Many modern day purim spiels present the story of Esther as an ancient Persian version of the TV show “The Bachelor” where scores of women compete to win a marriage proposal from an eligible, handsome, young bachelor – going on scads of fancy dates and romantic excursions while he presents roses to the contests as he whittles down the prospects to the final lucky lady who receives the brilliantly flashy diamond. Is this what we see when we read the book of Esther?
I’d like to introduce you to the real Esther – not the Esther of the fairy tale Persian romance – this is a girl of Jewish descent named Hadassah, exiled to a foreign land. This girl is an outsider; her people are the “others” of society – typically blamed for the ills of the land. She is an orphan with no family but an older cousin that has taken her in. She is young – most likely a teenager. She is a woman – which means, both back then and today, that she is generally objectified and marginalized in various ways. She had little to no choice in what happened to her.
When we first meet Esther, she is described in the text only by her looks (Esther 2:7) – having a “beautiful figure” and being “lovely to look at.” How often have we been judged, described, and our worth determined based on our appearance? The beauty and allure of women is what men have for centuries blamed as their temptation and downfall. Victims of sexual violence are blamed because “look how she was dressed – she wanted it.” We are very often seen and treated as objects.
We also see in the beginning of the book of Esther that she isn’t just classified by her looks, but she is objectified by those in power around her – particularly men. In the same verse, we just read, it says, “Mordechai TOOK her.” That verb is laqakh and it is used in the very next verse . “Esther was also TAKEN into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai” (Esther 2:8). She is taken from the house and possession of one man into the house and in possession of another man.
Even the details of this ancient Persian Bachelor episode show the objectification of women. In Esther 2:2-4 the text says, “gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem” for the purposes of finding the one who “pleases the king.” In today’s terms, we would call this kidnapping and sex trafficking. There’s nothing glamorous or romantic about forcing young women from their homes for the sole purpose of sexually gratifying a man. Once again, we see women acted upon as objects, with no control over their lives and what happens to them.
Is Esther’s situation very different from the vast majority of women in the world today? Even in societies where there are no harems, women are still treated as property and afforded very little rights on a deep, cultural level, even if they technically have rights “on the books.” From the beginning – Genesis 3:15 – God says to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman…” Satan has sought to persecute, denigrate, and crush women. He has been hugely successful! The way to destroy a family or a society is through the marginalization and destruction of women. Women are the caretakers and heart of the family. If you can crush a woman’s spirit, you can effectively render her useless.
This is the world we live in. Because of this spiritual truth, that there will be enmity between women and haSatan, this is the reality that exists and will continue to exist until the return of Messiah. Women will never, as a gender, be free from the spiritual oppression of haSatan that plays out in the physical realm. But how we choose to respond to that reality makes all the difference. I think that the story of Esther reflects this and is a beacon of hope for the millions of women still trapped in oppressive cultures as well as for those of us who may struggle with oppressive situations in our own daily realities.
What happens next for Esther is what I see to be the bright hope that women can hold on to. Judaism is an ancient religion that recognizes and lauds the strength and character of women. While the patriarchy of ancient times is still evident in the text of scripture, the stories of women like Esther, Deborah, Miriam, and Yael – strong, smart, cunning, and brave – are streaming rays of egalitarianism. These women were agents of change. They were women of action. By the end of the book of Esther, we cannot view her as merely a victim. Even in the beginning, we see that Esther’s circumstances change drastically.
“The girl pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.” (Esther 2:9)
Esther begins to take on an active role, influencing her surroundings and situation as she was able.
“When the turn came for Esther…to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her.” (Esther 2:15)
This was her first opportunity to exert her own will and decision making. She wisely relies on the wisdom of those who have more knowledge of the situation and it pays off with a crown. But notice that she is still defined by who she is in relation to the men in her life – the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai.
When we see her in chapter 4, she is no longer referred to as a “girl,” or in relation to a man, she is now simply called Esther and is shown with incredible influence and power over others. They are now doing her bidding and at her command.
“When Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her about Mordecai….Then Esther summoned Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why.” (Esther 4:4-5)
“Hathach went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai…” (Esther 4:9-10)
This Esther lacks the passivity of the Esther that is shown in the beginning of the book. She is not just allowing the inevitable to happen to her, but she has the confidence and strength to take risks and choose her own fate – even within the confines of her cultural position. We see this character in her decree:
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
She realizes that this bold move may mean the end of her life, but if so, it is at her choosing. When we look at this declaration, we see that it begins with “Go.” She is calling the shots, her influence extending beyond the palace walls to Mordecai and the Jewish people. There are no mincing words as she tells them exactly what she expects of them.
This is really the turning point of the story where we see that Esther has gone from being an object that is acted upon, to the one who is controlling the action. Her choice to not be a victim, to stand boldly in the face of certain death, is the one thing that stood between her people and annihilation. She overcame her fear of the situation and epitomizes the teaching in the Talmud that “Kol Yisrael Arayvin Zeh BaZeh” – Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew – regardless of the danger to oneself.
Esther once again makes an uncertain trip to see the king. This time she asks no one what she should take or how she should behave as she approaches him. This time she may lose her life because she comes unbidden. Yes, it is terrible that she should be in an oppressive situation where she would lose her life for doing this – but that is still the case in much of the world today and will always be so. Here she stands in the true power of position because she has chosen her fate. She no longer fears man because she has faith in G-d.
“On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. Then the king asked, ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given to you.’” (Esther 5:1-3)
She has not spoken a single word and yet the king is willing to give her half his kingdom. The mere vision and presence of her is enough to put him in a mood to be so overly generous. One can only imagine that she stood with a very regal bearing and a inner strength that gave her a look of dignity.
The reality for many women is that they will never experience Western democracy and the innumerable freedoms that women in the US have. However, by looking to the stories of women like Esther, we can see that women today can achieve status, power, and influence – even within the confines of an oppressive society. Esther’s enduring legacy is that she worked within her cultural reality to find her voice and her influence. She went from powerless to powerful, stepping into the authority that G-d had given her in her position to achieve life for her people. The orphan refugee, kidnapped and trafficked, became the most powerful woman in the land, thwarting the plans of her enemies.
Don’t look to your position or circumstances to define who you are and what you are capable of doing. Listen to what G-d calls you, and dare to do what the world would say is impossible.