The Women in Esther
Jews have traditionally considered Esther a national hero, but already early in the twentieth century some readers began to deplore her as passive and devious. Lewis Paton expresses this hostility: “Esther, for the chance of winning wealth and power, takes her place in the herd of maidens who become concubines of the King. She wins her victories not by skill or by character, but by her beauty.” This judgment is most often championed by feminists. One feminist scholar recognizes Esther’s courage but faults her for not being a feminist: “… feminist interpreters have begun to see that buried in Esther’s character is also full compliance with patriarchy.”
Vashti alone wins respect by refusing a degrading summons. As Laffey observes, “feminists point not to Vashti’s disobedience but to her courage … Vashti never speaks yet her actions speak loud and clear: NO! She will not become the sexual object of drunken men!”
I think that a subtler reading, one more attuned to cues the author has provided and the values relevant to the book, shows these and other derogatory judgments are misguided and themselves impose stereotypes on the book and its characters.
Vashti Defiant: Is She Arrogant or Strong and Dignified?
The book opens with Ahasuerus celebrating himself with a lavish and gaudy banquet. When the drinking starts, Ahasuerus summons his wife Vashti to appear before the male guests and exhibit her beauty. She refuses. The king’s so-called wise men urge him to remove Vashti as queen and to send letters to the entire empire laying forth the details of the event. This will supposedly teach women to obey their husbands. The befuddled king follows this counsel and banishes Vashti from his presence. He soon regrets his pique, but now must find a new queen.
Vashti, I submit, is a woman of dignity, too proud to allow herself to be put on display alongside other pieces of royal property to impress a bunch of drunken males. Her firmness and dignity are worthy of respect.
Most readers would agree with this assessment, but they often think they are reading against the text, that they are siding with a character who is meant as a bad example—an arrogant woman justly punished for defying male authority. Woman’s independence is supposedly repudiated through the example of Vashti. But what does the author think about this character?
Vashti Versus the King and his Counselors
In my view, the author evaluates Vashti by contrasting her with the fools around her, namely the great king of Persia and the wise men of his court, and she comes off well. The hysteria of the “wise men” (in 1:16-20), explicitly sparked by male insecurities—the fear that wives will cease to obey their husbands—quickly blows up a marital spat into sexual politics on an imperial scale.
The chief wise-man, Memuchan, tells the king that Vashti’s behavior will set a bad example for all the wives in the empire, who will hear of Vashti’s behavior and become insolent and stubborn. The sage’s solution is to broadcast this very event to the entire empire. Memuchan further advises that Vashti be forbidden to come into the king’s presence—which is precisely what she had refused to do to start with! Surely, the author is chuckling at the king and his wise men for their pomposity, their hysterical exaggeration of a trivial incident, and their self-defeating “wisdom.”
Vashti’s Behavior in Historical Context
It is anachronistic to make Vashti into a sort of feminist, a defender of women’s independence and their right to refuse to be sex objects. We have to look to attitudes native to her own society and time. How would an ancient Jewish audience have understood her refusal?
Most likely the ancient readers would have understood Vashti’s refusal as motivated by a sense of rank. She is, after all, the queen, not a mere concubine to be toyed with. At Belshazzar’s banquet in Daniel, only harem women and concubines are present (5:2), until the queen comes in especially to see the writing on the wall (5:10). Ahasuerus’s celebratory banquet was explicitly segregated by gender. If Vashti had appeared before the males, including commoners—especially when the king himself “was lightheaded with wine”—she would be behaving like a mere concubine. Therefore, she stands on her dignity and refuses to come. This dignity was motivated by ancient standards (of rank) rather than ones promoted by contemporary Western society (and its ideas of a woman’s role).
Women in the Persian Court
The book describes women living a restrictive life in an Oriental court, where not all that is described is affirmed. We learn that a woman can be pushed aside because of her bluntness. However worthy, this is not the way to get along in the Persian empire. The other, Esther, gains her goals through stratagems, rhetoric, manipulation, and ostensive pliancy. That’s the only way to be effective in that society. The book does not thereby affirm this society as the ideal. It does not teach, as A. Laffey would it, “full compliance with patriarchy.” Rather, it teaches that even in a world of (laughably) stereotypical, nervously macho males, a woman (not Vashti but Esther) is capable of facing the ultimate national crisis and diverting the royal power to her own ends, as we will see in the next section.
Esther: An Evolving Character
Of the two heroes in the book of Esther, Mordecai is the dominant actor and the more sterling paragon, but Esther emerges as the most distinct and memorable character, the one with whom the reader can most naturally identify. Mordecai’s character forms a solid setting for the finely executed depiction of Esther. The distinctive feature in the portrayal of Esther is change. Of all characters in the book, Esther alone undergoes growth and surprises the reader by unpredictable developments.
