Thursday, September 27, 2012

On Scripture: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

On Scripture: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me-- that is my petition-- and the lives of my people-- that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
How does this text guide me? What is it concerned about, what are its interests?
It's worse than I thought. The king's anger didn't save the Jews. At least, his anger alone did not do so. The lectionary omits the scene where Haman falls on Esther's feet pleading for his life. This happened because the king was so angry that he left the room. Haman knew he was probably moments away from death. So did Esther. She looked the man in the eyes. And she did nothing. Not even when the king came back in and claimed Haman was trying to rape her, which he clearly wasn't trying to do. She lets the man die on a trumped-up charge that was probably an excuse to get rid of a political opportunist (even touching a king's woman was tantamount to coup de' etat). Meanwhile, we see from the text that she is a pretty astute political opportunist herself.

Stone cold. I bet she did that with a solemn expression.

Now, the text has a lot to say about ironic reversals and getters getting got. It's beautifully written. And, written in the post-Exilic period, it clearly has a lot to say about the triumphant deliverance of the Jewish people and the celebration of Purim, a Jewish holiday whose origin does not appear in the Torah. But not only does Esther turn down what had to be an honest supplication, the reaction of the Jews in succeeding chapters may well be a bit excessive. 

So, yes, Ether is a controversial book. It was a late addition to the Jewish cannon. It does not mention God. It does not mention the law. Luther wished it had never been written. It may have contributed to Jewish hostility against Gentiles (of course, they would say, so did the attempted genocides). On the other hand, it sounds like Joseph and wisdom literature and Daniel and does know its Jewish history. And Esther comes the whole way out of the closet about being a Jew, probably a good thing in the Diaspora. 

So that's what the text means to do. Character matters. Talent, intent and utter accident all accomplish the will of God. Evil will be overturned, perhaps to the degree that it has sought to overturn the good. Communities love the come-uppance of their enemies. And of course the text says that both anger and serenity, whether for the arrogance which believes that the world must change just because it wants it to or the arrogance which believes it will not change despite all the pressures of circumstance...neither of them have to worry about looking foolish. 
Because on the one hand, they already are, and on the other hand, what matters is what God chooses to do with one's particular foolishness. Absolutely, the portrait of Esther is at least somewhat embarrassing, in the sense that she reminds us of King David, to some degree, where every action has a secondary purpose, and all of this has been very, very carefully considered. I don't laud David for it. And I don't praise Esther. 
But I can't condemn her for it, either. We are all of us two-edged swords. 

next time:  How are these words healing me? When this text loves me, who does it love, and how?

the Curious Monk

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