What's wrong with Esther?

But as we are getting close to judging the Book of Esther unforgivingly ourselves, we must step back and look at the work as a referendum on how Godless politics are and how dangerous power can be.

A painting of Queen Esther by Edwin Long, 1878, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A painting of Queen Esther by Edwin Long, 1878, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Outside eyes have often judged the Book of Esther harshly. Martin Luther did not believe that it should have been included in the Old Testament, “for they [the authors] Judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety.” The early 20th century Christian Bible scholar C.H. Cornill did not hide his distaste for Esther: “All the worst and most unpleasing features of Judaism are here displayed without disguise.” The story was too overtly nationalistic for some, too punitive to Gentiles for others, and too filled with base emotions of anger and revenge to be sacred reading for practicing men of the cloth.
Methodist Pastor and Old Testament scholar B.W. Anderson (1916-2007) advised priests to avoid the book when giving sermons, saying, “The story unveils the dark passions of the human heart: envy, hatred, fear, anger, vindictiveness, pride.” And then, of course, there is the dangerous cocktail of alcohol and lust that begins the book.
What’s a Jew to do? Well, for one, there were Jews who also found the book wanting. One Jewish professor of Bible and Hellenistic literature commented that he would “not be grieved if the Book of Esther were somehow dropped out of Scripture.”
Another claimed both Purim and the scroll were not worthy of their nation. We could easily dismiss these voices as lone cynics, if they did not touch upon some of our own anxieties about the megillah. There are sexual undertones in the book that are deeply disturbing. And even though they are associated with a foreign court, the king’s excessive desire is on display without judgment.
Esther seems to enter the contest without a fight. This spurs a number of classical Jewish exegetes to add a detail not present in the text; Esther was taken under duress, kicking and screaming. But such interpreters would not have had to force this reading had the text included even the slightest protest. The ambiguities continue. We are still unsure why Esther was told not to reveal her identity from the outset, a mystery never entirely clarified even by the scroll’s end.
Throughout our version of Esther there are no outward or inward gestures of faith. It seems as if the entire court knew that Mordechai never bowed down to Haman because he was Jewish, but Esther was not allowed to share this knowledge. Had Ahasuerus known, he may have dismissed Haman’s suggestions from the outset, sparing the deaths of 75,511 Persians as the story unravels. Esther and Mordechai also never pray to God in the Masoretic version of Esther. Only in the apocryphal additions to Esther does she put on sackcloth and ashes and supplicate her maker to save her people.
It did not have to be this way. We begin the book of Daniel with this young charge in Nebuchadnezzar’s house overtly taking a religious stand. “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself.”(1:8) Several chapters later, Daniel prayed and confessed: “We have sinned; we have gone astray; we have acted wickedly…” (9:5) It seems, from Daniel’s example, that one can be a good Jew and loyal to the king at the same time.
If Daniel prayed to God, it may have also been because there was a God in the book of Daniel to hear him. The absence of God in the book is also a subject of unsettling scrutiny, leading many commentators to try to locate God in oblique references. The Bible is a God-saturated book, which makes a lack of God’s overt presence worrying.
But just as we are getting close to judging the Book of Esther unforgivingly ourselves, we must step back and look at the entire work as a referendum on how Godless politics are, how dangerous power can be and how little power an exile ultimately has.
Sure, Mordechai steps out in royal robes by the book’s end, but careful readers note that the last chapter is only three verses long. Continue the story for a few more verses and we may just repeat the first chapter of Exodus, “And a new king arose who did not know Mordechai and Esther…” Every Christian scholar of old who was critical of Esther missed its most salient point: the book was intended to show the farce, the unredeemable nature of exile – the lewd, drunken, bureaucratic mess it was – and how little place there is for God and spiritual expression in such places.
Democracies have changed all of that – but not entirely. While those who wish can express themselves in their full religiosity, democracies often flatten spiritual and ethnic diversity. Having legal permission to be oneself most authentically may neutralize the very desire to do so. As we read Esther, we might regard it as a commentary on our own Diaspora communities. Are we closer to Daniel or closer to Esther?
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her latest book is Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile