The Whole Megillah: Esther's Book of Shadows

March 23, 2003
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Last Monday was that beautiful warm day – Mondays are my day off so I went to Plymouth to walk around and enjoy the weather and to finally get a look at Plymouth Rock. It was a strange day because everyone was outside saying " isn' t this great, it' s finally spring," and yet wondering if we should really give ourselves permission to enjoy the day because we knew that war was imminent.

By Wednesday evening we did start our attack on Iraq and I was in the church leading a Bible study when the first bombs dropped. I didn't know the war had begun until I got home, and although I found that the reality of it upset me more than I had expected, I didn't regret that I had spent the evening with the gospel of Luke. To do so felt right to me, and relevant, as I tend to take a very long-term view of how the kingdom of God, or the realm of peace, will be made manifest in this world. I am more spiritually oriented than politically so, and although I have read extensively about the international situation my own proclivities are more emotional than analytical. I feel very comfortable with the intimacy of small towns and family systems and the territory of relationships and much less comfortable trying to analyze international policies and nations. I appreciate that you haven't expected this of me.

But it is certainly appropriate, and important, to give voice to the concerns we all have this morning, as we are all desirous of peace in the world, and now we have news of deaths of Iraqis and British and American soldiers to give our sadness more substance. Some of us have family and friends in the armed forces. We want them home safely, and as soon as possible. It is a time of complicated loyalties and complex moral dilemmas that we are not called – thank God -- to solve here. We are called together, simply called together to bring our human struggles to this temple of the human spirit, and to apply what insights we gain to the life of the soul. Those who feel drawn to more public forms of social action and social change can organize their efforts here. There is room for many ways of engaging, and there is room for all opinions.

My personal response to this conflict is that I feel great sorrow for what the people of Iraq have had to endure for many long years, and I do hope that we will be successful in freeing them from the tyrannies of the Hussein regime, since that is the stated goal of this war. Let some good come of it! I wish for nothing more than ten years from now, it will be clear that our actions of today averted a true holocaust.

For our own nation, I pray growing wisdom for its leaders and engaged democracy from our people. Like any patriot I want us to use our wealth and our powers well, in coalition with other nations, as we become more and more aware that as citizens of earth we really are part of an interdependent system – we really are one people, as our global markets, economies and systems of communications have made us so.

It is with some shock, I think, that what we used to speak of in mostly metaphysical terms has become a political and economic reality. We really are inextricably bound in one destiny. What affects one really does affect all, and sometimes quite immediately. My great hope is that future generations will bear this reality with more appreciation and grace than we could possibly expect from ourselves today. We are making awkward baby steps on their behalf, I hope, and the bloodshed we see today is part of birthing that new world order. We will make mistakes. We will also make some progress. Time will tell.

I want to share with you a surprisingly positive message from an unlikely source. Dr. Robert Muller, now eighty years old, is the former Assistant Secretary General of the UN. Dr. Muller was in San Francisco recently being honored for his work, and he got up and essentially said that he was thrilled to be a living witness to an unprecedented moment, because "Never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war". "I'm so honored to be here," he said. "I' m so honored to be alive at such a miraculous time in history. I' m so moved by what' s going on in our world today." Of course Dr. Muller had hoped that war could be averted (as did I), but I take to heart his positive, hopeful observations that the central role played in this crisis by the UN Security Council, is exactly the role for which it was founded in 1949. Dr. Muller reminds us that it has taken over fifty years for the Security Council to reach its potential. An interesting, and I think helpful, perspective.

So like the Book of Esther, we are living today in a story that is characterized by violence. Donna Wilson did a wonderful job creating a dramatic synopsis of this little book, this little scroll (or megillah), but in making it appropriate for children, she toned it down a whole lot and I' m glad she did. You should read the Book of Esther, but eat first.

Let me fill you in on a few details that the kids really didn't need to hear. It's easier to follow if you see it unfold in your mind like a movie:

The story begins with an act of rebellion by the king's wife, Vashti (Jennifer Lopez) one of the original " uppity women" of the Bible, who refuses to appear naked (in just her crown) for her husband's pals during a drunken stag party. This provokes off a kind of ancient, royal version of " Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire," and Esther, the beautiful Jewish girl (let's say Winona Ryder) is gathered into the harem of potential mates for King Ahasuerus (I see him as Vin Diesel, or maybe Sylvester Stallone). She quickly becomes a favorite and advances to the " best place in the harem." Her cousin Mordecai (maybe Michael Douglas), also her guardian, checks on her every day. After a year of cosmetic preparation and, we can presume, lessons in the arts of love, Esther meets the king and wins his favor. Let's just say that she was beautiful and talented.

Cousin Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus. He tells Esther, who tells the king. The treasonous plotters (eunuchs, no less) are hanged on the gallows. It gets better. We meet Haman, the villainous prime minister of the king (Anthony Hopkins, don't you think?). He and Mordecai have a nasty argument outside the king's gates because Mordecai, being a Jew, is supposed to bow down to Haman but he refuses. In his rage, Haman vows that he will destroy all of Mordecai's people. He casts lots, or Pur, to determine the best date to begin his extermination campaign and readily gets the king's approval to do so. The intrigue here is that the king doesn't know that his wife, Queen Esther, is a Jew.

The plot thickens. Mordecai sneaks in to see Esther and tell her of the bad news. " It's up to you, " he says. " You" ve got to get entreat your husband to protect our people!" Esther's response is less then heroic. " May I remind you," she asks her cousin, " that anyone who comes unbidden before the king is sentenced to death? Even his queen? No way! The king hasn't sent for me for a month!" (this is life in a harem, remember).

