04 December 2014

Esther and her dumb king

Growing up, Esther used to be one of my favourite Bible books. It sounded like a fairy tale: young orphan girl living in exile is chosen to be queen and later saves her whole race from destruction. Furthermore, the main character is female, the evil guy loses, and the story is filled with drama and suspense. What more could one ask for?

The challenge, however, is to move beyond my childhood understanding of the book as some kind of real life biblical fairy tale. As an adult, I do know better, but it's hard not to let this ingrained perspective continue to colour how I read it. It is easier, after all, to read the hanging and violence of the Jews against their enemies through that lens. 

One help in moving beyond my childhood understanding is the recognition of how Esther becomes queen. The Bible is very gracious in its description, describing Esther as finding favour in everyone's eyes and taking the advice of the king's advisors. At the same time, the Bible is clear that the deciding factor was one night with the king. Such immediate amazing success in the bedroom doesn't quite fit with the nice Christian girl stereotype that I'd projected onto Esther as the heroine of the fairy tale. This then allows cracks to form in my childhood understanding.

At certain points in my academic career, I've had to look at Esther again. One of the common tools is to read Esther from a feminist perspective. Vashti is often presented as a heroine of sorts, although I found that argument difficult to swallow. This is perhaps in part because of my residual understanding of her as a fairy tale's wicked queen. It also seemed to be reading more into the story than was present in the text.

The first chapter of Esther presents Vashti as neither good not bad, neither justified nor condemned in her refusal of the king. She is not the focus of the first chapter. It is even questionable whether telling the back story to the search for a queen is the point of the chapter. Why do we, as readers, need to know how the king's first queen was deposed? 

Asking questions of the text helps one to see the text anew. Hearing the text read aloud also helps. When Matthijs and I started Esther the other night, my initial reaction was how dumb the  king seems to be. As I thought through the rest of the book, I wondered whether seeing the king as being an incompetent idiot fits with the rest of what is said in the book. Further, how does this assumption about the king, other than further destroying my prince charming fairy tale image of him, help me understand the text better?

If I do assume the king is dumb, God's hand in the events of the book appear more obvious. It was no human wisdom or anything in the king's character that saved the Jews; instead, it was solely God.

I find it amazing that I continue to gain new insights into the text as I read it. And although I'd like to see myself as being more competent than Esther's king, I realize that the insights are best attributed to God and his grace.

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