Opening The Old Testament
To Defend, to Destroy, or to Hope? Reflections on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
September 30, 2012
The book of Esther is deeply problematic in many ways. In Judaism it is the presenting story for the festival of Purim ("lots"), a festival characterized by joy and feasting, the giving of gifts, and usually the presentation of a play based on the tale, often done by children, dramatizing the simple division of the world into evil and good. Evil is the character Haman, a Persian official who detests the Jews of his country and who is hanged on the very gallows he had built for his archenemy, Mordecai, uncle of the beautiful Esther. She and her uncle are the Good Jews who, through risk and pluck and with the help of the wine-soaked, slightly stupid king, Ahasuerus, are able to save the Jews from destruction. Purim is a festival of fun with food and presents and, enjoined by Mordecai (Esth. 9:22), a time for remembering the poor.
Any simple reading of the plot of the story could certainly sustain this view. The Jews are living in Persia, a land ruled rather haphazardly by the king, Ahasuerus. There is little need to speculate concerning the historicity of this fairy story; the writer, whoever he or she may have been, is not writing history. This is a story designed to give to all those Jews living in whatever sort of exile support and courage for their survival. If the story was written sometime in the fifth or fourth centuries B.C.E., there were countless Jews living throughout the Greek empire, an empire soon to become Roman. There was no real Jewish homeland, so living among foreigners was their common lot. Stories like this one were needed to buoy up flagging spirits and to offer heroes and heroines who arise from time to time in order to save the scattered people. Exiles need hope, and Esther offers hope.
The tale is easily recounted. Ahasuerus holds a six-month drunken feast at the end of which he demands that his wife, Vashti, be brought before the inebriated mob to display her beauty to them. The king tells her to be certain to wear her royal crown, with perhaps the implication that that is all she is to wear. Vashti flatly refuses to be shown off in this repulsive fashion, and the enraged king, humiliated in front of his guests, tosses her aside. He is convinced by his courtiers that if news got around that the king's wife has rebuffed a command of her husband, well, all wives might get the idea that husband-rebuffing is just the thing. And we don't want that, do we, O Majesty? So, Vashti is summarily deposed as queen.
But after a time the king grows lonely and misses his wife. Again, the courtiers suggest a plan. Why not have a Miss Persia contest and invite all the most beautiful girls to the capital to compete for the king's affections? Ahasuerus likes this plan immensely, and so women are collected from all 127 provinces of the vast empire. Among them is the gorgeous Esther, who has been raised by her uncle Mordecai. They just happen to be Jews.
Meanwhile, Ahasuerus has promoted Haman to be chief among all of his officials. It's just like the foolish king to choose a most unpleasant fellow for a position of great power. Haman immediately demands that all persons who encounter him bow to his greatness. Mordecai refuses to do so, and Haman is so enraged that he decides then and there to murder not just the Jewish Mordecai, but all the Jews to assuage the slight he has received.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.