Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
The story of Esther is a tale about the survival of diaspora Jews in the context of the empire of Persia, and one of its narrative functions is to give an etiology of the Jewish festival of Purim. Christian readers in the global North should be vigilant to remember that their social location in the cultural majority gives them more in common with King Ahasuerus than with Esther, a minority orphan who is trafficked into child concubinage. This is a Jewish text first, and a text about cultural survival in diaspora second.
Though this small selection for the lectionary reading does not emphasize it, the story of Esther is a satire of bureaucracy, in which the plot unfolds for hapless innocents by the grinding mechanisms of “official business.” Here are a few examples:
- The presenting characters are the king as his “officials and ministers,” who repeatedly appear as functionaries more interested in feasting and prestige than in governance in any real sense (1:1–8; 3:2; 5:4–8, 12; 6:1–9; 7:2)
- The promulgation of ridiculous, deadly rules, many of which are written, copied, sent out, and read throughout the empire, layers the story with the sense of bewilderment and fear. Edicts ultimately provide the dramatic irony that thwarts the villainous Haman and saves the Jews (1:19–22; 2:8; 3:2, 9–15; 4:8, 11; 8:8–14; 9:11–15)
- The establishment of Purim itself only happens by way of an official document, written first by Mordecai after he comes into power (9:20–28) and then confirmed in writing by Queen Esther (9:29–32)
In this bureaucratic plot, King Ahasuerus is given forceful satirical critique. He is an inept patriarch, subject to legal minutiae that he does not understand (1:15); his temper is irrational and vicious (1:12; 2:1; 7:7–10); and his symbols—signet ring and scepter—feature prominently as the guarantors of his patriarchal authority, which he does not fully control (3:10, 12; 4:11; 5:2; 8:2, 4, 8, 10). Between the king and Haman, there is a monetary plot related to the extermination of the Jews that is nearly inscrutable—it has the feel of “dark money” that operates invisibly and the reader does not really know its extent or impact (3:9–11; 4:7).
The relationship between the corrupt imperial court and its indifference to the suffering of real people is perhaps best summarized in these lines: “The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15). The narrator writes with powerful empathy for the Jews, who mourn, fast, weep and lament over the impending genocide (4:3), while the king and Haman—cozily, coldly—sit in the palace and drink.
In these ways, the story satirizes the obvious corruption of those in imperial and colonial power. Alert readers will draw connections to contemporary politics through this comedic exposé of degenerate, self-serving leaders.
The story prominently features women, especially Esther, its title character. Esther is a Jewish orphan, “the least powerful member (orphan) of the least powerful gender (female) of a powerless people (Jews) in the mighty Persian Empire.”1 Despite her low status, she ascends to royal power after the deposition of Vashti, the queen who refuses to appear at the pleasure of Ahasuerus and his banqueting friends (1:10–12).
Vashti is often lauded by women readers for her refusal to acquiesce to male demands, while the figure of Esther is somewhat more problematic, in part because of the dubious sexual ethics on display (she is groomed for the sexual pleasure of the king, 2:1–18), and in part because her participation within the court does not lend itself to critique of the patriarchal imperial structure.
In the lectionary text, Esther risks her life by seeking an audience with the king, and she does so on behalf of her people. For some readers, this attests to her moral fiber and ultimately her heroism. Christina Rosetti, writing in the nineteenth century, offers several meditations on the figure of Esther as a hero whose saving acts specifically arise from her femininity. As such, Rosetti defends her as a model of heroism for women. In her work of prose and poetry, “The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse” (1892), Rosetti presents “trembling Esther” as a woman of valor and devotion who is able to become the savior of her people by mastering her fear.
Other readers might find themselves more skeptical. Esther panders to the king, throwing him two banquets, then indulging his ego with his request: “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.” And she couches her request in the self-interest of the monarch: “If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king” (7:3–4). She grooms him to accept her plan. She manifests a certain docility and idealized femininity that enable her to succeed: from within the palace, she is able to use skill to strategically manipulate the king and save her people.
The lectionary highlights the exciting moment of truth as Esther exposes Haman to the king. And there is considerable ironic satisfaction in Haman’s exposure and punishment—he is hanged on his own gallows. The lectionary reading omits the graphic retributive violence of chapter 9, in which seventy-five thousand Persians are slaughtered by the Jews (9:5–16). The violence of the Jews is no less than the genocidal violence of the obvious villains that the Jews narrowly avoided.
As is the case with many biblical texts, this story does not merely offer exemplary moral templates for the contemporary reader to emulate. Instead, this entertaining, darkly funny tale offers an entry point for thinking about the power of satire in unmasking political power and the various ways that resisting exploitative powers can simultaneously implicate us in them.
- Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther,” In Women’s Bible Commentary, 3d ed., Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline Lapsley, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 203.
September 26, 2021