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Politics of Scripture

The Book of Esther as Resistance to Ethnic Nationalism—Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

The book of Esther deals with resisting ethnic violence in its ancient context and offers us tools for resisting white ethnic nationalism today.

1So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2On 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.’ 3Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favour, 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. 4For 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.’ 5Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ 6Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. 9Then 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.’ 10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far,21enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22as 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.

This post is excerpted and adapted from my book The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Reading the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

In October 2017, author Sasha Polakow-Suransky published an opinion piece in the online New York Times entitled “White Nationalism Is Destroying the West.” She wrote,

Anti-Semitic and xenophobic movements did not disappear from Europe after the liberation of Auschwitz, just as white supremacist groups have lurked beneath the surface of American politics ever since the Emancipation Proclamation. What has changed is that these groups have now been stirred from their slumber by savvy politicians seeking to stoke anger toward immigrants, refugees, and racial minorities for their own benefit. Leaders from Donald Trump to France’s Marine Le Pen have validated the worldview of these groups, implicitly or explicitly encouraging them to promote their hateful opinions openly. As a result, ideas that were once marginal have now gone mainstream.

Whatever one’s political leanings, the resurgence of white ethnic nationalism in the United States and around the world is deeply troubling. Ethnic minorities, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, and women live in fear of being targeted, both personally and politically.

Set in a period of rising anti-Semitism in the Persian Empire, the book of Esther confronts us with some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to live courageously in a time in which the ruling authorities are empowering the forces of ethnic hatred against the people. It tells the story of Jewish resistance to an ethnic cleansing perpetrated by a power-hungry official in the court of a hapless but mercurial king. It tells the story of women resisting the power of ingrained patriarchy and of common people standing up against leaders who sacrifice their well-being in order to glorify themselves. The book of Esther speaks to a time that is not ours, and yet still mirrors ours.

Mordecai’s Protest

The book of Esther as a whole presents us with at least two models of resistance against the rise of ethnic nationalism. The first is enacted by Esther’s uncle Mordecai, a Jew who works as a guard in the king’s palace. Mordecai’s mode of resistance is protest. When the king promotes the anti-Jewish Haman the Agagite to be his second in command, Mordecai refuses to bow down to him (3:1-2).

Morecai’s refusal sets into motion a tragic sequence of events in which Haman conspires with King Ahasuerus to order a genocide against all of the Jews living in the Persian Empire. While Mordecai’s act of protest calls the ethnic hatred seething under the surface of the Empire out into the open, as an outsider to the palace, he ultimately finds himself powerless to do anything about it. That task ultimately falls to Esther, the queen of the Empire who has until now kept her ethnic identity a secret.

Esther’s Resistance

In the plan that unfolds in the following chapter, Esther demonstrates her astute ability to navigate within an unstable politics of power in order to save her people. Demonstrating a keen understanding of both Ahasuerus and Haman—and the motivations of men like them—Esther bides her time, working within accepted protocols to set the two men against each other, ultimately turning the tables on Haman.

Esther does have an advantage in a palace driven by male egos. Because she is a woman, the powerful men never see her coming. Taking charge of the fate of her people, Esther uses the men’s underestimation of her to great advantage. In doing so, she takes her place in a long line of biblical women who have succeeded in a male-dominated world by outwitting the more powerful men around them: Rebekah, Rachel, Tamar, Shiphrah and Puah, and Rahab, to name but a few.

After three days of fasting, Esther appears in the inner courtyard of the palace wearing her royal clothes (5:1). By doing so, she risks her life, as she has told us of the law that anyone who enters the inner courtyard may be put to death if the king does not extend the royal scepter (4:11). But when the king sees her, he not only extends his scepter but rashly offers her “anything—even half the kingdom” (5:3).

With this offer on the table, a less insightful person than Esther may simply have seized the moment to ask for the king to rescind Haman’s order concerning the Jews. Yet, Esther knows that the danger to her people lies not only in the specific decree commanding their extermination but also in the man who issued the decree in the first place. Ethnic hatred cannot be defeated merely by the reversal of one policy. It must be rooted out at the source.

In her measured response, Esther asks for the king and Haman to join her for a feast that she has prepared (5:4). As they sit drinking wine together, the king again tells Esther that he will give her anything she asks, even up to half the kingdom (5:6). Yet again, Esther demurs. Instead, she invites the king and Haman to yet another banquet the following day. “Tomorrow,” she says, “I will answer the king’s questions” (5:8).

The Culmination of Esther’s Plot

The following day, the eunuchs come to escort Haman to his final banquet with Esther and the king. As the three drink wine together, the king asks Esther for the third time, “What is your wish Queen Esther? I’ll give it to you. And what do you want? I’ll do anything—even give you half the kingdom” (7:2).

While this time Esther does respond, she yet again approaches her request cautiously, calculating how to elicit the desired response from the king. Esther responds carefully, “If it please the king, and if the king wishes, give me my life—that’s my wish—and the lives of my people too. That’s my desire” (7:3).

As the king has no doubt expected Esther to ask for something of material value—up to half the kingdom he has said—her plea for her life and the life of her people must strike an emotional chord with him, particularly in light of the hospitality she has shown during the previous two days.

Yet Esther couches her request not in emotional terms but in economic ones. She continues,

We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the king for this kind of damage. (7:4)

Even when pleading for her life, Esther places the king’s needs first, appealing not to his emotions but to his profit margins. She would be fine to be sold into slavery, she says, where she and her people could continue to serve the king’s interests. But to be wiped out makes no economic sense. How can they serve the king when they are dead?

Notably, Esther hasn’t mentioned Haman at all. She could have accused him directly, but such an accusation would likely raise defensiveness in the king, whose instinct would be to defend his second-in-command. Astutely, Esther refrains from naming Haman, allowing the king to pass judgment on an unnamed perpetrator. He cries, “Who is this person, and where is he? Who would do such a thing?” (7:5).

Esther yet again responds carefully, saying “A man who hates, an enemy!” raising the king’s hackles even further, before finally declaring, “This wicked Haman!” (7:6).

Esther’s masterful plan finally reaches its culmination with the accusation against Haman. It has taken two days of patient indirection, but by the time Esther finally names Haman, his fate is sealed. One of the eunuchs, Harbona, reminds the king that Haman himself has set up a giant stake upon which to impale his enemy Mordecai. The king commands that Haman should be impaled upon it instead (7:9-10).

Reading Esther for Today

In its original writing, and in its long liturgical use in the Jewish tradition, the book of Esther is a call to resistance against anti-Semitism and a celebration of the resilience of the Jewish people against all who would do them harm. Yet, the significance of the book for today ripples out from that central message, calling all of us to acts of resistance not only against anti-Semitism but also against all forms of systemic oppression affecting those located outside systems of power.

Like Esther and Mordecai, we are called to resist in different ways depending on circumstance and opportunity. Some of us may resist like Mordecai, who used his act of refusal to draw ethnic hatred out of the shadows and into the light of day where it could be exposed and recognized. Then, taking to the streets, he made a spectacle until he drew the attention of those in power.

Some of us may resist like Esther, who shrewdly negotiated the halls of power to save the lives of her people. She resisted by studiously following royal protocols and speaking the language of power, winning the king to her side.

But if we are to defeat the powers of hatred emboldened among us, we must all resist. Whoever we are, wherever we are—perhaps our lives have been preparing us for such a time as this.

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