Esther and the others

Esther and the others

Esther Before the King, by Gustave Dore, 1866.

Esther Before the King, by Gustave Dore, 1866.

Dustin White

The book of Esther, at least for me, was a work that seems quite disheartening. Primarily, that is because of the way in which women are portrayed, and in particular, the role in which Esther plays in the narrative.

For a book that is named after this character, and a story that she seems to play a large role, she ends up becoming a throw-away character. Esther ends up being nothing more than a pawn, who is disposable.

Esther is portrayed throughout the work as a character who is used for no other reason than as a tool. As Timothy K. Beal states, “…Esther has, after all, turned out to be Mordecai’s wisest investment with the king.”

As can be seen in the conclusion of the work, chapter 10 in Esther, there is no longer any mention of Esther. Instead, the focus changes to Mordecai, who has become the king’s right hand man.

This is not very surprising though, as Esther never seems to play a role in which she could not easily be replaced. She is presented as just a pawn, a means to the end.

In chapter 2, verse 10, we already see a picture beginning to form. What Mordecai tells Esther, Esther in return does. In this case, Mordecai tells Esther not to reveal who her people or family are.

In verse 20, this picture is developed even more. There we are told that “Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him.” The idea that is presented then is that Esther simply does what she is commanded.

There appears to be only one reversal of this, in which Mordecai does what Esther commands, in chapter 4, verse 17. However, even in chapter 4, we see Esther continuing to do what Mordecai commands (even if a little hesitant at first), regardless of the possible outcome (in this case, that being death).

It appears that Mordecai is the puppet master, so to speak, and really running the show when it comes to Esther. In the end, it pays off greatly for him, by raising him to the right hand man of the king, while Esther seems to be forgotten (much in the same way that Queen Vashti was eventually forgotten).

Esther Accuses Haman, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Esther Accuses Haman, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Perhaps the most dramatic change though is the reversal of the intentions of Haman. Instead of having a marginalized people (the Jews) wiped out, that same marginalized people are instead given power and consolidated at the center. Which in effect, takes the once powerful center, and puts them in the margins instead. We have a role reversal of the “other.” Yet, such a reversal almost seems negligible in its total effect.

The same threat that the Jews had feared, annihilation, now becomes the same threat they were imposing on others. There are suggestions that the means or intention was different. That instead of a full out annihilation, it was a matter of self-defense, in order to defend their lives (Esther 8:11, 9:16).

There is also the matter that the Jews apparently did not “touch the plunder” (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). This violence and annihilation may have been necessary in order to counter the first edict which was a threat towards the Jews, yet it ends up being nearly the same, or as Beal puts it, “to be of like substance.”

There is an issue with the idea that this violence by the Jews was committed in self-defense. The most apparent is that the two edicts, the one created by Haman, and the one created by Mordecai, appear to be made up of similar language. The intended effect of both of these edicts also mirror each other. It comes does to a case of genocide, and really the only difference between the intended effect of the edicts is which group is the victim of the genocide.

It ends up appearing then that the second half of Esther is a mirrored version of the first. As with Queen Vashti in the first half, Queen Esther also vanishes in the second. Instead of Haman being the right hand man in the first half, we have a similar character, Mordecai being the right hand man in the second. And instead of the Jews being massacred, as was intended in the first half by Haman, the Persians (or a subgroup) are massacred in the second, as is intended by Haman.

The Triumph of Mordecai, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The Triumph of Mordecai, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The only big difference between the two halves is the names of the characters. Interestingly enough, as Haman had intended to do, massacre Mordecai’s people, Mordecai ends up doing that to Haman, and even more so, has Haman’s immediate people, his sons, massacred as well.

Reflection of Esther, the portrayal of the good life seems quite dismal. It appears that unless one is in the ruling crowd, there is really no good life to be had. Instead, those in the margins seems to suffer, and be in essence, disposable individuals. In Esther, we see both groups (first the Jews, and then Persians or Haman’s group), once they become marginalized, to be threatened with annihilation.

However, there may be another idea that one could get from Esther. It can give hope that things do get better. As with the Jews, they went from being a marginalized group, to one in power. In that hope, there becomes a sense of the good life, or the possibility for the good life. Since things can change, and change drastically, we do not have to feel weighed down by our present situation in life as it may in fact change to something more grand.

In this regard, Esther does not just speak to the Jews, but to all of those groups who are marginalized. That may in fact be why the author seems to leave the story devoid of any distinguishing clues as to who is a Jew or not.

Instead, as we saw with Mordecai, him being a Jew was only realized after he disclosed that identity. Even Esther was able to conceal her identity, and it appeared quite easy for her to do such. As with Mordecai, it was not until she decided (or Mordecai really decided) to disclose such information that her being a Jew was realized.

By the author leaving such open and devoid of actual distinguishing marks (which does beg the question as to how Haman’s orders would have been carried out if Jews were able to blend in to society so well), it becomes easier to identify with such a group.

Being so, it becomes easier to take away a message about the good life, or the possibility for a future good life. At the same time, it can portray the picture that all of us are not that different anyway. And this is strengthen by the ending of the work.

That just like Haman, Mordecai acted in the same manner. In the end, Esther could be seen as a mirror, in which deconstructs the stranger by forcing us to see ourselves as being such.