On Sunday we looked at the Story of Esther as part of our series exploring the Hamesh Megillot - the Five Scrolls which are the sort of miscellaneous of the Hebrew Bible. As with the previous installments in this series, you may like to start with this overview of the book.
The version of the story we heard on Sunday was from Bob Hartman's The Storyteller Bible, which retells biblical stories in six hundred words or fewer. I wanted us to get a sense of the whole narrative, but as you might expect, we didn’t get the whole story. I’m always interested in what gets cut from abridged versions, because I think it can be very telling, so let’s start by taking a look at that.
We miss that the king allows Mordecai and Esther to write a decree that allows the Jews to defend themselves and destroy their enemies, resulting in the deaths of seventy five thousand over two days and Haman and his ten sons being impaled on spikes (or hung on the gallows, depending on the translation). We’re told that this decree was written to counter Haman’s decree that said the Jews were to be slaughtered, but I can’t help but think that a decree that allowed the Jews to defend themselves might have been sufficient to show whose side the king was now on and dissuade the massacre, and that the added permission given for the destruction of enemies was overkill. There is a bloodthirstiness here, and a desire not just for safety but revenge.
We also miss that the reason Esther becomes queen is that the previous queen Vashti is deposed when she refuses to be paraded in front of Xerxes and his drunken friends, and Esther is chosen as her replacement after she is sent by Mordecai to become part of the king’s harem and is then groomed for a year. The text says that Xerxes calls for Vashti to be brought before him in her royal diadem, leaving open the possibility that he expects her to be wearing little else, and it does not shy away from the fact that the women of the harem are brought to the king at night and taken away in the morning, only to return if they have pleased him. The king treats women as purely decorative and sexual beings and is enabled not only by his advisers but also by men like Mordecai who send women to him.
So why are these details cut? Perhaps it is purely for brevity, because the main thrust of the story can be told without them. But they could be included in just a couple of sentences. Perhaps it is because we have become so used to violence and misogyny that they hardly register as significant. But I really hope that is not the case. No, I suspect that they are glossed over because there is something uncomfortable about them. Of course there is something deeply unpleasant about Haman’s campaign against the Jews, but that is resolved within the story. The massacre that does occur and the frankly appalling treatment of women are not resolved because they are not really addressed. They just sit there making us feel uneasy. At least, they make me feel uneasy.
(It is worth noting that The Storyteller Bible is largely used with children, which perhaps adds a further reason to miss out some of the nastier details...although I still wonder if that is less to protect the children from the gory bits and more to protect the adults from awkward questions about them.)
I think we can often be reluctant to address the discomfort we feel when reading the Bible, but I suspect that is often rooted in a misunderstanding of scripture and how we are allowed - perhaps even supposed - to handle it. We often act as if the Bible condones what it doesn't explicitly condemn, which leaves us with all sorts of difficulties we would rather close our eyes to, but that is based on a false assumption. One of David’s sons rapes his own sister, and Jepthah sacrifices his daughter to keep a rash promise no one seems to hold him to, and at no point does the text say these things are wrong, because it doesn’t need to. It trusts the reader to recognise that they are wrong. Sometimes there is no moral judgement or theological reflection in the text because we are expected to bring our own. If something in scripture makes us feel uncomfortable, we don’t have to ignore it, we can challenge it.
We can look at this another way. A former colleague of mine once asked a rabbi friend what she found most infuriating about the way Christians use the Hebrew Bible, and she said it was our tendency to use it all as moral teaching or example. She said that for her the scriptures were family history, and some of it was great and some of it was the equivalent of the time Uncle Jacob got drunk and made a fool of himself at Cousin Hannah’s wedding. We can’t change the fact that this is the history that has been handed down, and it doesn’t help to deny it or obscure it, but we can choose to apply some wisdom and discernment to our retelling of it, and we can recognise that sometimes history teaches us what not to do.
That applies across scripture generally, but there’s something else we can say about Esther in particular, because it has been described as a comedy in the same way that some of Shakespeare’s plays are comedies. It relies on improbable coincidences (another detail we miss in the abridged version is that Mordecai saves the king from an assassination attempt because he happens to overhear the plot, which leads to Haman having to honour Mordecai on the day he had planned to have him killed) and there is bawdy behaviour (the drunken feast that leads to Xerxes deposing Vashti) and wild exaggeration (the women who seek to please the king are subjected to twelve months of beauty treatments). It has also been suggested by historians and biblical scholars alike that the massacre orchestrated by Mordecai did not happen, or at least not on the scale suggested, and that the story offers a vicarious triumph which functions as a kind of wish fulfillment or safety valve for the people in exile.
However we read the text - as history or comedy or fantasy or a combination of any of the above - it is clearly a highly crafted and very literary piece of work. But it is emphatically not a template for moral behaviour, and we can absolutely bring our own moral judgement and theological reflection to it. Whether I am always consciously aware of it or not, for me that largely means reading in the light of the life and teaching of Christ. That is not to say that Christians have a privileged perspective on Jewish scripture - we absolutely need to listen to and learn from Jewish voices, and respect their closer relationship to the text - but it is to recognise that my Christian faith is a major part of the particular lens I view it through.
So we can say that the way Vashti and Esther are treated is wrong, and that Mordecai went way overboard in writing his decree. In fact we need to say those things, because the more we insulate ourselves against discomfort and turn away from the things we perceive as wrong in scripture, the easier we find it to ignore the injustices we find in the world. We need to call things out in scripture or we won't call them out in real life.
