SAN JOSE,, Calif., March 16, 2016 – As March is presently designated as the month to remember important women in history, it provides a unique opportunity to reflect upon a woman who lived long before women’s rights were even conceived, yet whose political impact was powerful. However, because Americans typically contemplate women’s rights within the scope of the development of the United States, this woman of ancient Persia may prove a bit beyond the narrative of the progressive-revisionist historian and well before her time.
Yet the story of Esther is profound and should be revisited in this day and age when a woman’s value is often relegated to her ability to vote.
The story of Esther originates from an Old Testament book bearing the non-Jewish name of this courageous woman who saved her people from extermination.
A long time ago, long before Adolf Hitler generated the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, a man named Haman conceived of the idea of exterminating the Jews. The one who thwarted his diabolical plot was Esther, and this book is an inspiring tale of a clever woman and queen outwitting a ruthless political adviser, Haman, who in a Hitler-like effort (maybe Hitler succeeded in a Haman-like effort) conspired to have all Jewish people killed.
If it also seems a bit eerily similar to the hatred of Jews that emanates from contemporary leaders in Iran these days — it is.
Esther was the Persian name meaning “star,” given to Hadassah (meaning “myrtle,” as in tree), who was a Jewish girl who had been raised by her cousin, Mordecai, after her parents’ death. She was one of the most beautiful young women in Persia, and it worked wonders for her. The story of Esther occurs in Susa (Shushan), the Persian capital, when it is believed that Xerxes I (485–464 B.C.E.), ruled; he is the Persian king who attacked Greece and faced King Leonidas and his 300 men at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E.
The biblical account relates that the king in the story is called Ahasuerus. Because controversy exists among some biblical scholars regarding the exact date of Esther’s story, and due to discrepancies in corresponding events in ancient Persian history and problems in properly translated Middle Eastern names, it is somewhat difficult to correlate this account in historical records. But this king is accepted as Xerxes by a majority of historians.
The story makes it apparent that King Ahasuerus has some problems from the start. It begins with Ahasuerus drunk and upset as his queen, Vashti, would not appear for him at an extravagant banquet held over a seven-day period.
Vashti’s refusal had serious consequences.
Due to her perceived public insolence, Queen Vashti was exiled, and a new queen had to be found and then crowned. It was much like the world’s first recorded beauty pageant, and the one who pleased the king would become the new queen. Esther, who had hidden her Jewish roots by changing her name and other things, won the “contest,” as she not only was seen to have extraordinary beauty but also had some education, and this may have impressed the king.
This is an interesting story of a marriage between a ruthless Persian king who had invaded Greece and this unique Jewish girl who must have been experiencing something she would have never imagined coming true – like a Cinderella story to some degree.
Nevertheless, beyond the story of an extraordinary marriage between a Persian and a Jew, likely written by a Jewish writer, there is a well-developed composition which offers a suspense-filled plot that is skillfully sustained.
The idyllic world of new Queen Esther came crashing down upon her one day as the arch-villain, Haman, manifests his personal hatred of Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, into something quite horrendous – an evil plan to annihilate the Jewish people. Using his position of authority, Haman was able to persuade the king by offering a large sum of silver talents to the king’s treasury in order to personally assume the expense of the destruction of the Jews, if the king gave his royal permission.
King Ahasuerus agreed, and a royal proclamation was made to kill all Jews on a certain date.
The intense drama at a time of incredible peril reveals Esther as the focal point of this near tragedy. At one point after Mordecai learns of the death sentence for his people, he seems to realize that his cousin, the queen, is the only hope for her people. It becomes clear that the only point of contact with the king regarding this decree may be Esther. She alone had some capability to influence the king; yet it is a mistake to think that it was an easy task as a queen in this kingdom lived in a male-dominated society, and the fate of Vashti serves as a measuring stick for how much power women had in such a kingdom.
After Mordecai realizes the limited options to avoid this certain annihilation, he gets word to Esther, and an exchange between the cousins ensues via an intermediary, one of the queen’s servants. Esther is the queen, but the queen was summoned at the king’s pleasure when it suited him, and in his kingdom, Persian law forbade any from entering into the king’s hall from the inner court without first being recognized and approved by the king’s extending his royal scepter to the one who wished such an audience.
Esther made it clear to Mordecai that she risked her life if she violated such court law. It mattered not that she was the queen, as she would be in the midst of a “males only” court and at the mercy of male-generated laws.
At this point in the drama, it becomes clear Esther has a pivotal role, as Mordecai makes an impassioned plea to her:
“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther realized the seriousness of her challenge, and she used her brain to formulate a workable plan to outwit Haman who, for all practical purposes, seemed to have a lock on exterminating the Jewish people in this area. While Haman had used his wealth to manipulate the king to carry out his personal agenda, Esther used her wits, as well as making a foundation for her bold plan by requesting support of the Jewish community to fast on her behalf.
For those who may think it may have been easy for a beautiful woman to affect the king’s will, one simply needs to refer to the beginning of the story and remember what happened to Vashti.
Those who may think this was only a story about an individual Jewish lady who made the effort to plan, execute and follow through on an incredible endeavor, may wonder where such courage and faith originated. Esther’s wisdom led her to create a clever plan to invite both her king and Haman to two meals in order to fulfill her objectives. But this simple task required great courage because it would require her to reveal a secret that no one in the palace knew: that she was a Jew, and there fell the great dilemma and personal risk.
The king had made a decree to kill all the Jews due to Haman’s influence. If Esther revealed her secret, she could have been executed on the spot. Yet she had prepared to die if her plan failed.
Esther’s triumph came first as she resolved to die, if required, for her people, and she boldly resolved to Mordecai, “If I perish, I perish.” It required great faith that Heaven would approve of her effort, and it required great courage to do what needed to be done: to reveal the truth – about herself and about Haman. She carried out her part of the plan, but had no way of knowing whether it would bring the desired result.
Essentially, the reader learns again that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval” (Hebrews 11:1-2). And the story of Esther indicates that women of old could also receive such approval from Heaven.
One who has little faith could surmise that Esther just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help save her people. But, the writer weaves into the fabric of his work Mordecai’s question, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Does anyone truly know his or her higher purpose in the grand scheme of things?
Esther was a Jewish woman who was in a place of great comfort in the palace, but she was willing to sacrifice herself for her people. Esther lived within a male-dominated society in a time of great danger, yet she overcame the obstacles around her without the right to vote or any official authorization to act boldly to avert disaster for her people.
The story of Esther is a story of triumph: a triumph of an individual who seemingly allowed God to work through her despite the great personal risk.
Again, the story of Esther is profound and should be revisited during Women’s History Month.