< September 30, 2018 >

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

 

In the language of literary analysis, chapter 7 is the climax of the book of Esther; in the language of reality television, it’s the “big reveal.”

Esther reveals to the Persian king that Haman has plotted to kill her and her people: all of the Jews in the kingdom. Of course, the reader already knows that Haman is the instigator of the planned genocide. The reader also already knows that Esther is Jewish and that she is willing to risk her life to intervene for her people; she faced her greatest danger in chapter 5, when she dared to enter the king’s inner court unsummoned (see Esther 5:11-16). What, then, is revealed to the reader in this passage? What new information do we learn, and what tensions are resolved?

In chapter 7, our eyes are on the king. Will he intervene to stop Haman’s plot? He is the one who signed off on it, and he is the one with the power to interrupt it. Yet, we also know that the king is both ridiculous and inept! The king is portrayed satirically throughout the book: he has difficulty reading situations, he is unable to make his own decisions, and he overreacts to small-scale problems. For example, when the king’s wife Vashti refuses to appear before him at his party, he is enraged, but he acts neither independently nor proportionally (see Esther 1:10-20). Instead, he consults seven advisors, who decide that the queen’s disobedience of the king will have repercussions throughout the kingdom, and that, in addition to stripping Vashti of her title, a formal decree calling for wives to obey their husbands must be issued.

Upon hearing Esther’s account of Haman’s plot, the king is enraged (again), and Haman is terrified. In Esther 7:7-8, which are omitted from the lectionary, we learn that the king stomps out to the garden, while Haman “stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther” (7:7). When the king comes back inside, he sees Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, and we notice once again that the king does not understand how to read a situation. He believes Haman is trying to sexually assault Esther, and it is for that reason he condemns Haman, not for his plot against the Jews. While the defeat of Haman is the “correct” outcome, the king reaches that outcome erroneously.

It is both puzzling and unfortunate that the lectionary leaves out verses 7-8, because in these verses the extent of the king’s incompetence comes to light.1 The events of chapter 7 reinforce that the book of Esther is not only the tale of one woman’s heroism, but also a commentary on the experience of post-exilic Jews living in Diaspora under foreign rule. The king seems oblivious and prone to excess, and his methods appear arbitrary, yet his decisions have devastating consequences for his subjects. This dynamic is perhaps best summed up in Esther 3:15, just after the king’s edict for the annihilation of the Jews has been released: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” For the king and Haman, the edict is just another paper to sign, while for the people in their charge, it is a calamity. The book of Esther portrays the fears and complexities of living as a Jew in a foreign land, and it wrestles with how to survive and thrive under rulers who are at turns capricious or hostile.

So what is a Christian preacher to do with an Old Testament lesson that satirizes an ancient and foreign king, provides the backstory for a Jewish festival (Esther 9:20-22), and contains no direct mention of God? One option would be to reflect on the genre of satire itself as part of Scripture. The book of Esther reminds us that throughout the Bible, the machinations of politics and imperialism are not tangential to the experiences of people of faith, but rather shape deeply their everyday engagement with God. This phenomenon is especially clear in the work of the prophets, who often address kings and rulers directly, and who portray foreign powers as instruments of God’s judgment.

The book of Esther’s satire takes a less direct approach, using humor to expose the empire as a farce, and confronting its violence with ridicule in order to mitigate its terrors. Of course, the book of Esther does not provide a guidebook for finding moral responses to state terror; the victories of the “good guys” in Esther are as excessively violent as the plots by the “bad guys.” Rather, in its darkly ironic reversals of fortune -- Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, for example -- Esther highlights the absurdity of violence and the intractable dysfunction of empire.

For preachers, the genre of this text is important to hold at the center of its interpretation. Satire functions very differently than the law or the prophets, Proverbs or Psalms. It comments on the ways things are, taking aim at the powers of the world. Satire within Scripture embraces humor, even macabre humor, as a way to cope with a world marked by brokenness. If we are to learn a lesson from Esther, perhaps that lesson lies not in the content of its plot, but rather in the mode of its storytelling. Maybe what we learn from Esther is not about whether to meet violence with violence, but rather that we should counter our fears with humor, with laughter.

After all, there are countless other passages in the Bible that witness boldly to God’s action in the world. Esther, on the other hand, witnesses to the power of a good story to give us hope. Rather than succumbing to despair, Esther -- like the carnival-esque festival of Purim it inspires -- encourages us to meet terror with ridicule. Satiric storytelling is not the only response to oppression we can or should muster, but the book of Esther reminds us it is indeed a valid response, one that helps us hold fast to our conviction that the grace-filled power of God ultimately will overcome the destructive powers of this world.
 


Notes

1 It is certainly the case that intergenerational worship contexts require careful consideration of what details to include when children are in the room. However, given that forced concubinage and genocide are already prominent topics in Esther, eliminating these two verses does not suddenly make this story child-friendly.