A year ago, my wife and I took our nine-month-old daughter to visit our family in the city where I was born and raised in Brazil. The expectations and concerns about flying a long distance with our little girl were high. Everything was fine until our flight got canceled two days in a row, making us wait at the airport with all our luggage and a tired baby wanting to play and eat.
We have all experienced busy airports and noticed they are not baby-friendly, so she cried and cried, looking for attention and comfort. We didn’t know what else to do with her until an unexpected solution came. As we were walking around the airport to distract the baby (and ourselves!), we encountered an “echo tunnel.” I had never seen one in my life. It was a tunnel that you entered and echoed everything you said. So, my daughter heard our voices echoing over and over again until she started screaming and giggling to listen to the repetition of her tiny voice. As you can imagine, we stayed there for quite some time! We were thankful for a timely echo tunnel that distracted our family and practically saved us in a stressful moment.
In the course of our lives, we encounter different kinds of echoes, either positive or negative. Still, they aren’t audible like waves of sounds reflecting in our ears, but echoes deeply felt in our lives and those around us — more like a repetition of familiar beliefs, patterns, and ideas. We can see echoes of things we learn from our parents while kids or from our community.
For instance, here’s a simple echo from my own experience. I learned Portuguese as a kid because I was born in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by Portuguese speakers — my family, friends, schoolteachers, and the corner store guy. Somehow, they taught me the language, but the echo of it made me absorb it without even noticing. One day, I realized I spoke Portuguese!
However, I also picked up patterns along the way that weren’t waves of sounds but ideas and beliefs of my community of friends, so once in the corner store by my house, my friend and I stole a piece of chocolate almost unconsciously. Why? Because I echoed the patterns of my community. It was a repetition of things that happened around me very often. I left my barrio when I was 15; my friend didn’t. Not too long ago, I received a phone call from his grandma that he was in jail.
The Bible is filled with passages that explore echoes of good and bad patterns. In John 1:43-51, Nathanael verbally echoes the patterns of his society when he hears that the Messiah had come from Nazareth, the son of Joseph. When asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he also repeats (reflecting or echoing) historical patterns that influenced his anthropological and theological views, perpetuating a godless idea of the barrio of Nazareth and its people. (Thankfully, Jesus showed up and broke the pattern — more later!)
Nathanael is one example of many in Scripture helping us relate to another context that deeply reflects our society’s issues in our cultural moment. We could use Jesus and Paul in the New Testament or David and Moses in the Old Testament. The Bible doesn’t “sugarcoat” characters to make them more appealing. Instead, God uses his shattered image bearers to show us who we are. God doesn’t dampen the echoes in the Scriptures; he lets them sound out loud so we can discern the positive and the negative.
Here is my definition of echo: echoes are positive and negative experiences that lead us to discern our own echoes, the inner voices (sometimes audible, sometimes not) that shape us into being who we are. Consequently, we need to look outside of ourselves and the status quo to encounter new ways and alternatives — a new way. Believers have the Word of God as a source of hope, and through the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed and rescued from the echoes that overwhelm us.
My intention with this article is to lead you to the Word of God to encounter an echo of relevancy: The Echoes of Esther.
First, let us familiarize ourselves with the Book of Esther. Out of 4,932 words in the book of Esther, God is not mentioned once. Interesting? Yet, some Jewish rabbis consider it one of the most important books, alongside the first five books of the Bible. What makes things more exciting is that the author of Esther does not hide any of the sexual scandals and violence displayed throughout the whole narrative.
Esther lived during the same century Socrates was born (ca 470 B.C.), including the book in the history of the world as well, demonstrating that its content is not a novel but real life. The background of the narrative happens during the exile of the Jews of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple of God in 586 B.C.
Years later, King Cyrus signed a decree allowing the Jews to return to their home country. Some of the exiles decided to go, as we can see in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and rebuild Jerusalem. Still, others chose to stay in Babylon and continue their lives there, then also spreading through other areas in the Persian empire that succeeded the Babylonians, so that places the Book of Esther about fifty years after the decree was signed.
The Jews who stayed kept asking themselves if they still belonged to God and if God was still theirs. They had not only lost their homes and loved ones but a sense of God’s presence. Overall, their hope was compromised; now, they survived in a hostile culture without the assurance of God’s promise.
The story of this book happens in Susa, where the Persian King Xerxes I — a mighty man — rules. Historians described him as the tallest and most handsome of the Persian kings, ambitious, ruthless, and a lover of women. The book starts with Vashti, Xerxes’ wife, being deposed from her title as Queen because she wasn’t submissive enough (1:10-22). Consequently, Xerxes issued a decree to ensure women throughout the land were submissive to men, including not bothering the king. However, he needed women in his life, so he set up a party and had beautiful virgin women attend to be part of a contest to replace Vashti (2:1-5).
