Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: Esther by Angela Hunt

Esther: Royal Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #1)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House


As one of only two books in the Bible named for women, Esther’s tale of bravery in the face of certain death has long fascinated with its Cinderella-esque storyline. Having studied this book fairly extensively, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming one has read or seen all possible iterations of Esther’s story. Reading Angela Hunt’s take on this tale has been a humbling reminder of how easy it is to fall into the trap of viewing the book of Esther through a modern, romanticized, and perhaps most critically sanitized lens. It is tempting to imaginatively posit Esther as a biblical Cinderella, a romance between a commoner and the most powerful ruler in the world. This romanticized view heavily informs film adaptations of the tale, which ultimately does a grave disservice to the scriptural account of Esther’s life. The contemporary view of romance would grant the woman agency, and filtering Esther’s story through such a lens diminishes the scope and potential impact of the account. This is Esther’s story, yes, but it isn’t her love story, and Xerxes was no godly, romantic hero. This is the extraordinary story of God moving on behalf of His people through the unlikeliest of vessels – a woman wholly subject to every whim of a capricious king, who chose to live by faith, though it threatened to cost her very life.

Hunt retells the book of Esther by alternating points-of-view between Hadassah, later Esther, and Harbonah, a eunuch serving as the king’s chamberlain. By alternating between a member of the harem and a eunuch, Hunt is able to provide an intimate glimpse of the inner workings of the Persian court, thus illuminating the true nature of court life along with its attendant rules and risks. Harbonah is based on a single reference in Esther 7:9, wherein he is named as the eunuch who brings the gallows Haman built for Mordecai to the king’s attention, thus sealing Haman’s fate after his ill-fated assault on Esther. Through Harbonah, Hunt strips away the glossy veneer of court life, revealing the seedy underbelly of forced castration and slavery that made the king’s rule possible. Harbonah also serves as the lens through which an unbeliever processes the events that raise Esther from obscurity to a position of power and influence, all while serving as a witness to the integrity of Esther and Mordecai’s faith.

The bulk of the story is told from Esther’s point-of-view, following her from her status as Mordecai’s ward with stars in her eyes and dreams of royalty to one of many wives and concubines fighting for the king’s attention and favor. By reminding readers of Hadassah’s youth (and corresponding levels of immaturity), Hunt strips the gloss of romance from Esther’s entry into the harem and the beginning of her relationship with the king. When one remembers that this isn’t the story of a savvy, mature adult woman navigating the dangers of court intrigue, but first the tale of a girl, thrust into a situation beyond her control, stripped of her ability to choose her fate, Esther’s success and steadfast faith in the face of life-threatening persecution are all the more remarkable.

It is all too easy to idealize Esther, to view her as a perfect specimen of womanhood who accepted her fate without question or doubt, fully surrendered to God’s will, ready to be used by Him to save her people. And while she is certainly a role model, failing to recognize the harsh reality of her situation does her a grave disservice – for recognizing the moments of horror and fear that surely accompanied her entry into the king’s harem makes her transformation into an influential queen all the more remarkable and inspiring. As the novel begins, Hunt positions Esther as a wholly relatable, beauty-obsessed teenager, dreaming of a king with no concept of life as a queen. Contemporary culture makes Esther’s story more relevant than ever, as differentiating between fleeting, transient glamour and a beauty of spirit that transforms from within is increasingly challenging in a culture of disposability.

Hunt’s unvarnished take on the realities Esther would have faced in the Persian court is an eye-opening glimpse into a culture wherein a woman’s value lay in her beauty, a commodity to be used and discarded at will. Women during this period had little personal agency, wholly subject to the dictates and provision of the men in their lives. That said, Hunt makes an important distinction between the comparative freedom Esther enjoyed as Mordecai’s ward, where her intellect was valued and her person treasured, compared to the harem where her every move is watched and every decision dictated by those serving at the king’s pleasure. As Esther learns all that glitters is not gold, but what makes her story resonate through the centuries since it was first recorded lies in how she faces her heartache and challenges, choosing to place her trust in a God bigger than her circumstances.

As a student of history, the story of Haman’s attempt to exterminate the Jews has always been of particular interest as a precursor to later persecutions faced by the Jewish people, from the pogroms to the horrors of the Holocaust. Haman’s narrative is a case study in how the repercussions of a decision can echo throughout history. There is no better example of this than the enmity between Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul (Esther 2:5), and Haman, descendant of Agag (Esther 3:1), the Amalekite king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Saul’s decision to defy God’s instruction and spare Agag, thus enriching himself by claiming the spoils of the conflict, would bear near-disastrous consequences generations later in Esther’s day.

The more I encounter Esther through the pages of scripture, the more I am convinced that hers is a tale for this present age. For much like the girl who, torn from her home, hid her identity and became a queen, called to stand firm in faith that the God who placed her in the harem for such a time as this would not abandon her at the moment of crisis (Esther 4:14), so are believers called to live their faith boldly in an increasingly hostile world (John 15:19). With Esther, Hunt not only delivers an absorbing, thought-provoking read, but a clarion call challenging believers to live out their faith whole-heartedly. Hunt is one of the rare writers who, over two decades into reading her work, never fails to challenge, convict, and inspire. The Dangerous Beauty series is proving to be a crowning achievement in her oeuvre, a master class in the potential and power of biblical fiction written with integrity and heart. 

