Friday, May 26, 2017


Image result for queen esther xerxes
Tough life, being Xerxes: first Queen Vashti
embarrasses him at his party, then King Leonidas
embarrasses him at Thermopylae.
We have now essentially told the Old Testament story of the rise and fall of Israel, highlighting the role of women in that story.  Personally, I am finding the sequence of anecdotes fascinating.  I honestly had no idea that women played such a huge role in that story, nor of how many heroines can actually be found in the Bible.  The answer given by one feminist, "none," now seems laughable as the claim that it never snows in the Cascades.  Heroines are concentrated in these pages like snowflakes on an alpine fir. 

Now we examine a new era in which the Jewish people, or at least literate elite, has been taken captive in Babylon.  Two Old Testament books most famously tell that story in narrative form: Esther, and Daniel.  The former is also the second book in the Old Testament that is largely about a woman, or a pair of female friends, in the case of Ruth.  The story is not about gender relations, however: it is about something even more modern, the salvation of Israel from enemies who would like to obliterate it in a fiery fit of genocide.  It just so happens that a beautiful young woman, in one sense more powerful than Wonder Woman but in another more emotionally and physically vulnerable, plays the lead role in that story.

While enjoying the story, we shall of course pay attention to clues about gender roles -- without letting them choke the plot. 

(126) Modest Queen, Angry King

1. 9-22: "On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.   But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come.  Then the king became furious and burned with anger.   Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.

 “'According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?' he asked. 'She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.'

"Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, 'Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes.  For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, "King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come."  This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.'

 “'Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes.  Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she.  Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”

"The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed.  He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue."

Greek historians agree that the Persians denigrated women.  Herodotus tells stories which illustrate the low status women endured in that civilization.  (I plan to post on that subject in the coming weeks.) 

Xerxes, who would be defeated by the Greeks (that's the story Herodotus tells, including the famous 300 battle at Thermopylae) wished to show his beautiful wife off to a group of drunk men.  (King Herod would try the same trick in the New Testament, setting in course a chain of events that led to the execution of John the Baptist.) Vashti refused. The narrator doesn't editorialize on her refusal.  He simply notes that the king and his men thought this would be damaging to domestic affairs in general: if even the king can't tell his wife what to do and what not to do, how long before ordinary wives mouth off to their husbands? 

So the story begins with a Battle of the Sexes.  But that is not its intended focus, at most it is an interesting side issue.  If the narrator intends a point, it may be that the Persians are despotic, and that disobeying the king is risky.  Which sets the story up for the entrance of the real heroine (with all due respect to the courageous Queen Vashti -- she might be an interesting lady to interview in the Afterlife.) 

(127) Esther Made Queen

2. 1-23: "Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her.  Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king.  Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them.  Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.

"Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish,  who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah.   Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.

"When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.  She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem.

"Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.  Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.

"Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.   And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.   In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.

 "When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her.  She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.

"Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins.  So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.   And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality."

This is, frankly, the sort of system that the prophet Samuel warned against, and that Israel clambered for against his advice.  Everything is for the pleasure of one man.  The nation goes along with that, partly out of fear, but partly because the spoils perk down to the next level.  If the king shows his wife off to his drunken friends, then all the men can be kings in their castles.  Meanwhile, his servants plot to increase their power and gain control over the machinery of state for their own purposes. 

Sexism of the sort, the hoarding of young women for the pleasure of one man, is just one part of that unjust system, which the prophets warned against.   

(128) Mordecai Uncovers a Conspiracy

"When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate.  But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.  During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.  But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai.  And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles.  All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king."

So Esther does what she can to help the king, keeping her ears open.

(129) Saving Israel

4.4-7  "When Esther’s eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. 

"Then Esther summoned Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.

"So Hathak went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate.  Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews."

4.14-17: "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.  And if I perish, I perish.”

"So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions."

These are some of the most famous words in Jewish history: "Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"  I am attracted by the agnosticism of the challenge.  Yes, you may die if you challenge this evil law.  But maybe that is what you are alive for in the first place. 

What a wonderful example, say, to women who rescued slaves along the Underground Railroad - also in defiance of the law! 

5. 3-8: "Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.” “If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him."

“Bring Haman at once,” the king said, “so that we may do what Esther asks.”

"So the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared.  As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

"Esther replied, “My petition and my request is this:  If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.”

5.14: "His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Have a pole set up, reaching to a height of fifty cubits, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it. Then go with the king to the banquet and enjoy yourself.” This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the pole set up."

7.1-9: "So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet,
 and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.

”Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request.  For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”
"King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
"Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
"Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen.  The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.  Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.
"The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”
"As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”
"The king said, “Impale him on it!”  So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided."

Not much needs to be added here.  This young Jewish girl, picked suddenly from obscurity and placed in the highest position for a woman in the land, needs prodding from her uncle, but in the end saves her people from genocide.

(130) Payback

8.1-6:  "That same day King Xerxes gave Queen Esther the estate of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came into the presence of the king, for Esther had told how he was related to her.  The king took off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and presented it to Mordecai. And Esther appointed him over Haman’s estate.  Esther again pleaded with the king, falling at his feet and weeping. She begged him to put an end to the evil plan of Haman the Agagite, which he had devised against the Jews.  Then the king extended the gold scepter to Esther and she arose and stood before him.
 “If it pleases the king,” she said, “and if he regards me with favor and thinks it the right thing to do, and if he is pleased with me, let an order be written overruling the dispatches that Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, devised and wrote to destroy the Jews in all the king’s provinces.  For how can I bear to see disaster fall on my people? How can I bear to see the destruction of my family?"

9.13: “If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Susa permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.

9. 29-32: "So Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, along with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter concerning Purim.   And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom—words of goodwill and assurance— to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation.   Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations about Purim, and it was written down in the records."

So as in a fairy-tale, the beautiful girl from next door saves her country.  She is not beyond getting payback against all Israel's enemies after she's done that.  She also begins a Jewish holiday in the process, with foods, gifts to the poor, reading of Scripture, shouting out Haman's name, or even burning him in effigy with a bit of fun, like Guy Fawkes Day. 

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