Esther in the Bible: surprisingly political

It’s no secret that the majority of named people in the Bible are men. As a woman brought up in a Christian household, it was important to me to be informed about the women in the Bible, including Esther. She is, after all, one of only two women who has a whole book named after her.

I read the story as a child, lapping up the arrogance and doom of the “vile Haman” who plotted to destroy the Jews, as well as the beauty and courage of Esther who spoke up for her people. I didn’t really get why chapter 10 was all about her uncle Mordecai and I didn’t think too much about the vengeance massacres in the later chapters. I knew that the book didn’t mention God but only because my mother had told me it didn’t and the children’s versions I read talked about God a lot.

All in all, I thought I knew the story pretty well, but the truth is I didn’t really know it at all. What brought me to this realisation is what I would call the best book I read in 2015: Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, by Aaron Koller (Cambridge University Press). It is an academic book and comes with a pricey price tag, but I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who’s serious about in-depth Bible study. Here are some of the things it taught me.

Esther should be read in the context of the diaspora, not the exile.

My Old Testament timeline had always been a bit fuzzy, but I knew that after King Solomon, the kingdom split into Israel and Judah. I also knew that neither kingdom was very good at being good, so they both ended up in exile – and that’s where Daniel came in with his fabulous lions’ den story set in Babylon. I thought (sort of) that Esther was another point in this whole “exile” story because it was set in Persia, not in Judah or Israel. I didn’t realise that Esther is set 50 years after Darius had allowed the exiles to go back and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

In other words, Esther is set in a time when the exiles weren’t captive or exiles in the way Daniel had been. Instead, they had a choice of where they lived and they could even worship in the temple. Therefore, the fact that the heroine and hero of this story are choosing not to live in Judah is a big political statement.

Esther should be read with understanding of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The savvy amongst you may have observed that Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt its walls after the time in which Esther is set. Yes, BUT! The book of Esther was probably written after their time, much closer to 400 BC. Ezra and Nehemiah campaigned to save Jewish culture from being wiped out altogether, so they built walls around their holy city and had some big problems with intermarriage. They remembered that (so far as their chroniclers were concerned) it was King Solomon’s foreign wives that started his problems.

Therefore, when we read about a young Jewish woman marrying a foreigner and totally immersing herself into Persian culture such that not even her husband knows she’s a Jew, we need to remember this is being written against a highly contentious political backdrop.

Esther should be read with an understanding of the Hebrew words it uses.

I’ll limit this to just one important example, that’s in our faces even when we read the English translation. In fact, it’s so in our faces that it’s easy to miss: Abraham was a Hebrew, David was an Israelite, but Esther was a Jew.

“Jew” is “Yehudi” in Hebrew and it has a specific meaning: someone living in the region of Judah. It’s interesting then that Esther and her uncle Mordecai are living in Persia and they are called  Jews. The claim is that Esther is a member of her people, even though she doesn’t live in Judah, and the claim is even being made in the face of a much more exclusive usage to the word in Nehemiah. This is political.

Esther should be read alongside the stories of Joseph and Daniel.

As models for living in a foreign country, Joseph and Daniel are poles apart.

Joseph embeds into Egyptian culture, marries an Egyptian wife and even names one of his sons saying he was happy to forget where he came from. He is unrecognisable to his brothers. Daniel on the other hand sticks out like a sore thumb: he prays facing Jerusalem three times a day, symbolically refuses to acculturate by not eating meat at the king’s table (this had nothing to do with Jewish food laws by the way), and is known by his Hebrew name rather than the Babylonian one he was given.

I hadn’t appreciated that Daniel was probably held up as a bigger and better dreamer than Joseph: he doesn’t just interpret dreams, he gets told what the dream was from God himself before interpreting it. Esther is a counter example to Daniel who follows much more closely to Joseph’s story, even holding a big reveal at a banquet.

This. Is. Political. It’s about whether you should hold onto your identity by refusing to acculturate, or by immersing yourself into foreign culture. It’s about whether you should uphold your culture by resisting a foreign system, or by working with it.

Esther should be read with an understanding of post-exilic Davidic and messianic prophecies.

