Vashti and Esther were brave women, and there are many stories now of women – both from the past and present – who publicly show courage.
I’ve been following the story of the Kenyan movie ‘Rafiki’ (not the character from Lion King!). Rafiki, by director Wanuri Kahiu, tells the story of two Kenyan girls who fall in love with each other and struggle to navigate this love with their families in a homophobic society. It premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Kenyan film to ever do so. In order though for it to be nominated for an Oscar it needs to be shown for at least seven days in its home country. And there lay the problem, for the Kenyan Film Censorship Board had banned it.
Enter Justice Wilfrida Okwany who last Friday overturned the ruling, allowing the film to screen for 7 days. Wilfrida said, “although the board banned the film on account that it would pollute Kenyans’ minds, gays and lesbians have been living among us for a long time. I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.”
Having spent some time in Kenya, and knowing of the homophobia rife in both religion [Christianity and Islam] and society in general, I have huge admiration for the director and the judge. Courageous women indeed!
The Festival of Purim, also featuring courageous women, is celebrated in the Jewish community around February/March each year. It’s a time to dress up, eat up, and drink up. People often come dressed as one of the characters from the Book of Esther, where the festival has its origins. Often the saga of Ahasuerus, Vashti, Mordecai, Haman, and Esther is acted out, hammed up, for the entertainment of all. I was a guest at a Purim party once and it was a riotous occasion.
Like many stories in the Bible to the question ‘did-it-happen-like-this?’ the answer/s remain speculative. But that does not detract from the festivities, or the poignant message behind the festivities. For the Book of Esther is a survival story of a people. And for Jews this is a story that has been acted and re-enacted many times over. Whether it is the Egyptian Empire, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the First Persian Empire (it was Xerxes I who is probably Ahasuerus), the Seluccid Empire, the Roman Empire, the pogroms in Europe, or the Nazi Empire… the story of hate, persecution, and survival has been almost been constant for Jews.
The Book of Esther, as our second reading indicates, has a story-book happy ending. The Jews in Ahasuerus’ empire survive, and the instigator of persecution, Haman, and his lackeys are killed. Of course, in Jewish history this kind of happy ending has not been the norm. Usually, it is Jews who suffered and were killed. Although the Shoah, the holocaust inflicted by the Nazi regime in the 1940s times, was unspeakably horrendous and incomparable, there are been many smaller episodes of racism against and murder of Jews littered across the centuries – often, I’m ashamed to say, with the connivance, encouragement, and even instigation of the Christian Church, who deliberately forgot that our founder was a Jew.
So Purim celebrates that occasionally, very occasionally, there is a good ending and life goes on. Bad things happen to good people, but some survive.
In the Book of Esther God is absent. There are no prayers either. The main character, Esther, enters a Gentile beauty pageant, marries a non-Jew (the king), doesn't keep the dietary laws, and lives in a Gentile environment. You can imagine what her pious critics would have said!!
Jewish writers and theologians, maybe more than most because they’ve suffered more than most, wrestle with the relationship between God, suffering, and survival.
Some might conclude that the happy ending of the Book of Esther is proof that God was in all, and through all, asserting his/her will and guiding the characters to the conclusion. A similar argument from the Book of Exodus might discount Pharaoh’s slaughter new-borns as ‘regrettable but necessary’ in order that Moses lead his people to freedom.
But the problem with equating history with God’s will is the suffering of innocents. If God is all-loving, and all-powerful, and doesn’t intervene to save the children in Egypt, or the Shoah, then God is a monster. No theological or philosophical gymnastics like ‘that’s the consequence of free will’, or ‘that’s the consequence of sin entering the human race’, or ‘God’s only hands are human hands’, can excuse an omnipotent deity doing nothing when a baby is about to be murdered.
Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, once wrote a play called ‘The Trial of God’. He set his play at the time of Purim. He writes, “The story begins with a Persian king and queen, extravagant banquets, and no mention of Jewish people whatsoever. Two chapters later and the Jews are in great danger for their lives. It is absurd! [Just like in the Second World War. Just like so many other times in Jewish history]. I wanted to capture this same sense of absurdity in the play.”
The play is based on a real debate between three rabbis in Auschwitz. It traverses these questions of divine power and morality, and finds God guilty of murder and much more. Yet, at the end, instead of walking away from their faith and religion, the rabbis pray. Maybe they are praying for the redemption of God?
What are we doing when we pray? Are we trying to get an omnipotent and omniscient deity to intervene in our lives, or the lives of others, so that life might be better? What happens when the prayer isn’t answered – like in Auschwitz, or when it is – like in Esther? Does God really have the whole world in his/her hands?
