[The following was preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg Sunday, January 22, 2017.]
The Book of Esther is a story of weathering a violent world. In the coming weeks we will be focusing on various women in the Bible. We did not have a clear agenda for this series and I wasn’t particularly intentional about beginning with the book of Esther but it is as good as any to begin to think about women in the Bible as well as the experience of women in history and the present. As too many have experienced and as many of us learn too late the experience of women can indeed be that of weathering a violent world.
As a society we have improved issues of domestic violence but it is still reported that half of all women in Canada have experienced at least once instance of physical or sexual violence and statistically, every six days a woman is murdered by her partner. This continues at larger societal or cultural levels with bizarre extremes of cultures that promote unrealistic expectations of shaping and exposing women’s bodies or extreme measures of covering them up.
It seems appropriate even if sobering to begin a series on women in the Bible by looking at how women weather a violent world. The Book of Esther is a well crafted story making it easy to walk through the text highlighting key features.
The story is set in the kingdom of Persia. Persia is one of the great empires of the Ancient Near East. Israel had already been exiled, destroyed in the north by Assyria and in the south by Babylon and now all these empires were being consolidated by the power of Persia. The Jewish characters of the story are 2nd generation refugees.
The story begins with Ahasuerus, king of Persia, who ruled over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. This the king, caesar, emperor, commander and chief, ruler of the known world. Ahasuerus is God incarnate. This is a story of power and as we find out this means it is also a story of gender and violence.
The story begins with lavish celebrations. The king gives a party for his officials lasting 180 days, half a year. And then gives the rest of population a week’s holiday. We begin with extreme excess but also disparity between rich and poor.
On the final week and culmination of the party the king is drunk and wants Queen Vashti to come and parade around the people wearing the crown (and as some commentators suggest perhaps wearing nothing else). The king calls for his trophy wife to be put on display. And here things take a turn.
Vashti refuses the command of the king and stays with the women of her household. The king is enraged. And because this is a relationship of abusive power and not mutuality the king does not actually speak with the queen about it instead the king turns to the law, the embodiment of his power.
The king asks his officials, “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command?” Okay, fair enough let’s not let our emotions get the better of us, what does the law say? But the officials don’t respond with a law, they respond saying,
Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples (well all the men) who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behaviour will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!
It seems this quote should just sort of sit there.
Consider this text written well over 2000 years ago. If word gets out to other women that they can say no, who knows what will happen; who knows where this will end. What happens when they don’t fear us? This quote basically defines patriarchy. Patriarchy asserts that the rights of men are higher than the interests of women.
Feminism remains an uncomfortable word for many people and many people still seem to equate it with or have experienced it as a distrust or hatred towards men but most feminists are ultimately interested in revealing how patriarchy hurts both women and men.
After all there is only room for one king. And while women suffered under male domination the Book of Esther also reveals that the men are also caught up in competitive and lethal violence. Feminism addresses injustice to women abuses by men so that all people can live a fuller life. It is not meant to pit men and against women but the men in the book of Esther as so many of us today still perceive it that way.
So again, the king asks about the law and the officials simply say that what Queen Vashti did is bad and needs to be under control. Then instead of appealing to a law the officials say,
If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him . . . that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to someone who is better than her.
The officials create a law that they think we will please the king and keep themselves in control.
So word goes out. There is to be a beauty pageant of sorts so that the king can pick his new prize. Here we are introduced to Esther. Esther is an orphan with her uncle Mordecai taking care of her. Mordecai senses that Esther just might have a shot at this pageant and dolls her up and sends her out to please the king.
Esther passes the first inspection by an official and is taken into the king’s harem where she received a 12 month cosmetic treatment. From the harem the king would choose a woman to spend the night with and if she pleased him she would be invited back. When it was Esther’s turn she apparently pleased him enough that he named her queen.
Now her uncle Mordecai has someone on the inside. This is important because we learn that Mordecai and Haman, the king’s most powerful officials, are having conflict. Mordecai is one of the king’s servants and it seems Mordecai has gotten away with not bowing down to higher officials. Persia actually had a fairly lenient policy on religious tolerance covering all the territories that it did.
But legally everyone should bow to Haman. And Haman cannot abide by this personal offense. The text suggests that Haman wanted to thrash Mordecai on the spot but thought it was beneath his position. So what does he do? He appeals to the law.
Haman approaches the king and tells him about these terrible people, the Jews, who are infesting the countryside and who do not follow the king’s law. Well that can’t happen. We can’t have people disobeying my law!! Haman suggests, “If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction.” Personal offense turns to prejudice turns to fear mongering turns to racist policies. These work, so long as it pleases the king.
