I’d never read the Book of Esther when I was invited to speak on the subject last month at a gathering of congregants from both my Havurah and a Baptist Church. In an act of curiosity and non-Biblical faith, I agreed.
I read the Book twice, taking notes. It begins with drunken feasts and ends with murderous mayhem and more drunken feasts which are recreated annually for the Jewish festival of Purim. Embedded in the narrative between are stories of two women – Vashti and Esther — who stood up against autocratic authority, and a man – Mordecai — who enabled one of them. God doesn’t intervene in any of this. I think it’s fair to say there isn’t an explicit spiritual moment in the entire book. Nor did I initially discern a comprehensive theme. Perhaps, as some suggested, it’s simply an adaptation of Persian myth. But whatever the source, I felt confused about the meaning.
I resorted to character analysis, looking for individuals who offered examples that we might learn from. I quickly dispensed with the king – a vain and foolish man – and Haman – a vain and evil man who sought the death of all Jews in the realm. That left, apart from the eunuchs, three possible candidates for role models: Vashti, Mordecai and Esther.
The first woman, Vashti, stood up for herself. She directly defied the king’s command to display herself as a show girl to his fellow merrymakers. It was the king and his courtiers who saw in her behavior a larger and more insidious message that could lead other women to hold their husbands in contempt. She was banished for refusing to obey her man. The Book reminds us explicitly that the man is the king in his castle. This isn’t a message for these times and deserves to be dismissed. Moreover, given that Vashti is sent packing long before the story ends, her courage can’t be regarded as the central story.
Mordecai, a Jew, has a strong presence and dispositive influence in the Book of Esther. He had several moments in the sun. First, he’d been looking out for his younger cousin Esther for some time when we meet him. He continued to do so, even after she’s carried away to the king’s harem. I gave him points for family responsibility.
Second, he revealed a plot he overheard to kill the king. That was decent of him. His motive is unclear but, again, points for disclosing treasonous disloyalty.
Third, Mordecai stuck by his principles: he wouldn’t bow down to Haman, the king’s henchman. This might be regarded as an implicit reference to God for Mordecai knows that to God alone the knee may bend. He never said this, and the narrator never suggested this, but Mordecai lived his monotheism, even as he knew it was unlikely to end well for him. This, too, deserves admiration.
Fourth, Mordecai impelled Esther to save the Jewish people. Just in case she wasn’t swayed by principle, he made the case that, if she didn’t speak up for her people, and take the risk of incurring the king’s wrath, she would ultimately perish with her people under Haman’s edict. He effectively appealed to her sense of familial duty but shored it up with a reference to the reality of the situation, which was, at that time, in Haman’s hands.
But it isn’t the book of Mordecai – it’s the book of Esther and she is the third role model candidate. Esther puzzles and troubles me. She manipulated the king to get her way, never openly defying him. She spoke up, at her cousin’s urging, disclosed her Jewish identity, and asked the king most graciously to spare her and her people. (She noted, by the way, that she wouldn’t bother the king about this if her people were merely going to be sold as slaves. It was a matter of life and death, she pointed out.) This was courageous, although she also surely knew that, if she stayed silent, she too would die under Haman’s order. She succeeded at her high stakes game, partly because the king had a sleepless night which he spent reading about the goings-on in his realm. The plot thickened here, as the king suspected Haman also of importuning Queen Esther – was this Esther’s set-up to enrage the king? — and availed himself of the gallows that Haman had erected for Mordecai to hang Haman instead.
But when Esther asked the king to revoke Haman’s edict, he said it was impossible, that a king couldn’t revoke his own order. Dubious, but there it is. Instead, a new edict was written at Mordecai’s direction to permit Jews to fight back against any attempts on their lives and to annihilate their attackers – including their women and children. This apparently was readily accomplished because the people, we are told, were so fearful of Mordecai’s new power that no one took up arms against the Jews. As a result, 75,000 non-Jews were slaughtered. In addition to the 10 sons of Haman, whose hangings were sought by Esther personally, as well. And all of this was followed by great celebrations and feasts and joy which are reenacted annually to this day.
Putting aside all in the narrative that strains credulity, I was left with a sense that Mordecai and Esther ultimate failed us as role models when the tables turned. They became vengeful and murderous. Though the story of Passover includes compassion for the Egyptians who suffered and lost their lives, compassion is absent from the Book of Esther. Just unmitigated joy in the destruction of non-Jews and their families.
I’m glad it was Mordecai who ended up with the king’s signet ring, but I’m disappointed that Esther’s better self didn’t prevail. The hilarity of the annual Purim festivities seems misplaced to me. However, my perspective on Esther wasn’t shared at the gathering by either Jews or Baptists. The discussion was, nevertheless, fruitful. It led me to realize that there is a thesis in the Book after all: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when good people are involved.