Esther was one of them. She hid her Jewish identity, presented herself well, and went to bed with somebody not yet her husband, who, in turn, was pleased and made her Queen. Esther slept her way to the top, ignoring all Jewish laws. She compromised for the sake of power. Is Esther a good model? The author does not make that moral judgment, for it is not the book’s point. Instead, the point is, “Where is God? Will God keep his promises? Are the Jews God’s people, after all?”
Everything seemed fine and peaceful until Haman appeared and convinced the king to plot against the Jews. He wanted to annihilate a whole race because he was offended by one of them — Mordecai — who happened to be Esther’s adoptive father (2:7, 3:1-5). Mordecai then convinced Esther to go and see the king, risking her life to use her influence and save their people (4:12-16).
Esther revealed her identity to the king, exposed Haman’s plans to kill the Jews, and consequently got him murdered; then, in a bloody and vengeful act, Esther and Mordecai destroy all their enemies (7:3-6, 10, 9:5-15).
Esther’s book makes Netflix jealous. The plots, the sex scenes, the ironic reversals, the characters, and the ending make it a great book. It is more special because of its relevance to our reality than we recognize. All over the world, the echoes of Esther can be heard in our everyday lives when we read the news or pay attention to our inner selves.
As I mentioned, I am from Brazil, but I moved to New York City ten years ago to minister to families in an upper Manhattan barrio called Washington Heights. Washington Heights has the biggest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic. Thousands of Dominicans create an eventful and rich experience in our barrio of their culture in a little pocket of New York City.
The migration process started between the ’60s and ’70s, with a boom around the ’80s. The Dominican Republic was living its most brutal years under the regime of Rafael Trullijo, which lasted 31 years, from 1930 to May 1961, when he was assassinated. Trujillo was an authoritarian ruler who killed thousands of people in the name of power. He called himself “el Jefe” (the boss) and ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist. Under his orders, thousands of people were killed on the island, and a few extra thousand Haitians were killed in a genocide in 1937, which echoes the relationship between Dominicans and Haitians until today. Recently, I visited the island for research and interviewed a Haitian living in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. He shared with me how the hatred of some Dominicans complicated his life but how the media and the system still today echo something that happened over 80 years ago, which reflects, in turn, a history between the countries since colonization.
Besides being racist, Trujillo was also a megalomaniac. He did everything to control the country and ensure everything was under his “kingdom.” He changed the capital’s name from Santo Domingo to “Ciudad Trujillo.” It was common to see streets and schools named after him during the dictatorship and houses with signs stating, “In this home, Trujillo is the “Jefe.” He convinced even the Catholic Church that “God in heaven, Trujillo on earth.” They were allowed to worship God and the pope as long as they worshiped him. He even had worship songs written for him.
Do you want more? (Do you not see where this is going?) Trujillo was a lover and abuser of women. He had many wives and was never satisfied with them. Trujillo was always looking for younger women and had Manuel Moya as his adviser, always looking for beautiful ladies to invite to Trujillo’s banquets. In his school visits, Trujillo inquired about young girls and eventually took them for himself as mistresses and elevated them to “queens.” There was no limit to what Trujillo could and would do to get his will done on earth. For one of the banquets, Trujillo invited the family Mirabal, an important family in which three sisters were deeply involved in the politics of the country — and part of a secret group committed to kill Trujillo.
The sisters Mirabal were not the typical women Trujillo had. They were educated to be socially engaged and fight for their rights, a counter-cultural approach to women over fifty years ago. Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were different and in opposition to the cruelties of the dictator. Beautiful women, they caught the attention of Trujillo, especially Minerva. Trujillo invited her to a dance at the banquet when he tried to touch her inappropriately. Minerva pushed him away, resisted his attacks, and left the party. Furious, Trujillo arrested their father, and a war began between him and “Las Mariposas” (The “Butterflies” as they secretly called themselves).
In 1960, when the strong opposition formed by las Mariposas and their husbands got more robust, Trujillo arrested and tortured them. In August, the women were released while their husbands stayed in jail. Instead of looking to live in exile in a different country, the sisters decided to stay and fight. On November 25, 1960, on the way back from visiting their husbands in jail, they were assassinated by Trujillo’s men. Their assassination unleashed a revolt in the country that culminated in the assassination of Rafael Trujillo on May 30, 1961, finally ending the dictatorship. November 25th became the international day for the elimination of violence against women. Although their death did not directly stop the tyranny, their courage echoes from the Dominican Republic to the whole world.
