In lesson three, we talked about three wicked women found in the Bible: Abigail (Wicked Smart), Mary Magdalene (Wicked Crazy), and Jezebel (Wickedness Personified). In this final lesson, we will look at four more women in the Bible and see what it was that made them wicked!
How a Good Queen Gets the Last Laugh
The Book of Esther
One night when the Persian king, Ahasuerus, was drunk, he sent for his beautiful queen, Vashti, to appear before his guests to show off her beauty. She refused to come. She was from the high aristocracy of the kingdom, and considered it unsuitable that a woman of her rank and status should be paraded in front of a group of drunken men. Humiliated, the king banished her. But now he was lonely, so a beauty contest was held: the most beautiful girl in the kingdom would become his new queen. A young Jewish girl called Esther was chosen. She was helped by her cousin Mordecai, but nobody knew that they were related, or that Esther was a Jewess. Mordecai was in the king’s favor, since he had once saved the king’s life. But Mordecai had an enemy, a powerful man called Haman. Discovering that Mordecai was Jewish, Haman fed the mind of the king with ideas about people who were “different.” Under his influence, the king decided to execute all Jews in his kingdom—not realizing his beloved new queen Esther and his savior Mordecai, were both Jewish. Mordecai went to Esther and told her she must do something to save her people. She did not wish to because it would place her own life in danger (she was not allowed, on pain of death, to go to the king unless she had been summoned). But she gathered her courage together, went to the king’s throne-room, and fortunately was embraced by him. She invited him to a special banquet where he would be the guest of honor. Haman was to come as well. Haman and the king attended the banquet and Ahasuerus promised Esther that she could have anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. Esther asked that the king and Haman attend a second banquet. The king agreed. In high spirits, Haman returned to his home and ordered the erection of a gallows to hang Mordecai. Meanwhile, Esther’s banquet had started. Ahasuerus again promised Esther anything she wanted. She asked that her life be spared and her people saved. From whom? asked the king. From Haman, replied Esther. Haman was trapped. He was taken out and hanged from the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The Jews were not only saved from death: they could attack those people who had been their enemies and claim their property. On the very day that they were to have been annihilated, they turned the tables by destroying all those who had sought to kill them. Thousands were killed, including the ten sons of Haman. From that day on, the Jewish people kept the day as a special festival called Purim where there is a great deal of feasting and nonstop laughter when they remember how that stupid, wicked Haman was bested by the good Queen Esther and her cousin, Mordecai the Jew.
The events recounted in the book of Esther took place after Babylon conquered Judah in 587 BC. After that, Cyrus the Great, king of Medea and Persia, conquered Babylon in 538 BC, and the territory reverted to him. Though Cyrus issued a decree allowing Jews who’d been taken into captivity to return to Judah, many decided to remain in the land where they had settled. Some had moved eastward to Susa, the winter capital of the Persian Empire.
Esther and Mordecai were part of a Jewish community that remained faithful to their religious and cultural heritage. By then, Cyrus’s grandson, Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus), was reigning as king.
Women like Esther, who were candidates to replace Queen Vashti, would have remained in the king’s harem as wives or concubines regardless of whether they were chosen for the role. By fulfilling her duty as one of his many wives, Esther would not have been committing fornication when she slept with the king. When Esther was elevated to the position of queen, she would have been installed in her own quarters apart from all the other women in the harem.
- Scholars have noted that the word God is never used in the original Hebrew version of Esther’s story, and yet it is evident that God’s hand is on Esther. In what ways do you recognize God at work behind the scenes in Esther’s story? In what ways, if any, do you recognize his behind-the-scenes work in your own life?
- Esther was willing to die to save her people because she felt deep concern and compassion for them. For what person or group of people would you like to have that same kind of concern? How might you develop your compassion for them?
- Esther’s obedience saved God’s people from genocide. The reality is that Esther didn’t know what would happen when she approached the king. She acted in obedience and by doing so she saved a nation. What might God be calling you to do in order to further his kingdom?
