You Really Ought to Read it First: The Story of Esther

A lot of people claim the biblical story of Esther is their favorites. And, really, who can blame them? The tale of Esther has everything you could ever want: intrigue, revenge, misogyny, sex, violence. Oh yeah, there’s some courage, a little love and a smattering of devotion in there, too. You may be scratching your head and wondering “What are you talking about?” I’m so glad you asked. Let’s unpack this not-so-vaguely disturbing story.

Set during the Babylonian Exile, the story begins when a drunken King Ahasuerus orders his queen, Vashti, to dance naked in front of his guests. When she refuses (oh Vashti, you feminist, you), the king is not happy. One of his counselors says this affront must be punished because if the word got out that Vashti had refused an order from the king, all the other women would get uppity and there would be “no end of put-downs and arguments.” (From Ester 1, Common English Bible) In other words, women might start thinking for themselves, and God knows, we can’t have that. So, the king sent out a decree stating that Vashti would never come before him again (whether this was accomplished through banishment or execution is unclear) and her place would be given to someone “better”. And, doing so in such a public manner would send a message to the women throughout the kingdom to know their place and stay in it.

Of course, that meant there was an opening in Ahasuerus’ harem and he began looking for a replacement. That’s where Esther and her uncle, Mordecai, come into the picture. Every time I hear the name “Mordecai”, I can’t help but think of a character in an extremely surreal cartoon called “Regular Show”. That Mordecai, a blue jay who works as a groundskeeper at a park with his best friend Rigby (a racoon), is a slacker whose attempts to goof off invariably lead to crazy, weird misadventures. But, he stands head and shoulders over the Mordecai of the Bible. I mean, seriously, we’re talking about a guy who forced a young girl he had adopted after her parents died into prostitution. Yeah, you heard me: prostitution. I mean, what else would you call it? He pushed a 14-year-old girl into the king’s harem and something tells me it wasn’t to play Monopoly.

Why would Mordecai do this? It doesn’t really say, but later events show he may have done so for political advantage (we’ll get to that in a minute). What a sterling fellow. Whatever Mordecai’s reason might have been, it worked. After Esther spent that first night with Ahasuerus, she became his favorite. It makes perfect sense. What dirty old man worth his salt wouldn’t favor a pretty, unspoiled teen age girl?

As the story continues, Mordecai angers the king’s chief advisor, Haman. Why? He didn’t bow to him because, as a Jew, he only bowed to God. Haman, being a text villain straight out of Central Casting, decides to get back at Mordecai for his disrespect by convincing the king to authorize the extermination of all the Jews in the kingdom. When Morty finds out, he decides to use his strategically placed asset in the king’s household (i.e. Esther) to stop the plot, telling her to appeal to the king and save her people. This that political advantage I mentioned earlier. Mordecai was playing the long game.

Esther, however, balked because she hadn’t been called before the king and wouldn’t be any time soon. To appear without being called meant death. Mordecai, ever the doting father, throws a guilt trip on her, saying “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace. In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.” Seriously? “Perhaps you became queen for such a time as this”??? Hell, a situation is probably what he had in mind when he gave her to the king in the first place. I hear people talk about how courageous Mordecai was, but I think he was one manipulative mutha.

But, his guilt trip works, and Esther gives him one condition for going to the king: for all the Jews in Susa (the city where this story takes place) to fast for three days in order to help her be brave enough to carry out this crazy-ass plan. Really, Esther? You’re going to risk your life and all you want is for Morty and his people to fast? I believe I’d have asked for a little more.

But, if you stick with this stomach-turning story long enough, there is a payoff. Eventually, Haman’s schemes come to light and he is impaled on the very pole he had planned to use for Mordecai’s execution (Google “impalement” at your own risk) and Esther begs the king to rescind his genocidal decree. Unfortunately, Ahasuerus doesn’t have the stones and passes the buck, allowing Mordecai to issue a decree that allowed the Jews to defend themselves. And, it works: Mordecai and Esther’s people are prepared for the attack and successfully defend themselves. Yay!

Of course, that isn’t where the story ends, because the Jews take this opportunity to exact revenge on everyone who had ever wronged them; even sweet little Esther gets in on this orgy of violence, asking the king to impale Haman’s sons. When the dust settles, 75,000 of their enemies lay dead. The Bible says this occurred on the 13th day of Adar and, on the 14th day, they rested and had a day of feasting and rejoicing. And, that boys and girls, is the origin of the Feast of Purim.

So, what’s the point of me dumping on a story that many people find inspiring? Well, for one thing, I’m tired of stories from the Bible being white-washed because the truth is unpalatable. That and I’m a bit of jerk. Sorry, not sorry.

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