Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Esther: A Female Savior Figure

   Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, most of the major characters are men who have responded to God and were rewarded for their efforts.  The Book of Esther presents us with the story of a woman who can actually be understood as a “savior” of her people.  This story takes place after the Babylonian exile in 586 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled all of the residents of the southern kingdom to Babylon. 
   It takes place during the reign of King Ahasuerus who sat on the throne in the citadel of Susa and reined over one hundred and twenty seven provinces from India to Ethiopia.  In the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his officers and ministers.  The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were all present.  This banquet lasted for one hundred and eighty days.  While the king gave a banquet for the officers and ministers, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women.
  On the seventh day of his banquet, King Ahasuerus, in the presence of his officers, asked one of the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before him; however, she refused to appear before the king. 
  The king was enraged and asked his officers, who knew the laws, what should be done about this.  The nobles were concerned that if the women of the kingdom found out that the queen had disobeyed the king’s order this would lead to women throughout the kingdom disobeying their husbands, so, in order to maintain proper order throughout the kingdom, they said to the king that he should take the crown from Queen Vashti and give it to another woman who is more worthy.  The king was pleased with their advice and ordered that Vashti is never again to appear before the king and her crown is to taken away.
   After the king’s anger had abated, his servants came to him and said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king.  Let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the young women to the harem of the citadel of Susa under the custody of Hegai, the chief eunuch, who was in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. Let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”  This pleased the king and he did so.
   In the citadel was a Jewish man named Mordecai, a Benjaminite, whose great-grandfather, Kish, had been exiled as part of the deportation ordered by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, also known as Esther, who had been orphaned as a child and adopted by him.  When the king’s order was proclaimed throughout the citadel, Esther was taken, along with the other young women, to the palace and turned over to Hagai.  Esther pleased Hagai and he provided her with cosmetic treatments and her portion of food, and with seven chosen maids from the palace.  Mordecai had told her not to reveal to anyone that she was Jewish, so she told no one.  Since Mordecai was not given access to the palace, he would walk around in front of the court of the harem to find out how she was doing.
   After being part of the haram for one year, each girl had an opportunity to appear before the king.  They had six months of cosmetic treatments and perfumes and six months of treatments with oil of myrrh, as was their custom.  When the girls appeared before the king they were given what they asked for to take from the harem.  In the evening she would go in; then in the morning she would come back to the second harem.  They did not go back to see the king again unless he delighted in one of them and she was summoned by name.
   When Esther’s turn came to appear before the king she asked for nothing except what Hagai had advised.  The king loved Esther more than all other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the crown on her head and made her his queen.  Then the king gave a banquet for all his officials—“Esther’s banquet”.  He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts in honor of his new queen.
   One day while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate to hear news about Esther, he overheard a plot by two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, who had become angry and were plotting to assassinate the king.  Mordecai told Esther of this plot and she, in turn, told the king.  When it was determined that the plot was genuine, the two eunuchs were hanged on the gallows.
   After all these things had transpired, the king promoted Haman the Agagite and set him above all of his officials.  The king’s servants each appeared before Haman and bowed before him as a sign of reverence.  Mordecai would not bow down before Haman, so the servants asked him, “Why did you not bow down and disobey the king’s command?”  They appeared before Mordecai day after day, but he gave no reason for not bowing down before Haman.  The servants went to see Haman and told him that they spoke to Mordecai, but he gave no answer.  They also told Haman that Mordecai was Jewish.  Haman would not lay hands on Mordecai alone, but, instead, decided to destroy all the Jews throughout the whole kingdom because Mordecai would not bow down before him.
   In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of the king’s reign, they cast Pur—which means “the lot”—before Haman for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.  Haman said to the king, “There is group of people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)  He continued, “If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasury.”  The king told Haman that the money would be given to him and he gave his signet ring to Haman so the decree may be issued.
   On the thirteenth day of the first month, an edict was written to all the king’s governors throughout the kingdom.  It was written in the name of the king and seal with his signet ring.  Orders were given to kill, destroy, and annihilate all Jews, young and old, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. The couriers posted this message throughout the citadel of Susa and brought it to every province throughout the kingdom. 
   When Mordecai learned what had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city wailing loudly.  When Esther’s maids told her about Mordecai, she was deeply distressed and she had garments sent to him so that he would remove his sackcloth, but he refused.  She then ordered Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, to go to Mordecai and find out what has happened and why.  Mordecai told him all that had happened and the exact sum of money that Haman had agreed to pay for the destruction of the Jews.  He gave a copy of the decree to Hathach and told him to give it to Queen Esther. 
After hearing all that Mordecai had said to Hathach, Queen Esther sent a message to Mordecai saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the kingdom know that if any man or woman appears before the king without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live, and I myself have not been called to appear before the king for the past thirty days.”  Mordecai then told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than any of the other Jews.  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”  Esther responded that all the Jews of Susa should fast on her behalf for three days and nights.  She and her maids would also fast.  “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”  Then Mordecai did everything that Queen Esther had ordered.
   After the fast, Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace.  As soon as the king saw her, he held out his golden scepter.  She approached the king and said, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for you.”  The king and Haman came to the banquet.  While they were drinking wine, Esther petitioned the king.  He said, “What is it that you ask? I will give it to you, even up to half my kingdom.” She said, “If I have found favor with the king, let the king and Haman return tomorrow to the banquet that I have prepared.”
