October 1, 2006
1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.
2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."
3 Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me--that is my petition--and the lives of my people--that is my request.
4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king."
5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?"
6 Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
That literally makes me a whistleblower. People have been making and blowing whistles since we lived in caves, but “whistleblower” in its figurative sense is a modern term, entering our language only as recently as the 1970s.
Whistleblowers are employees or insiders who become aware of wrongdoing within the corporation or agency. They learn of products or policies or practices that harm citizens or customers, or employees, and they make that information public.
Sherron Watkins, a former vice president at Enron, is one whistleblower who was in the news this year. Though Enron collapsed back in 2001, the fraud and conspiracy trial of Enron’s former chairman and president made its way through the courts this year, and it brought Sherron Watkins to the witness stand.
Her actual whistle-blowing was indirect. Back in 2001, before the collapse of the company, she brought her concerns about strange accounting practices to Chairman Kenneth Lay and also to a friend at the Arthur Anderson accounting firm. That friend told Enron’s auditor who, in turn, told Congress.
Watkins received a lot of praise. On January 18, 2002, Time named her their “Person of the Week.” In its report of her testimony earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal said that she was “probably the closest thing to a public hero to emerge from the Enron saga.” [Emshwiller, John R. and Ann Davis. “Famed Enron critic Watkins helps U.S. shine light on Lay’s conduct,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2006, C3.] Sherron Watkins is now on the lecture circuit making $30,000 a pop for her speeches, so I guess whistleblowing can sometimes be profitable.
The praise and subsequent good fortune that have come to Sherron Watkins, however, is the exception. Many whistleblowers either lose their jobs or become outcasts in the company. Often they are branded as “tattletales,” or “snitches.” They followed by investigators, forced to spend their savings on legal defense and end up broke and broken. Make no mistake, the consequences of whistleblowing can be ugly and dangerous.
Esther knew that. Esther is one of those strong female characters in the Bible, like Sarah, Rebecca, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Mary and others.
In the book of Esther, we have this Persian king or Shah called Ahasuerus. This was probably a title. There is no Persian Shah with that name. He is usually identified as Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.E.). There is an easy way to remember how to pronounce his name. Ahasuerus is “I-has-you-errors”—which is pretty poor English, but a close approximation of his name—and his character.
Ahasuerus certainly had errors. He was not the brightest candle in the box. He was fickle and totally clueless.
Some years into his reign, he took into his harem a beautiful young woman named Esther. She was Jewish, but neither Ahasuerus nor anyone in the royal court was aware of it. Esther, relying on both her beauty and her intelligence, quickly rose to become first lady of the harem—or queen.
Some time afterwards, her cousin Mordecai overheard a plot to kill the Shah. He sent a warning to Esther, who warned her husband. The plotters were executed and the Shah was saved. Thus, both Mordecai and Esther had a high place in Ahasueras’ favor.
But there is a villain in the plot. Highly placed in the king’s court was a devious man named Haman, a toady, a flatterer, a scoundrel, a phony, but a phony with power. Haman hated Mordecai, mainly because Mordecai saw through his pompous fakery and did not respect him. Haman could not handle that. So, Haman persuaded the Shah to issue a death edict against “a certain people” living in the empire. Haman did not tell the Shah the targets were Jews, and the Shah did not ask.
When Mordecai learned of this edict, he asked Esther to intervene with the Shah. What followed was an intricate and carefully planned approach to the monarch. This was a very dangerous thing for Esther to do. She was going to blow the whistle on this edict and it was the Shah’s own edict.
She was successful, however, and in the end, Haman was hanged on the very gallows on which he had planned to hang Mordecai. The original edict could not be withdrawn. The Shah was too enamored with his power to withdraw any law he had issued. But he could issue a second edict that permitted the Jews to defend themselves. As a result, the Jews were saved. The story has a happy ending and is celebrated to this day in Judaism in an annual festival called Purim.
But let us consider the four main characters in this story.
