Today we continue our series, Esther Actually, with a look at the cultural, historical, and religious context that produced the Book of Esther. Much could be said about this topic of course, but based on some of my favorite commentaries, I’ve identified three influences that, for the purposes of our discussions here, should be introduced--Purim, Persia, and Patriarchy.
It’s a strange yet poignant juxtaposition: children dressed up as princesses and pirates as if for Halloween, parents donning colorful masks, rabbis reading an ancient story to the raucous cheers and boos of the listeners, wine flowing abundantly, sweets passed around...all in honor of a story about the near-destruction of an entire people group, a story about genocide.
We cannot understand the book of Esther until we understand the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Purim, Lauren Winner notes, is “like Halloween and Mardi Gras and bunch of other stuff all mixed up together. It's a holiday in which there's revelry and inversion and people all dress up. They wear masks. When you go to the synagogue to hear the book of Esther read, you are instructed by the rabbis to shout and scream whenever you hear the name Haman so that his names gets drowned out. You're also instructed to get really drunk on Purim, so drunk, the rabbis say, that you can no longer tell the difference between Haman's name and the king's name.”
Check out The Maccabets' take on Purim:
Indeed, the story lends itself to such a reading. Many of the characters, particularly those of the Persian court, are so hapless and exaggerated, you can’t help but laugh. Nearly every major plot development unfolds at some kind of banquet. The text includes colorful details and dramatic twists and turns. It’s a story fit for the stage. And yet the text also includes disturbing details: a young virgin drafted into a harem with hundreds of other women to be used at the perverse discretion of a powerful and impulsive king, a queen deposed for refusing to flaunt her body before a room of drunken men, ethnic tensions and violence, a genocidal plot, an impaling, and an ending that depicts with some detachment the violent revenge of the Jews.
The story and the holiday have been linked from the start. This is why, to identify the purpose and intent of the book of Esther, it’s best to start not at the beginning of the story, but at the end. After all of the action in the story has finished, after Esther and Mordecai have foiled Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, in Chapter 9, the author concludes:
So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them. For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction. But when the plot came to the king’s attention,he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on poles. (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.) Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them, the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed. These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants. (9:23-28)
The main purpose of the book of Esther is to explain and establish the Jewish holiday of Purim. It serves, as Adele Berlin puts it, “as the authorizing document for Purim, a holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah.”
I find the mix of dark and comedic elements in the book of Esther and in the celebration of Purim fascinating, for I think they teach us something important about the nature of power and of evil, something about what it means to relate to forces that seem beyond our control. We will be exploring these themes in the weeks to come with the help of Rabbi Rachel, who after the current Jewish holidays are over (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), will share with us more about what the book of Esther means to her as a Jewish woman.
The genre of the book of Esther has been debated, but very few scholars would identify this as a strictly historical text, particularly based on our modern, Western understanding of history as a relatively objective recounting of facts. (For a detailed list of the historical discrepancies found in the book of Esther, see Michael David Coogan's A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. And for a discussion on how God can speak through multiple biblical genres, see “Can God speak through myth?)
Nearly every commentary I consulted, including those most lauded among biblical scholars, identifies Esther as a diaspora story, composed by an unknown author in the 4th of 5th century BC.
So what is a diaspora story?
The word diaspora comes from a Greek word meaning “scattered” or “dispersion,” and in this context refers to the scattering of the Jewish people during and after the Babylonian exile. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Solomon’s temple, tore down the city walls of Jerusalem, and sent a large part of the Jewish population into an exile that would last nearly 50 years. Psalm 137 captures the pain of the Jewish people during this time: “By the rivers of Babylon---there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
The absence of a temple and a homeland raised some serious questions about what it meant to be the people of God, particularly under the rule of pagan kings. How can Jews survive and possible thrive in the diaspora? Should kosher be kept? What should be done in lieu of sacrifices? Has God abandoned the people of Israel? Have the people of Israel abandoned God? What does it mean to be Jewish? How are Jews to interact with pagan culture? The stories of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all deal with how individual Jews navigated these tricky waters, and have served as models to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have remained dispersed around the world for centuries.
As Winner puts it, “Esther is also a story about exile, about being an exiled Jew, an exiled person of faith, and what it means to live in a place that is foreign, to live in a place where you are foreign, where you and your kinsman are aliens. Esther is a book about how to live with your community in a place that is indifferent to you or hostile to you.”
The story of Esther is set during a time of historical transition. In 540 BC, Cyrus came to the throne of the Persian Empire and defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Some Jews had begun returning to their homeland while others remained displaced. It unfolds in the formidable capital of the Persian Empire---Susa--during the reign of King Xerxes.
(To their credit, the folks at Mars Hill did an amazing job setting the historical stage for the book of Esther in the short, animated video shown before Mark Driscoll’s first sermon on the topic. I recommend checking that out here. )
The might and power of King Xerxes simply cannot be overstated. His empire stretched across the known world and was connected by an efficient, ancient Near Eastern version of the postal service. Xerxes exercised complete control over the many people, from a variety of ethnicities and cultures, who found themselves swept up in his empire.
The Greek historian Herodotus, author of “History of the Persian Wars” wrote just 25 years after the reign of Xerxes and provides some insight into his might and cruelty, including the fact that 500 young boys were gathered each year from the kingdom and castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Persian court. (I doubt Mark Driscoll would accuse those boys of sexual sin the way he accuses the girls gathered into Xerxes’ harem of sexaul sin.)