In the first place that means we need to see and hear the truth of women’s stories. Vashti should be praised for maintaining her personal dignity in the face of Xerxes’ crude and objectifying demands, not written out of the story. Esther should be recognised as the victim of a kind of sex trafficking, not transformed into a pageant princess. Women who speak at great personal cost about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of powerful men need to be listened to. Girls who are drawn into situations in which their bodies are commodified need to be protected. Men who use and demean women need to be challenged. If this story doesn’t explicitly say so, it does invite us to reflect on the treatment of Vashti and Esther, and while I will not usually insist on my opinion as absolute truth, I don’t believe that the way in which Jesus honoured and respected women allows us to come to any other conclusions.
It also means we have to confront issues of violence and vengeance. Mordecai’s decree was excessive, and we could say the same of much of the foreign policy of the Hebrew Bible. We can find all sorts of excuses for it, but I don’t believe we have to accept it just because it is biblical. We can ask hard questions of the violence in scripture. Was it just the way things were, or could it have been avoided? Was it really the will of God, or is religion just an easy justification for war? We can and should ask the same questions of violence and vengeance in our own time. This is something we’ll come back to in a couple of weeks, so all I will add for now is that Jesus had a consistent habit of using scripture in a way that rejected the violence in it, and I think that ought to set a pattern for our own response.
So far we have focused on the parts of the story that weren’t in our reading, but now I want us to consider something we did hear on Sunday. When Mordecai asks Esther to approach the king in order to counter or undo Haman’s plan to kill the Jews, he suggests that perhaps she has been brought to the palace for such a time as this. In the biblical story, he doesn’t name God as the one who has brought here there, but readings of this text have almost invariably held that to be that case. In fact, midrashic interpretations of the story have strengthened that sense of divine purpose, suggesting that Esther initially hid when the call went out for women to come to the palace, and was either found or instructed to go precisely because God had ordained that path for her. It has also been noted that Haman did not become a threat until Esther was in the palace, and this has been read a sign that God prepares the remedy before the affliction.
As you might already have gathered, I am not convinced that every detail of this story is the work or desire of God, because I believe that he honours women and abhors violence far more than such a reading would give him credit for, but I do believe that God is present in every detail, even though he is unnamed and appears absent or at least hidden. I believe that because I believe that God is always in every detail, not necessarily guiding or condoning, but waiting to be perceived. Maybe it was God who put Esther in the palace, or maybe it was the desire of the king and the patriarchal structures that enabled him, but certainly God was with her and was able to strengthen her to make the most of her position. In the same way, it may sometimes be the case that God asks us to step into difficult situations, and it will surely be the case that life overtakes us with times of trial and suffering, but always God enters them with us in order to redeem us from them. He is with us in every “such a time as this”.
The events of this story are the basis for the festival of Purim, and it may enrich our thinking here if we think a little about the celebration of that festival. In the Levush Mordechai, Rabbi Epstein described Purim by comparing it to Chanukah: “Chanukah celebrates the triumph of the Jewish soul. The Greeks did not seek to kill the Jew; they sought to destroy him spiritually by indoctrinating him with Hellenism. Thus Chanukah is celebrated with the kindling of lights, a symbol of spirituality. Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jew's bodily existence from the plot of Haman who sought to destroy the Jews physically. Thus Purim is celebrated with physical feasting.” And the author of the Bnei Yissaschar similarly brought out the distinction between the two: “On Chanukah, G‑d defied the laws of nature to save us, while on Purim the salvation came about in what could be perceived as a series of coincidences. On Chanukah the divine salvation came ‘from above’, while on Purim it came ‘from below’, disguised in ordinary events. Chanukah celebrates the fact that our commitment to G‑d, and His to us, transcends all natural bonds. Purim celebrates the fact that our relationship also pervades the most ordinary, everyday details of our lives.” The contrast brings out more clearly a sense that God cares about our whole selves, and is at work in all of the mundanity of our lives as well as all of the splendour of creation, and I think that is a wonderful thing to celebrate.
There is one more thing I want to offer this morning. I once heard the rabbi I mentioned earlier, whose name is Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, speak on Esther. I still have a note on my phone from her sermon, which says “ethical monotheism says we all have infinite value and can stand up to the machine”. I can’t recall now everything she said that led up to that point, but I think it says something about the potential in each one of us to do as Esther did, to understand our unique position and to act from it. If we go back to Mordecai’s words to her, he says that if she does not act then deliverance will come from elsewhere, but perhaps she has come to her position for this reason. The future of her people does not rest in her hands alone, but there is something she can do that no one else can, and so she must do it.
Very little rests in our hands alone, but there is always something we can do which no one else can, and we must do it. At cafe church a few weeks ago we looked at Ecclesiastes, and as part of our discussions we talked about the times we are living in. We are always living in “such a time as this”, and it is on us to recognise what that time is and understand what our response to it must be. We are living in a time of deceit and division, but we can choose to speak honestly and foster relationships with those we disagree with. We are living in a time of ecological crisis and great inequality, but we can choose to make conscious decisions about they way we live which seek to make a positive difference. Buying Fairtrade bananas and being nice to your neighbour may not be on the same level as risking your neck to flutter your eyelashes at a king, but no one else is doing your shopping or having your conversations. Each act is something we can do that no one else can, however small. And we should never dismiss small, because if God is in the details, then the details really matter.
Why don’t you take a moment now to reflect on how Mordecai’s words might speak to us this morning. Perhaps you are here for such a time as this. Where are you? What time is this? And how are you called to respond?