First, Ahasuerus, the Shah. He is rich and powerful and fully enjoys his position of privilege. He wants things to continue to go well for himself, but he does not want to be bothered with details. As an example, consider that when Haman came to him with his false charge that a certain group within the empire was not keeping the Shah’s laws, Ahasuerus did not even bother to inquire who they were. He was quite content to authorize Haman to handle the matter however he saw fit, especially when Haman sweetened the deal by dropping a large bribe into the king’s treasury. To modernize this, Ahasuerus is the President or CEO who wants to be able to say, “I did not know,” when something goes wrong. It is called “deniability.” Leaders always want to have “deniability” about the misdeeds of their subordinates.
Next, Haman. He is a ruthless man who personifies evil. He is vain, greedy, filled with hate, and totally without scruples. Add to this to his wealth and high office, and that makes him a dangerous man. He’s the corporate “go-to guy” when you want to get something done, that probably ought not to be done. The leaders always deny knowing about the Haman’s of the world, but they always like to have them around to do their dirty work.
Thirdly, we have Mordecai. He is a good and decent person but lacking in power or wealth. He is the little guy, the working stiff, the guy on the bottom. He is supposed to be served by people like Ahasuerus and Haman. That was the theory of the government of the empire, but in fact, nobody in high places cares about him or the people like him.
Finally, there is the heroine of the story, Esther. You might think that being married to the Shah makes her a powerful insider in the empire’s government, but not so. We should be careful not to impose Western ideas about marriage upon this ancient story. Persian marriage was nothing like the union of equals we consider marriage to be today. Esther was not a queen in any modern or Western sense. She was just first among the women in the Shah’s harem. She was the current favorite. She was the one who would be trotted out when the Shah wanted to impress visiting dignitaries with the beauty of the women at his disposal. Women had no role in governmental affairs in the Persian Empire. They were expected simply to keep the men happy. So any power or influence Esther has depends entirely upon how happy she makes the Shah.
Esther herself is a person of great goodness, but that does not become obvious until the king’s edict puts all of her people under threat, and she takes the extraordinary step of blowing the whistle on a plot in which her husband, the Shah, is unknowingly the main participant. By considering her actions, however, we can learn some things about the nature of goodness; we can learn some things that can help us when we are in circumstances where everyone around us seems to be approving of evil.
First, Esther shows us that goodness is courageous. When David fought Goliath, he showed great courage. He put his life on the line for what he believed was right. Esther shows at least that much courage when she confronts the Shah with evil in his own government.
Once Mordecai informed Esther of Haman’s plot against the Jews, the immediate problem was how to get an audience with the Shah. Like all empires, the Persian Empire operated on protocols, and by those protocols, a woman from the harem could not approach the Shah unless he summoned her, and he had not done so for a month. He held her life in his hands. If she angered him, he could have her executed. Esther pointed all this out to Mordecai, but he urged her to proceed anyway; there was just too much at stake for Esther not to make the attempt. And so she finally agreed, saying, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
Secondly, Esther shows us that goodness is not dumb. After Esther took the huge risk of approaching the Shah on her own, he welcomed her, but then, instead of blurting out her request, she invited both the Shah and his chief minister, Haman, to a banquet. At that first banquet, the Shah promised her anything she wanted, but all she asked was that the two men come to a second banquet. Only at that second banquet, when the time was right, did she make her request — that she and her people be spared. Even then, however, she was very careful how she worded the request. She had to give the Shah a way out of the situation without accepting any blame himself for the situation. Esther was smart enough and careful enough to do that.
The Third thing we learn from the story of Esther is that goodness is oriented toward others. Esther herself was in no immediate danger. Even if Haman discovers that she is a Jew, no one is going to go into the Shah’s harem and kill his favorite.
So, when Esther chose to act, it was not herself she was saving. Mordecai had painted the larger picture: “Who knows?” he said, in 4:14, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Mordecai suggests that it is in God’s providence that Esther is in the Shah’s harem, and so she is in a position to do good for others, and that is her main goal, helping others.
That should be our main goal. We should pray that God will make us courageous like Esther so that even when we are faced with corporate evil or government evil, we shall still stand for the truth, we shall still do good. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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