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Eisegesis in Esther

Exegesis is reading “out of” a text the meaning intended by the author. It is the preferred method of dealing with Scripture among the theologians and pastors/teachers I respect. It takes into account the context of a passage, the author’s intent, and other Scripture that reflects on the passage at hand. It is an imperfect science, and I would never suggest that any two esteemed theologians would “exegete” the same text of Scripture and always reach the same conclusions. However, I can pretty much guarantee that even fewer preachers “eisegete” the same text and reach the same conclusion, because eisegesis is when a pastor/teacher projects onto a text his/her own presuppositions. A clear indication of eisegesis is when a pastor/teacher uses something that is not in the text or even in the whole of Scripture as a foundational presupposition for their message on a text. Pastors who do this, in my experience, have their own agenda they want to present to their audience and often choose a text or book of the Bible that they can manipulate to further this agenda. I have a low view of eisegesis obviously. In fact, it’s my all-time biggest spiritual pet peeve. 

From time to time, I hear of eisegesis concerning the Book of Esther – pastors teaching from Esther not with Scripture as their foundation but their own presuppositions projected onto it. I hear it from other passages as well, but it gets my attention when it is in Esther because Esther has a story that I particularly care about as a woman. I want to see the story of Esther stewarded well primarily because it’s a beautiful account of God’s sovereign hand at work in ugly circumstances! Though God is not mentioned in the book, He gives us a glimpse of what His sovereignty looks like in a story with heroes who never actually speak His name. So much of our daily lives involve such crises. We ask, “Where is God in this?!” Esther reminds us that He’s there, and He’s in control, even when no one around you mentions His name.

I also care about the correct handling of the book of Esther because Esther was a sexually subjugated woman in unfair circumstances. Over the years, much eisegesis on the story of Esther (and the story of Ruth) has sprung from pastors with a bad understanding of women’s issues overall and the history of sexual subjugation in particular. I’m sensitive to how such stories are handled as I watch many of my sisters in Christ struggle with sexual histories which include abuse and subjugation. Esther’s story is one we must steward well.

There are two bad pieces of eisegesis concerning Esther that I have heard. One uses Esther to teach women about Biblical submission to their husbands. I confronted that view here. The other projects onto Esther a sexually promiscuous history. That one disturbs me most of all because a straightforward reading of Scripture presents a very clear picture of a young virginal Jewish woman, not unlike Mary the mother of Jesus, who is funneled to the king simply because she is beautiful. Such eisegesis reveals an ugly assumption about beautiful women – that they universally, even the virginal ones of good ancestry, want to tempt men. That they AIM to tempt men. That they choose their dress deliberately to provoke lust in men. This is not to say that some women do not do that very thing. Proverbs is clear that such women exist and wisely warns men away from them. But Esther is not that woman. If you do not hold the presupposition that beautiful women deliberately invite lust, Esther’s situation seems clear from a straightforward reading of the text.

Esther 2 

2 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3 And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. 4 And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.

Fact 1: She was a virgin.

Fact 2: She was beautiful.

Fact 3: The king holding Israel captive sent officers to gather all beautiful virgins to his harem.

Fact 4: The king holding Israel captive chose Esther because she was most pleasing to him.

As you read through the story of Esther’s time in the harem, there is no fact cited in Scripture that indicates Esther WANTED the king’s attention or MANIPULATED circumstances to attract his favor. Maybe she did, but if we indicate that in our teaching, it is eisegesis plain and simple because the text itself does not say that. It doesn’t even hint at that.   It does state plainly that she gained favor, but the entire underlying premise at every turn in the story is that our unnamed God is the one giving and removing favor of either Esther, Haman, or Mordecai.

My personal presuppositions lead me to believe that Esther was fearful, drug from her hometown against her will. I imagine her horror upon entering the harem. How very foreign such sexualization of women must have been to this young Jewish virgin. Yet, I admit that this view is likely some form of eisegesis on my part as well. I project onto Esther a mindset that is not stated in Scripture though it could possibly be inferred. And the mindset I project is based in my presuppositions – primarily that  the curse of Genesis 3 reveals that men will oppress women, and history has proven that truth over and over again. That at least is a presupposition based on Scripture.  The neat thing about Esther’s story is that this young virginal woman, thrust into a lifestyle foreign and distasteful to her, still managed to honor her God, gain favor with people, and be used by Him to save her people.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times—conservative, complementarian Christians need to get better at confronting poor teaching among their own on women in Scripture. When prominent complementarians use such eisegesis on a Biblical text involving the sexual subjugation of a woman and no other complementarian leader confronts them, the whole of teaching on submission in marriage, male eldership, and a woman’s particular role in reflecting the image of God gets tainted. I strongly denounce the view that projects onto the average beautiful virgin some type of promiscuous deliberate seduction of men.  Google “what were you wearing when you were raped” for a sobering wake up call if you hold to such a mindset.   Such thinking is exactly what God is redeeming us FROM, and when Jesus’ kingdom is fully realized, such foolishness will be rebuked once and for all.

