March 10, 2014
Well, it’s that time again…Purim is a week away and between the hamantashen baking and the usual opining, I am one busy person.
This year, Megillat Esther, strikes a particular chord for me. The story of Queen Esther is not just about how a nice Jewish girl from Shushan became queen of Persia or about saving Jews from genocide, or even about freedom or redemption. It’s about all those things. There isn’t a person on the planet who can’t find something to take away from that story.
But here’s the thing: I’m not so sure any of it happened the way the book says. It kinda reads more like a novella than a historical account, but who knows? Maybe there’s a poppy seed of truth in there someplace…and for me, that would be a bonus.
Looking at a text at least 2000 years old requires two things: 1) the understanding that unless you’re reading it in some ancient language, you’re reading a translation, and 2) your understanding of the characters is tempered by that translation as well as the time in which you live.
There is no way to know what the intent of the author was since you’re probably not reading what was originally written. It was the last book to make it into the canon we call Tanakh in the 1st century C.E., and it’s the only book not to have been found at all at Qumran in what is commonly called The Dead Sea Scrolls. If you’re not reading a Jewish copy of the Bible, you may very well be reading the retelling of the story as found in the Septuagint, the first comprehensive translation of the Bible…into Greek. If you’re reading a translation of the Latin version of the Bible, you’re probably getting some additional information that did not appear at all in the original, which most Hebrew scholars think probably made its appearance around the 4th -3rd century B.C.E. And one should not forget that nowhere in Esther does the word G-d appear.
Confused yet? Wait. It gets better.
The characters are total cardboard; they’re a bunch of archetypes. The king is usually portrayed as a dimwit, Mordechai as a smart guy, Vashti as evil, and Esther as obedience and feminine intelligence. The little we do know about the real history tells us that Ahashverus is probably Xerxes I who ruled Persia from 485–465 B.C.E. and this guy was no slouch. But he is in this story.
So here’s the text I want everyone to look at:
1:10 On the seventh day, when the king’s heart was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains who ministered in the presence of King Ahasuerus.
1:11 To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was of comely appearance.
1:12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s behest which was [brought] by the hand of the chamberlains, and the king became very wroth, and his anger burnt within him.
Truth be told, Vashti is my favorite Biblical woman. She said no. I want to believe her reasons were 21st century rational: she wasn’t gonna dance in front of a bunch of strangers. She was the queen. She had to command the respect of the other women in the palace. She was a woman of stature. And most of all, she was a woman of valor. In a time when women didn’t say no, she said no and she paid the price.
[An odd side note: some scholars make a point of pointing out the first line of the book does not call Ahasverus “king,” but from the very first mention, it calls Vashti “the queen.” Is it possible he came to the throne by marrying her as some scholars speculate? Well, probably not….but that is how his father secured his place on the Persian throne…by marrying Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, one of the most beloved rulers ever. Even the Jews like Cyrus… so the answer to that question is no, since he is the son of Darius and Atossa, making him Cyrus’s grandson. Anyway….I digress.
Josephus (37 – c. 100 C.E), the guy who is the closest thing we have to an on-the-scene reporter, says of Vasti:
But she, out of regard to the laws of the Persians, which forbid the wives to be seen by strangers, did not go to the king; and though he repeatedly sent the eunuchs to her, she nevertheless continued to refuse to come, until the king was so much angered that he broke up the banquet, rose up, and called for the Seven Persians who were responsible for the interpretation of the laws, and accused his wife, saying that he had been insulted by her because although she had repeatedly been called by him to his banquet, she had not obeyed him once.
So maybe saying “no” to a blatant attempt to humiliate is not such a newfangled idea. Vashti said no. And Ahashverus’s ultimate regret in doing away with his queen opens the door to Esther…and Esther’s own defiance by showing up at court unbidden…which set the resolution of the story in motion.
All over this country there are a whole lotta wannabe Ahashveruses telling women they don’t have the right to say no. They’re saying women don’t have the right to control what happens to their own bodies. They’re telling women they have to be breeders at the whim of men…husbands or not. They are taking the position that women’s reproductive healthcare is not to be readily available to all women. Texas has now forced the closure of 19 women’s clinics, leaving just 24 clinics to serve 24 million people contained in a state of 268,581 square miles.
Women need to channel both Vashti and Esther. We need to rise up against that attempt to push us back into another century. We need to use our ballots. We need to use our voices. And most of all, we need to come together as a single voice, pro-choice/pro-life/Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/ Wiccan/whatever to advocate for ourselves. Clearly, no one else is going to do it. If We, the Women of The United States continue to send these yahoos back to Congress and the state legislatures, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What are we telling our daughters, our granddaughters, our great-granddaughters….and on and on and on?
Women of The United States, we are all Vashti. And we need to say NO very loud and clear.