The king allows Haman’s request and so Haman offers to pay anyone for destroying the Jews. Hearing this, Mordecai sends word to Esther warning her that she will not escape this violence either and that now is the time to reveal her identity as a Jew and stick her neck out on behalf of her people.
Esther agrees even though she knows it might cost her life. She begins by trying to soften up the king inviting him to banquets always delaying her request. Eventually Esther tells the king of the price Haman set to destroy her people. The king, who apparently forgot that he authorized this genocide, is outraged and has Haman hung from the gallows and with Haman out of the way the king elevates Mordecai to second in command. Mordecai meets with the king and the king authorizes Mordecai set out decree to kill all those who were going to kill the Jews. Then book ends as it began with a banquet.
The Book of Esther is, quite frankly, a terrible book. It is a well-crafted story but it depicts the fickle whims of imperial patriarchal power. The king does not care who is Queen so long as she is pretty and obeys. The king does not care who is killed so long as he setting the rules. The law is not the standard of justice, the law is what pleases those in power.
Over history Vashti and Esther have often be contrasted. There was a time when Queen Vashti was criticized for not being obedient compared to good Queen Esther. More recently Queen Vashti has been elevated as a proto-feminist willing to say no to patriarchal demands while Queen Esther seems like a pawn unwilling to stand up for herself. I am coming to think that to set these two figures against each other is to already miss the point, it is to already let patriarchy off the hook.
Perhaps the Book of Esther should be read as a cycle; perhaps in time Esther will face her own limit with the king and having built sufficient unity and support among the women in her household she too will stand up and say no to the king at his request. If this is a fair reading, what then? After all, the king just starts the cycle again getting rid of her.
On this level the book is not hopeful. The fickle and cruel nature of imperial patriarchal power in the book of Esther shows that no one is safe; the king will one day sign document for the genocide of one group changing his mind the next day. Even the highest officials, the men, will not escape either. Under patriarchal imperialism the law is simply what pleases the king. Women and men suffer under such a system.
Despite this stark and sobering portrayal of power there are other lessons to learn here. One is in our temptation to pit vulnerable groups against each other in the face of larger powers.
Despite their apparent power, the fate of both Vashti and Esther are literally at the whim of the men to whom they are property. In Esther’s case this includes her uncle who is responsible for her as an orphan. Being reminded of how Esther (and likely Vashti) became Queen I couldn’t help but think of those who end up in sex-work. Esther, without any resources of her own, is asked to use her body and sexuality for the purpose of acquiring material security and benefit. But is she the one we should be judging in this story?
It is easy to judge the choices of those struggling on the fringe of society, those just trying to keep their nose above water.
Those unable to finish school, those who to tend health limitations, those who are without professional connections or stable family supports have starkly limited options. They may end up in sex-work or vicious cycles of welfare and poverty.
Those who cannot afford to go away on vacation for a break from life may need to retreat to the bottle a little more often.
Those who remain in abusive situations may have legitimate fears that leaving their partner is worse.
Those who have despaired of their own life me have serious misgivings about bringing another life into this world. This no longer about judging personal decisions but of understanding the world that someone is trying to weather.
We have just experienced the inauguration of man whose actions seem a little too little too close to the King of Persia. Donald Trump has a track-record of sexual harassment. Trump owned the Miss Universe pageant and viewed it as his own harem walking in while they were changing and joking in an interview that as owner he might consider it his obligation to have sex with these women.
It has also recently been reported that 8 individuals are as rich as 50% of the world’s poorest people. All eight of these people are men, six are American. Whatever progress we have made (and progress has been made) the title of king is still up for grabs in the economy and in the White House.
Feminism does not demand a female Donald Trump or demand that four women and four men should have that much wealth. Feminism names a world of destructive competition and abusive control that ultimately affects all people.
In such a world then we must ask about the place of the church. Are we a space projecting moral judgement on those struggling? Are we simply working to get more women in already unjust positions of power? Or are we a people that acknowledges how hard life can be, a life too often presenting us with near impossible choices, none of which seem ideal?
Can we, like Queen Vashti, throw a banquet for the women of this world; that is, for those who have historically been most vulnerable?
We saw a glimpse of that yesterday as the movement simply called the Women’s March brought millions of people out into the street. And what were they saying? Like Queen Vashti and her household these are people learning what it will mean to say No to the new king.
Here in Winnipeg a diverse crowd came out in the thousands. It was certainly not only women. Many people understood that we are all involved in what happens to the most vulnerable.
Can we as a church see that our well-being is caught up in such a task? Can the church be a place to help each other weather this violent world?
We are not called to stand in moral judgment over the struggling but to provide shelter from the storm to regain health and strength. Like Queen Vashti and like Jesus in his parables can we even go so far envisioning this as a banquet?
It is my prayer that this morning you have been nourished and encouraged for such a task.