Courage: 1) Is having strength in the face of pain or grief. 2) Is the ability to act on one’s belief despite danger or disapproval.
In part-three of this three-part series The Courage of One Woman we will be looking at our last three women in the Bible: Esther, Queen of Persia; and Mary Magdalene and Abigail, a woman of good understanding. Each in their own unique way exemplifies courage – wisdom, strength and humility – while encountering potential danger and disapproval during difficult situations, yet standing bold and firm in their convictions.
Esther, Queen of Persia-Media (Esther 1-10).
This historical narrative occurs around 480-465 BC, with King Ahasuerus reigning over Persia-Media, covering one-hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. The beauty and uniqueness of the events in this story are the fact that in the entire book there is no mention of Jehovah God, yet you can convincingly see the hand of God powerfully working in the daily affairs of humanity. You also see, a common theme within the theological teachings of Holy Scripture, how good eventually triumphs over evil, (example Genesis 37:20; 50:15,18-21). The malicious conspiracy imposed by Haman for the unjust destruction of the Jews is circumvented by a series of events, providentially inspired, saving the Jews and bringing about the destruction of Haman, his family and those supporting his position.
Let us briefly list the historical events. Queen Vashti is exiled for disrespect to her king (Esther 1:19-21); Esther participates in a national beauty pageant and wins favor (Esther 2:3-4); Esther keeps her Jewish background secret (Esther 2:10); Esther becomes queen of Persia (Esther 2:15-18); Haman uses his power and promotion over all the princes of Persia-Media to destroy the Jewish nation (Esther 3:1, 6-13; 5:9, 13-14); Mordecai exposes a murderous plot against the king Ahasuerus and is rewarded (Esther 2:21-23; 6:1-3, 7-11); Mordecai challenges Queen Esther to use her position to protect the Jewish people (Esther 4:7-16); Esther’s banquet exposes Haman’s evil deeds (Esther 5:2-5; 7:1-8); Haman is executed (Esther 7:9-10); Queen Esther saves the Jewish people (Esther 8:4-6, 11); the Jewish people valiantly destroy their opposition (Esther 9:1,5, 16); Jews celebrate the Feast of Purim annually (Esther 9:18-19, 21-22, 28); Mordecai’s political advancement in king Ahasuerus kingdom (Esther 10:3). What man often means for evil, God frequently turns it into good.
The protagonist of this story is Hadassah, or Esther, as the name of the book is called. Esther is a beautiful young woman who grows up under the tutelage of her uncle Mordecai after the death of her parents. Due to Queen Vashti’s refusal to present herself before King Ahasuerus (1:10-12) she is dethroned which presents a great opportunity for Esther, and at the suggestion of Mordecai, Esther enters into an extensive twelve-month beautification program eventually winning the crown as queen (2:12). Initially, out of precaution and fear she is somewhat reluctant to use her position as queen to intervene for her people, “…that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death…Yet I myself have not been called to go in to the king these thirty day.” but with a little persuasion of her uncle Mordecai, “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Not only does Esther reconsider but she proves herself wise – knowing that the action she is about to take might cause her to lose her own life – she demonstrates courage by saying, “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
Esther, knowing the severe consequences of her actions, wisely puts on her exquisite royal attire and stands in the inner court of the king’s palace anticipating that after the king deals with his exhaustive governmental affairs, it might be refreshing to see his lovely queen Esther waiting in the inner court. She was right. She finds favor in his sight. He extends his golden scepter and Esther is allowed to approach the king. With properly orchestrated strategy, Esther conceals her primary but urgent concerns, and instead proposes a banquet for the king and Haman to determine her next move, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.” Esther has put together a very well-planned strategy. Notice she decides not to make any request of the king during their first banquet engagement. She is likely observing and listening to the conversation of Haman during the banquet hoping he might reconsider his desire to totally annihilate the Jewish nation, and for no probable cause, except his manifest hatred towards Mordecai. During the second banquet Esther makes her request, because she is still not convinced that Haman has acknowledged any consideration of changing his mind – which forces her to present her case in the presence of Haman, the perpetrator, and before the king.