We can see similarities between their stories, and there are echoes of Esther all over the history of the world. We see commonalities, but I want to mention two major points for our reflection.
First, consider the objectification of women and their rights. As previously mentioned, there are debates about the importance of the book of Esther due to its ambiguous meaning and the need to affirm whether Esther is a good model. It is difficult for our Western minds to imagine a young woman who denied her religious conviction and submitted sexually and politically to an oppressive king as a good example. We are quick to draw conclusions, but we can’t fully judge Esther as much as we shouldn’t judge women that Trujillo took for his pleasure. They weren’t “forced” to do it in both situations but coerced by their circumstances.
I have been working in Washington Heights for ten years with families at social risk, dealing with delicate situations in places where the educational system doesn’t help. Young women grow up trying to manage their problems as they adapt to a new language and culture. The neighborhood is known as Little Dominican Republic, but it’s too far away to be like the island. The rushed reality of single moms working two jobs, running back home, and picking up their kids from school (where they have to learn a new language) can take our senses away, driving them to decisions that, in different circumstances, they wouldn’t have made.
The system works as a king issuing decrees and pushing people to the corners until they have to fight their way to the middle and do the least to survive. Sometimes, the choices are not the best, but how we should look at them needs to be contextualized.
It’s hard to comprehend Esther’s motives in hiding her identity as Jewish, but it’s not impossible. The system is simple — it makes people in minority groups shut their mouths to survive in hostile places where they must defend themselves. My beautiful wife, Mirjam, comes to mind. She was born to a gypsy mom in Finland. According to Mirjam, people see them as “garbage.” Security follows them in the supermarkets and checks their bags every time they shop. They are seen as thieves, dangerous socially, loud, and mocked everywhere. In her childhood, my wife learned from her family members to be quiet and avoid attracting any extra attention, which led her to hide her identity as a Finnish gypsy for years, or at least be ashamed of it.
Esther’s life circumstances made her unequal to everybody else in her context; she began life behind. She was part of a small community in a foreign land, trying to survive and help her people. The only advantage she had was drawing from her ethnicity. Her background’s genes and DNA formed her beauty — the tone of her skin, the shape of her nose, and her eye color were her Jewish heritage. Can we justify her choices? No! But we must remember that there are those looking for the vulnerable ones, the least of these, to force their will upon, to get their agenda advanced.
Historically, as we see in the echoes of the book of Esther and Trujillo’s dictatorship, women are seen as objects to be used and discarded at men’s disposal. If you walk around the streets of my barrio, you will see a bunch of men dealing drugs, waiting for the youngest and prettiest young girls to pass by so they can devour them with their eyes and embarrass innocent girls with their nasty and promiscuous comments. No wonder they are called in Spanish tigres (tigers). They look at women as pieces of meat.
Esther grew up and adapted in light of the social issues in front of her. At some point, it wasn’t about her anymore — not the poor, little orphan girl looking for safety and comfort; instead, Esther became a force within the kingdom, at the risk of her life, for the sake of others. Las Mariposas sisters also saw that their country was decaying morally and politically and that, at their own risk, they wanted to fight for their people. Minerva went beyond Esther, though. She pushed Trujillo away, despising his power and sexual desires. She knew that denying the will of a tyrant dictator would bring her problems, but she didn’t compromise. The comparison is valid — the echo is real — but Esther and Minerva were different women. Esther was an orphan, marginalized, minority, and uneducated young woman. Minerva was from an affluent and structured family; she was educated — one of the first women in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship to go to college and become a lawyer — and at the center of her society. Nonetheless, both were victims of a system that looked down on women and fought for something bigger than themselves.
I confess that, in a meritocratic world, the temptation is to judge them right away. However, let us not justify anybody’s sins, but let us look at Esther and women with eyes of mercy. As Tim Keller told me once, ‘God is more merciful than we think.’
The second echo is the problem of power. King Xerxes displayed all his power by showing off his women, riches, and glory. He was a “macho,” “jefe,” a “strong” man. The king seemed to be telling people what to do, ruling his kingdom, ordering people killed. Trujillo was in the same way. History tells us that he was very concerned about his appearance. He took hours to get ready in the nicest clothes to get people’s attention everywhere he went. Trujillo’s dream was to look as ‘white’ and ‘European’ as possible. For him, the Dominican Republic needed to be prettier, and therefore, he ordered Europeans to move to his ‘Ciudad Trujillo’ to show other countries, including the U.S., that he was powerful. Interesting methods. They were both the BOSS! POWERFUL! ‘Viva Trujillo!’ Viva Xerxes’.
