Remembering Esther

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:

  1. Esther Actually Pt I: Princess, Whore… Or Something More
  2. Esther Actually Pt II: Purim, Persia, Patriarchy – Setting the Stage
  3. Esther Actually Pt III: Vashti, the Other queen
  4. 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.


  • Aeärwen
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Most religions that were founded many, many centuries ago contain, codified, the cultural mores of their time. Just a little over one hundred years ago, women were chattel that were “owned” first by father and/or brothers, and then by husband, unable to own property in their own rights, and many other inequalities. What’s more, these attitudes towards women at the time were not new, but were deeply engrained in the culture. The scriptures written at that time will contain those mores as accepted ways of life.

    One of the falacies of many who would denigrate religion is that the Bible (or the Vedas, or the Quran, or whatever) presents the “proper” Man-Woman relationship in terms of patriarchal authority, once more with the “ownership” passing from father to either brothers or husband or (eventually) son. The challenge of being a woman of faith with scriptures that do such a thing is to recognize that, although cultural mores have moved on, such passages must be read with understanding the situation at the time they were written. This, of course, is one of the reasons why literalism is so counter-productive, why “Bibolatry” is not a wise faith-choice.

    I’m thinking that meditating on what other lessons can be derived from the story of Esther, or any other, rather than merely focusing on the sexual injustices at the time, might be the way to make even such questionable sacred stories retain their meaning in a modern setting. It also can lay the grounds for a deep gratitude that we, as modern women, no longer need to suffer the same level of discrimination and abuse as our long-gone sisters – as well as honoring the history of those sisters for what good they did do while so constrained.

    Offered for what it’s worth.


  • fidesquaerens
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    It’s very helpful, Aearwen. I think this is a wise approach, and very close to my own. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so captured by the Tar-Miriel story and to a lesser extent Tolkien’s statement that when Aredhel married Eol she was “not wholly unwilling.” It’s easy to skip over these darker tales, but I think we do need to own them at least some of the time.

    That’s different from taking the stories as proof that the whole legendarium is bad for women or saying the same in religion. Finding that balance can be very hard, though, as a religious person who’s also a thinking person and tries to be ethically responsible. So thank you for your response. I found it very centering.

  • Hilary
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    I just read the entire Purim megillah this morning at Torah study, and I’m leaving in 20 minutes for the festive reading and party. My take away – how to survive when the odds are never in your favor. How NOT to loose sight of who you are when you are in the belly of the beast through no conrol of your own. How to speak up on behalf of your people when you could hide and pass.

    From Mordechai we learn how to devote yourself to your job and employer without bowing down to him. How to care for your kin, Esther was his neice, in the middle of Palace intertrige.

    Esther didn’t have a choice about joining the heram, but I don’t think the eunichs had much choice in the matter of their role either.

    • fidesquaerens
      Posted February 23, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Hillary. I agree with you that these are other important things about the story and should not be undervalued. It really is a thought-provoking incident.

      I am not sure you can put forced castration into the same league as forced sex, though of course neither is right in a big way. I didn’t mean to say this was the only message of the Esther story, but rather that this is one side that shouldn’t be overlooked.

      Enjoy your Purim!

  • Hilary
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks, I did enjoy it as much as possible – Purim is not an introverts holiday. I have a question for you – what part of this story is comparable to the conquest of Canaan? The fact that this happened when the Yehudim/Jews had been taken from Judah to Persia by force, living in exile? The fact that Haman wanted to kill them all in revenge for one man working hard but refusing to bow down? Or that fact that when given the freedom to do so, Jews fought back and protected themselves for one day? Would it have been more noble for them to have ‘turned the other check’ and let themselves be unfairly killed – the declaration was made clear that Jews could fight back against their enemies for a day. Would it have been more appropriate for the Jews in Persia to have taken the right to self-defence instead of having to be granted the right to self-defence?

    There is no evidence this story actually happened, the holiday is just a fun time to blow off steam and laugh back at a universe that seems intent on destroying us every other century. Aren’t Jews allowed to have a few revenge fantasies? We don’t celebrate Purim by reinacting killing a few thousand people who were set on killing us even after being told not to, we dress up, eat cookies, sing silly songs, spoof our prayers and services, hand out money and food to people who need it, and get drunk.

    I’m sorry, you’re catching a rant/vent that’s not so much to do with your exact question so much as the fact that it seems like around the internet, when it comes to religion, anything in the Old Testament is fair game to see in the worst light possible, without any balance or perspective. I’ve never once, on any blog relgious or atheist, in any comment, ever observed someone see the differnce between “Take this land as a homeland” and “Conquer every people and civilation into an Empire.”

