Summer sermon series on the Old Testament, Sunday 12 August 2018
Watching the closing hour of the Tour de France a fortnight ago, I enjoyed the triumph of Geraint Thomas but also the stunning views of Paris. It reminded me of a stay in the French capital when I visited a building I had never heard of until it caught my eye in the guidebook.
La Sainte Chapelle, ‘the holy chapel’, a jewel box of a space, was built in the 1230s to house what King Louis IX believed was Jesus’ crown of thorns. The stained glass contains over a thousand superb scenes from the Bible, and a large section is dedicated to one small book, the one we are looking at today in the third of our summer sermon series on the Old Testament.
The book of Esther is set in the days of the Persian empire, in which the Jews find themselves a displaced people after being deported from their homeland by the Babylonians. Babylon has since fallen to Persia, but for the Jews it’s business is as usual: their lives still depend on the king’s whim, or the designs of those who have access to him; people like Haman, whom we meet in today’s passage.
For women in the Persian empire there is a further subjugation, for this is a patriarchal society, as the story of Esther shows. King Ahasuerus wants to put his queen, Vashti, on show at a banquet; but she says No. Peeved by his wife’s assertiveness, he agrees to a vast exercise in sexual trafficking (a courtiers’ suggestion to cheer him up). King’s officers trawl the empire for attractive young women to service him; and so Esther, a Jewish woman under the care of her cousin Mordechai, is selected for the royal harem.
So taken is Ahasuerus by Esther that he makes her his new queen. Thus she is catapulted from sexual slavery into the elite, and that awkward position of many prominent women in history: she has power, with staff and resources at her command, yet she is still subject to her husband and king. We hear that even she can be executed for approaching him uninvited.
Esther is a book about the dilemmas of life in a totalitarian state. It’s a story of court intrigue, bureaucratic manoeuvring, gangster-like violence – and sexual politics: there is a comical moment when the king sends letters to each province in his vast empire declaring that ‘every man should be master in his own house’.
Today’s passage brings the pivotal moment in the drama. Haman, the king’s grand vizier, angered because Mordecai does not show him proper respect, has persuaded the king to authorise a pogrom, the killing of Mordecai and all his fellow Jews throughout the empire. The king (an unimpressive figure who follows the lead of whichever flunkey was the last to bend his ear) does this through another of his empire-wide letters.
Esther hears of the plot and acts with a sense of theatre worthy of Michael Corleone in the Godfather. She invites Haman to a two-day banquet, then exposes his plot by humbly petitioning the king, in the presence of all her A-list guests, on behalf of her fellow Jews. Soon Haman is swinging from the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
Eventually out goes another letter, this time from Mordecai (who has now got Haman’s job) and endorsed by Queen Esther, directing their fellow Jews to keep the anniversary of this day as a festival to remember their deliverance. This will become the feast of Purim, so called because the conspirators cast lots, or purim, to choose the day for massacring the Jews. It is celebrated exuberantly every February or March. Another letter has gone out earlier. This one Mordecai drafts, under the king’s seal, to each of the 127 provinces. It goes by express couriers on very fast horses and says that the Jews should defend themselves when their enemies come for them. And they do, with blood-letting on a great scale. Even Haman’s ten sons – not mentioned as having any hand in the plot – are hanged like their father.
These summer sermons will have been a failure if they don’t persuade at least some people to get into the Old Testament – so do read Esther. It’s not long, just six pages or so. But why might you want to? What has made other people read Esther?
A Jew might read Esther at Purim to reconnect with the roots of a living tradition in her or his faith, just as we stage nativity plays at Christmas.
King Louis told the story of Esther in the glass of his royal chapel – why? Perhaps to claim biblical approval for his queen – Margaret of Provence was an outsider like Esther – and perhaps also to remind Margaret of what was expected: Esther is brave, dignified but clearly number two in the kingdom.
The scholar Itumeleng Mosala writes about reading Esther from the perspective of a black woman in South Africa in 1992, after the release of Nelson Mandela but before the first free elections. She points out the book’s ‘not-said’ stuff. Where, for instance, are the people who produce what’s needed for a luxury meal that lasts forty-eight hours? There is virtually no mention of the poor, the ones Jesus promises justice in the gospel reading, in a story told solely at the level of the rich. Esther is The Crown, not Eastenders.
Mosala also sees Esther as a ‘survival text’, and when you are trying to survive you may make sacrifices. Esther does, putting the fate of her nation ahead of asserting the independence of her gender, as ex-Queen Vashti did. There will have been similar sacrifices made in the struggle against Apartheid, and I'm reminded of how, in Britain, when war broke out in 1914 the campaign for women’s votes was paused.
David Clines, a white, Australian, male scholar, offers a number of ways of reading Esther. He presents Vashti as the first (perhaps the only) radical feminist in the Bible, and the one who poses the question that hangs over the whole book of Esther: where does the power lie in this story? Is it really with the men?
A great story then. But all I've described so far might make it an attractive read for an atheist on the beach, whereas the main point of reading the Bible is to know God. So how can Esther help with that?
Clines also uses a technique called actantial analysis (a ten-guinea word for establishing the roles the different actors play in the drama). The theory is that every story you’ve ever heard has a Sender, an Object and a Receiver.
Here the Object is deliverance for the Jews, and the Receiver is therefore the Jewish people; but who is the Sender, the one who ultimately gets the Object to the Receiver? Is it Mordecai, or Esther herself? But this is the Bible, so surely the Sender is God – yet the book never actually mentions God. Reading Esther therefore presents a fundamental question: is this story simply about Life, with characters just doing what they have to do to survive? Or is there some Purpose working hiddenly through the twists and turns of their stories?
And that is the question faith poses to each of us. All that today will hold – the words, the deeds, the choices, the waiting around – what will it be about? Will it just be a day of stuff? Or a day in the arena of God’s hidden activity? And at the end of the day, should I say (as another Esther used to do), ‘Well - that’s life!’? Or should I say, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it’? (Genesis 28:16)
Itumeleng Mosala: ‘The Implications of the Text of Esther for African Women’s Struggle for Liberation in South Africa’, Semeia 59, Ideological Criticism of Biblical Texts, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta 1992, pages 129-137
David Clines: ‘Reading Esther from Left to Right, Contemporary Strategies for Reading a Biblical Text’, The Bible in Three Dimensions, Sheffield Academic press, Sheffield 1990, pages 31-52.
To see Jewish children in England celebrating Purim follow this link to CBeebies (thanks to Chris Barnard)