by Debbie Blue—
While I love the VeggieTales version of the book of Esther, this biblical woman’s story is more R-rated comedy than child-appropriate. If you’re looking for a woman role model to include in the children’s Sunday school curriculum, Esther may not be the best choice. After reading her story at Bible study, Lily, a young writer from my congregation, said in an alarmed, but admiring way, “Esther must have been the world’s greatest lover.” Esther saves her people from a homicidal narcissist because she gains entry into the king’s private chamber and “pleases” him so immensely that he vows to give her anything she wants. That is as suggestive as it sounds. No wonder I didn’t hear or learn much about Esther in my stern and proper Sunday school.
But it was Esther (along with Hagar and Mary the Mother of Jesus) that inspired me to write my most recent book, Consider the Women: A Provocative Guide to Three Matriarch of the Bible. Women aren’t often placed in the forefront of the Abrahamic faiths, but these three women refuse to be overlooked. Hagar gets her start in Abraham’s Hebrew clan and goes on to become the matriarch of Islam, where her story continues. Mary is often portrayed as submissive and unassuming, but the mother of God gives birth to so much unorthodox imagination—showing up in various guises all over the world and inspiring devotion across every barrier. Mary is revered by Muslims and Christians and the entirely unorthodox. Then there’s Esther, who doesn’t live like an observant Jew. She isn’t the sort of woman religious traditions have typically held up as an example of feminine virtue. But Esther becomes a Jewish heroine who is celebrated across the globe every year at her festival, Purim. All these women seem to walk out of the pages of Scripture and insist on being known.
Though the three Abrahamic religions so often follow the guiding visions of the fathers, the women take us different places. Over 25 years of preaching, I’ve come to believe that when we look at the Bible through the lens of the women within its pages, things shift. Biblical women move and live in places and ways that are a little outside the firm foundations and the strict boundaries of divided traditions. Through the stories of these women, who God is and what faith is like look a little different. Where biblical men build walls, it seems to me that biblical women keep finding ways over, under and around them. Today, when our world is so divided, when stereotypes and religious differences often lead to violence, I think we could use a little of that biblical girl power. Biblical girl power could help us to think more creatively about the intersections of Islam, Judaism and Christianity—and discover new ways forward that include wisdom, strength and vulnerability.
Amid a canon where most VIPs are men, the book of Esther is a surprise. Where did this racy tale about an unorthodox woman hero come from? I was drawn to her because the men in charge kept trying to exclude her. Did you know that Esther is the only book from the Hebrew Bible not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls? Some people conjecture this is because the community at Qumran would have looked down on her for marrying a Persian. It could also be because they were humorless ascetics. Christianity was virtually silent about the book for 800 years. John Calvin didn’t include Esther in his biblical commentaries. Martin Luther wrote: “I am so great an enemy to…Esther that I wish it had not come to us at all.” Luther (whose anti-Judaic diatribes have been repudiated by the church) felt it had too much “Judaizing” and too much “pagan naughtiness.”
In the Talmudic writings, the Rabbis argue about whether their canon should include Esther. At one point, Esther steps out of the pages of scripture and argues for herself, demanding that the rabbis, “commemorate me for future generations.” They resist, she insists—challenging their authority and winning—securing her place in the canon. I love her passion. I love how she persists.
The book of Esther does not shine a favorable light on men. The king of the Persian Empire, the greatest empire the world had ever known, according to the book of Esther, is an ineffectual pompous buffoon, surrounded by a cadre of advisors who pander to his ego. Haman, the villain in the story, is given a place of honor in the kingdom for no apparent reason and is so furious at the merest slight that he decides to kill every Jewish man, woman and child. Even Mordecai, Esther’s relative and adopted father, doesn’t come off looking that great, endangering the entire Jewish community because he refuses to bow down to Haman. His refusal is often explained as displaying loyalty to Jewish law. But as one rabbi I spoke with pointed out, in the Torah, Jews bow down to humans many times. So why, to save all the Jews from perishing, couldn’t Mordecai bow down just a little?
Rabbi Rob Cabelli, a chaplain at Grinnell College, describes Esther as a comedy. He told me: “The comedic aspect of Esther…truly underscores just how foolish the men are, in their egotism, excruciating insecurity and pompous obliviousness.” I think there’s a place for that in a holy book. And maybe the compilers of our canon knew that by the time we got through Joshua and Judges, the David narratives (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), Ezra and Nehemiah, we were going to need a bit of a laugh at the pretensions of self-important men.
I love that after all these male narratives in the Hebrew scripture, comes a book about a woman who, without being in any way a typical sort of saint, stands in the eye of an ego-driven, farcical, man-made, nearly catastrophic storm and acts to save her people from destruction.
Esther may not be a great role model for Sunday school children, but she is kind of a superhero to me.
Esther doesn’t act like someone who is zealous for the law of her people. She doesn’t arise from unsavory circumstances, ringed with white blossoms of purity like Agnes, a Catholic saint who was thrown into a brothel (so the stories go) but remained miraculously, absolutely pure. Esther is decidedly not a hero of the nunnish type. She distinguishes herself as the most desirable member of a harem. Her beauty and sexuality are essential to her character. A bit more vamp than a purveyor of female purity.
Though not everyone loves Esther. One Rabbi I spoke with said that to her, Esther is like a Jewish Barbie doll or Disney princess. People have been passing judgment on Esther for a long time. She doesn’t resist being taken into a harem quite enough. She hides her Jewish identity. She’s too sexy. She isn’t a good feminist.
Well, Esther may not hold up perfectly well under scrutiny, but I wanted to include a matriarch like her in my book: a matriarch who is not a mother; a matriarch who saves not her children, but her people. Esther is a matriarch who may not be a natural-born leader but who acts in a crucial moment—beyond even her own expectations for herself—through unsanctioned means to keep her people from destruction. She’s a matriarch for all the lipstick-loving, high-heel-wearing, anti-sex-shaming advocates among us. How surprising and refreshing to meet such a woman in the pages of our holy book.
Esther acts decisively in a world where God is hidden—and seemingly silent. God is not mentioned in the book of Esther. Perhaps it is the absence of God that makes Esther such a compelling book for our times. Think about it: No prophet hears God’s voice. God offers no instructions or directions or appearances. If God is present, God is hidden. This sounds familiar. We may say we hear God’s voice in Scripture or our neighbor or the poor, but that’s a little different than hearing a voice from heaven. Faith includes ambiguity and mystery. The book of Esther is about having faith in a time when it is not easy to have faith. God is not apparent, but Mordecai urges Esther (4:14) not “to keep silence at such a time as this.”
Esther is not a likely hero, but in the midst of a violent oppression set in place by foolish men, she acts with bravery. I think we need her.
Debbie Blue is the author of Consider the Women: A Provocative Guide to Three Matriarchs of the Bible.
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