean that a husband wouldn’t love his wife or daughters but that he had total control over them.
When Ester became queen (after Queen Vashti was deposed), Mordechai, her cousin who raised her, became a fairly high ranking official in king Ahasuerus’ court. Around the same time, Haman a higher ranking official at the king’s court, became the favorite servant of the king. Haman was an Agagite, which was an Amelekite clan. One of Mordechai’s ancestors was the brother of King Saul. 600 years prior, King Saul had captured the ancestor of Haman, King Agag and killed many of his clan . After his capture, King Agag was killed by the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 15). In many Honor/Shame-oriented societies, these kinds of events are not forgotten but passed on to future generations. (1)
When Haman became the king’s favorite servant, all the commoners and lower servants were ordered to pay honor to him (e.g. by kneeling or bowing down). Mordechai refused to kneel or pay extra honor to Haman. In retaliation and after learning Mordechai ’s ancestry, Haman persuaded the king to have all the Jews murdered. However, Haman didn’t know that Queen Esther was also a Jew.
Mordechai urged Esther, who was oblivious to this decree, to plead with the king and seek mercy for the Jewish people. She was very hesitant, as she hadn’t been called into the king’s presence for a month (she lived in her own, separate palace) and walking into the king’s room without an invitation could have grave consequences. Esther was not in control of her destiny, and she sure felt that way at that moment.
The example of Queen Vashti, who was deposed and punished for refusing to dance naked before the king and his noble men, all half-drunk, still loomed large (Esther 1). Queen Vashti had little time or choice than be direct in her communication, refusing to do something that was below her status and rank as the queen. In that era and culture, this type of entertainment was done by harem girls and concubines, not by the queen. (See e.g. Daniel 5, where the queen is strikingly absent from a similar party.)
Queen Vashti chose her honor and dignity over her life and refused to come before the king. The king felt put on the spot by her refusal and directness and banished her from his presence. (We don’t know if she was just stripped of her royalty and wealth, or executed. But the later was very likely.) (2)
Queen Vashti exercised control over her life by standing up for her dignity but she had little agency. She didn’t have time to strategize and craft a plan in this situation. Would she have had more time, the outcome might have been different.
In the past, Esther showed little agency or even determination to craft her own destiny. She was very obedient to her cousin Mordechai. She was taken from Mordechai’s care to enter the king’s beauty contest (which automatically made her a concubine, a part of his harem), she goes with the flow, and by some miracle becomes the king’s favorite and thus the new queen.
Did she really show that little desire and abaility to craft her future? I think she was well aware of the boundaries within which she could operate and that crossing those boundaries would have grave consequences (see Queen Vashti’s fate). The sky wasn’t the limit for her but within those boundaries she was definitely actively shaping her future. It says she pleased the king’s chief eunuch, Hegai, and won his favor. (Esther 2:8-9) Yes, these are activities by which she obtained a powerful ally. Later on, she used that favor and got advise from Hegai on how to best please the king and increase her chances to become queen instead of another mere concubine or harem girl.
It worked. Esther won the favor of the king became the next queen of Persia (Esther 2:15-18).
Queen Esther crafting her people’s destiny (Esther 5-9)
How did Queen Esther respond to Haman’s threat after she was convinced it was serious and would affect her too?
Using an indirect approach to maximize the chances of success and minimize potential negative consequences
When Mordechai asked Esther to go into the throne room and ask the king to change the law and have mercy on them and their people, Esther hesitantly agreed to go plead with the king. It was risky and could have consequences for her. (She could have assumed she, the queen, was safe from the decree.) She hadn’t seen the king for about a month which could point to a cooling of the relationship and lessening of the king’s favor on her.
She took a very cautious and indirect approach to ensure the king’s favor and a good outcome for her and her people.
Seeking God’s help to bring about a favorable outcome
Esther knew that in the end God is in control and she and her people spent three days fasting and seeking his favor in this predicament. She beseeched God because she wasn’t satisfied with her situation/destiny and wanted to see change. (Esther 4:16-5:1)
Appearance and setting are important
In the same way, Queen Esther sought to bend the king’s heart into her favor as her life depended on it. She didn’t just go into the king’s court in her everyday clothes but paid attention to her appearance and dressed up in her royal robes to honor the king with her appearance and make his heart favorable to her. (5:1)
Agency knows when to stop and wait for other’s to act
When she went to the king, Queen Esther didn’t barge into the throne room but waited at the entrance to give the king time to notice her and waits for his response. Another step of honoring/respecting the king, waiting from afar instead of just barging into the room.
It worked as Esther found favor in his eyes, and he extended his scepter to her as a sign of approval. (5:1-2)
Indirect Communication helps to secure agency where you have no real power
Queen Esther used a lot of indirect communication (see this article) to approach the king and get things her way. This is fairly typical in a Power/Fear-oriented society. The one with less power uses indirect communication towards the one with more power. It worked and made sure that Esther got what she wanted. It’s a sign of being smart and exerting agency.
Seeking God’s favor worked and He bent the situation into Queen Esther’s favor
God stepped in to influence the king’s opinion of Esther’s people, the Jews. (Though I believe He was intentionally involved in every part of the story.) The king had a sleepless night. Maybe he was puzzled by what is wife was up to! His servants read from the royal history, the story of Mordechai saving the king’s life without getting a reward. The king ordered Haman, who happened to be walking outside the room, to publicly honor Mordechai. Haman begrudgingly obeyed. (6:1-14)
Esther knows when it’s time to be direct and plead for her life and future
At the second banquet, Esther finally used Direct Communication in her request. (After she made sure the king had at least one serving of wine to put him in a favorable mood.)
She spent time securing the king’s favor and noticed God was on her side too. Time for action! It all worked out in favor of Esther, Mordechai and the Jews. Haman got executed, the Jews were allowed to defend themselves and even avenge on their enemies and, Mordechai took the place as the king’s most influential and powerful servant.
Agency is established and Queen Esther and Mordechai use it wisely
With Haman dead and the Jews allowed to defend themselves, Queen Esther now had more formal agency, but she was still wise in using it, always mindful of the boundaries that were still there. She did get a lot bolder in asking and commanding but still made sure that King Xerxes felt honored as king. Esther 9:11-13, 29-32)
What is the moral of this story, from a perspective of Destiny?
In a Directed Destiny culture,
1. Succumbing to your fate, rebelling against it, and knowing what options are possible for you and how to attain them are three different attitudes toward destiny, each with its own outcomes.
2. It helps to know your place in society and not to rebel openly against it (unless you’re sure you can win the rebellion).
3. Find allies who are more powerful than you and secure their favor. I always pray and seek God’s favor in situations where I have little power or agency (or when I’m plain anxious), knowing that He has bent and can bend the situation into my favor.
4. For those who are not in power, tact wins over bluntness in most cases.
5. The stakes are high in a Power/Fear based culture and coming from an Innocence/Guilt culture and a place where I do have power and agency, I need to realize I can’t just tell people to exert agency. The consequences of exerting agency for them could be severe and I’m not the one suffering those consequences, they are. Caution and letting them choose their course of action is needed.
Click here for the article on the Story of Queen Esther through the lens of (direct vs. indirect) Communication.
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