March 12, 2022

Esther: Humor, Horror, and Revelation | Purim Teaching

The Book of Esther. In anticipation of Purim this week, we take a look at the story of Esther, Mordechai, Haman, and King Ahasuerus. The story of Esther has an incredibly controversial past due to the secular and explicit scenes, gruesome violence, and themes of farce humor. God is never mentioned directly or indirectly in the entire narrative, or is there a focus on religious elements? Join us as we take another look at this mysterious book and discover not only the presence of God but hidden parallels to the temple, Israel, and exile.

In Brief

Esther, a young Jewish woman in Persian diaspora, is named in the biblical book after her. She finds favor with the King, becomes Queen, and risk her life to save the Jewish people. The pogrom against all Jews of the Empire is authorized by Haman, a court official. The diaspora of the late Persian/early Hellenistic period (4th century B.C.E.) was the setting. The Book of Esther, a Jewish novella, is about the long-standing issues of maintaining Jewish identity and ensuring survival in hostile environments.

The Path to Queenhood

Esther appears first in the story as one the young virgins who were taken into the king’s harem to replace Vashti (Xerxes II), 485--465 B.C.E. It is revealed that she is the daughter of Avihail ( Esth 2:15) as well as the cousin and adopted child of Mordecai ( Esth 2:5-7). Although not much information is available about her character, she is described as being beautiful (2:7), obedient (2,10), and cooperative. She quickly wins favor with Hegai the chief eunuch. When it is her turn to spend the night at the king's, Ahasuerus falls for her and makes her his queen. All of this happens while Esther keeps her Jewish identity hidden ( Eth 2:10 20).

Esther is made queen by her cousin Mordecai, who becomes involved in a power struggle against Haman the Agagite the grand vizier, a descendant from an Amalekite King, who was an enemy to Israel during the time when King Saul reigned ( 1 Samuel 15:32 ). Mordecai refuses Haman's bow, which angers Haman so much that he vows to kill Mordecai and his entire family. He gets permission from the king to do so, and Adar 13 is set (this episode sets the date for the festival of Purim which is a popular Jewish festival). Mordecai discovers that Haman is plotting, and he rushes to Esther's palace to tell her. He weeps and is dressed in sackcloth ( Eth 4:1-3).

Esther Saves the Jews From the Plot Against Them

Esther's character is highlighted at this point. Esther's reaction to learning about Haman's plot, and the threat to the Jews is one of helplessness. Esth 4:11. She cannot approach the King without being summoned. But, after Mordecai's persistent prodding, she decides to do her best to save her people. She ends with the bellowing declaration, "After that, I will go to king, even though it is against law; and if you perish, then I perish" ( Esther, the obedient and compliant woman, has transformed into a woman of action.

King Ahasuerus does not summon Esther before him, but he promises to grant her unarticulated request. Esther invites King Ahasuerus to a dinner party in a stunning moment of understatement ( Esth 5). Haman is also present at Esther's banquet. He asks Esther to a second dinner party, but she deflects her request. Only when she is sufficiently seduced by her charms that the king allows her to reveal her true purpose, the unmasking and plotting of Haman, will she disclose her true motives. For the first time, she reveals her identity as a Jew, and accuses Haman for plotting to destroy her and her people. The volatile king rises to defend the woman to which he had been indifferent three days before. Haman is executed and the Jews are given permission to defend themselves against their enemies ( Esther 9). The book closes with Mordecai being elevated to the position of grand vizier, and Esther gaining all the power.

Unique Features of The Book of Esther

The Book of Esther, like Tobit and Daniel, raises questions about living as a Jew in diaspora. The Book of Esther stands out in two key ways. Second, while Mordecai plays an important role in the story and is at the end of the story at a very high ranking, it's Esther, a female, who saves her people. The story's main function is served by the choice of a female hero. In the Persian diaspora, women were marginalized and powerless. Even though they were part of the dominant culture, women could not reach out and grab power like a man. Any power they did obtain was obtained through manipulation by the men who hold the power. The Jew who lived in a foreign country could identify with the woman because he or she was also powerless and marginalized. Power could only be gained through one's intellect and talent. This is possible, however, as Esther's actions prove. Esther uses her charm, beauty, and political intelligence to save her people and bring down their enemy. She also takes one risk and raises her kinsman up to the top of the kingdom. Esther is the ideal example for Jew in exile or diaspora.

The Book of Esther is different from other biblical diaspora stories in that it does not contain any religious or God-like elements. Even though fasting is not to be accompanied by prayer, Esther requires that Jews observe a fast at exactly the same time as they observe Passover.

Many of its readers have found the apparent irreligiosity to be a source of confusion as well as criticism. It was very popular with the Jewish people because it is connected to Purim. However, the book's status as a holy text was questioned due to its inability to contain the divine name God. Esther's inability to live as a Jew was a problem for the rabbis. She has sex with and marries a Gentile and lives in the Persian court. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible attempts to rectify this situation by adding prayers and invoking God repeatedly, and Esther declaring that she hates her current lifestyle. Both male and female commentators have taken Esther to task for her willingness to take part in Persian harem practices, as well as her apparent bloodthirstiness in destroying Gentiles ( Eth 9:1-15). These criticisms continue to spark discussion about the book's purpose.

The purpose of the Book of Esther

Different interpretations can be given to the purpose of Esther's Book. It can be read as a call to human responsibility, not misguided dependence on God. The book teaches that the Jews must take control of their lives and preserve their existence rather than waiting for God to do so. The book's many "coincidences", despite not directly mentioning God, have been read as a reference to God working behind-the scenes of history. Another interpretation of the book is that it criticizes diaspora Jews for having assimilated to culture and ignoring traditional Jewish law. However, they are still destined to defeat their enemies.

Esther's story and the character she portrays serve as a reflection point for Jewish women and men living in diaspora. It asks the reader questions that they continue to ask in every generation. Is it possible to be Jewish without God and religious observance? What can Jews do when faced with hostility and the danger of genocide. These issues are a common theme, which explains why Esther and the book have remained popular in the Jewish community.

 

Topics: ,