Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Esther: In which God is stronger than all the sexism

The biblical story of Esther is a story full of injustice. A story of people trapped in a society defined by government corruption, sexism, and racism.

Yet God is there.

Image source.

The story of Esther seems to be a favorite for little kid Sunday school classes- for girls in particular. It's almost like a biblical Disney princess story. Of course, it's heavily censored for the kids... Esther was chosen to be queen by winning some Miss-America-style beauty pageant, right? (For those of you playing along at home, the answer is no, she was chosen because she was good in bed. Hey, it's in the bible.)

And the kids learn (because every bible character apparently exists to teach us one specific lesson about some virtue) that Esther was brave, and we should be brave like Esther. Isn't that nice?

Yeah, she was brave, she went and talked to the king, even when she could have been killed. Isn't that great? But no one asks why Esther needed to be brave in the first place, why the king had the power to kill his own wife for daring to speak to him, and generally WTF is going on in this so-called "marriage."

But let me back up and give a summary of the story of Esther first. (Or you could go read it- chapter 1 is here.)

The story is set in ancient Persia, and it begins with King Xerxes having a feast. In the middle of the feast, while he's drunk, he decides he wants Queen Vashti to come, presumably so all the other drunk guys can hit on her. She says no, and the king is so angry that he has Vashti banished. Later, there is a search made for a new queen- beautiful girls were gathered so they could take their turn at having sex with the king, and the one he liked enough to remember her name would be the queen. So Esther, our heroine, "wins" and becomes the queen.

Later, Haman (the bad guy and the king's second-in-command) decides he wants to kill all the Jews, and actually convinces the king to make a decree that on a certain date, everyone should kill the Jews. By the way, Esther is Jewish but she didn't tell anyone. Her cousin Mordecai tells her she must go talk to the king, to get this decree reversed and save them. But, you know, she can't, because no one's allowed to go speak to the king unless summoned. But eventually she decides she has to do it anyway. So she goes in there and guess what, it's her lucky day and her "husband" didn't kill her. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet, and then a second banquet, presumably so that the king will think well of her and be willing to listen. Finally, she tells the king that "oh no, someone is plotting to murder my family!" The king gets angry, and upon finding out that this "someone" is Haman, he has Haman killed, and another decree is issued allowing the Jews to kill their enemies, instead of being killed themselves. The end.

Okay so let's break this down into all the different levels of injustice that very few of the characters even seem to notice:

1. A king with absolute power. He makes decisions while drunk and angry- like the decision to banish Vashti. He can kill anyone in his kingdom, whenever he wants. He was convinced to make a decree killing a whole group of people, just because some guy with money said they were trouble- and he doesn't seem to care until he finds out his favorite wife is part of that group. (Seriously, when Esther finally brings it up, the reaction is "oh no, not the queen!" rather than "oh no, this is genocide!")

2. Misogyny. Okay seriously, how messed-up is this? The process of finding a new queen consists of gathering up a bunch of "beautiful young women", giving each of them beauty treatments, and when that's completed, each one gets a chance to sleep with the king, and after that she joins his harem- where, I'm assuming, there was no opportunity for her to ever get married or do much of anything, and she could only see the king again if he asked for her by name.

Is any girl going to volunteer for that? If not, then was it rape? Well that's kind of a tricky question- it's not really rape, it's more like the idea of women having a choice about sex had never occurred to anyone.

And this attitude is EVERYWHERE throughout the Old Testament. In the culture of that time, apparently no one ever thought that maybe a woman should have a CHOICE about her own sexuality.

3. Racism. So a decree is made to kill the Jews. How is that even possible- to make a law so incredibly horrible and racist, and everyone just goes along with it? (This relates the the "absolute power" thing, mentioned above. Even so, the king doesn't find this morally appalling? Guess not.)

4. And can we talk about this "marriage"? So Esther and Xerxes are, supposedly, "married." Right. She can't even go talk to him? He has every right to kill her for even trying to talk to him? THIS IS NOT A MARRIAGE. Isn't marriage supposed to be a partnership between two people? Not one guy with absolute power and a harem full of women, one of which he likes more than the others. THIS IS NOT A MARRIAGE.

So we have all this injustice, accepted and perpetuated by the culture there. So many things stacked against Esther and the Jewish people. But the story doesn't end there.

Somehow, Esther saved her people. She worked with what she had, in the context of this oppressive and sexist system. No, it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that she had to fear for her life and "be brave" and go talk to the king. It wasn't fair that, when she finally got the chance, she had to include some ridiculous bits of flattery with her cry for justice- "If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king."

She did her best, with the limited power she had, and she succeeded.

And I'm going to conclude that it's because God was there. Even with so much corruption and evil, God is there, and he works through Esther's actions to save. God is always there, and he cannot be stopped by a king with absolute power, an attitude that says women are inferior, or a culture that accepts racism.

God is there. God cannot be stopped. His heart is for the oppressed, and he is capable of saving from any oppressor.

You may notice that at the end of the story, those unjust systems are still in place. It seems like all that's happened is one evil plot was thwarted, but conditions are still right for another plot to take its place. So nothing changed?

I'd say it takes time for that kind of change- God isn't going to brainwash everybody into not being sexist. Nevertheless, God is there.

God saved them. Esther, living in the king's harem, hiding her heritage, had not been forgotten by God. And I believe no one who cries for help against injustice is forgotten by God.

That's what I learned from Esther. Though one may live in a culture that perpetuates racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice, God cannot be stopped.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favourite of the VeggieTales videos. It's funny. The music is good. They take the time to tell the story properly.

    Their story of Daniel, for instance leaves out the best and funniest part. The king has a dream, and calls in the wise men to interpret... except he can't remember the dream. He wants them to remember what his dream was and then interpret.

    Esther is especially powerful, since there is no magic. There's no parting of the Red Sea, no slingshot taking out the armed giant, no miracle in the fiery furnace. It isn't God who is there for Esther, it's Mordecai. They have to work this out and save their people by themselves, without almighty assistance. It's a story of what you can accomplish through your own efforts in the face of overwhelming opposition.