How Bathing in Public Caused No End of Problems
2 Samuel 11-12 and 1 Kings 1-2
Bathsheba was beautiful, young, and well-connected. She married Uriah, one of the top soldiers in King David’s army. One evening when her husband was away at the battlefront, she was bathing on the curtained flat roof of her house. King David was above on the castle walls. He saw her and was mesmerized by her beauty. He sent for her. She went. They made love. Then she went home. Later she discovered she was pregnant. She sent a message to the king. Do something, she said. My husband has been away, so he will know the baby is not his. David sent for Uriah, who left the fighting and came back to Jerusalem. He went straight to the palace. What do you want of me, he asked the king. Give me a report of what’s happening at the battlefield, said David. When that was finished, David told Uriah to go and visit his wife. If he did, the inconvenient pregnancy could be hushed up. But Uriah waffled. He stayed all night with the other soldiers at the palace while Bathsheba waited for him at home. The next day, David tried again. He got Uriah drunk urging him to go to his wife. But still, he would not go down into the city and visit his home. David got desperate. He wrote a letter to his most trusted general at the front. Kill the bearer of this letter, but make it look like he died in battle, the letter said. Then David gave the letter to Uriah and told him to return with it to the front. Uriah took the letter, gave it to the general, and was treacherously killed. Bathsheba wailed for her dead husband. Then King David sent for her, took her into the royal harem, and married her. Her baby was born, but it died. Bathsheba became pregnant again, and this time the little boy lived. He was called Solomon. Bathsheba got older and the boy grew up. She had other children. She was beautiful and clever, and David loved her. But David was getting older. There came a time when he couldn’t have sex anymore. This was serious since a king who was no longer virile was not considered fit to be king. He’d lost his credibility. His advisors did everything they could. They brought in a beautiful young girl, Abishag, and put her in bed with David, but even that didn’t help. It was time for one of his sons to take over, in a co-regency. But which son? Everyone assumed it would be Adonijah, David’s eldest living son. Bathsheba was in a dangerous situation, but she wasn’t going to give up without a fight. She had formidable allies – the royal adviser Nathan, the head of the mercenary soldiers Benaiah, and the priest Zadok. Between them, these kingmakers devised a plan. Bathsheba went to David in his bedroom and told him that Adonijah had already taken the throne illegally. She told him though that Solomon remained loyal. She feared for her own life. You are still king, she said. Do something. There was a coup d’état in Jerusalem and when the dust died down Solomon was on the throne. Bathsheba was now Queen Mother, the most powerful position a woman could hold. But Adonijah was still alive and still a threat. Solomon could not kill his brother outright. He was after all the older brother, and a lot of people still wanted him as king. But no one knew better than Bathsheba that the situation had to be resolved. How to get rid of Adonijah? Again, she devised a plan. She went to Solomon in the throne room of the palace, and there in front of his advisors she told her son that Adonijah had asked her if she would help him marry Abishag, the young woman who had been put into David’s bed. It sounds reasonable enough, but it wasn’t. A man who married the wives of a previous king could claim the throne himself. Bathsheba was accusing Adonijah of treason. No one dared question whether Bathsheba’s accusation was true or not. She was too powerful now. Solomon had to execute his half-brother, like it or not. There was no trial, just a swift dagger to the heart. Bathsheba’s son was secure on the throne, and her position was safe.
Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern New Testament studies who has spent more than forty years living and teaching in the Middle East, says that no self-respecting woman then and now would ever have taken a bath in plain sight of the palace, pointing out that Bathsheba knew exactly what she was doing.
While some commentators cast Bathsheba as co-villain of the story, painting her as a social-climbing seductress, others point out that it would have been nearly impossible for her to refuse the king given the extent of his royal power. If this is the case, her story becomes even more tragic because in addition to being raped and having her husband murdered, she suffered the loss of a child because of David’s sin.
- So which is she, villain or victim?
(We may never know. What we do know that even the Bible’s greatest heroes are fragile characters whose hearts, like ours, are in need of redemption.)