Esther has a great challenge thrust upon her. In facing it, she gains three powers that could not have been foreseen from her early behavior: agency, strategy, and authority.
Esther Takes Charge
Esther’s early years are distinguished by passivity and pliancy. She is introduced to the reader incidentally to the identification of Mordecai, as an object of his action. We learn that she was an orphan who had been “taken” by her cousin as a daughter and was being raised as his ward (2:7). She was, of course, dutifully obedient to him (2:20). Her mother would normally have been the primary authority, tutor, and model for a girl, but as an orphan being raised by her cousin, Esther is from the outset entirely dependent on and governed by males.
Esther is soon “taken” (a key word in chapter 2), along with the other beautiful virgins, to the seraglio (2:8), put into the control of a eunuch, processed in a twelve-month beauty treatment, then “taken” for one night to the king, who tries her out in bed.
Esther has been criticized for compliance and even opportunism in going along with all this, but, of course, she had no choice. Contrary to a common notion, there was no beauty contest to choose a new queen. “Every beautiful young virgin” was gathered (2:3), and there was no further sifting before each girl was brought to the king. Obedience was Esther’s duty, as it was of anyone in the empire. And the Persians have already proved rather unhinged when it comes to female freedom of choice.
But while Esther’s induction into the harem was beyond her control, her comportment during the process reveals a deep docility. If she had been dragged off kicking and screaming, she would at least have been expressing indignation at having her sexuality—indeed, her whole life—expropriated by the royal authority. If she had gone off pleased at the prospects of personal promotion, she would at least have been joining in the bargain. But the author does not even hint at how Esther felt about all this. Her feelings are irrelevant, not because of any character flaw but because of her age and situation. She has never been challenged to assert herself in any way.
In the seraglio, Esther is turned over to the cosmeticians. Natural charms apparently do not suffice in this glut of pulchritude. The women are to be smeared with odoriferous unguents for a year, then sent to the king’s bed bedecked and bedizened like the rest of his possessions. Esther accepts whatever is done to her. We are told that she doesn’t even ask for anything to bring with her on her big night—whatever that might mean (2:16aα). Nor does she refuse anything (2:16aβ)—an action that might show a spark of self-assertion: a confidence in her own beauty, perhaps, or a principled repudiation of artificial devices.
In consequence of her docility, everyone likes her. Then she is “taken” to the king, and it is no surprise that he “loves” her as well: she has Vashti’s good looks without her willfulness. Moreover, the king must have found Esther’s sexual talents to his liking, for he makes her queen.
So far Esther has been nothing more than sweet and pretty, hardly a person you would expect to be capable of shouldering her people’s fate and engineering its salvation. Her personality seems hardly changed when we next see her in chapter 4, a little more than three years later, soon after the publication of Haman’s edict. When she learns that Mordecai is in public mourning, she responds by sending him fresh clothes, as if to solve the problem (whatever it may be) by improving appearances. This focus on superficials is to be expected of a young woman whose daily routine places overwhelming importance on appearance and whose excellence in that regard has brought her the ultimate in feminine success, as defined by all around her. Esther is not immediately bold and decisive. Mordecai must remonstrate with her and warn her of the danger to her. But even now she is growing.
The Move from Mordecai to Esther as the Center of Power
At this stage, just before the moment of transformation, Esther does three things that foreshadow her role as national leader: she sends, she commands, she inquires. The sending back and forth of messages and messengers both represents and accomplishes the transition from the centrality of Mordecai to that of Esther, who must now adopt the primary role in crafting a counter-plot and moving it toward resolution.
Her three commands to her eunuch Hatach hint at her potential authority. And her inquiry about the causes of Mordecai’s behavior is her first step in becoming an initiator and strategist: she looks for the causes behind appearances and asks about the meaning of what is happening around her. In the cumbrous process of communicating with Mordecai by messenger she is learning to behave like a leader.
In Mordecai’s next message (4:13-14) he does not command Esther: he argues with her, giving her evidence and seeking to convince her of his view. He is beginning to treat her not merely as a former ward but also as a partner, an adult and an equal who must be persuaded rather than commanded. (In fact, the verb “command” will not again be used of anything Mordcai asks of her.) Esther must now move forward on her own, finding the right words and tactics to sway the king. She will not hear from Mordecai again until after she has crushed Haman.
Esther in Command
The turning point in Esther’s development comes at the end of the scene, in 4:15-16. She resolves to do her duty and immediately a change comes upon her. She abruptly and surprisingly commands Mordecai and, using the imperative, with no polite circumlocutions, instructs him to assemble the Jews for a public fast. In convening such an assembly and issuing directives to the community, Esther is assuming the role of a religious and national leader. She has taken control, giving Mordecai instructions, enjoining a fast on the Jews.
