This weekend marks the Jewish celebration of Purim. And with Purim the biblical book of Esther comes to mind.
This Cinderella-like story tells how a beautiful Jewish orphan girl named Esther is chosen to be queen of the Persian empire.
When a decree is issued demanding that all Jews be killed, Esther successfully averts the crisis and saves her people. The topsy-turvy, carnivalesque celebration of Purim commemorates the dramatic turn of events recounted throughout the book.
Yet several things make the book of Esther challenging.
Biblical readers are often troubled by the absence of God in the canonical version read by Jews and Protestants. The ancient Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt responded to this absence by adding prayers to the narrative, and this different version of the story is preserved in Catholic Bibles.
Many are troubled by the violent retaliation at the end of the account. Others are even more troubled by the plot to kill all the Jews in the vast empire, which prompts the violent retaliation.
And now, in the modern and post-modern era, some are troubled by Esther herself. She is deemed to be too passive, “a typical docile female,” who pales in comparison to Queen Vashti, her predecessor.
To be sure, Esther is reluctant when called to take up the cause of her people. In response to the edict calling for the death of all Jews, she, as the new queen, is asked to take action on the behalf of her people. Yet she resists: “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. . . . I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days” (4:11 NRSV).
Esther only consents to take action when she is threatened (“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews,” 4:13) as well as reminded of her potential to make a difference (“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” 4:14). When she agrees to act, she fears the worst: “If I perish, I perish” (4:16).
We like our heroes bold. We want them to leap into action like Superman or Wonder Woman, wholeheartedly embracing the cause.
We want them to volunteer when all others despair, to step forward when all others shrink back in fear. When Queen Vashti, in the opening scene, intrepidly defies the king, she gets more cheers from modern readers than does timid Esther.
But perhaps Esther’s reluctance is inextricable from what makes her so important. Her story maps a journey from insecurity to courage.
Trapped with the choice between two unavoidable dangers, Esther somehow summons courage. Moreover, instead of rushing in, she proceeds to develop an effective strategy. In doing so she models a transformation that has greater continuing relevance than myths of superheroes who are free from all self-doubt.
The story of Esther depicts a world where the powers that be issue death decrees at will. It portrays the doom of the defiant -- when standing up to power only provokes retaliation and fails to do any real good.
Much as we appreciate Vashti, her actions bring about no lasting change. She herself is banished, and the lives of all wives throughout the empire are made more restrictive in response to her action (1:16-22). When Esther’s uncle, the heroic Mordecai, stands up to power, his obstinacy unleashes the vindictive recriminations that lead to a death decree for his people.
In the end, only Esther proves capable of undoing the deadly decree’s impact. And when she acts, she does so with great forethought.
She repeatedly invites the king to feasts before she makes her petition. This indirect and cautious manner shows that she grasps the conditions under which the court operates, and knows how to use them to advantage.
We like our heroes to be superhuman. Yet, the figure of Esther illustrates how they can be even more forceful when they face their fears and proceed with circumspection.
Esther’s caution and subtlety are the hallmarks of a truly effective diplomat, able to bring about enduring change.