Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Esther

 Introduction to the Book of Ester[1]

How do you deal with someone's insidious plot to murder you and everybody like you?
The Book of Esther provides one possible answer to that question, tough cookie though it is. Today, that query may not loom quite as large in America, but it definitely does in many other places throughout the world (the Middle East, Burma, the Congo—and about a dozen or more other places). It happened to loom really large in the ancient Middle East too. In Esther's case, though, no one seems to know if there really was a wicked counselor named Haman who attempted to manipulate the emperor (probably Xerxes I, though here he's called "Ahasuerus") into having all the Jews in the Persian Empire murdered during the fifth century BCE. Nevertheless, you don't have to look too deeply into Jewish history to find highly similar attempts at genocide and persecution against the Jews. The story (which was probably written during the third or fourth Century BCE) may have helped people who were living under later rulers and needed to reckon with threats from above (regardless of how historically accurate the story is—or isn't).

Good Girl, Mad World

Esther is one of the first in a long line of stories about how a good and clever woman helps a powerful, evil, and monstrous (or maybe just confused) villain switch towards making the right decisions (in this case, it's King Ahasuerus). In a way, it's a little like Beauty and the Beast—except the Beast never sat around tacitly supporting a genocide, Belle never sought vengeance against the people who were trying to kill her, and Lumiere never walked around weeping and wearing sack-cloth. But despite all that, Esther's a good example of this type of story. To give a non-Disney version, you could think of The Arabian Nights, where the heroine gets her husband to stop murdering his wives every night by telling him a series of entertaining tales (come to think of it, actually that is a Disney example, because Aladdin's part of The Arabian Nights). It's also a bit of an unusual fit. It isn't one of the major books of the Tanakh or the prophets or anything. It's wedged in with the "Writings," next to a miscellany of texts, like The Book of Daniel and The Song of Songs. It's also particularly odd because it doesn't really mention God, doesn't really fit into that whole spiritual narrative which occupies the Torah and the Prophets. It's a suspense and adventure story on the one hand, but it's also a more serious tale about how the Jewish people manage to preserve themselves and their culture when faced with a threat from hostile authorities. Additionally, one of Esther's greatest contributions to culture—the holiday of Purim—is a time for fun and merriment (and also an opportunity to look for spiritual meanings hidden within the tale).

Why Should I Care?

The Book of Esther has a James Bond-ish, ticking-time-bomb plot. It's also heavy on action, drama, and Game of Thrones-style intrigue, while being notably lacking in legal codes, commandments, theology—all that kind of thing. This is one book of the Bible you could easily read while marinating in a bubble bath, without feeling particularly sacrilegious (not that, uh, any of us have done that here at Shmoop). Our point is that the book is compact and smooth—a straightforward, streamlined example of an ancient Hebrew short story. We're not suggesting that whoever wrote the book of Esther was exactly the Alice Munro of his or her time, but the author was indeed another master storyteller. A closer comparison would be a story that's a classic, but more focused on action than on character. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" would work as an example of the style (if not of the substance).

Darker Dimensions

But Esther is more than an entertaining yarn. To be sure, it is more of a "tale" than an epic investigation into the relationship between God and humanity. (In fact, considering that it doesn't really mention God, it might be the Bible's most secular book.) Overall, though, it's a story about how a pair of scrappy underdogs—Esther and Mordecai—face seemingly insurmountable odds and end up putting it all together in the end. The author suggests that, while living in exile the Jewish people can—with tough work and intelligence—secure a decent place for themselves within the kingdoms ruled by Gentile conquerors. (So, maybe it's more like The Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks than all that high-art literary Munro and Fitzgerald stuff.) Yet, there are darker dimensions to the story, going beyond the basic theme of preventing a genocide. Esther, Mordecai, and their allies seek vengeance against the supporters of the evil counselor Haman, racking up a considerable death toll, for one thing. As well, the king Ahasuerus is a bit of a cipher. You can't really figure out what the dude's psychology is, or what he's "on about" (to borrow a U.K.-ism). So, that's all disquieting food for thought. But despite these violent and confusing undertones and the somewhat confusing, momentary disappearance of God from the Biblical storyline, the reader will undoubtedly be moved to repeat an immortal line from The Royal Tennenbaums: "Go, Mordecai!"


Ester, Chapter 1, Verse 8
The whole nation of the just was shaken with fear at the evils to come upon them, and they expected to perish.

Daily Devotions/Prayers

·         Drops of Christ’s Blood



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