People of the Book – Esther
Comedian Christopher Guest has had a hand in writing, directing, and starring in some classic cult films over the years. His comedies This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and The Princess Bride (where he’s the memorable six-fingered villain) often playfully wrestle with larger cultural and philosophical themes and assumptions. His 2006 film For Your Consideration revolves around a fictional movie entitled “Home for Purim” and its Hollywood awards-cycle buzz.
Many Christians may be unaware of the history and traditions of this relatively minor Jewish festival based on the book of Esther. And while Guest’s lighthearted mocking can introduce one to some of the stranger and more memorable aspects of its celebration, closer scrutiny of both Esther and Purim provide some fodder for serious spiritual reflection for those of us who are all “people of the Book” and co-heirs to their legacy.
The biblical text of Esther begins during the reign of the Persian King Xerxes. The powerful ruler seeks to impress his countrymen by boastfully parading his unveiled wife before them, in a vicious affront to her decency in that culture. When she refuses, she is deposed and Xerxes seeks a replacement companion as queen. Xerxes’ Jewish subject Mordecai prepares his orphaned niece Hadassah for the king’s search, and (unsurprisingly for the reader) Xerxes acquiesces and chooses her to reign with him. Hadassah takes the name Esther, etymologically derived from the Hebrew word for “star,” and becomes his partner, rising to power in the empire.
Xerxes does not realize his wife’s background, and so when one of his noblemen, Haman, looks to kill not only Mordecai but the entire Jewish race for failing to bow down and pay the aristocrat the homage they reserve for God alone, Xerxes agrees to his plot of mass murder. And so it is that here, as so often elsewhere throughout history and the present, forces horrifically align to exterminate the People of Israel for allegedly contaminating the world as an unwelcomed “other.”
A contemporary reader need not be reminded of the savagery with which numerous states have likewise despised the Jewish race, from the Cossack raids in the Ukraine, from Dachau and Buchenwald to the 21st century Middle East. We know all too well that Haman was sadly not unique in his anti-Semitic agenda. Christians must honestly confront the fact that our community has not been entirely innocent in this long and brutal narrative of distrust and persecution.
And yet God’s special relationship with his chosen people endures. Although Esther is the only book of the Old Testament where Yahweh is not explicitly mentioned, he remains hidden and present in the tale’s unfolding. (Traditionally, Purim kreplachs, which are the Jewish cuisine’s answer to wontons, pierogies and tortellini, contain a filling of meat or potatoes “hidden” in much the same manner.) Through Esther and Mordecai, God is able once again to bring salvation to his people, as he did in the Exodus event and continues to do now. Esther begs and intercedes for her people and Xerxes enables them to defend themselves against the evil machinations which had been decided by casting lots (or pûrîm). Because of this, Haman is punished with death and to this day noisemakers (called graggers) and stomping attempt to blot his villainous name out from history during the Jewish liturgical reading of the text on the holiday.
In a Christian context, Thomas Aquinas linked the story of Esther with the Virgin’s role in salvation history. “Through Queen Esther, that is, similarly through the Blessed Virgin, the sentence of damnation passed against us was revoked; namely through her intercession, through the extension of the King’s golden scepter to Mary … Queen Esther, that is the Blessed Virgin, pleased the eyes of the King in helping to redeem the human race and she found favor in his presence, not only for herself, but for all [hu]mankind.”
Esther serves as a model for courageously risking one’s comfort, state in life, or resting inertia to protect others. There is truth to the ridiculous, overacting heroine of “Home for Purim” melodramatically claiming that she tries to protect her family as Esther would, but at the same time realizing the Haman she “was trying to protect them from was….me!”
Similarly, the wheat and the weeds which the Gospel says will grow together until the eventual separation by the angels on the last day does not in my experience refer solely to individual people. No one I’ve yet encountered is unqualifiedly good or evil, generous or selfish. Are not our own souls mini-plots of the parable’s fields, where both grow ever intermingled? Are we not all simultaneously loyal and scheming, meek and self-centered, hopeful and bitter, Esther and Haman? We ought to recognize this fact and try to cultivate the healthy crop of fulfillment in our lives while pruning, with God’s grace, the tangles of overgrowth that threaten to choke it and our fruitfulness.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.