Purim, the Jewish festival commemorating the Biblical story of Esther, begins this Saturday night. It’s framed as a kid-friendly story, almost the Jewish Halloween, and though I’ve never been to a Purim celebration, my Jewish friends have told me that it actually does work well on that level.
But the story of Esther is much more than this. It’s the story of the old queen who refused to strip for the amusement of the king and his friends. And it’s the story of a Jewish girl who was chosen (I highly doubt her consent was either expected or required) by the king’s men, forced to compete in the ancient version of The Bachelorette, and finally chosen to be the new queen. For that same monarch who had just sent her predecessor into exile. This is without even touching on the genocide that was averted and the way it was averted which is at the heart of the Purim story proper. Even without a story built around kidnapping and rape, the aspects that form the core of the Purim story are at least on par with the war against the Canaanites in terms of brutality, if not in terms of raw numbers.
If you haven’t already read it, do check out Rachel Held Evans’s blogging series on this story:
- Esther Actually Pt I: Princess, Whore… Or Something More
- Esther Actually Pt II: Purim, Persia, Patriarchy – Setting the Stage
- Esther Actually Pt III: Vashti, the Other queen
- Esther Actually Pt IV: What Happens in the Harme
And also, don’t miss the guest piece by one of my fave bloggers, the Velveteen Rabbi, offering a more Jewish perspective on this story.
I was reminded of this all by a recent piece by Sarah Over the Moon, about how Bathsheba was raped. According to the Biblical story, David saw her bathing on the roof of her house in Jerusalem and basically sent for her and had sex with her. (Again, this isn’t exactly one of those situations where you get to say no.) He then had her husband sent to the front lines in war where Uriah was killed. Sarah calls this rape.
I don’t want to downplay the horribleness of the situation. Obviously it was wrong what David did, and it’s also deeply wrong the way many Biblical commentators (Sarah points to this, and I’ve noticed the tendency too) blame Bathsheba for her own assault. We could add stories like Esther and Vashti, or the wives of the patriarchs (what was it about going down into Egypt and telling the pharaoh that your wife was your sister?), but it seems that’s only skirting the real problem. Because rape to me implies most women expect to have control over their sex lives, but this particular woman or the women in this particular group weren’t given that choice. That’s not what’s going on there. We remember Bathsheba because she attracted the attention of the king, but before that we can be fairly sure that she was told to marry Uriah by her father, and told to have sex with Uriah by him, when he chose it.
So at the end of the day, I’m not sure what to do with Esther. Convenient as this may sound to someone with a vested interest in not facing the Bible’s ugly underbelly, I can’t reduce her to da datapoint on how awful the Bible is to women. That makes her into a thing, too. The best legacy I can think of is to be remembered, in all her ugly details, and to serve as a moral inspiration to change the things that allow stories like hers to happen. This means treating pregnant women as more than baby-incubators. Respecting their choice and their dignity even if you’re mightily against abortion. Not reducing them to an I-thou relationship in Martin Buber’s terminology.
All of which is damned hard. I do wish I could use her story to give simple take-away message. For some reason, though, these stories defy that kind of analysis, at least for me.
I’ve actually written about this dynamic a little in my Tar-Miriel stories, about the last queen of Numenor. This shows up most clearly in Not Because We Are Angels (which deserves an adult warning for sexual violence) and, to a lesser extent, in The Gift of Men and Factions and Factions. At the end of the day, I think the only thing I can really do is bear witness and face up to stories like this in fiction and history, and remember them. At least, if there’s a way to make better sense of them, I’m yet to find it.