Esther: A Tale of Male Domination, Genocide… and then Sudden Rescue (@Byers_Andy)

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esther_haram.jpg

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esther_haram.jpg

While reading Ezra–Nehemiah here at BigBible, we placed ourselves in “The Province Beyond the River” during the days of exile. The troops and war machinery of Babylon had years earlier rumbled their way into what was once called Judah and put an end to the dynasty of King David. In Ezra and Nehemiah we read of Jewish leaders labouring amidst the ash and ruin of David’s city, trying to reconstitute the corporate identity of “Israel” by rebuilding the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem while gathering scattered bands of exiled families and retraining them in the Scriptures.

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As we now turn to the book of Esther, we find ourselves not in a conquered province full of rubble and impoverished villages, but at the seat of global power. Here, the finest wine runs off the edges of priceless tables, revelers laugh and banter while sitting on couches of gold, and they cavort on mosaic pavements of porphyry.

It is also a place where men issue edicts that can end the lives of countless thousands in mere hours.

We are in Susa, the capital of Persia. Babylon’s day has faded and on the Persian throne sits King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), ruling 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia.

A World of (Male) Power

Esther is a story about power, specifically male power. The Persian empire is certainly not a “woman’s world.” The event that creates Esther’s plot is a party during which the king becomes drunk and demands his queen’s presence so that his drunken cohorts can gawk and stare at her feminine features. She refuses, and since “every man” must “be master of his own household” Queen Vashti is dismissed from the King and from the story.

A search for a new (suitably gorgeous) wife for Ahasuerus then governs the next stages of this story’s plot. Women from across the empire are inspected and selected, then put through a lengthy and involved beautification process that they might become satisfactory candidates for the king’s wishes.

The woman chosen happens to be an orphaned, powerless girl from an obscure tribe of people from Beyond the River. She is Esther, the Jew.

The End of a Race…?

As appalling as it is, genocide is portrayed as a rather standard practice for ancient empires in biblical history. Not long after this orphaned, powerless Jewish girl becomes Queen in Susa, a plot is hatched to annihilate her people the Jews. All it takes is one edict and the King’s signet ring, then boom—an entire race of people can be eradicated from this world of impoverished villages and porphyry mosaics.

Mordecai is Esther’s cousin. He has taken on a paternal role, caring for her as his own. He just so happens to overhear talk of a plot against the King which leads to the King’s rescue from assassination. But Mordecai soon falls under the shadow of a grave threat. Presumably because of his religious convictions, Mordecai cannot bow before the newly appointed right hand of the king, a fellow whose very name evokes contempt: Haman. In his contempt for Mordecai, Haman  devises the plans for genocide, a corporate act of mass murder to be conducted simultaneously across the empire on the 13th day of the month of Adar.

The intrigues are now in play for the book of Esther. There is a royally sanctioned plot to eradicate the Jewish race and a Jewish girl has just been appointed Queen. But she is Queen to a King with a fresh record of dispensing with queen’s who fail to honor his whims.

What will happen? “Purim” will happen—this is the feast of the Jews instituted by Mordecai to celebrate their sudden rescue.

The Providence of God

Oddly enough, the book of Esther does not mention God and we find no practices normally associated with Jewish or Hebrew piety. And yet the entire tale unfolds as if an invisible Hand silently arranges a circumstance here and there at just the right time to effect a monumental rescue. The Jewish people have been exiled and scattered as promised. But divine mercy ever follows divine discipline. And so the Jewish people are saved.

We look forward to your reflections. Esther invites all sorts of questions about male and female roles of society, about power and weakness, and about tyranny and biblical patterns of resistance, about genocide and the horrors of holocausts. So let the discussions begin….

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).