So, during their second dinner engagement the king again asks Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you…” Both Haman and the king are gripped with shock by her words, “…let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. Had we been sold as male and female slaves, I would have held my tongue, although the enemy could never compensate for the king’s loss…The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman!” The king was so furious at the comments made by his queen that he had to remove himself from the evening meal and go into the palace garden to consider her words, “let my life be given me.” Haman, knowing that his life now hangs in the balance, in a desperate attempt to rectify this issue falls on the queen hoping to negotiate a reasonable solution (likely kneeling at the couch in extremely close proximity to the queen, pleading and begging for his life). The king returns from the palace gardens and observes Haman’s actions and is so infuriated that Haman is bound, his face is covered and he is lead to the seventy-five-foot gallows to be hung – he intended to use it for Mordecai. The wrath of king Ahasuerus was abated after hearing Haman was finally executed.
Queen Esther, in her courage and the use of her position, is now in the process of preventing the annihilation of her Jewish people by the evil hand of Haman. With Haman removed, her uncle Mordecai receives from the king the signet ring of Haman and is promoted as official over all the princes of Persia-Media in the king’s provinces, and Esther receives Haman’s house. However, the problem is far from over. King Ahasuerus’, Persia-Media territories, consist of one-hundred and twenty-seven provinces – the date is still set for the annihilation of the Jewish people and is being disseminated throughout the kingdom based on the irrevocable Media-Persia law – making the situation desperate. Esther presents another request to the king in hopes to revoke the letters of destruction devised by Haman. And although the king could not revoke the previous code of law; letters are written that would authorize the Jewish people to defend themselves against any hostility from their enemies.
In the twelfth month, the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day the king’s decree was executed and the enemies of the Jews were overpowered and defeated. Even the government officials of king Ahasuerus assisted the Jews. For two days the Jews were allowed by decree to defend themselves and in a great slaughter overcame their enemies. Over seventy-five thousand of their enemies were destroyed, but the Jews did not lay a hand on the enemy plunder. This victory belonged to God and they knew it. This historical moment became an annually celebrated holiday for the Jewish people (called, the Feasts of Purim). A two-day celebration of rest, feasting and gladness. Such a great story of courage, faith, victory and how God participates in the affairs of men to fulfill His desired will as noted, “because Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all Jews, had plotted against the Jews to annihilate them, and had cast Pur (that is, the lot), to consume them and destroy them; but when Esther came before the king he commanded by letter that this wicked plot which Haman had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. So they called these days Purim, after the name Pur…the Jews established and imposed it upon themselves and their descendants and all who would join them, that without fail they should celebrate these two days every year…” Esther 9:24-27 NKJV
Mary Magdalene (Matthew 27:55-61; 28:1,9; Mark 15:40-41, 47, 16:1, 6-11; Luke 8:1-3; 24:1, 5-11; John 20:1-2, 11-18).
Mary of Magdala, after the Virgin Mary, is the second most mentioned woman in the New Testament (12 times). It is indeed sad, that a sincere homily by Pope Gregory the Great likely to encourage those who have been captivated by their own sins could also be forgiven has paid a heavy price for Mary of Magdala. She is mentioned in all four of the gospels. Found in the gospel of Luke is a parable about two debtors, which Jesus uses to teach a religious leader, a Pharisee, about forgiveness. Although it is commonly held that this parable refers to Mary Magdalene, there is no hint of her name mentioned here, and as surely as it can apply to her it could also apply to you or me, “there was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?…Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Of course, Mary Magdalene was forgiven a huge debt, therefore she would have loved much more (Lk 7:41-42, 47). It is through this parable that some have falsely claimed that this parable references Mary of Magdala, the woman in whom seven evil spirits were cast out, was a prostitute can’t be further from the truth.
What is clear is that the woman in the parable was a ‘sinner’ and Mary called Magdalene was ‘healed of evil spirits and infirmities’ or ‘out of whom had come seven demons’ (see Luke 8:1-2). We are never told the sins of either of these women. USCatholic.org states, Although the decline of Mary Magdala’s reputation as apostle and leader most likely began shortly after her death, the transformation to penitent prostitute was sealed on September 14, 591, when Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in Rome that pronounced Mary Magdalene, Luke’s unnamed sinner, and Mary of Bethany were, indeed, the same person. “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” Gregory said in his 23rd homily, “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?…It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts…” Few ascribe malicious intent to Gregory (says Thompson) who most likely wanted to use the story to assure converts that their sins would be forgiven. Indeed, the gospel passage is a powerful one – and can still be, without being inaccurately attached to Mary Magdalene.