Haman tells Esther to wise up. " Do not think that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. [and] Who knows? Perhaps you have been called to the kingdom for such a time as this" (4:13-15 -- one of my favorite lines in all of the Bible).

So Esther pulls herself together and gets gussied up to impress the king. And indeed he is impressed. " Anything you want, babe," he says. " Anything you desire, to half my kingdom." " Okay," says Esther. Let's have Prime Minister Haman for diner tomorrow night." This goes on for two nights. Meanwhile, Haman is still furious about Mordecai for refusing to acknowledge his authority, and his friends and wife recommend that he build a gallows " fifty cubits high" for the insolent Mordecai. Good idea. Haman has the gallows made. And you can see where this is going.

From there on, it's all clever reversals and death to the evildoers. Haman ends up executed on his own gallows and Mordecai ends up riding through town on a crowned horse. Esther reveals her Jewish identity to her husband the king, which turns out to be fine with him, and she saves the lives of her people. The king bestows all of Haman's property upon Esther, and gives her and Mordecai permission to write an edict of protection which states that the Jews have the official right " to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, to annihilate any armed force of any province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods…" (8:11) We learn that suddenly everyone in the region claims to be Jewish.

And I' m afraid this becomes very ugly here. The Scroll of Esther doesn't end with a triumph of policy and the execution of one dangerous enemy. In the city of Susa, where their lives have just been threatened, the story tells us that the Jews then murder five hundred people, including Haman's ten sons, who are impaled on stakes. In the country provinces they kill 75,000 of their enemies. When given the opportunity to stop the killing, Queen Esther chooses not to, but actually requests an additional day of revenge. The day of Purim is instituted as an observance of victory over enemies. At the end of the story we don't hear about Esther, but we are informed that King Ahasuerus was powerful and popular, as was Mordecai who – and you may find this hard to believe -- 's poke peace to all his people."

Some party, huh? It's so brutal it's almost comical. And in fact, some of the ancient commentators read it in just that way, as a kind of outrageous burlesque. The Book of Esther never been widely accepted as an historical document – there are too many inaccuracies, anomalies and obvious inventions in the story – and for that reason it almost didn't make it into the Scriptural canon. The fact that it did, in the second century of the Common Era (although it was probably written at the time of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, c. 586 BCE), was probably because the festival of Purim had been wildly popular with the people for so many centuries.

Scholars don't know for sure whether or not the Scroll of Esther came first and inspired the festival of Purim, or whether the festival was an older Babylonian festival that was eventually given a literary explanation in the Book of Esther. Whatever the case, Purim, which is a lunar festival and was observed this year last Wednesday, strangely enough (which was the night of the full moon and the first day of our war on Iraq), is a really wonderful holiday with many elements of the Carnival of the pre-Lenten season. Revelers dress up like the characters in the story and they are instructed to get drunk so that they can't tell the difference between the phrases " blessed be Mordecai" and " cursed be Haman." (That's a detail worth noting, since none of the other Jewish holidays are known as big drinking days, unless you want to count the several glasses of wine consumed at the Passover seders). The scroll is read in its entirety on Purim, during which the worshipers blow horns, stamp, scream and yell whenever the name of Haman is mentioned. Often the prettiest or most devout girl is honored to act the part of Queen Esther.

It's a lot of fun unless you really read the story and acknowledge how relentlessly dark it is, what a shadow side of humanity it depicts. There are no untarnished heroes here. The supposed heroine, Queen Esther, is initially all too willing to let her people get slaughtered if it means risking her own neck. Everyone is more inclined to barbarity than to mercy.

It is a story that reveals the shadow side of humanity, a side that we are all too familiar with in our own day and time. Enemies and vengeance, ethnic and religious hatred, thousands dead. I reread the Book of Esther on a fairly regular basis and like all of the other books in the Bible, some particular aspect – something instructive and illuminating – emerges from each new reading. This time I was aware of how deeply uncomfortable I was with the lack of peaceful resolution.

I was aware of the text requiring me to be present to the terror and violence of the story, while denying me the comfort of assuring me it had all been a dream, or providing some kind of redeeming conversion experience for the main characters. Sometimes this conversion doesn't happen in the Bible. Sometimes it doesn't happen in life. And when it does not, it is not for us to walk away or reject the value of the stories, whether they are legends or true stories of people we know today. To be honest witnesses to the unfolding of the human story requires that we not always seek comfort with what we observe, nor will we always be comfortable with how we respond.

When we compare human behaviors today with the behaviors reported in these ancient scrolls we must acknowledge that the human story is very much " in development," as they say in Hollywood, and we cannot yet guess at its outcome. With this in mind, it occurs to me to say that there is one redeeming quality in Esther's book, a detail that I would not usually claim as a virtue, but at this particular time it seems so, and it is this: the name of God is not mentioned once in this story. Unlike every other book of this sacred scripture, God is never invoked as a justification for violence, God is never appealed to for protection, and God is never praised for victory over the enemies. God is just not there, and therefore God is not on anyone's side. How refreshing. It is this one detail, according to my reading of Esther today, that gives the story a measure of integrity. There, nestled in with all the prophets and all the miracles and wonders of the Old Testament that attempt to tell the tale of God's participation in the sacred human story, is one brutal tale that refuses to give God either credit or blame for what is absolutely and unmistakably the responsibility of human beings.

And so, taking up what is ours to bear, we journey on in spirit and in citizenship, keeping faith that all human history is sacred history, and therefore must we keep good faith with it and with our place in it.
Amen. Shalom. Salaam.