    Rome, Bablyon, Persia, Assyria, Christendom, the Islamic empire, all of those cultures had empires that sometimes spanded contenants. The tribal Hebrews of three thousand years ago just conquered . . . Canaan. Not a very big piece of real estate, really. I’m not going to deny that the writings about the taking of Canaan aren’t brutal – but they aren’t “From sea to shinging sea” manifest destiny either.

    I’m also religious, and feminist, and have to make ends meet between being feminist and the misogeny of the texts at the base of the religion I love. But to take the automatic, relfexive position “If it’s in the bible it’s bad, and if it’s from the Old Testament it’s twice as horrible” is just as much a blind reaction as it’s opposite “Everything in the bible is blessed and good.” I’ve been reading “The Torah – A woman’s Commentary” which is the Torah with every commentary, observation, and poetry done 100% by women. It’s pretty cool and helps show how much women did act within the culture back then.

    Sometimes I think we as feminists focus so much on the misogeny and lack of what we understand as consent that we can loose sight of how much those women actually did. I think it is just as wrong to be blind to that as to whitewash the violence against women in the bible.

    I’m not even so much mad at you as just frustrated. I hope this doesn’t get me kicked off your blog – I do like reading your stuff and when you comment at Love Joy Feminism. I’m going to go eat dinner, calm down, and check out some of your Hobbit fanfic.

    Thanks for listening.


  • fidesquaerens
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Hi Hilary,

    First things first: you have to do a lot worse than this for me to consider “kicking you off” this blog. Maybe if you were attacking me or other people, over a prolonged period of time. That’s not what I’m getting from you, though. I’d much rather have people say what they really mean, but I am sorry if I’ve upset you.

    I mentioned the Conquest of Canaan because this is one of those stories progressive Christians (my religious identity) often struggle with when it comes to God and violence. There is a concern: how could we possibly worship a God that would command his chosen people to kill every human they encountered, not just the warriors? And on a literal level I see that same problem in the king’s permission to kill everyone traveling with the army. There’s just no distinction between what we moderns might call soldiers and non-combatants.

    At a deeper level, and again I’m coming from the progressive Christian perspective, I think there’s a tendency to skim over the darker sides of stories like this. It’s easy to get swept up in the narrative of the Exodus (truly, a great and inspiring story) and forget that part and parcel of that story is, God decided the Canaanites were so wicked they now deserved to be slaughtered. When I read Esther I cheered when the Jews beat back the Persians, but I don’t think it was until I grew older that I even realize the power dynamic that put Esther in the position to save her people. In my experience, there’s a good outcome but it’s built on some kind of injustice woven into society, first racial an later gender. One of the messages I take from my discomfort with these stories is, I should be aware of the subtle ways racism and gender inequality affect people and do my best to route that out. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good Passover (which I have celebrated with Jewish friends) or a Purim (which I haven’t, but would love to). But part of who I am is, I take moments like this to think about the deeper layers of the stories, and what lessons I can take from them.

    Anyway, that’s where I was coming from. I didn’t mean that the stories were exactly the same, but rather that there were similarities in how I’d heard people talk about these stories, and how I thought about them myself. I do hope you enjoy the Hobbit stories.

  • Hilary
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    That’s all right, you caught more frustration about other people’s general comments then anything else. I followed the link on your name from LJF on Patheos, since you said you liked what I posted there. I like LJF, but I have to be careful how much other stuff I read on the rest of the atheist channel for sake of my blood pressure. I know there is a lot of stupid, cruel, and repressive shit religious people do – like, no duh – but sometimes it seems like they go out of their way to find the worst and ignore the best. There’s plenty of stupid, cruel, and repressive shit non-religious people do. Sometimes, though, I can’t help it, like gawking at a car crash.

    I am absolutely positive nobody is going to find this, or even care to post it:

    I go to Mt. Zion, the temple involved. I looked at other stuff in this blog, and I think it is totally cool that you’ve actually done Torah study at a synagogue and use the Judaism 101 website. I use that website too for basic information and to double check the traditional understandings, even though I disagree with the guy about liberal Judasim loosing too many people, and feminism, and GLBT rights.

    If you like, you could email me privately and I’d share some of what I’ve learned and think about the Canaanite conquest. I never considered it much until I started seeing it being brought up over and over at Patheos with Christians getting upset at what I always considered just a part of our tribal history. I don’t really feel like going over everything about it in your comment box, it’s way off topic and would take too long.

    Also to give you a heads up, Libby Anne is organizing several different Jewish followers of LJF to have a question and answer seesion about Judaism, so you could ask about that there. I’m fairly confident someone will.

    My favorite Hobbit fanfic was about Smeagol’s ex-girlfriend, the one he left behind when the Ring took hold of him.

    Take care


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