Now, hang on a minute, you might ask. There is nothing about a messiah or King David in the whole of the book of Esther. Yes. That is the point. She’s a Benjamite, of the line of Saul (he was the king before David), and she’s introduced in a way that mirrors Saul’s first introduction: first a close relative is named, then back several generations, then the name of the person of key interest (1 Samuel 9:1-2). The fact that she and her uncle Mordecai become these great leaders and saviours of the Jewish people when they are not of the line of David, but of the line of Saul, is a bit of a side-swipe at the Davidic messianic hopes that people had.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying the Old Testament contradicts itself – the author of Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought analyses these points much better than I am doing. The point is not that the Davidic messianic prophecies were “wrong” (for goodness’ sake, I’m a Christian, I have pretty strong feelings about these prophecies). The point is the author of Esther was challenging his contemporaries’ messianic hopes when he wrote Esther the way he did. He was also challenging people who were not of Davidic descent, saying that they could be capable of leadership. If that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

Esther should be read in the context of the war against the Amalekites.

I’ll admit, this is a weird one, even for me.

So: when the Israelites were leaving Egypt the Amalekites made unprovoked war on them, and as a result the Israelites were given a mandate to wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). But they didn’t. Instead, they were continually fighting the Amalekites in one form or another. Now, Haman was an Agagite and therefore (probably) an Amalekite. When Esther and Mordecai defeat Haman, and everyone who would follow him, this should be understood as a victory against the Amalekites.

The narrative may seem rather bloody to a modern audience (though the introduction to Esther in my pocket New Jerusalem Bible claims the massacres are “clearly fictitious”). However, the death of Haman and the subsequent massacres of the people who opposed the Jews, are less about the morality of war and more a continuation of the political swipe at Davidic leadership expectations. Yes, you read that correctly.

Saul fought the Agagites and took their king (Agag) captive. Saul was meant to kill him and not take any plunder. But he didn’t kill Agag and did take plunder and this was a big-time disobedience and why Saul’s line lost the kingship. The story is in 1 Samuel 15. Therefore, when Esther and Mordecai kill Haman, and all his sons, and all their opponents, but don’t take any plunder from their opponents, they are righting all the wrongs of their ancestor Saul. This is a political statement about non-Davidic leadership (not war).

Esther should be read against the Moses, Passover and Exodus narrative.

The book of Esther has a few verses in it that shout something loud and clear to a typical Jewish reader (certainly in the fourth century BC), but this message is obscure to a Christian one and certainly passed me by. Remember the bit in the story where Esther fasts for three nights and three days? Whichever way you count those days, they included the 14th and 15th of the first month. The first month, being the first month in the Jewish lunar calendar, which starts in the Spring. In other words, Esther fasted on Passover. If there was one day in the year the Jews were not meant to fast, this was it.

There are other links with Moses’ and the Exodus narrative, but this one is the biggest and boldest. In the fifth and sixth centuries BC, some Jews held hopes of a mass return exodus to Canaan and these are expressed in prophecies like those in Zechariah 8. Therefore, when the book of Esther links the events to Passover without an exodus immediately afterwards, this is a challenge to contemporary thinking.

Even more than that, Esther is grounded as a book that is almost exclusively concerned with its present time – it neither harks back to the past, nor looks forward to the future. And the rule of the Persians doesn’t change. It is as if the writer is asking his readers to reconcile themselves to their present circumstances. That’s personal and political.

Esther should be read with appreciation of what it doesn’t say.

So, Esther doesn’t mention God. It also doesn’t mention temple, prayer, Mosaic law, sin, judgement or prophecy. No ancient Jewish writer misses all of those out of their narrative by accident.

In many of the prophetic ministries leading up to the exile, the message was clear that bad things happen because people sin. Therefore, when bad people prevail over other people, it’s because the other people had sinned and deserved it (and the bad people will eventually get their comeuppance for being bad themselves). Every round of bad events is a God-given judgement. These judgements are always moral and righteous and therefore necessary, and never capricious, vindictive, or therefore unnecessary. (This is a helpful description I lifted from an Isaiah commentary written by David Stacey.)

A modern reader might find those ideas rather uncomfortable, and today many would sooner say that suffering is a consequence of our own sin, rather than a judgement from God. Moreover, some would refuse to say that there is an explanation. It would seem the author of Esther had similar difficulties with the simplicity of logic that said all suffering was God-given judgement.

A close look at the text will show that Xerxes (the Persian king) is deliberately portrayed as a buffoon – albeit one with the power of life and death. There is a challenge here: can it really be said that all leaders are acting in accordance with God’s will?

Then there is the question of hope for deliverance. Far from the dramatic divine interventions of the Exodus narrative or the story of Daniel, Esther and Mordecai do what it is within their power to do, and work out salvation for their people that way. There is another challenge: should a person rely on God for intervention, or take matters into their own hands?

These are theological and political questions.

Esther should not be read as a Hellenistic romance.