17 Responses to Eisegesis in Esther

  1. Flyaway September 13, 2012 at 4:50 am #

    I was in a writing class with several other women when I read my story of taking a bus from Washington D.C. to Eau Clair, Wisconsin alone when I was 13. A solder befriended me and helped me to find the right bus when I had to change buses in Chicago. One of the other women in the class said that she probably would have been attacked and raped. I was protected and had no problems in that way. Years later I looked at a picture of myself and my cousin who was a month younger than I was. She had an hour glass figure and had many boys interested in her. I was straight up and down. Maybe that is why the boys left me alone! My daughter and a friend traveled in Europe together and some men tried to pick them up but my daughter wisely helped her friend to avoid these guys. One of the men told her she had inner strength. That must have been what Esther was like.

  2. Ali September 13, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    Totally agree that to portray Esther as a seductress is eisegesis…though it might be exegesis of the preacher.

  3. Marg September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I was reading Judges 16 the other day which is about Samson and Delilah. I had assumed that Delilah was a seductress. That was the message I had picked up from various sources. However as I read the text carefully I realized that there is no hint that Delilah used her sexuality to coerce Samson. In fact the text indicates that Samson capitulated to her nagging (Judg 16:16).

    Esther on the other hand has always struck me as a virtuous young women.

    It saddens me that Bible women are misrepresented by biased interpreters who have negative preconceived views of women.

  4. Anonymous September 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Thank you. Christ’s body-how we need one another; we do not cease praying for one another,asking to be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;strengthened with all power. Christ in us, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

  5. Rachael Starke September 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Wendy,

    YES and AMEN.

    What a terrible irony that this book is used to entrench stereotypes, instead of destroy them! I don't know why I had read into the order of events that Mordecai had offered Esther up willingly, or even reluctantly. But the grammar of the ESV indicates that she was taken by fiat, if not by force. The earlier incident with Vashti gives us at least a strong indication of how the king viewed women, especially those he felt he possessed. The miracle is that God first gave Esther her beauty (IOW, being beautiful is a gift), but then she was able to use it for God's purpose, confident in God's provision should the likely thing happen and she die. We glamorize the fact that she lived. But Esther wasn't being fatalistic with her “if I perish…” line. The King had already shown once that he valued respect and obedience more than loved his wife (Vashti).

    I'll stop before I sermonize anymore, but this was great, great stuff.

  6. Rachael Starke September 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    And another AMEN to Ali. LOL. Totally true, and thus really disappointing.

  7. Luma Simms September 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

    Excellent, Wendy! This is one of the reasons I long for women to KNOW their Bibles, to KNOW their theology! May the Lord bring a love for Biblical knowledge to the women of this generation.

  8. Wendy September 14, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Love it, Ali!

  9. Brittany September 14, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    i learn something every time i stop by here. really great writing!

  10. Wendi September 14, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    yes and amen! thank you so much for this…I've recently heard some of this “teaching” on Esther and I was appalled! I've been in conservative evangelical churches my whole life, and I've never heard a pastor teach Esther in the way it's currently being taught by ironically, one who considers himself a complementarian. Thank you for sharing TRUTH!

  11. Terri September 14, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    You, my dear, are a breath of fresh air.

    I am so encouraged every time you write and combat the ill-thought, overbearing, patronizing view of women in too many churches.

    Have you ever written anything about deaconesses? I would love to be directed to it if you have. thanks.

  12. Wendy September 14, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Thank you, Terri! Here's something on women deacons.

  13. Amy Brunton-Williams September 14, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    Thank-you for this. You say it so clearly. I know many blogs who are writing on this subject and are kind of getting ugly about it but you clearly present what the Bible says and are calm and more mature about it. Thank-you again!

  14. ronnyfm October 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I had the privilege to preach about Esther some months ago… I wish I would have read this before the series… and though I described the dark rules of the “contest”, in the other hand, the verse 2.15: “she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised”, led me to the conclusion she participate in one way or another, though I didn't described her as being a sultry or promiscuous woman, how do you deal with that verse?

  15. Wendy October 8, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    Thanks for participating in the comments, Ronnyfm. That verse suggests to me that she simply did what she was advised to do by the person in charge of her. At this point, she has no control over any of her circumstances. I imagine she was simply bucking it up and accepting a fate she knew she had no control over. I think there is a reason that Scripture gives us NO indication of what went on that night. We can imply whatever we want. But the Bible only states the barest of facts, and I believe that is part of God's purposes in writing Esther. Because what went on in that room was irrelevant to the point that God is getting across — His sovereign hand in circumstances that seem empty of His presence.

  16. ronnyfm October 9, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    Thank you for your quick response. Without a doubt, chapter two was a truly headache to me… and still there are circumstances in the context to this point in the history regarding the pious life of both Esther and Mordecai (they didn't come back to Israel but stayed there in Susa… for example) that she played a role in the election but definitively thanks to this post I'm convinced that I treated lightly the sexual subjugation in the chapter. I hope to the opportunity to preach this book again in the near future, because we see in each chapter the Hidden King working and being faithful to his people, and even in such a perverted contest, Esther found grace.

  17. Wendy October 9, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    “We see … the Hidden King working and being faithful to his people …”

    Amen to that!! What a beautiful illustration of the sovereignty of God.