- The punishment for adultery was death. Imagine you are Bathsheba and that you have just sent a message to King David, telling him you are pregnant. What do you think you would be feeling and thinking?
- Think about the progression of David’s sin. What do his actions reveal about the consequences of entertaining temptation? How have you seen this process at work in yourself and others?
How Two Desperate Women Find a Home and a Future Full of Hope
The Book of Ruth
Ruth was a Moabite woman from a country that was one of Israel’s traditional enemies. She was an outsider, but she married an Israelite and joined his family while they were living in Moab. Her husband died, as did her brother-in-law, also a Moabite, and her father-in-law. When this happened, her mother-in-law Naomi decided she had no alternative but to return to her homeland and to the village her family came from—Bethlehem. As fond as she was of her two daughters-in-law, Naomi prepared to say goodbye to both of them. But one of them, Ruth, showed unexpected loyalty and insisted on staying with her. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried. The two women returned to Bethlehem together. Naomi knew the people there, what they were like, who might help them. They arrived at just the right moment, in time for the harvest. They were more or less destitute, but resourceful. Ruth decided she would help glean the barley in the fields to feed herself and Naomi and to get a store of grain for winter. Ruth went to the field of Boaz, a rich relative of Naomi’s. Boaz was, as it happens, an ideal match for any young woman. He was single, childless, well respected, and rich. He was also a relative of Naomi’s through her husband’s family, so he had a legal obligation to help Naomi. It was not long before Boaz came to the field to see how the harvest was going. There he met Ruth. It was love at first sight. He fell over himself to help her, going to elaborate lengths to get extra grain for Ruth to protect her from young men who might hassle her and to see that she was well fed. No doubt the workers noticed, and some of them reported back to Naomi. Naomi devised a plan to prod Boaz into marrying Ruth. She knew men, and she gave Ruth specific instructions on everything she must do. Ruth had the good sense to listen. She perfumed herself, dressed in her most becoming clothes, and waited at the threshing floor until Boaz had eaten a good meal. When Boaz finally lay down to sleep, Ruth approached him where he lay on the threshing floor. Lying beside Boaz, Ruth suggested that because he was a relative of her dead husband, he should “cover her with his blanket” (a euphemism for marriage). This was a custom of the time, called the Levirate Law. Boaz happily agreed, but pointed out to her that there was another man who had that right, a closer relative even than himself. Ruth stayed beside Boaz until morning, stealing away before first light to return to Naomi, who pounced on her and demanded to know how things had gone. Was Ruth to be married or single? The two women waited impatiently to see how events would unfold. But the outcome was never really in doubt. Ruth and Boaz were married and she gave birth to a son, Obed (who was the grandfather of King David). Naomi, who had lost her husband and two sons, now had a grandson and became his nurse. And as stories go, they lived happily ever after.
A widow without sons to support her after her husband’s death might become so destitute that she would have to sell herself into slavery or prostitution to survive. For instance, though God commanded his people to care for widows, many of the Mosaic laws were ignored during the era of the judges. Though the law instructed landowners to leave some produce in their fields for the poor to glean, many landowners simply ignored this provision.
In addition to gleaning and levirate marriage, a widow could appeal to a guardian-redeemer to act on her behalf. In such cases, the closest male relative was expected to rescue or deliver her (or other impoverished family members) by paying off debts or buying back properties that had been sold, because without land people could barely survive.
- During her hardships, Naomi mistakenly thinks her suffering is a punishment from God. Have you ever felt that your hardships were evidence that God was displeased with you? Looking back, do you see it any differently now?
The story of Naomi and Ruth is marked by a series of blessings. First, Ruth blesses Naomi by staying with her. Then Naomi blesses Ruth by helping her find a husband. Boaz subsequently blesses Ruth with a home, and God blesses them both with a child. Afterward, the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that she is blessed with a daughter-in-law who is worth more than seven sons.
- In what ways would you say that God has both blessed you and made you a blessing to others?