Mary of Magdala (or Magdalene), implies some prominence in the city, a center of commercial fishing on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee. She left her home to follow Jesus – now a devout follower of the Savior. She is recorded several times in the gospels after her conversion to Christ, even financially supporting the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:2-3), but specifically she is noted as being at His crucifixion, His grave tomb and is sent by both the angels and the risen Christ, with some of the women, to give a message to His disciples, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said…And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed you will see Him.” (Matthew 28:5-7); “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen!…but go, tell His disciples – and Peter – that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” (Mark 16:6-7) and “go to My brethren and say to them, I as ascending to My Father and our Father, and to My God and your God.” (John 20:17b). Mary of Magdala’s faithfulness to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was evident unto the end, even as Jesus’ disciples went into hiding for fear of their own lives (John 20:19).
It seems apparent that Mary Magdalene, as well as the disciples of Jesus, were heart stricken by the fact that their Messiah recently crucified and buried in a grave, whom they had placed so much hope in for the deliverance of the Jewish people. The hope that Jesus would deliver them from the oppression by the Romans empire, was suddenly dashed into pieces, and the establishment of a new kingdom in which righteousness through Jesus dwells would now never transpire. Bereaved by their Savior’s fate of cruel torture and death by crucifixion they do not know what to do. Yet, Mary Magdalene, was determined to honor her Savior and is found in close vicinity of the following historical events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We find Mary Magdalene standing by the cross of Jesus with other women (John 19:25), Mary observes the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid along with other women (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), Mary is joined with other women, on the first day of the week, as they return to the tomb with spices and fragrant oils for the body of Jesus (Matthew 28:1). Mary Magdala and the other women were told by the two angels and by Jesus to share this resurrection report with His disciples (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:17-18). The harmony of the resurrection by sceptics, based on these gospel accounts, seem impossible to harmonize – thereby challenging the truth claims surrounding the resurrection story – with some difficulty, however, we believe the gospels can be reasonably reconciled or harmonized (which will have to be reviewed at a later date due to space constraints here). What we can say is that there was no apparent collusion by the gospel writers (these witnesses/reporters did not use identical word-for-word accounts in their reports) which tends to lend authenticity to the gospel historical accounts concerning the resurrection.
What is significant here, according to the gospel of Mark, is that Mary Magdalene is the first person that Jesus appeared to after His resurrection (16:9-11), and it is her and the other women who are directed by two angels and by Jesus Christ to be the first to proclaim the gospel of the good news, His resurrection story, to the eleven disciples/apostles. So, women are noted to be the first to present the gospel message. However, it seemed like idle tales to the disciples and they did not believe Mary of Magdala or the other women (see Matthew 28:5-10; Luke 24:3-11; John 20:15-18) making it necessary for Jesus to appear to them on several occasions prior to the day of Pentecost, as infallible proofs.
Abigail (I Samuel 25).
Abigail is the wife of Nabal, a very wealthy man, who owned three-thousand sheep and one-thousand goats. Although, Nabal, means folly – it’s not because he was an ignorant, unintelligent man – you can’t be a fool and gain the wealth he had. He was shrewd, ruthless and manipulative, using his wealth and power to get whatever he wanted – harsh and evil – acting often as many wealthy people do. Often people of wealth are arrogant, frequently ignoring those without position, title or financial means (see I Samuel 25:3). Thank goodness Nabal had a wise, courageous and beautiful wife. The entire chapter of I Samuel 25 retells the story of Nabal, a foolish man, and Abigail his wife, a wise and beautiful woman, who with quick thinking was able to approach David with peace offerings and successfully intercede for the life of her people.