She now takes her fate in her hands with a courageous declaration: “And in this way I will go to the king, contrary to law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16b). This is the courage of one who realizes she must do her duty without certainty of success, and even without a simple faith that a higher being will protect her. Her resolute behavior shows her to be a woman determined to work her way through a crisis and to take charge as necessary.
Esther the Strategist: Thinking For Herself
In the two banquet scenes, Esther unwinds her strategy patiently and deftly. Her first request to the king is simply to have him and Haman come to dinner (5:4). Two points are to be emphasized.
First, the plan Esther executes is of her own devising. Mordecai had merely told her to go to the king and entreat him on behalf of her people (4:8). With no further consultation, she has decided to approach the task in a way quite different from what Mordecai and (judging from the commentaries) the reader would expect.
Esther does not—contrary to a common notion—simply exploit her beauty and erotic charm, even though doing so in such a fateful cause would be justified and would not detract from her dignity. Nevertheless, it is unclear that such a move would help; Ahasuerus, as Esther’s husband and king, has free access to her sexuality as it is. Instead, Esther must draw upon hitherto untested and unexpected intellectual powers. She chooses a more circuitous approach, one that involves near-disobedience to the king: even though he virtually orders her in 5:3 to declare her wish, she does not comply until the next day. Strict compliance is no longer her prime virtue.
At this dinner, in chapter 5, Esther merely invites the king and Haman to another dinner. Is it merely for this she risked her life? A cleverer man than the king might realize that this request is strange. She could have sent a message to this effect. But the king is in no wise clever. But the reader may see that Esther has a plan, and no one, neither Mordecai, nor Ahashuerus, nor Haman, is let in on it. She is her own woman. If you are in suspense, so is the king.
The best explanation for Esther delaying her real request until the second banquet is that she is unfolding a premeditated strategy, and doing so with careful thought and deftness. In the second banquet, in chapter 7, she builds up to the accusation with great care: softening her speech with deferential courtesies and demurrals that play to the king’s ego, piquing his suspense, eliciting a promise to fulfill her wish (whatever it may be), withholding information that could put the king on the defensive (by making him face his own culpability), delaying other information (the identity of the offender) until she has given full momentum to the king’s anger.
Who has done this thing? (7:5) To my wife—my wife!, he must be thinking, for his own honor is at stake. Then Esther suddenly cracks out her accusation like a whip: “A man hateful and hostile—this evil Haman here! (אִ֚ישׁ צַ֣ר וְאוֹיֵ֔ב הָמָ֥ן הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה)” (7:6). Then, having set Haman careening toward destruction, she lets things take their course. When Haman falls before Esther’s couch to beg for his life, the king can condemn him for something other than the murderous scheme, which the king himself had endorsed.
At the conclusion of Esther’s plea, Haman is exposed and is struck with terror—not only before the king, but also, we are told, "before the queen" (7:6). She is now a force to be reckoned with. The arrogant Agagite, who demanded that Mordecai the Jew bow before him, now lies fallen before Esther the Jew begging for mercy. Esther’s silence gives her a stony, imperious air. Paton disapproves and says that she should have interceded on behalf of her fallen enemy. But Haman has no claim on pity, and sparing him would leave him around to try new schemes.
In the scenes in which Esther traps Haman, she is indeed indirect, self-effacing, and manipulative. Some commentators find these qualities morally unappealing or unacceptable as an image of the feminine. But how else could one behave in the Persian court—or any court?
The Vashti episode demonstrated that the king may react badly to strong-willed women who do not temper their strength with subtlety. This might have been fine for Vashti, but it would have rendered Esther ineffective when efficacy was a national imperative. Also, the king has gotten himself into the fix. Can he simply remove his favorite official for an action enshrined in a royal decree? Moreover, the king might realize that he could protect his wife from the mob without sacrificing his vizier or butting up against the earlier decree. The slow-witted monarch has to be brought to the brink of action by suspense and anger, then pushed into action before he could think it through.
Esther Gains Authority
That very day, Ahasuerus—apparently assuming that this ruckus is all about a wrong done to his wife—gives her Haman’s property, and she immediately transfers control of it to Mordecai (8:1-2). This little episode restructures relationships and raises Esther’s status. Now she is a source and agent of wealth and empowerment for Mordecai.
It seems somewhat incongruous when, immediately thereafter (8:3), Esther falls weeping at the king’s feet, imploring him to annul Haman’s decree. This is the approach Mordecai had expected her to take at the start, but this request is problematic, because, by a presupposition of the book (1:19; found also in Daniel 6:8, 12, 15 but nowhere else), a royal decree cannot be rescinded. The baffled king simply turns the matter over to the two Jews to deal with, telling them (plural) to write a decree as they see fit and giving Mordecai the royal signet, just as he once did to Haman. They have to figure it out for themselves. The result is an increase in power for the two protagonists.
