Esther is not a typical book in the Bible. It is an amazing narrative that ties tragedy and triumph. The composition of this book may well have been at the end of the Persian Empire and toward the end of the fourth century B.C. (Matthews & Moyer, 2005, p. 272). The presentation of the story is in a theatrical form that leaves the reader with feelings of ambiguity and intrigue. The purpose of the book is didactic with the glorification of the Jewish people and the explanation of the origin and significance of the feast of Purim on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar (February-March). The book was intended as a comfort for Israel reminding the people that God's providence continually watches over them as long as they stay faithful and turn to him on sincere repentance. Even though the name of God is not mentioned in the narratives, it is understood that the plot represents the activity of God in human history.
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Not even 70 yrs ago, six million Jews were murdered in Nazi Germany. Esther relates to this fact through the dramatic preservation of Persian Jews in the face of extermination and concluding with the Feast of Purim which commemorates the deliverance from this pending massacre. As a woman, Esther experienced an incredible transformation most unusual for women of the times. This paper will explore the presentation, characteristics, and cultural roles of Esther on the HBOT.
The character of Esther goes from a passive woman who allows others to direct her life to a woman who uses her beauty to her advantage and who takes appropriate action capable of breaking the deadliest rules. Initially Esther is presented as a compliant woman who was adopted by Mordecai and who followed obedient to Mordecai's instructions to keep her identity conceal from the King. McGeough, K (2008) similarly suggests that Esther is an unfortunate role model for women: a role model of compliance with patriarchy typical criticized by so-called Second Wave feminists and Third Wave feminists. The young child was not only obedient but in Esther 2:7-8 refers to how she was gathered with the other women and placed under the custody of Hegai. In part this submissiveness may have eradicated from her young tender age and lack of maturity as a woman, when captured to become part of Xerxe's harem. However, similar arguments have been made indicating that Esther submissiveness was related to gender and not as much maturity. Oren, D (2009) points out that a woman was assumed to be an obedient wife (1:20), a beautiful young virgin or a concubine. We must also remember that the Persian Jews at that time were a minority group probably treated as outcast and that submissiveness could have been more of a survival skill that a distinctive characteristic of a persona. In other words, there may be a strong connection between Esther's gender identity and her Jewish identity. Whichever is the case, Esther became an example or the basis for Diaspora. McGeough, K (2009) stated that this position of weakness reflects the subordinate position of Jews in a Diaspora setting, making Esther the figure with whom Diaspora Jews would identify.
Esther, a woman in a man's world, had an advantage. The biblical verses do not mention if she had any special skills or intelligence. Contrary, McGeough (2008) mentions that Esther's intelligence and skills are evident by the use of strategies that gained favor among powerful individuals first, and then using that favor to convince them to behave in certain ways. Perhaps, he is talking about a combination of submissiveness and beauty that made her so attractive to others. Undoubtedly, female sex appeal has been the secret weapon use to defeat even the most powerful man and also the sort of all cause of troubles. In fact this is mentioned on Proverbs 23: 27-28 where the writer warns men against falling on temptation by women: "For a whore is a deep ditch; and a strange woman is a narrow pit. She also lies in wait as for a prey, and increases the transgressors among men". Esther 2:9e explains how Hegai felt, "The girl pleased him and won his favor. Immediately, he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem". Feminist groups feel otherwise. Wootton, J (2007) portrays Esther as on one hand the worst possible example of a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants without challenging the patriarchy of her day, and on the other, the type of a powerful woman who grows into her own powers during the story. In fact, the reader of Proverbs is told that part of wisdom is to find favor in the eyes of men (Prov. 3:4). Esther explicitly does so in 2:9, 15, 17; and 5:2 and not in a passive way. One must remember that she found favor among everyone and she chooses how to seduce the King by following Hegai's advice on what to take to the King's chambers. The truth is that Xerxes contest was nothing but an ancestry version of the Bachelor. His search should have been limited to noble families but instead, it turned into the search for Persia's top model. Apparently, the primary qualification was beauty which only affirms that a woman back in those times was only as valuable as she is beautiful.