Do we see the same patterns today? Dictators worldwide permeate their cities with their images; armies synced, marching to create a beautiful scene for the tourists and media, displaying atomic bombs and tests of missiles to convey POWER.
Isn’t it the opposite of power? Aren’t they slaves to their insecurities? We see similar echoes as we read either Esther or the history of the Dominican Republic. It is comic to imagine powerful kings acting more like my two-year-old daughter at the airport because her needs and will were not met. Are they not slaves to their desires? They were able to dominate a whole kingdom but could not control their urges, leading them to die and lose everything.
Over the years, one of my ministry experiences with my wife has been to disciple young girls who had relationship problems with their fathers. For many, their fathers were physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. They worked hard to provide for their families, but moms needed to be everything else. So, parents’ meeting at school? Moms! Church meeting? Moms! Conflicts in the house? Moms! It almost seems like the moms were the leaders, but no! The dads were there to give the last word and judge Mom’s choices. In this dynamic, Mom was a mere servant while Dad sat on his throne in front of a 75-inch TV for which he had complete control of the remote.
He was there to criticize and scream at them whenever they didn’t keep the rules. He would explode if the bathroom wasn’t as clean as he wanted or the food wasn’t ready whenever he needed it. Don’t forget his sexual desires. After the whole day, Mom must be available for the “jefe”; otherwise, they would have a problem — different power dynamics, different levels of influence, but yet similar echoes.
Confession time: Sometimes I feel like that. I come home from work and expect my own ways to be done. I am picky, and sometimes I come across as a righteous, wise, and strong man, but deep down, I am just echoing my fears and insecurities over my family. My therapist often tells me to let go of my defense mechanisms, but I am the echo of the echo of the echo. I need hope outside of my patterns, outside of myself. I don’t want to echo my patriarchs. I want to echo somebody else — and this is my source of hope and the ultimate echo. It’s the only way I can echo something greater!
Karen H. Jobes (whose commentary on Esther has been a blessing to me and my church!) said that the primary theological point of the book of Esther is that God fulfills his covenant promises through his providence. That means God is present even when things are crazy around us, and we feel lost. Moreover, as Tim said, “God is more merciful than we are”; he is God. The world’s systems have stolen the meaning of “God” when megalomaniacs like Xerxes, Haman, Trujillo, Hitler, and others act like one and rule, manipulate, and deceive people. God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t get mad at us that easily; his mood doesn’t change whether we make a mistake. He doesn’t discard us because we don’t obey. He doesn’t forget about us because we don’t do things right quickly. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6-7).
Yes! Sometimes, God seems to be out of the picture, absent, nonexistent, away from human reality. Still, the truth is that God allowed everything to happen according to his providence, which is crazy for us to fathom. The question comes to the surface: Why? As I deal with my sins and shortcomings, I ask myself — Why did my mom leave me when I was 14, reverberating an echo over my life? We can’t fully grasp it! As the Book of Esther and many parts of our history show, when humans consider themselves gods, and brokenness becomes a continual echo over humanity, God can feel distant, but he isn’t. It’s like trying to see the sun through the clouds on a cloudy morning — it’s there, but with so much going on, we can’t see!
Jesus’ disciples felt the same way when Jesus died. They were hopeless. They heard Jesus speak of a new kingdom and a hopeful future, but now, everything felt lost. The disciple John writes what Jesus said in John 16:33, “I have overcome the world”; what did go wrong? Now, persecution was at hand. “Was Jesus a lunatic?” they might have asked. “Was Jesus like Xerxes? A megalomaniac?” No! He wasn’t! Through God’s providence, Jesus shut down all the echoes; He destroyed Adam’s echo, saving them from the power of death and sin. Jesus was really God! Once again, it is just hard for us to comprehend.
Jesus felt the same way on the cross. He asked, “God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus was carrying all the echoes upon his shoulder, all our sins. When Jesus died, he wasn’t giving up power. Instead, he was redeeming power for our sake, to break the curse of sin, the cultural decrees upon women, children, and men worldwide. When he rose from the dead, God declared to the world that he is the only God, the ultimate source of hope, love, and shalom, and that everything works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes (Romans 8:28).
The Bible reminds us that there is redemption for all in Jesus, no matter how loud the echo sounds. The Bible also assures us that every verse in it leads to Jesus; even the smallest, the most interesting, or cruelest text leads to hope and relates profoundly to each reader. So, the next time you read your Bible, be attentive to the echoes coming from every breath of the Scriptures.