Now Mordecai, wielding the royal signet, issues a counter-decree in the king’s name. He cannot rescind the permission to attack the Jews, but he can allow them to fight back. Now all the Jews must join in the effort. On the 13th of Adar they do so, with complete success. This is explicitly self-defense, in accordance with the terms of the decree. The Jews gather to “stand up for their lives” (8:11; 9:1) against enemies who have chosen to attack them. Then Esther receives permission to continue in a mopping-up action in Susa on the next day (9:13).
In the aftermath, Jews celebrate not their victory but the respite from battle. Mordecai takes note of this initiative and proposes to institutionalize the celebration, and the people accept. Finally, Esther issues an epistle that validates it all, and it is inscribed in a document as a witness to the future (9:32). Her pronouncement is called a ma’amar, the term used of Ahasuerus’ command to Vashti in 1:15 and Mordecai’s commands to Esther in 2:20 and the people in 9:9. She can issue commands because she is queen of Persia as well as a proven leader of the Jews.
The once docile young beauty has risen to truly royal stature, standing together with her cousin as leader. Mordecai, as vizier, has the primary executive power. Her role is to reinforce and support Mordecai’s plans. Her authority is additive, but it is her own.
Whereas Mordecai is a paragon of virtue from the start, Esther has to grow into her position. For that very reason, she is the more lively, more human, character, the one with whom we can best identify. Her early ordinariness shows that ordinary Jews can rise to the moment, take on unexpected strengths, and succeed.
Esther as an Ideal
Esther has been condemned for being indirect and manipulative. Well, she is, and thank goodness for that. She has to be, like everyone else in the palace. But she is never actively deceptive (an accusation leveled by several non-feminist commentators as well), unless honesty demands that she come to Haman’s defense when the king accuses him of trying to rape her. How would events have unwound if she had done that? In my view, Esther behaves with dignity, courage, and good sense. There is nothing demeaning in approaching a king as a supplicant or in using stratagems and personal influence in achieving a valid goal.
Imagine a counter-story in which, say, Esther stomps into the inner court and issues a series of bold, non-negotiable demands, calling for the restoration of Vashti and the equality of all women in the realm. She would have been promptly killed, or at least deposed, and thereby rendered useless. The story would be a bitter satire on the female ego. More precisely, there would be no book. Perhaps alone in the Bible, the author of Esther is aware of female subservience and is cynical about the masculine qualities that require it. We see this clearly in the Vashti incident. The reaction of Ahasuerus and his noblemen to Vashti’s refusal is self-defeating, and their concern for female obedience is ludicrous. The author does not, of course, skewer “patriarchy,” but neither does he regard male dominance as part of the inherent moral order of the world. In fact, he exposes the cracks in the façade of male dominance and mocks it. The book we actually have comes close to being a satire on the male ego.
The author of Esther is very much aware that males, at least in the quirky gentile world, must use political power to enforce their position—and even so they do not really succeed. The harem is the most successful locus of male dominance—and its order is enforced by denatured men. Surely the description of the harem induction shows an awareness that women were being treated as sex objects (an often misused term that is precisely applicable in this case). The author does not rail against the arrangements or rebel against the society, but the awareness itself is noteworthy.
Moreover, the author depicts a successful relationship of cooperation between male and female, in which both attain prestige and influence in the Jewish community and beyond. What’s more, the book takes as its hero a woman whose importance to the Jewish people does not lie in childbearing; there are only a handful of such cases in the Bible.
Afterword: Living in the Diaspora
The book is full of keen satire. Its edge is not, however, directed at male dominance in and of itself, but at gentile dominance as manifested in the Persian court and, by extension, throughout the gentile realm. The book’s irony is from a Jewish perspective—not a feminist or even a specifically female one, but it does recognize the silliness, if not the deep perniciousness, of one form of male insecurity.
In Esther, the author has created a model for Jews in the diaspora, who in the absence of a national state and army, must rely on their own courage and ingenuity to deal with dangers. This understanding of Esther’s role is in fact compatible with the feminist perspective of Sidnie D. White-Crawford. This picture should not, however, be understood as a reassessment of woman’s stature. Rather, it is an attempt to reconceive the status of Jews in a new context.
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February 24, 2015
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Prof. Rabbi Michael V. Fox is the Jay C. and Ruth Halls-Bascom Professor (Emeritus) of Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until his retirement in 2010. He received his his Ph.D. in Bible, Semitics, and Egyptology from Hebrew University, and his Rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College. Fox’s books include studies of the Song of Songs and the Egyptian love songs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.
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