Friday, June 24, 2005

A few thoughts on the women of Esther

Esther was a woman of her times, and the story was written in and for a patriarchal society. At first glance, she comes off as a victim of circumstance, used by the men around her. She is hauled off to a beauty pageant and made a queen without her consent. She takes her life into her hands when confronting the king at the behest (and guilt trip) of her guardian Mordecai. One could wonder if she had any thoughts of her own at all!

But there is more to Esther. She uses a uniquely feminine approach to getting her way: utilizing her beauty, a few good meals, wine, weeping, and fainting in the extended version – all things that women have used for centuries to exploit men’s weaknesses. She is skilled at using her “feminine wiles,” but that doesn’t necessarily make her three-dimensional. One could still argue that she only does as she is told by Mordecai, admittedly using some brilliant methods to accomplish her tasks.

Digging under the surface of the story we discover there is more to Esther than being men’s puppet. She must have been deeply conflicted at the discovery of the conspiracy against her people. Despite Mordecai’s arguments, in the end, she still had to decide to face the king. One moment she is refusing Mordecai’s request and the next she has resigned herself to possible death – obviously an inner struggle has changed her heart. She is brave and cunning, and uses her womanhood as her weapon.

Whether it is authentic or not, we learn much more about Esther’s inner life in the extended Greek (Septuagint) version of the story. In the additions, she is fleshed out into a three-dimensional character, with her own motivations and fears and thoughts, rather than just being influenced by the men around her. She has a healthy spiritual life and is quite a humble person, not enamored of her royalty at all. She is more obviously a woman to be emulated in the longer version. I highly recommend finding a copy.

Vashti: I recall that when I heard this story growing up, I was given the impression that Vashti kind of had it coming – she was portrayed as a “feminazi” who was being unreasonable. But in re-reading the story, I see that we are not told why she didn’t come to the king. Maybe she was sick, or it was that time of the month – or something more serious. It wasn’t necessarily just a bad hair day or her being obstinate. I think Vashti frequently gets a bad rap from a chauvinistic husband and society (both hers and ours). It would be a fun experiment to rewrite the whole story from her perspective. Some do see her as the ultimate feminist, standing up against the man (when Esther used more traditional "womanly" methods of getting her way). But we really just can't know, can we?

Zeresh is also an interesting character – she is another wise woman in the story. She pleases her husband with her vicious suggestion of a gallows, but she also sees through him and predicts his downfall. She is another example of the strength and insight of women, though in her case, she is beholden to the villain – she is the yin to Esther’s yang.

This is a time when people’s lives are not their own. The royal power decided whether they lived or died. Vashti’s refusal to acknowledge the king’s power led to her death. Mordecai’s empowerment of Esther’s position leads to the saving of their lives. The power of a royal edict – of the king himself – is recognized and exploited throughout the story by both Haman and Esther/Mordecai. When power is used to selfish ends (as by Haman), it becomes a satisfyingly destructive weapon. When it is used for the sake of others (as by Esther), it effects good. Interestingly, in using her womanly power, Esther subverts the king’s power (causing him to change his edict), and the ultimate power over life and death is granted back to the Jews (who don't necessarily use this power wisely).

The vision of womanhood in the story is difficult to discover under the prejudices we bring to the text. I believe the story understands women to be wiser, less emotional, and more rational than men (Esther is the one who points out the laws of the land to Mordecai, after all, and the potential hopelessness of his suggestion). However, because of the society in which they lived, they had to find ways to influence men, rather than exerting their own influence, to change their circumstances. Vashti rejects this power (for whatever reason), and is punished. Zeresh has won over Haman (by such great ideas as the gallows) and feels courageous enough to proclaim his downfall. Esther, though fearful, knows that she is uniquely positioned to influence the king, and finds the way of doing that which honors both of their roles in the relationship.

A final thought: As I read of the slaughter propagated by the Jews at the end, it sounds like they were not simply acting in self-defense, but going overboard. Suddenly they were feared by their neighbors, and they used this power to bloody ends. No one is innocent. Although the Jews are saved, they fall victim to the selfishness and greed of the power that was once used against them.

1 comment:

Mouse said...

I think we can guess why Vashti didn't want to come. The feast had been flowing with wine (Esther 1 makes a point of mentioning it) and then the king asks her to "display her beauty" for the men. Oh, and since the women had a feast of their own, it can be assumed that it was only men. I wouldn't be eager to display myself for drunken males. And I'm not sure how much protection she would have being queen - if even the queen was forbidden to enter the king's presence unrequested, it seems that the position is pure trophy wife.