I typically read a version of the Old Testament that is itself based on some Hebrew manuscripts called the Masoretic Text. This version of the Old Testament is generally accepted by protestant denominations of Christianity to be authoritative. There are other versions of the Old Testament, in Greek, that include verses that are not in the Masoretic Text. The New Jerusalem Bible translation includes these extra verses.

I don’t mean to sound irreverent, but when I first read the account of Esther entering the throne room in Esther chapter 5 of my NJB, I laughed out loud at it and its pathetic gender stereotypes. It felt completely wrong and out-of-keeping with the rest of the narrative.

In Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, Aaron Koller explains that this addition is to bring the narrative more in keeping with Hellenistic (Greek) romances, where fainting of both male and female people is commonplace. He also points out that these verses undercut the narrative tension of the book: if Esther wasn’t taking her life in her hands when she approached the king without a summons, then all that fasting on Passover was pretty pointless. These verses are therefore likely not from the original author, but insertions to make the book more politically correct.

Concluding thoughts

What I’ve put above are my key take-away learning points from reading this insightful and thoroughly researched book. There are more, including linkages with the Maccabees and Judith, other interpretations, and how the book of Esther made it into the Jewish canon.

It struck me that many of the big questions being asked by the author of Esther are pertinent today, particularly around the activity and hiddenness of God. It’s also given me a lot to chew on in terms of how I understand my own faith and identity. But I’ll save those for another post.

In the meantime, thank you Aaron Koller for giving me such a good read.

4 thoughts on “Esther in the Bible: surprisingly political

  1. Can you elaborate on your (presumably Koller’s) contention that the kashrut laws are irrelevant to Daniel’s refusal to eat the king’s banquet? Thanks.

    1. Koller understands Daniel’s being taken into exile and renamed (after Babylonian gods) as “part of what appears to be a systematic effort to strip them of their native Jewish identities.” Nothing in Daniel 1:8-16 refers to kashrut, so Koller thinks it likely that the issue is one of acculturation (consistent with the rest if the book) rather than legal requirement. He posits further that Daniel is deliberately written to contrast against the character of Enkidu in a Mesopotamian myth. That character acculturates by eating cooked food; Daniel refuses to acculturate by eating seeds. Further suggested reading is John E Goldingay “Daniel” (Dallas: Word, 1989) and John J Collins “Daniel” (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993). These authors also concluded it was a question of acculturation not kashrut.

  2. Thanks for the response, Chris.

    I was able to read some relevant material in Koller’s book online. I think he makes an excellent point with the backdrop of the legend of Enkidu. This definitely appears to underlie Daniel’s story.

    I wonder, though, if the acculturation and kashrut considerations are mutually exclusive. Maintaining kashrut has always been a strong point in Judaism against cultural assimilation, even in its original rationale in Leviticus 20:23-26. We see this in the stories in Maccabees where observant Jews choose martyrdom over eating treif. We also see in the NT the very issue that God addresses in order to facilitate the extension of the gospel to the gentiles is the annulment of the kashrut laws. I just don’t know that we’re facing an either/or question here.

    In fact, Koller’s work has got me to thinking that perhaps such considerations underlay kashrut from the very beginning. Kashrut applies only to cooked foods; all raw foods (well, all vegan raw foods; some sushi is treif) are entirely kosher. Is it possible that imposing restrictions on what meats Israel may eat is in part a way of differentiating between raw and cooked foods? This would especially be the case if the forms that appear in Daniel 1:12-16 in fact mean ‘vegetables’ rather than strictly ‘seeds.’ In 1 Samuel 8:15 zeraim refers to grain rather than literally seeds; one version of LXX in Daniel renders both forms (zeroim and zeronim) ‘pulse’ rather than ‘seeds’ (the other goes with ‘seeds’).

    Appreciate what you’ve brought to the table (pun intended) in this treatment.

    1. Interesting thoughts! The question of kashrut vs acculturation probably isn’t a strong either/or – though my instinct says that the Torah was written with an angle of making Israel an example to other nations, and that this has a different emphasis to the defensive, identity-preserving, emphasis to Daniel. But no, these aren’t entirely separate. It’s also interesting that Peter’s vision in Acts not only addresses the point of clean/unclean, but also happens as Peter comes to recognise the gospel is for the Gentiles. (Which is the point you make above.) I think though that Peter would would have previously had little time for the purist segregation perpetrated by the Pharisees. I don’t think he would have been defensive in his zeal. Hence, for me, the remarkable point in Acts is not to call unclean that which God *has made clean*. That speaks of a major shift in how God relates to the world, which is necessarily broader than the question of acculturation.

      The book is amazing, can’t recommend it enough to anyone willing to stomach its academic style.

Leave a Reply