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Reading Esther and Ruth in Tandem

Esther 1:1–2:23

By Sarah Puryear

This week in the Good Book Club, our reading plan moves from the story of Ruth to that of Esther. These two books are often paired with each other because they are the only two books of the Bible named after women, and this past fall the women’s Bible study that I co-lead at our parish studied them back-to-back. While Ruth is quite sparing in its direct references to God, the Book of Esther contains no direct references to God or divine activity. This omission invites us to read Esther in light of the full biblical canon. I have found reading Esther alongside Ruth very illuminating of God’s quiet work through these characters to fulfill his promises to his people.

These first two chapters of Esther set the stage for the rest of the book. They depict the pagan Persian culture in which Esther must fight for her survival and eventually that of her people. Whereas Ruth is a foreign woman from Moab who enters the insular community of an Israelite village, Esther is in many ways the inverse, as a Jewish woman navigating a foreign culture with little familial support beyond Mordecai. Both women are at a disadvantage due to their status — Ruth is both a widow and a Moabite; Esther is an orphan and a Jew. The opening scenes in Esther depict how the palace, the city of Susa, and the rest of the Persian kingdom run according to the whims of the extravagant, rash, and petulant King Xerxes. Esther is inexorably drawn into his orbit in chapter two because of her beauty and his search for a new queen to replace Vashti.

Esther is no Disney princess story, in which the young woman joins a beauty contest, hoping to be chosen by the handsome prince. The events described in Esther 2:4 suggest these women are taken forcibly — they are “gathered” and placed in the “care” or custody of the king’s eunuch; and Esther is “taken” from her only family member, Mordecai, to the king’s section of the harem for virgins. In the harem she is prepared for months to spend one night in the king’s chamber to be tested sexually, after which she will be returned to the section of the harem for concubines, where she will wait to see if the king remembers her and calls her back. Esther’s chances of being chosen as queen are slim to none. Being included in this search for a queen is no honor; it likely offers no prospects beyond a life sentence as a sexual slave.

Ruth also faced bleak prospects when she returned to Israel with Naomi. The Old Testament gives repeated warnings about the dangers of Israelite men marrying Moabite women. At best, she could hope that the Israelites would follow the commandment to not oppress the alien in their land (Ex. 23:9).

These first two chapters of Esther introduce the theme of reversal of fortunes, one that we also saw in Ruth, as Naomi and Ruth’s sorrow, loss, and shame eventually turn to joy, abundance, and restored honor. At the beginning of Esther, we see this theme at play in the contrast between the characters of Vashti and Esther. After one act of insubordination, Vashti loses her status as queen, and another young woman is elevated to her place. Despite being in a foreign land and forced to hide her identity as a Jew, Esther quickly wins favor, first with the eunuchs in the harem, and then with King Xerxes. Esther’s unexpected favor and role in God’s larger story reminds us of Ruth, who found favor with Boaz and as a result became part of the lineage of King David.

In her commentary on Ruth and Esther, Marion Ann Taylor notes this theme of reversal and suggests reading it alongside the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2 (p. 196). The Song of Mary is relevant here as well, for both women sing in praise of God, who cares for the poor and lifts them from the dust heap, while casting down the proud and strong who set themselves up against God. In these two songs we can hear refrains from the stories of Ruth and Esther, who, despite the odds stacked against them, received God’s favor and were called to play important roles in his larger purposes.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Ruth to draw on as we read Esther is the way that Ruth depicts the work of God through ordinary people. In Ruth, God is at work through seemingly trivial human decisions or coincidences, weaving a cohesive and redemptive story even in the face of great tragedy and uncertainty. While the Book of Esther is more circumspect about God’s activity, Mordecai will hint at God’s behind-the-scenes work in chapter four when he suggests that Esther’s elevation as queen has a greater purpose for her people. Though Mordecai does not reference God directly, in light of Ruth and of the rest of the biblical canon, we can God’s hand at work, bringing redemption, salvation, and protection to his people, even in a situation of exile. As you read the Book of Esther alongside Ruth, may God open your eyes to see his hand at work in the world about you (BCP, p. 372), just as God was at work in the lives of these two women.


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