Esther’s body, the bodies of the eunuchs, and the bodies of the women brought into the harem, were the property of the Empire. As Michael Fox notes, “Everyone’s sexuality, and not only women’s, was at the king’s disposal.” To fight back, to insist on one’s own “rights,” would certainly lead to banishment or death, as the story of Vashti shows. (Interestingly, several of these eunuchs will play important roles in Esther’s story as the powerless end up controlling the powerful.)
And so Esther, as an orphaned Jewish girl raised by her cousin in Susa, begins as a powerless member of a powerless group, and in more ways that one...
[Sources: Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther; Karen Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary)]
While patriarchy is not an overt theme in the book of Esther, it is ever-present in the story, as it is in most of the books of the BIble, written in times and cultures in which patriarchy was the unquestioned norm. It’s important to understand patriarchy if we are to understand the incredible nature of Esther’s rise to power and all the odds that were working against her as she advocated for the lives of her people.
In most ancient near Eastern cultures, including Israel, unmarried women were considered the property of their fathers (or the male head-of-house), and under biblical law could either be sold into slavery to pay off debt or married for a bride price (Exodus 21:7, Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1-10). Marriages were typically arranged by the male members of the family before a girl reached puberty. Girls were married as teenagers, and rarely had any say in the betrothal process. The fact that Esther was a beautiful virgin, and not yet married, suggests that she was quite young when she was brought into King Xerxes’ harem.
If Esther was anything like a typical teenage girl in this culture, she would not have expected to have any say in her marital future at all, and so when she is “gathered” and “taken” with the other virgins into the harem, the chances that she would even think to defy her male guardian, or even worse, the Persian Empire, are incredibly slim. Of the girls brought into the harem, Michael Fox writes, “What is significant--and most oppressive--is that their will, whatever it might have been, is of no interest to anyone in the story. They are handed around, from home, to harem, to the king’s bed. Their bodies belong to others, so much so that they are not even pictured as being forced.”
Esther’s feelings about being brought into King Xerxes harem are not mentioned in the text because they are inconsequential. They would have mattered only to her.
This is where Driscoll’s interpretation of the text, which we discussed last week, gets to be troubling. In his introduction to his sermon series, he describes in irresponsibly certain terms Esther’s entrance into the harem as deliberate “sexual sin,” her situation comparable to a woman who auditions for ‘The Bachelor.’ She is a woman, “without any character”, he says, who “allows men to tend to her needs and make her decisions.”
Ironically, that last bit sounds similar to the interpretation of some feminist readers who criticize Esther for not defying the patriarchal forces around her the way that Vashti does.
Of this view, Karen H. Jobes--the very woman Driscoll himself points to as an excellent scholar on the topic!--says that those who condemn Esther for not directly opposing patriarchy are missing the point. “If there is any lesson to be learned from Vashti's experience, “ she writes, “it would seem to be that women who directly oppose the male power structures will simply be banished, with no opportunity for further influence on those structures. Esther, who is accused by some feminists of playing into the hands of men, skillfully uses the power of a male-dominated world to accomplish something still celebrated annually twenty-five hundred years later." (p. 72)
Like so many heroines from Scripture--Tamar, Sarah, Rachel, Abigail, and Ruth--Esther simply works the patriarchal system to her advantage rather than directly oppose it. This is how women stayed alive in those days, and it’s how many of them followed God’s will. And as Jesus’ colorful genealogy reveals, it’s how women helped bring the savior into the world!
Now Driscoll has tried to nuance his position a bit after his initial post was criticized, but he has still made a point of noting that the text never says Esther was sexually assaulted. What he fails to understand is that, in a patriarchal society, a woman need not be raped to be oppressed or coerced. He seems to see the options as either Esther’s full cooperation and culpability (ie, signing up for The Bachelor) or rape. This reveals a painful lack of understanding of what it means for a woman to live in a patriarchal culture in which she is considered property, first of her family and then of the state.
As Sidnie Ann White Crawrod explains:
"In order for the character of Esther to be fully appreciated as the heroine of the story that bears her name, the book must be accepted in the cultural milieu that produced it. In the world portrayed by the book of Esther, Esther has no choice but to obey the king’s command. Disobedience would mean death for her and for her guardian Mordecai. Once made queen, Esther skillfully manipulates the power structure of the Persian court in order to attain her goal, the salvation of her people. This goal takes precedent over any personal considerations, including her fear for her own life. In fact, Esther, precisely because she was a woman and therefore basically powerless within Persian society, was the paradigm of the disapora Jew..” (Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 133)
Concludes Jobes: “Esther has to overcome two levels of conflict, both as a woman and a Jew, to come into her own as Queen of Persia. We modern readers probably cannot fully appreciate how truly remarkable a feat that was."
[Sources: Karen Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary); “Esther,” Sidnie Ann White Crawford in Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe; Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther]
When we read the book of Esther, then, we must keep these things in mind--Purim, Persia, and Patriarchy. While the first gives us clues about the spirit in which we are to the read the story, the latter two provide insights into why it is such a remarkable one.
We’ll dive into the text next week with a look at King Xerxes and Queen Vashti!
So, what have you uncovered in your own study of Esther? What do you think I've got right/wrong? What sources do you recommend?