The Book of Esther

The Book of Esther

Glynn Cardy, 14th May 2023

There are two marks of a follower of Jesus: love of others and love of story.

We need stories not just to open our minds and delight us, but also to imagine both despair and hope.  And we need to hear stories, the same stories, again and again, so we not only tell and retell them but let them guide our understanding, gird our courage, and help us avoid perpetuating injustice and violence.

So, on this Mother’s Day, let’s hear again the stories of two mothers of Israel – Vashti and Esther – and Esther’s mentor, Mordecai.  I call them mothers not because they had or didn’t have children (their reproductive choices are not part of the narrative) but because their progeny are the ‘children’ called survival and courage.

The Book of Esther, a novella, can be read as a story of brave women using (in Vashti’s case) her position to stand up to patriarchy and (in Esther’s case) using her wiliness to save her people.  Yet, by the end of the story, the king is still on the throne and violence is still the currency of this kingdom.  For this is not a liberation, Moses-type story where the Pharoah and his minions are repulsed and the people break free.  Moses does not use his insider status to go, like an Esther, and coddle up to Pharoah and ask for better working conditions or a living wage.  Nor does the story end with Moses, as it did with Esther, being part of the imperial power pyramid.  Rather the Book of Esther is a survival story about disempowered people employing disruptive strategies to exert their agency and power to get their needs, and the needs of their people, met.  But also, it’s about being corrupted by the very system of power and violence they sought to subvert.

The book begins with an incredible story about a non-Jewish Queen (Vashti) shattering stereotypes of women as weak and disempowered.  It begins with a party thrown by the Persian king, Ahasuerus, for all the inhabitants of his capital Susa.  After a drinking session the king summons his queen, Vashti, to appear before his all-male companions wearing the royal crown.  The inference is only the royal crown.  The king and the other men see her as an object for their pleasure – she has no agency or power.  Yet, when summoned, she refuses to go.  She is enacting her agency by choosing to absent herself.

Her choice exposes the fragile foundation on which the entire patriarchal structure stands and the anxiety and vulnerability among men with regard to women.  Her defiance threatens all male power in the society, and hence the society’s sexual and political order.  Vashti’s “transgression” instils fear in the king’s court that all women will then disobey their men.  And so, a decree was passed that “all women bow to the authority of their husbands, ensuring that each man might be master in his own house.”  It is both bizarre and disheartening that Vashti’s refusal to be paraded as a pinup was seen to threaten the power of every man.

While her bravery is to be applauded, Vashti’s assertion of power and refusal to be ‘used’ for the king’s pleasure ends up being ‘used’ to entrench male dominance and keep women “in their place.”  While Vashti is written out of the text, her ‘writing out’ is used by the creators of the law to write back in proper sexual identity and power relations for women vis-à-vis “their lords.” 

Both Vashti’s refusal, and Mordecai’s later, led to massive overreaction, condemnation, and danger.  Which begs the question, what is the role of nonviolent action and refusal to participate in exploitation when it leads to greater oppression?  How do we make sense of this?

(As an aside, my take on Judas is that he was trying to raise similar questions with Jesus and his fellow disciples.  In a totalitarian regime, protest will always be costly, and not just for those like Vashti or Jesus who stand up to challenge the powerful).

The Vashti story is an entree into the story of Esther.  The king, after banishing Vashti, regrets losing his queen, and his nobles suggest that he hold an empire-wide search for a new one.  Ahasuerus agrees and all the eligible virgins in the kingdom are rounded up into the harem in order to be assessed.

As the Jewish scholar, Cat Zavis[i], points out we need to understand Esther through the lens of trauma.  She is a foreigner, her people brought to Persia as captives of war.  She is taken as a young girl and basically sold into sex slavery to a man much older than her and forced to serve in his harem.  This is not a glorious story.  We tend to forget the incredible violence enacted upon Esther. 

