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Women in the Old Testament: Queen Esther

Monday, September 17, 2012
Queen Esther by Edwin Long in 1878
When we talk about Esther in the Book of Esther, we can’t ignore many other characters in the book as they seem to play roles almost as  important as hers. The hero of the Book of Esther is a Jewish woman who lived in Susa and became queen when she was chosen to be the wife of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) of Media and Persia. During a banquet of six months, when the Queen Vashti refused to appear into the presence of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) wearing the royal crown, the king, advised by his ‘wise men’ in the council, decided to depose her and to choose another queen, a much more beautiful woman, a virgin young woman! Esther was chosen.

In the beginning, the personality of Esther does not count that much; her uncle and adoptive father Mordecai is the one who is mentioned as a prominent servant at the king’s court. When he discovered a plot of two eunuchs to kill the king, he informed him and he was rewarded. Later Esther was chosen among other beautiful virgins – as she was beautifully formed and lovely to behold (Esther 2:7) – to replace Vashti who had disobeyed to the king’s orders. The king also raised Haman the Agagite above all the other fellow officials. Later, Haman and Mordecai did not get along and a serious conflict arose between them.

The Book of Esther presents two causes of the conflict between Mordecai and Haman: in Chapter A:17 (Prologue to the Book of Esther) we read that Haman wanted to harm Mordecai because of the two eunuchs the latter had accused before the king and the beginning of chapter 3 of the same book informs us that it was due to the fact that Mordecai refused to kneel and bow down to Haman. Haman decided to exterminate the Jews. Esther, helped by her uncle, manages to inform the king of Haman's wicked plans, and Haman and those who had joined him in his wicked plans are the ones to be exterminated. Nowadays, a holiday called Purim commemorates that event and it has very ‘happy’ celebrations, including sharing food, dressing up as for a carnival and… burning the images of Haman! Actually, the aim of the whole book seems to be the explanation of the origins of that feast which might in fact have more pagan origins than Jewish ones.

Queen Esther and Mordecai by Lilian Broca.
An important point is to be raised: the King who ordered the execution of Haman could not completely reverse the first decree to exterminate the Jews: he just gave them his support by a parallel decree, ‘drafted by Mordecai’, which allowed them to defend themselves because “whatever [was] written in the name of the king and sealed with the royal signet ring [could not] be revoked.” (Esther 8:8). In the end, the role of Esther, helped by the God of her community, seems to have been to bring the king and his governor to her side, the Jewish people.

Another side of Esther’s personality is that she represents people who, despite being far from their homelands – refugees, captives and others – manage to overcome their condition and become part of the host society and sometimes enter its leadership. Esther also has inspired the Jewish community which has been threatened throughout centuries in many places like Europe in the Middle Ages and during the Second World War and in today’s Middle East. Many are Jews who saw Esther story as a sign that God is always on their side in their conflicts against other nations.

In the same way that I strongly believe that Scripture tells us what is good and advisable to be done, it also presents examples of actions and reactions that might not be pleasing in the eyes of God. If it is written that the Jewish community in the kingdom of Media and Persia took revenge by killing those who wished to wipe them from the surface of the earth – or probably of Persia – it gives us at the same time an occasion to consider doing better than them. That is why we could not read the story of Esther and apply it to our lives leaving out the rest of the Holy Scriptures. In these days, as both nations, Israel and Iran (which was part and centre of the Persian empire), tend to settle on unsympathetic relations and belligerent moods, the story of Esther might not encourage in the resolution of the conflict. The Book of Esther thus reminds us that we should pray so that it does not end in blood as it is described in Esther's story.

The role played by Esther seems to be that she tried to always seduce the king by her unbelievable beauty any time she appear before him. Seduction appears to be her strength throughout the whole story. Her uncle Mordecai knew about that advantage and he encouraged her to appear before the king. However, she is also portrayed as a prayerful and courageous woman, who took the risk, first of all of appearing before the king without permission, and of revealing her race to the king, knowing that she could be killed. Carey A. Moore, in his contribution to the Anchor Bible series, wrote a book with the title Esther. In his comments, he wrote that “[h]aving carefully prepared herself spiritually (1v 16) and physically (v 1) for her ordeal, Esther now stood radiant, but nonetheless unsummoned, in the inner court before the king. The magic of her beauty, which had captivated the king from the very beginning (v 17), apparently saved her, although according to Addition D 8 God was responsible.” (1971:57). Esther’s beauty tells us that, God is the creator of beauty and beauty is a good thing. This tells us God endows with various and different gifts. But those do not suffice without God's help and we always need to turn to God in order to be able to use fruitfully those gifts.

Gustave Ineza OP


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