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.
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.