Disempowered people often work for the powerful in intimate settings, such as their homes, whether they be wives, servants, or slaves.  They are constantly watching the ruling elite, discerning how to read them and manage their needs and energy so as to keep themselves safe and ‘under the radar’.  From a very young age, Esther resides in the king’s palace – an echo chamber filled with people that respond to their problems with violence.  Esther re-enacts her own trauma and has limited vision of possible solutions through that lens. 

The story tells us that Esther in the harem wins the regard of all who knew her.  Which is probably hyperbole given the competitive in-built nature of any harem.  When Esther’s turn with the king comes, she gains his favour and is made his queen.

(As an aside, we can hear echoes of the Bathsheba story.  Like Esther, Bathsheba was a woman traumatized by the actions of the man (David) who would become her husband, and then used the power she’d been given to exert her agency and get her needs as a survivor met.)

Sometime later after Esther’s change in status, King Ahasuerus promotes the talented and bigoted Haman to the position of vizier or chief official.  As was probably his right, Haman received the bows and due groveling associated with his office.  Mordecai, one of the king’s courtiers, and also Esther’s cousin, refused to bow down to him.

We are not told why.  We are only told, in the worst traditions of racism, that Haman uses Mordecai’s disobedience as an excuse to plan to slaughter every Jew in the Persian Empire.  Haman presents the plan to the king as ‘we should all be one people.’  This is the mantra of empires.  In empire-think difference is deviation, deviation is disobedience, and disobedience needs to be destroyed.

Elie Wiesel, renowned for his writings on the Holocaust, once said, “The Book of Esther 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!”

Yes, it is absurd, but it’s an absurdity that has revisited the Jewish people, Jesus’ people, time and time again.

Mordecai asks Esther to intercede on behalf of her people.  He wants Esther, as the favourite wife, to go immediately, unsummoned, into the king’s presence and plead for the Jewish people.  Esther objects saying that anyone going uninvited into the king’s presence invites death.  She is not due to next appear in his presence for 30 days.  Mordecai responds: “Your position will not save you.  In the end they’ll get you too.”  One cannot read the book of Esther this side of the Holocaust without seeing the parallels.

So, Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity to date, who is successor to the rebellious Vashti, who is the beautiful winner of the king’s affection, the very king who has supported decrees wanting women obedient and Jews dead, makes the appearance of her life.  She dresses up, pleases him with her appearance, but even when invited to makes no request save to invite the king and Haman to a banquet.  The banquet is magnificent, the king is pleased, but again even when invited she makes no request, save to invite them to another banquet.  It is at this second banquet she appeals to his emotions: “Spare me and spare my people.”  Then she appeals to his pocket.  “The death of the Jews would be a great financial loss to the Empire.”  The king, having forgotten that he himself agreed to the killing of the Jews angrily asks who is planning the massacre. 

Esther has used her courage, beauty, and wiliness to put the king in a position of being in her debt.  For the sake of honour, he needed to be generous to her as she had been to him. 

Then, as the story is usually told, there’s a happy-ever-scene with Mordecai elevated to vizier, Esther entrenched as Queen, Haman executed on the gallows he’d built to kill Jews, and a party called Purim instigated to celebrate it all.  What usually isn’t told is the detail of the last chapter when thousands of people in the Empire deemed to be enemies of the Jews are slaughtered.

Which puts a different spin on the whole book.  For the Jewish writer of this novella in his conclusion is pointing to our fallibility as human beings, whether we are powerful or powerless, Gentile or Jew.  We too can enact extreme violence, taking revenge on those who have or might have wronged us.  It points also to the reminder that even those who start powerless can be corrupted by power.  And that acts of contentious resistance and courage in the face of oppression do not excuse us when with violence we seek to exact revenge upon our oppressors.  This author calls us to recognize that to create fundamental change in our society, we need to push against systems of oppression and work together to build a loving and just world that would be truly liberating for all.