About the book:

When Xerxes, king of Persia, issues a call for beautiful young women, Hadassah, a Jewish orphan living in Susa, is forcibly taken to the palace of the pagan ruler. After months of preparation, the girl known to the Persians as Esther wins the king's heart and a queen's crown. But because her situation is uncertain, she keeps her ethnic identity a secret until she learns that an evil and ambitious man has won the king's permission to exterminate all Jews -- young and old, powerful and helpless. Purposely violating an ancient Persian law, she risks her life in order to save her people...and bind her husband's heart.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Delilah by Angela Hunt

Delilah: Treacherous Beauty (A Dangerous Beauty Novel #3)
By: Angela Hunt
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0-7642-1697-8


The story of Samson and Delilah, the woman responsible for his downfall, is one of scripture’s most recognizable tales. Arguably Israel’s most colorful judge, the unbeatable strongman Samson is most often cast as a man of charm, cleverness, and large appetites. Delilah, the instrument of his ruin, is by contrast an amoral seductress, driven by love of coin and power, a woman who wields her sexuality as a weapon with as much skill as Samson’s legendary strength. While I stand firm on the infallibility of Scripture, over time I’ve come to realize that an examination of Judges 13-16 reveals troubling nuances all too often glossed over in cursory readings or adaptations of the text. If God’s anointed deliverer can murder thirty men in a fit of pique in order to win a bet (Judges 14:19), it’s clear that Samson’s legendary heroism as a darker, all-too-human side. For although God’s gifts and calling on an individual’s life are irrevocable (Romans 11:29), Samson’s life is a study in the redemption that occurs when God’s promises collide with an individual’s free will. And if Samson, God’s anointed, very flawed choice to realize  Israel’s redemption from the Philistines (Judges 13:5) is something less than the flawless, airbrushed hero of popular culture, then is it not also possible that the seductress Delilah has deeper, more nuanced tale to tell?

Women mentioned and given voice in scripture fascinate me, as socially they had little agency of their own within the patriarchal cultures in which they lived. However, each woman is hand-picked to represent a different facet of God’s grace and redemptive power, whether they are cast as heroines or villainesses. The more I study scripture, the more I recognize the dual importance of it as God’s timeless word as well as a documented snapshot of the time period in which it was written, setting down forevermore  God at work within a specific cultural, socio-economic point in history, illustrating truths that resonate to this day. In Delilah: Treacherous Beauty, Angela Hunt takes the biblical account of Samson and restores nuance, depth, and most of all, hope, to the story of a woman whose very name across the centuries has become synonymous with sin.

The Delilah within these pages is a woman for whom life has been a struggle to survive the choices of one particular man in her life determined to possess her body and break her spirit. Scarred by sexual and emotional abuse, those experiences inform her reaction to and interaction with everyone she encounters. Scripture itself is not for the faint of heart and neither is Delilah’s story, and although Hunt does not provide a play-by-play description of Delilah’s abuse, it is what’s implied that chilled this reader to the core. For a woman to be as coolly calculating regarding the fate of her supposed lover as Delilah is when negotiating with the Philistine lords (Judges 16), she has to have a visceral motivation behind her drive to dehumanize her relationship with Samson, thus allowing such a personal betrayal. This is the fully-realized woman Hunt creates from the bones of scripture, one who justifies betrayal in the name of survival, for having once survived her perpetrator’s attempt to reduce her to a faceless commodity, she is determined to never again experience such powerlessness.

Hunt alternates between Delilah’s primary viewpoint and Samson’s, where one commonality becomes clear: both Samson and Delilah were flawed individuals who all too often fell into the trap of rationalizing their behavior and choices. Samson is a successful judge who struggles being “set apart” as a Nazirite, keeping the letter of his commitment to God (never cutting his hair) while indulging in vices (women and drink) that cloud his moral compass and commitment to his mission. But despite his failings, God still used Samson to fulfill His will to act against the Philistines on Israel’s behalf. Similarly, as a dark-skinned Egyptian living in Philistia, Delilah struggles with feeling that both her heritage and her trauma have branded her as set apart. By making Delilah as a dimensional, nuanced character, Hunt sketches a portrait of a woman whose trajectory collided with God’s purpose for her life in spite of her unbelief…for above all her story is a tale of God’s redemptive power, both on behalf of His chosen people and those who would come to believe in Him as a result of witnessing God’s handiwork on behalf of those who believe.  

I love Biblical fiction for its potential – a well-crafted tale, authentic to scripture and the history of the time period can illuminate the biblical record with fresh clarity, bringing new life the participants immortalized in the record of the faith. Hunt’s Legacies of the Ancient River series, retelling the story of Joseph, was among the first of such novels to open my eyes to the genre’s potential, and some two decades later, her facility for the genre remains undimmed. This is a stunning reimagining of Delilah’s character and motivations, a tragic tale of abuse, lust, and revenge, redeemed by grace.

This book left me gutted. Hunt’s vivid retelling of Delilah and Samson’s relationship is storytelling at its finest, grounded in truth, taking the bones of scripture and breathing life into flesh-and-blood characters that are all too easy to look at as stories sketched large, in danger of losing humanity that makes their stories timeless and relevant. This novel positions afresh Samson’s role as a perfectly imperfect and flawed precursor to Christ, the promised redeemer not just for the Israelites, but all of mankind. And at last more than an seductress, Delilah is given an unforgettable voice, flawed, hurting woman struggling to regain her agency in a society that would see her stripped of power. A potent reminder of God’s unfailing mercies and ability to work His will in the midst of our worst failings, Delilah illustrates His promise of love, redemption, and wholly unmerited grace and favor.

About the book:

Life is not easy in Philistia, especially not for a woman and child alone. When beautiful, wounded Delilah finds herself begging for food to survive, she resolves that she will find a way to defeat all the men who have taken advantage of her. She will overcome the roadblocks life has set before her, and she will find riches and victory for herself.

When she meets a legendary man called Samson, she senses that in him lies the means for her victory. By winning, seducing, and betraying the hero of the Hebrews, she will attain a position of national prominence. After all, she is beautiful, she is charming, and she is smart. No man, not even a supernaturally gifted strongman, can best her in a war of wits.