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It is also hard to believe that Esther was not aware of her beauty. First, Esther 2:7 describes her as "she was lovely in form and features" and then it also follows to explain how Esther was "taken". She was never given up by Mordecai but rather spotted and taken by force but not before Mordecai instructed her to cover her real identity. The reason Mordecai took that step in advance was because he knew that her physical characteristics made her stand out as a sore and that she would definitely be noticed in the crowd. The context of the whole first chapter is set for the beautiful orphan Esther or Hadassah to take her place in history with a portrait of woman as a passive sex object, able to succeed only by pleasing men and by conforming to a male-centered view of women. Similar to Exodus, the entire first chapter of the book and a few verses of the second chapter are simply verses of introduction to the character that will provide salvation. It would seem that her secret weapon was her beauty.
Four years go by before Xerxes could choose his queen. Meanwhile, Esther undergoes a dynamic transformation. She does not only take her place as queen and becomes a hero to the people of Israel. But Esther is not our typical hero; she had a different role to perform. Her actions were different because of her role as a woman. McGeough, K (2008) argues that male and female heroic acts should be considered separately; the subaltem position of women makes Esther's heroic actions different from a man's heroic actions, which are from a position of dominance. This dominance was well exemplified by the overuse of protocols. Laws are central to the book of Esther and are the means through which she accomplished her goals but also are the obstacles that create the plot in the narrative. Stern, E (2010) refers to how the many legislations implemented as far as how much to drink (1.8), what to do with a disobedient queen (1.15, 19), how to search for concubines (2.8), how to prepare virgins for the harem (2.12), how to handle uninvited appearances before the king (4.11, 16), and the gravest matters-extermination of the Jews (3.12-15; 4.8) and the extermination of their enemies (8.13-14; 9.1, 14-15)-are subjects of legislation. Esther again had to use her submissiveness, beauty and convincing strategies to reach the king. She fasted, prayed and prepared herself for the highest degree of climax in the story, to show uninvited in front of her King. Furthermore, she shows her audacity and strategic plan by preparing a series of banquets to present her request to the King.
The other obstacle for Esther was to reveal her true identity as a Jew. Let us remember that the Jews were a minority group with their own practices and possibly not seen in the best of lights by many including Haman. Amazingly enough, Esther transgressions of the law regarding her unsummoned presence had a positive reaction in the story. Ironically her status as a Jew did not affected the King's reasoning. Through a series of skillful political maneuvers, Esther has brought about Haman's downfall and saved the Jews. Another interesting point is the role reversal between Mordecai and Esther. Esther depended on Mordecai for her survival during the formative years and once Esther became Queen, he depended on her for his own survival and the survival of his people. Esther's conveying Mordechai's message not only makes her the central figure but the protector of Mordecai and her people. Whether using wisdom or beauty, Esther demonstrated a whole lot of decisiveness and maturity with her actions. Regardless of how one defines heroism, it is present in the book of Esther.
Nevertheless, the book of Esther is one which presents a story full of heroes, danger, villains, and wisdom. Throughout Esther's metamorphic transformation, from a child to womanhood, her outstanding features come alive and even gain the favor of the reader. The author does not talk about the morality issues but instead, he inferred the lessons to be learned through the characters in the story and their actions. The wisdom tale is evidence of Jewish Diaspora or movement while dispersion out of the homeland. The omission of God out of the story may have depended on the writer's view. Babylonians had many deities and the writer may have chosen to leave the concept of God or Gods out of the story for religious purposes and to certainly draw the reader into the story showing God through his providence over his people. Due to the sense of nationalism and the emphasis on the Festival of Purim in the story, one may deduce that the writer was Jewish in origin but residing in Persia as he seemed to be acquaintant with Persian customs. We must not forget that although Esther and Mordecai are essential to the story, the true purpose of the story is the deliverance for the Jews as an explanation for the Festival of Purim. The story is also significant because is the first time where the word "Jew" is used meaning that there was a more organized movement and cultural establishment. The book clearly reflects times when the people may have been living in communities in a more organized manner with stronger traditional customs, however, maintaining a position as a minority and possibly living in an anti-Semitic environment. What ever is the historical validity of the specific events depicted, Queen Esther became in history an instrument of hope to the Jews in the face of destruction.
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