Was the biblical Esther a true ‘first lady’ or a post-feminist icon in a secular world? Purim is celebrated: March 21/22.
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Faculty in the Humanities, Austin College
Mar 20, 2019
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The question in my op-ed is from the title of a book by Dianne Tidball published in 2001. The recent fatal shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand have left Muslim and Jewish communities around the world in fear. Purim celebrates how exiled Jews in Babylon were saved by Queen Esther, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus (486-465 BCE), also known as Xerxes I.

The Persian king, drunk in this story, demands that his wife, Vashti, parade before all the king’s men to display her beauty. She refuses, and Ahasuerus, wanting a new wife, chooses Esther for her beauty. Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew) disrupts the plan of the king’s counsellor, Haman, to have all the kingdom’s Jews killed because he has been offended by Mordecai, a cousin of Esther. The day of the massacre of the Jews was decided by lottery (purim in Hebrew). Thanks to Esther’s intervention, Haman was hanged on that day, and other presumed collaborators were killed.

Tidball’s book discusses Esther from a gender studies perspective. Queen Vashti is iconic for feminists that applaud her resisting the chauvinist demands of the king to parade before his male sycophants. Esther is a post-feminist icon who works through the male-dominated hierarchy, using her influence as a king’s wife to save her people. That she does save her people is the reason for celebration over the centuries.

Some historical questions would include why ancient Persia’s positive position toward Jews on two occasions was so favorable compared to today’s rivalry between Iran and Israel. The first occasion was when Cyrus the Great (600—530 BCE) was seen by the Jewish community he liberated from captivity as the  long-awaited Messiah—the only non-Jewish person in the Bible to be so designated. The second occasion is the topic of this op-ed. The Jewish community in today’s Iran are historically “Esther’s Children.” By citizenship, they are Iranian. Esther and Mordecai have a venerated tomb in Hamadan, Iran. In northern Israel, Esther has a tomb in Kfar Bar’am.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a state visit to the White House in March, 2013, he presented President Barack Obama with a beautifully bound Book of Esther. Some suggest that the Prime Minister’s message was that Israel now deemed that President Obama was today’s “Esther” who would save the modern-day Israelis from their Iranian and Arab enemies in the Middle East. Another possible modern “Esther” could be the growing number of Jewish and non-Jewish groups who are working for a peaceful solution to what appears to be an Israeli/Palestinian impasse harnessed to a growing intense competition between Israel and Iran.

Such an “Esther” is very much needed at this time.