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.

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