    Haman left the banquet happy and in good spirits. Haman called his friends and his wife, Zeresh, and he recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions he had received from the king, and how the king had advanced him above the officials and ministers of the king.  Haman said, “Even Queen Esther let no one but myself come with the king to the banquet that was prepared. Tomorrow also I am invited by her, together with the king. Yet all this does me no good so long as I see the Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.”  Then his wife, Zeresh, and his friends said, “Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged on it, then go with the king to the banquet in good spirits.”  This advice pleased Haman and he had the gallows built. (Esther 5:12-14)
   That night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records and they were read to the king.  It was written how Mordecai had told about the plot of Bigthan and Teresh, who had plotted to assassinate the king.  Then the king asked, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The servants said that nothing had been done for him.  The king asked, “Who is in the court?”  They replied that Haman was present, so the king sent for Haman.  The king asked Haman, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?”  Haman said, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse which the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head.  Let the robes and horse be handed over to one of the king’s officials and let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor.”  Then the king said to Haman, “Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits in the king’s gate.  Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”  So 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.”   
    Haman returned home and told his wife and friends everything that had happened.  They said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him.”  While they were still talking the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman off to the banquet.
    The queen again petitioned the king. He said that he would give her whatever she asked, even up to half his kingdom.  She asked that her life and the lives of her people be spared.  The king asked who it was that had ordered that her life and the lives of her people be taken.  She said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”  Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen.  The king left the banquet and went to the palace garden to regain his composure.  Haman begged Queen Esther for his life and threw himself on to the couch where she was reclining.  When the king returned, he found Haman on the couch and said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”  Harbona, one of the king’s eunuchs said, “Look the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose words saved the king, stand at Haman’s house, and fifty cubits high.”  The king said, “Hang him on that!”  So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the anger of the king abated.
   The king gave the house of Haman to Queen Esther, and Mordecai came before the king. Then the king took off his signet ring and gave it to Mordecai.  So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.  Then Esther spoke to the king. She fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman and the plot that he had devised against the Jews.  The king held out his golden scepter to Esther, and Esther rose and stood before the king.  She said, “If it pleases the king, let an order be written to revoke the letter devised by Haman, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? The king then said that Esther could write as she pleased, in the name of the king, with regard to the Jews.  For an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with his signet cannot be revoked.
   The king’s secretaries were summoned on that day, the twenty-third day of the third month, the month of Sivan, and an edict was written according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews and the governors of the provinces from India to Ethiopia.  This edict allowed the Jews in every province to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day throughout all the provinces, namely the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.  The decree was issued in the citadel of Susa and proclaimed throughout all the provinces.
   Then Mordecai went out from the king’s presence wearing his royal robes, while the people of the city shouted and rejoiced.  For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.   Throughout all the provinces there were Jewish festivals and a holiday.  Also, many people professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
   On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the Jews gathered throughout all the provinces to lay hands on those who would destroy them.  All the governors of the provinces were supporting the Jews, because they feared Mordecai.  The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.  In the citadel of Susa they killed five hundred people.  They killed the ten sons of Haman, but did not plunder. The Jews of Susa gathered on the fourteenth day and killed three hundred persons in Susa. 
   Other Jews in the various provinces gathered to defend their lives and they killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them, but did not plunder.  This was on the thirteenth day, but on the fourteenth day they rested and made that day a day of festival and gladness.
   The Jews in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth, making that a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore, the Jews of the villages, and in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of Adar as a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of good to one another.
     Mordecai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth and fifteenth day of Adar, each year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.
   Haman, the enemy of the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is “the lot”—to crush and destroy them; but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot he devised against the Jewish should come upon his own head, and that he should be hanged on the gallows which he built in order to have Mordecai executed. Therefore, these days are called Purim, from the word Pur.
   Queen Esther gave full written authority, confirming a second letter about Purim.  Letters were sent wishing peace and security to all the Jews in the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of King Ahasuerus.  The command of Esther fixed these practices of Purim and it was recorded in writing.
   The king put Mordecai in a position of power where he was second only to the king throughout the provinces.  Mordecai was both powerful among the Jewish people and popular because he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of his descendants. 
    Each year the story of Queen Esther is read in synagogues throughout the world on the Feast of Purim.  When the name of Haman is mentioned all the people are to let out a hissing noise since he was the enemy of the Jews. 
    There is no reason given why Haman hated the Jews.  In seems like a major overreaction on his part that he would ask the king for a decree to destroy all the Jews in one day simply because Mordecai would not bow down before him and pay him tribute.  
    Initially Mordecai was concerned that Esther’s fate would not go well if the king found out that she was Jewish; however, the story gives no indication that King Ahasuerus was opposed to the Jewish people.  In fact, the contrary is actually true. 
   The king does not come across as the brightest of monarchs.  He divorces his first wife simply because his advisors suggest it, he holds what it almost tantamount to a beauty contest throughout his kingdom to determine who his next wife will be, he gives orders to Haman to write a decree that all the Jews throughout his kingdom should be killed simply because Haman tells him that the Jewish people follow their own law and do not follow the laws of the king.  There is no indication that the king ever attempts to verify this, but simply accepts Haman’s word for it.
   Then, when Queen Esther tells him that she and her people will be destroyed, he asks, “Who gave such an order?”  The reader should want to cry out at this point, “You did, you fool!”  The king has a very quick temper and acts without thinking.  These are not good leadership qualities.
   Unlike the king, Esther fasts for three days before approaching the king.   Initially she is scared because anyone who approaches the king without be summoned is supposed to be executed; however, she takes Mordecai’s words to heart, “Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this” and states, “If I perish, I perish” before approaching the king. 
   Using her influence as queen and given the fact that the king was charmed by her, Esther was in a position to be able to save the lives of her people and prevent the first holocaust of the Jews from the taking place.  She truly was a savior figure for the Jewish people and a great role model for women.

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