Esther was a small book, but it had a lot in there for the treatment of women in the Bible, which is what this exercise is all about. That said, this book does not denote Biblical or Jewish custom. It is solely the history behind Purim, a Jewish holiday that came from the day when Haman thought he was going to wipe out all the Jews but that Esther saved them from it by requesting the punishment be turned around on Haman and those who would follow him.
The customs and treatment of women in this book are actually indicative of Persia and should not be confused with customs permitted by Jewish law or custom.
- Esther – the queen who saves the Jews
- Vashti – the first queen who is banished for not coming out to entertain her husband’s party with her beauty
- Zeresh – Haman’s wife who advises him to build a gallows in anticipation of getting permission to hang Modecai on it.
The study Bible that I’ve been using has some “major themes” suggested for this book, but of all those listed, I can really only go with “human responsibility”. I loved the part where Mordecai reminds Esther that if she doesn’t do what she can to save them, and she can do things, then she will have effectively turned her back on her people and God. She would have had no faith that God would carry her through and would therefore perish in some manner akin to what was being planned for the Jews while the rest of them are saved from some other place.
Up to now, the people who are involved in the Bible, with the exception of Ruth, have been able to speak to God directly or through a prophet. They’ve been able to have some sort of dialogue and certainty. This is the first time that true faith is really required for something so dangerous. She could have been killed, but she would definitely have not survived by turning her back on faith and allowing her people to be killed without intervention.
When we can do something to save people, we must do it. If we could have done something and don’t, and now God has to get involved in a more direct manner, He is not going to be happy with you at all. It’s an interesting message, particularly for a time when God was not sending prophets to speak on his behalf who can actually talk to Him one on one like Moses and Abraham.
This is the first real theme that has spoken to me because we operate like this today. Never sure if we’re doing the right thing but hoping that God backs us up. Meanwhile, we’re dealing with people who profess faith but don’t do things that indicate it’s truth. I’m a big believer in “saved through faith alone” but I don’t get how someone can “get it” and still consistently decline to show love to people but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still in the Old Testament.
The flawed women of this book are written as very one-sided. Esther is purity and pleasing, she is the picture of the subjugated woman who knows her place and wants to do what she can to please the men around her and is nice to everyone. Vashti is a bad woman who can easily cause all the women to go bad because she doesn’t listen to her husband and how dare she have a mind of her own. Zeresh only wants her husband to be happy but is all too happy to indulge him in this evil dealings to do so.
Okay, none of the men are given complexities here either, their actions are just reported and not questioned and that’s a part of the problem. When we talk about the story of Esther, we don’t ask if it was right for the king of Persia to “gather” without consent all the pretty virgins, marry only one and then keep the rest in a harem. We don’t even question what happened to the rest within the story and I’ve never heard it discussed when talking about Esther at church, I had to dig online to find out what was likely to happen to the rest. No one questions why Mordecai suddenly starts disobeying the king or why Haman goes straight to genocide on account of one disrespectful Jew. They don’t question how being able to defend themselves turns into the “killing of their enemies” in the way that it plays out in book.
Instead, we question Vashti for not wanting to show off her beauty at party where her husband was belligerent and where it sounds like she was likely to be either the only woman or the only wife.
This is it’s own problem, even today. We’re not questioning why should even have to, we question why she didn’t. We’re not evening questioning the absolutely ridiculous consequence and that the king took the bait that all women would disobey their husbands on account of this one incident. The most important thing is apparently keeping the women in check. Of course it is.
And then they find Esther. She strives to please the men around her, but she obviously knows how to butter them up to get what she wants. She knows how to set up a plan. We’re not told that she gets this plan from God coming to her in a dream, or a prophet telling her what to do, or even inspiration that is given divinely. She just knows how to butter up her husband and using this, she saves her people.
It’s great that she saves her people, even when she was timid about even asking the king for anything because she was worried about banishment as well, or whatever they really did with Vashti because it doesn’t go into any detail about what happened after she was never to be in the king’s sight. But then she asks for a whole second day of killing. A whole second day.
Why did they need a second day if they were only supposed to defend themselves against the previously agreed upon and irreversible date when everyone else was going to go after them? I don’t get it.
Anyway, the points is that none of these people are as one-sided as they seem and we shouldn’t look at historical figures this way. All the women we’ve had time to get to know had good days and bad, did bad things and good. Sarah is perfect because she’s not perfect. She doubted. A lot. She even laughed at a promise God gave Abraham because it was ridiculous by human standards. She was allowed to be nuanced and not perfect and still role model. Don’t fall for the perfection of Esther or the vilification of Vashti.