The story of Esther is one of those essential Sunday school lessons. We tell our girls to be brave like Esther, to be beautiful like Esther — but we don’t tell them what actually happened to Esther. We forget the darkness woven throughout her testimony and we exploit her story without honestly accounting for her victimization and trials.
Esther is a victim’s account of human trafficking.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power … for the purpose of exploitation.”
With this definition in mind, let us examine the story of Esther.
When we tell Esther’s story, we usually overlook that of her predecessor, Queen Vashti, the woman who refused a king. The text tells us that after seven days of banquets, the king drunk with wine, commanded his men to go and grab Queen Vashti, ordering her to go before all the people wearing her crown — possibly only her crown — for she was beautiful to behold. (1:10-11)
Too often we think that human trafficking involves trafficking people groups across borders. While this does happen, as we discover later in the story, no movement is required to meet the definition of human trafficking. What is required is coercion, abuse of power, and the exploitation of an individual — like a husband demanding his wife parade around without any clothes for the amusement of drunken men. When Queen Vashti refuses the king, she risks her life, and we see that refusal is not an option. (1:12) We’re never really told what becomes of Queen Vashti except that she was deposed of her position. And the King seeks a meek replacement.
“Let beautiful young virgins be sought out,” says the King’s decree. (2:3) And so, his appointed commissioners gathered all the beautiful young virgins from all the provinces and brought them to the harem, placing them under the custody of one of the king’s men.
Like countless women, men, boys, and girls, these young girls were trafficked across borders away from their homes. They are gathered. They are brought. They are placed in the custody of another.
While the other young girls’ stories avoid the mention of consent, Esther’s story brings the lack of it to the forefront. While the other girls were “gathered,” Esther was “taken.” (2:8)
And what do we know about her? She was an orphan, marking her as one of ancient society’s most vulnerable members. (2:7) While she was adopted by Mordecai, her cousin, the text states this “girl was fair and beautiful,” suggesting that perhaps her adoption was a result not just of familial protection, but also a direct result of her beauty. (2:7)
She was also an ethnic “other,” a Jew. Esther is of the minority race in this story. Throughout the Book of Esther, her people were threatened with extinction. This part of Esther’s identity was so suppressed that she was ordered by Mordecai not to reveal either her people or her kindred. (2:10)
While her parentless status and her ethnic heritage left her vulnerable, her beauty marked her for exploitation.
Once Esther was placed in the custody of the king’s man, the text reads that she first “pleased him.” Only after winning his favor did he provide for her. (2:9) We do not know what it took to please this man, nor do we know what it took to win his favor. But it is clear that only after winning his favor did she receive her portion of food.
Esther continued to win favor, advancing her and seven other chosen maids to the best place in the harem. Hegai, the sole authority of these young women and girls, was at liberty to choose those he favored and rank the girls against one another. This situation is ripe for exploitation, leaving these girls as disposable as Queen Vashti.
After a year in the custody of the king’s men, the next round of testing began: We are told that in the evening the girls went in one by one, and in the morning they came back. While trafficked into the king’s palace as virgins, after a year of beauty treatments, they were left to the sexual appetite of the king.
This is Esther’s story.
Esther’s story continues to unfold as the text reveals “the king loved Esther more than all the other women.” (2:17) As we tell this story in our Sunday school classrooms, we’re tempted to tell it as a fairytale. Esther: the orphan that wins the love of a king.
Yet what type of love is this? The relationship that develops between the king and Esther is one of sexual exploitation. It is a story of one man’s power and a young girl’s vulnerability. This love is not the fate we wish for any of our daughters.
Yes, Esther does become a queen and the royal crown finds its way onto her head, but this occurs after she spent time living in the space between the harem and the king’s chambers. (2:17) Esther “won” the crown as a concubine forced to earn the favor of men. She married a man who took her from her homeland and forced her, along with countless other young girls, to win his favor.
It is these first two chapters of Esther’s life that speak to the estimated 20.9 million trafficked victims in our world.
The United Nations hypothesized that one of the reasons we often miss victims of human trafficking is because we don’t understand the many diverse faces of human trafficking victims. Some of these faces are in our Scriptures, our sacred texts. We have, in our Bible, stories that can teach us how to spot human trafficking, and the danger victims are placed in through the coercion and exploitation of people in power. It is important that we open our eyes to the humanity in our sacred texts. For our modern-day Esthers, there is a story within our holy text that speaks of similar trauma, exploitation, and trials. Most importantly within our Scripture we find our call: Let there be no more Esthers.