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The Politics of Esther

June 21, 2015

Esther 2Often viewed with suspicion by Christians – No function in the Christian liturgical year – Luther removed some bits from the Canon

Some claim Ahasuerus’s character agrees with Herodotus’s portrayal of him

excavations found cosmetic burner 2:12-13

12The turn came for each girl to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women. 13When the girl went in to the king she was given whatever she asked for to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace.

4 Mardukas on Persian tablets – Marduk, Mordechai

But pur neither Hebrew or Persian for lots

Similar to other tales where a Jew can rise from lowly status in a foreign country and use his/her position to save others, despite initially being a passive character and despite being forgotten at a crucial moment

shared motifs:

  • two eunuchs who act against a king (Genesis 40:1-3, Esther 2: 21-23)

Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt. 2Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.

In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

  • the king having troubled nights (Genesis 41:9-45, Esther 6: 1-11)

14Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 15And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’

On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king.

  • banqueting scenes
  • reversals of fortune
  • the hangings
  • parallel phrasings – Genesis 41:42-43 Esther 6:11

Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck. 43He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command; and they cried out in front of him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.

 11So Haman took the robes and the horse and robed Mordecai and led him riding through the open square of the city, proclaiming, “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor,

Genesis 39:10 Esther 3:4

And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her.

 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew.

Genesis 44:34 Esther 8:6

34For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.’

 For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?”

seen to glorify violence against Gentiles

principal characters behave in ways that are morally or religiously questionable – Esther embraces a life in which she cannot possibly keep the Jewish law

God never mentioned, nor religious observances except for fasting

Mosdala – black South African scholar objects that the book doesn’t question the Persian feudal system but ‘aspires only to survival’

or at best to influence the system

subsumes gender struggle to nationalist and survivalist programme

‘South African women cannot support the claim that such a biblical text supports them in their struggle.’

Gottwald Norman Gottwald – sociologist – Jews undertook no looting 9:10,15,16

10the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they did not touch the plunder.

15The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed three hundred persons in Susa; but they did not touch the plunder. 16Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

– support feudal ideology in which property assumes greater importance than people

These objections could be raised against many biblical texts and reflect mores of two thousand years later.

Fewel feminist scholar – author mocks the fragility of male sovereignty in the Vashti episode which opens the book.

9Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.

10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. 13Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14and those next to him were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, and sat first in the kingdom): 15“According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”

Esther gaining support from Christians who appreciate and identify its identity with the oppressed

Matthew Henry 1704 saw it as illustration of the wicked plotting against the so-called righteous – Ps. 37:12

The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them;

sympathy for plight of Jews – feel similarly stigmatised themselves

Esther deals with fear by creating a story which resembles the fear and anxiety of the audience – plays it out on the stage therapeutically

Anderson W. Anderson writing after WW2 ‘the eternal miracle of the Jewish survival’

we should stand back and see retrospectively that God has kept Israel alive for his salvific purposes regardless of her merits or demerits, as an action of undeserved grace

Liberation Theologian Craghan notes that the three books named after women – Ruth Esther and Judith- each claimed as liberation texts

Esther liberates herself by liberating others

Orthopraxis important, not just orthodoxy – so lack of mention of God is justified by working for God

Costas Esther remembered her roots and did not become wholly assimilated into Persian society, even though she suffered for it

offers hope to tiny minorities – unlike the Church when it conforms too much to dominant society and does not speak out against injustice or merely makes feeble protests from the sidelines

EstherEsther remembered God – the wellspring of her positive actions (Jeremiah 22: 15-16)

Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. 16He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD.

So secular humanism may be less of a threat to faith than a lack of radical obedience among Christians

May be Jewish but Palestinians and Lebanese can identify with the Jews in this story

satirizes Persian law – such legalism as has characterised Christianity sometimes

See also here

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