Or is prayer a way of communally expressing our hope, or holding each other, or crying out our grief, and in the processes of these finding some strength and resilience to go on? Is prayer about speaking into the mysteries, or listening into the silences, both of which reside in us as well as beyond us? Is prayer a way of acting with courage – to get up after being knocked down [whether that’s due to violence, financial loss, grief, physical deterioration], or to re-orientate your life to be and breath out loving-kindness, or to stand up to the powers that inflict suffering?
So, maybe with these deeper questions in mind about the morality of the divine and the nature of prayer, the Book of Esther mentions not God or prayer, but says a lot about courage.
The first reading today is the story of Vashti, who wasn’t Jewish at all. She was simply a Queen who when summoned to appear before a gathering of drunken men wearing the royal crown – and the inference is that she was to wear only the royal crown - refused. This Gentile, read ‘godless unbeliever’, was not going to be used or demeaned. She was very brave. For she knew that in her refusal she was challenging and unbridled power of her husband the king, and the power of patriarchy in every home across the land.
Astonishingly we find in response to Vashti’s refusal/rebellion the king and his courtiers issued a decree that “all women bow to the authority of their husbands, ensuring that each man might be master in his own house.” Her refusal to be paraded as a pinup threatened the mythology of male power.
In a not dissimilar way I see the actions of Christine Blasey-Ford, Elizabeth Rasor, and Julie Swetnick, in raising allegations of sexual assault pertaining to US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, as challenging the mythology around what is permissible/forgivable regarding young university-age men – the ‘if-it-happens-on-tour [at uni] it-stays-on-tour’ thinking. I know this is politically highly charged, but I see these women as courageously following in the footsteps of Anita Hill who in 1999 was savaged by a similar patriarchal process.
As for Queen Vashti, she was lucky to escape with her life. You don’t say ‘no’ to absolute monarchs, especially when they lose face by your refusal. Vashti is banished. This, in turn, opens the door for Esther.
Esther, with her religion a secret, enters the harem and wins the respect of all who know her. When her turn with the king comes, Esther woos Ahasuerus, who makes her his queen.
Sometime later, the king promotes the talented and bigoted Haman to the position of vizier. Haman demands that all the people bow down to him. Mordecai, in the great tradition of Jewish faithfulness and courage, tells Haman where to go. Angered, Haman plots revenge on Mordecai by planning to slaughter all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
Mordecai learns of the plot, and turns to Esther to intercede with the king. She displays the same self-assurance and determination of her predecessor Queen Vashti. At the climax of the story, Esther, in the great tradition of little people risking everything by doing big things, goes unsummoned to the king. She gains Ahasuerus' favour, reveals Haman's plot, and foils his scheme.
The Book of Esther has been used by Jewish thinkers as a guide for when disobedience, even rebellion, against the state might be justified. You may remember earlier this year the Attorney-General of the US, Jeff Sessions, said “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” Jeff Sessions said this to defend the Trump administration’s policy of separating thousands of parents and children during immigration investigations.
This is one of those verses that kings and the like have, over the centuries, loved to use as a proof-text. Taken in isolation from the rest of scripture the inference is that a government can do anything it likes and it will be alright with God, conveniently forgetting of course that the Bible is riddled with rebels, including Moses, David, Jesus… and Vashti and Esther. By the way, New Testament scholar Brandon Scott has written a piece arguing that the verses from Romans letter are a later insertion into text and not authentically Pauline at all.
Jewish writers, reflecting on the Book of Esther, list four reasons why disobedience or rebellion against a government is warranted, or even called for. Firstly, when there is injustice and oppression. This may be personal, as in the case of Vashti, or communal as in Haman's genocidal plans. Secondly, when there is, like in Esther's case, hope of relieving oppression. Thirdly, disobedience is warranted when the oppressed community calls for it, as the Jewish community asked of Esther. Lastly, disobedience and/or rebellion are justified when the voice of authority, in this case the king, believes he is the supreme authority, and thus denies the sovereignty of God.
I find it amusing that the King Ahasuerus, despite having his pick of beautiful women from all across his empire, chooses two who have independent, disobedient spirits. The king, despite his inadequacies, seems to get queens with backbone!
The festival of Purim is not just a wild celebration of a people’s survival. It is a two-day honouring of the courage of women and men, the indestructibility of the human spirit, and the memory of all those who have stood up, and continue to stand up and suffer for being the voice of a different, just, truth.