David and his men are forced to live in the wilderness in order to escape the wrath of king Saul, who is obsessed with seeking the death of David. So, in order to stay out of reach of king Saul he decides to provide a perimeter of protection around the shepherds whom he latter learns belong to Nabal. Nabal is presently shearing his sheep in Carmel. David sends ten of his men to greet Nabal and inform him that he and his men have provided protection for his shepherds and flocks – and since it happened that Nabal is having a feast day – Nabal might show his appreciation to David and his men by giving them whatever he could spare. Now before we are too quick to judge Nabal, he likely has a point when he responds, “Who is David…shall I then take my bread and water and my meat…and give it to men when I do not know where they are from?” There is always someone standing on the street corner looking for a handout, asking for money, food or even work, and we also are often suspicious of them.
Nabal’s arrogance and harsh response (his folly), lies in the fact that his own shepherds could have easily corroborated the story of David and his men about providing them protection. Nabal, being a wealthy man, could have easily shared some of the festivities with David’s men. Nabal’s actions, unbeknownst to him, put into motion severely dire consequences for him and his household. David is incensed commenting, “he has repaid me evil for good” and has four hundred of his six hundred men gird their swords with the intent to slay every male of Nabal’s household.
Aware of the immediate danger, one of the young men went and told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, of the events that transpired and he is sure that ‘harm is determined against our master and against his household.’ Abigail, also aware of the serious threat, was wise and courageous. She immediately “took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already dressed, five seahs of roasted grain, one hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys” and sent her servant ahead of her and she would follow shortly to intercept David (vs 18-20). Abigail falls at the feet of David, an act of honoring, and pleads for his mercy. Abigail, although not at fault, is willing to take full responsibility for her husband’s actions. Everyone knows that Nabal is a ‘Scoundrel’ full of folly. Abigail acknowledges that if I had talked to the ten men you sent with your request, the situation would have been easily settled, and we would not be in this present predicament.
Abigail being very diplomatic, finding herself in a tenuous situation, in order to ease the tension and abort the sudden destruction of Nabal’s household by David she negotiates remarkably. It seems as though Abigail may have been aware of the many exploits of David based on her astute words, “Please forgive the trespass of your maidservant. For the Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house, because my lord fights the battles of the Lord, and evil is not found in you throughout your days…when the Lord has done for my lord according to all the good that He has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you ruler over Israel, that this will be no grief to you, nor offense of heart to my lord, either that you have shed blood without cause, or that my lord has avenged himself. But when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your maidservant.” It is due to Nabal’s folly, but through Abigail’s courage and wisdom, that averts the imminent threat presented by David. David responds, “For indeed, as the Lord God of Israel lives, who has kept me back from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, surely by morning light no males would have been left to Nabal!…Go up in peace to your house. See, I have heeded your voice and respected your person.”
God used a foolish man, a wise and courageous woman and a humble man to prevent the mass slaughter of an entire household due to one man’s pride and misunderstanding. Nabal still unaware of the behind-the-scene activity, is feasting like a king and in a drunken stupor, until the next day when Abigail informs him of the serious consequences of his actions. She shared how David and his men were marching into Carmel to kill Nabal and every male in his household because he refused to give David food, but I was able to meet with David and provide him with provisions and remove his wrath towards you. The Bible says ‘his heart died within him and he became like a stone’ (likely from a stroke or heart attack). Ten days later Nabal died. Once David learns that Nabal has died he sends his servants to Abigail and asks her hand to be his wife. Abigail seems to be aware that David is going to be the future leader of Israel based of comments she makes in her dialogue with David, “And it shall come to pass, when the Lord has done for my lord according to all the good that He has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you ruler over Israel, that this will be no grief to you, nor offense of heart to my lord, either that you have shed blood without cause, or that my lord has avenged himself. But when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your maidservant.” (I Samuel 25:30, 31b). Abigail agrees leaves her home in Carmel, becoming one of his wives, and continues with David.
It is Abigail’s courageous actions that saved her husband Nabal and his household. It was her wisdom that moved David to seek her hand as wife, “David sent us to you, to ask you to become his wife…So Abigail rose in haste and rode on a donkey, attended by five of her maidens; and she followed the messengers of David, and became his wife.” (I Samuel 25:40, 42).