There has been a lot of discussion of Esther lately in the blogosphere. Before that, there had also been lots of discussion of sexual abuse in religious organizations of various backgrounds. I have thought a lot on the two subjects, Esther and sexual abuse. I stare off in space in thought, talk to myself in my car, stare off in space some more, think through the Scripture I know, look up other Scripture online, and so forth. The title of this blog is Practical Theology. It’s my core mission statement – what I believe about God (theology) and what He teaches us through Scripture (doctrine) is practical. No matter how one practically responds to the issues of sexual abuse and victimization, it is inevitably tied to our underlying belief system. In light of that, I’ve been reflecting on what belief system could cause a believer to label Esther a sinner as opposed to a victim in the particular details of her story.
I think the doctrinal issue at play is a view of total depravity that is not supported by Scripture. I love tulips. But I think that our term total depravity may slightly misrepresent the issue. Pervasive depravity may be a better term for it, though PULIP just doesn’t have the same ring. I was first exposed to the terminology pervasive depravity through Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. I’m doubtful anyone would label them as reformed lightweights. Sometimes teachers claim reformed language without fully understanding the totality of a reformed perspective on an issue. I do that at times, and I found my own recent education on the issue of depravity through a well trained reformed pastor enlightening compared to my less than accurate previous understanding.
Here’s the issue with depravity. Scripture clearly presents that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. This does NOT mean, however, that every person is as bad as they possibly could be. It does not mean that every person always makes the wrong decision. It does not mean that no person is able to help or be good to another. No, our depravity is better expressed as pervasive than total. Pervasive means it affects all aspects of ourselves. It is spread throughout, and we are unable to reverse it. But it does not mean that every response every time in every situation is 100% or totally wrong. I hear this wrong view of depravity discussed as Jesus wears the only white hat, and everyone else has black hats. Or Jesus is the only hero, and everyone else is the bad guy. There’s a sense in which that is pervasively true, but it is not totally true. *Note that such subtleties matter a great deal when discussing something as sensitive as sexual subjugation.*
This difference is crucial for understanding Esther’s situation. If you think that all people make bad decisions all the time, well, first that is really depressing, and second it’s just not true. In Esther’s case, you then likely interpret the fact that she ends up in the king’s harem and eventually as his wife due to her own poor choices, because, well, that’s the nature of man (or woman) in your belief system. That paradigm has no category for the honest to goodness VICTIM. If you are totally bad all the time, then of course you made only bad choices along the way that led to your victimization.
But the Bible does have a category called the oppressed. And when Scripture refers to the oppressed, it does not address them as moral agents responsible for their own oppression.
Psalm 10:17-18 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Other Scripture indicates that all of us are responsible for our own sin, but not necessarily for our own oppression. There are true victims in Scripture, put in situations due to circumstances (and other people) outside of their control. Esther, like Ruth, is in this category. Sinners? Yes. But not in the circumstances out of their control that are recounted in the books by their names.
It’s very easy for someone with power who is not threatened to surmise what they would do if they had NO power and were threatened. In contrast, anyone who has been threatened sexually and feared for their life or the life of their family will likely give a very different perspective when reading Esther than the one that she contributed sinfully to her own situation. My hope is that sexual assault or abuse victims will not walk away from the recent discussion on various sites about Esther with added shame that you didn’t do enough to prevent your abuse. Understand that while you are a sinner (as am I), you also very likely are simply a victim in that circumstance.
There is a reason that Scripture gives us NO indication of what went on that first night between Esther and the king. There is a reason that Scripture gives no moral judgement against any of Esther’s conduct ANYWHERE in Scripture. We can imply that she manipulated the king with her beauty and sexual appeal. But such implication is irresponsible. We can imply whatever we want on most any Scripture that doesn’t say something clearly itself. But that doesn’t make it right. The Bible only states the barest of facts about Esther’s first interaction with the king , and I believe that is part of God’s purposes in writing Esther. Apparently to our sovereign God who preserved His word for us through generations, what went on in that room was irrelevant to the point that God planned to communicate — His sovereign hand in circumstances that seem empty of His presence.
The bottom line of Esther has gotten lost in all of this, which is tragic. Many Scriptures teach us of the God who saves us from our own personal sin, the depravity within us. But Esther is very much about the God who also rescues us from the depravity without us. There have been many victims through the ages like Abel, who despite his own depravity was not responsible for his victimization by his brother, and their blood cries out for justice. The God of Esther sees and hears it, promising to work through circumstances and situations where His name is never mentioned to rescue His children.
*Here’s an article from last year on false humility and worm theology that may be helpful on this subject.*