Rant Number 319 17 September 2009 Queen Esther
Rant Number 319 17 September 2009
Sarah Palin and Queen Esther. What do they have in common? Huh! Looks like a nutty question. Yet, apparently a pastor suggested the feisty governor of Alaska should model herself on the Jewish heroine. Bit of a shock to some. Why? Reach for your Bible, folks. Look up the Book of Esther – an awesome read - all will be revealed.
The curtain goes up during the reign of Xerxes I, king of Persia. In the winter palace at Susa. Having sacked his disobedient queen Vashti, Xerses commands a beauty context. The loveliest girl of his vast empire - from India to Ethiopia - will be his new bride. A gorgeous Jewish bint, Esther, is chosen. Her position will enable her to foil a plot to exterminate her people.
Haman is the villain. The king’s anti-Semitic grand vizier. One of Adolf Hitler’s many forerunners. He tricks Xerxes into ordaining the ‘final solution’ of the Hebrew race. But Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, turns the tables on his people’s enemies. He gets the Queen to persuade her husband to exalt Mordecai and destroy Haman. So the intended massacre is executed first on Haman, hung on 83 feet high gallows, and then on Haman’s ten sons. Further, by royal decree the Jews of Susa and the provinces are permitted to carry out a jolly pogrom on their enemies. 75.000 of them, to be precise. Indeed, at the Queen’s instigation, the holy slaughter carries on an extra day. Events all celebrated today in the Jewish spring festival of Purim.
Dig the hints? If Palin is another Esther (well, she did once win a beauty context, didn’t she?), she too has a mission, if she becomes America’s Vice-President. To save the state of Israel from liquidation. A danger meant to be instantiated in the Haman of our time. Surprise, surprise, some finger Iran’s bombastic President Ahmadinejad. Well, don’t figure Palin would have to labour too much to persuade Xerxes-McCain to whack Iran hard.
Sigh…dodgy analogies. First, Palin is a Gentile, not a Jewess. Second, McCain, unlike Xerxes, ain’t the leader of Iran, nor is Palin his bride. Third, it is after all thanks to the Persian king that the Jews triumphed over Haman. As Ahmadinejad leads Iran, he is best suited to be the Jews’ protector – maybe someone should tell him. Fourth, it is doubtful whether, rhetoric aside, Iran really has either the capability or the intention to attack Israel…und so weiter.
Now be shocked. The shenanigans of the forthcoming US presidential election bore the priest. Contrary to received wisdom, he believes Obama and McCain in foreign policy resemble Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Neither will do a sausage about Palestine. Hard cop McCain vows to fight on in Iraq for a thousand years, maybe bomb Iran into the bargain, while soft cop Obama wishes to shift the crusade to Afghanistan. I disagree with both, so that’s that. Regardless, the correct use of the Bible is the issue here – a very crucial one indeed.
The Book of Esther is part of Holy Scripture. Yet, it never mentions God. Odd theological reticence. Was it because during the Purim feasts many got blind drunk? Or because the sacred writer felt a bit queasy about the bloody revenge? This studious avoidance of divine reference worried the writers of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. Thus they added several extra passages that give the story a more edifying tone. (Your Bible should show them - they are most interesting.) Catholics treat them as Deutero-Canonical, Protestants as Apocrypha…aargh! Forgive that jargon. The point is long ago some pious Jews might have felt there was something not quite kosher about Esther. Later, some rabbis were reluctant to include it in the Bible. By then the questionable Purim feast had become too popular, however. It got in.
Judaism has a perfect right to its own canon of Scriptures and its festivals. (I myself have heard one fine American rabbi who was deeply troubled by our story.) I can only speak as a Christian. So I note that the early Church Fathers virtually ignored the book of Esther. Melito of Sardis and the great Origen excluded it from the Bible. Reformer Martin Luther objected to Esther so much that he wished it did not exist. Ewald, a German theologian, shared that view. He observed that in Esther ‘we fall from heaven to earth’. Quite right. Its vindictive spirit makes the book human, all too awfully human. Because revenge is a natural human passion. But Christianity proclaims a critique of our passions. The Gospel seeks to elevate man from the human to the divine. Humanity was created as a harmonious unity of soul and body and Christian redemption consists in the restoration of that unity, which was dissolved by sin and death. So revenge, never mind how sweet to the lower side of our nature, means a stumbling block to the redemption for which Christ came. When judged by that standpoint, Mordecai and Esther’s characters are deeply flawed. Of course, they were motivated by love of their nation, rather than narrow self-interest. And God’s design was that the Hebrew people were the bearers of the coming Messiah. Although the divine voice is silent throughout Esther, the Queen’s role can be theologised as an essential part of the divine plan. Only in that sense is the book worthy of being Holy Scripture.
The pastor who advised Sarah Palin to model herself on Esther should confess he boobed. The simple truth is that the savage feuds of the Old Testament provide no imitation material for a Christian politician. If Palin really wanted a godly queen as a role model, the priest might suggest Queen Margaret of Scotland. She looked after the poor well. Or even Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. She did a lot to support the Christian cause. We need that more then ever, Sarah!
As for the priest, his own favourite New Testament guy happens to be one of the twelve apostles. St Simon the Zealot. Why? Because he had been a terrorist. Whose heart Christ radically changed. Into becoming a man of God.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli