The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Purim Principles

[Reflections on the story of Esther as portrayed in the Feb 24 DUUC sermon]

I didn't really know much about the Jewish Purim holiday prior yesterday's service. Afterward, I have more questions than answers. Let's see if that works out better for me now than it did during my fundamentalist Christian upbringing.

The first part of the story is about the king wanting to have his (attractive) wife parade around in front of his court buddies to show her off like a piece of meat. [I don't remember if this was mentioned in the sermon, but in the original story the king is "merry with wine" at the time.] The wife, Vashti, does not comply, and the king strips her of her crown and banishes her. [In the original text, this is decreed in such a way that all husbands are designated as rulers in their homes, and all wives are to honor their husbands.]

My reaction (with apologies to Mel Brooks): "Good to be the king!"
Emmy Lou's commentary (as I heard it): This was Vashti's own fault. She may have been within her rights to assert herself, but those rights were nullified by her lack of people skills.
My question: doesn't this demonstrate a spectacular level of inequality and sexism, and shouldn't we be taking Vashti's side unequivocally?

Next, the king orders the kingdom's virgins to be arrayed before him so that he can choose a replacement queen using a process of visual inspection.

My reaction: (see previous)
My question: (do I even need to ask?)

The king chooses Mordecai's cousin, Esther, as his new queen.

My reaction: Yay, Esther!! Way to... be... the prettiest virgin?
My questions: Is this one of those things that we just have to accept as being part of the times in which the story was set? Like animal sacrifice, or slavery? (Because God is powerless to affect social changes at a rate faster than humans can work them out on their own?) And if you're female and not the prettiest virgin, are you just [euphemism for not being a virgin any more]?

Ok, this is all setup for the main story line, so maybe we don't need to pay much attention. Now things get interesting. The king's minister, Haman (queue vociferous shaking of mac&cheese packages) is vexed because Mordecai, in accordance with Jewish tradition, does not bow down in Haman's presence.

My reaction: Whatever, every story needs a villain and some conflict.
My questions: Presumably Mordecai doesn't bow for the king either, so why does this bother Haman and not the king? And presumably Esther doesn't bow for either of them, so why is it only Mordecai who gets noticed? Or, because Mordecai had instructed Esther to conceal her Jewish identity, maybe Esther DID bow down (and thereby violated Jewish law, but was never punished, so maybe that particular law wasn't really all that important?)

ANYWAY, Haman decides to use Mordecai's obduracy as a pretext to petition the king to issue a decree (which he does) ordering the killing of all members of  "a certain people" (without mentioning Jews by name), along with the confiscation of all their property for deposit in the royal treasury.

My reaction: Obvious Hitler parallel. 
My question: No question, this seems plainly immoral, and (spoiler alert) Haman eventually meets his end. But how the heck does the king issue a blanket execution decree against "a certain people" without knowing who they are? Is he not the least bit curious? Does he allow any other ministers to issue blanket execution decrees, or just Haman?

Once Esther learns of this decree, she

  • asks all the Jews to fast for three days, and 
  • sets in motion a plan to have a series of banquets for the king and Haman. (The fact that no other court officials were invited to these banquets stokes Haman's ego and reveals Esther's people skills.) 

Meanwhile, Haman builds a massive gallows in his front yard on which he intends to hang Mordecai.

At the same time, the king

  • learns that Mordecai had once saved his life
  • asks Haman what reward would be fitting for someone who had saved the king's life, and
  • orders Haman to provide the reward he had suggested (thinking it was for himself) to Mordecai.

My reaction: Ok, having Haman being forced to shower Mordecai with rewards is a reasonably clever plot twist.
My questions: What is the fasting for? Why are the Jews supposed to fast, when Haman and the king are the only ones who will be feasting? Will the fasting hide their Jewishness and help them fit in better? 
How does a gallows in your front yard impact the resale value of your property, especially (another spoiler alert, sorry) with you hanging from it? 
And what is it with the women always in charge of the food?

At the second feast day, Esther reveals to the king that his blanket execution decree is actually against Jews, and that she herself is a Jew. The king asks who is responsible for this decree, and Esther identifies Haman. The king has Hamon hanged on the very gallows he (Hamon) had build for Mordecai, on his front lawn.

My reaction: Cliche, the plot is revealed, justice is done, blah blah...
My questions: Is Esther still a virgin at this point in the story? If not, couldn't she have used some influence other than culinary arts to get an audience with the king? (If she is still a virgin, is there something about "biblical marriage" that we're not being told?) And at the risk of repetitiousness, how much wine has this king had that he doesn't know that he has ordered mass executions?

In the sermon, the story ends when the king -- being unable to alter prior decrees -- issues a followup decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves, and everyone lives happily ever after.

In the full biblical story, the followup decree gives Jews the right to conduct preemptive murder against would-be attackers, and... well, let me quote the source: "And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them. Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them." And then Esther asked that the (already dead) bodies of Haman's ten sons be strung up on the gallows in Hamon's front yard, and asked for the Jews to be allowed to keep killing for a second day, and then they had several days of feasting. Mordecai became the king's right-hand man, and to this day the celebration of Purim is held every year on the 14th day of Adar. The end.

My reaction to the sermon: The ending seems much tamer than most such Old Testament stories. Also, EL made the initial point that Vashti was somehow at fault for not being as subtle and manipulative (my interpretation, not her exact words) as Esther had been in speaking truth to power. Then later, when discussing the tactics of elder women she remembered from her youth, she seemed to reverse herself and suggest that women should be able to speak truth to power more directly, with less use of feminine wiles (again, my interpretation, not necessarily her words.) 
My reaction to the full text:  Oh yeah, THERE'S the biblical morality I've come to expect.
My questions: The king cannot change a decree? Seriously? The ONLY possible solution was to issue a counter-decree authorizing preemptive murder-at-will? And once the two offsetting decrees were in place, why did the Jews seem to have the upper hand? Did the Jews massively outnumber the gentiles back then (in which case, why was Mordecai the only one caught not bowing?) Were Jews naturally bigger and stronger than gentiles in those days, or better with weapons? And what does it mean that the Jews "did what they would" to those that hated them? (Esther 9:5) First they smote them with swords, then with slaughter, then with destruction, and THEN they "did what they would"?!?

Regarding the speaking of truth to power, can this be done directly (with all possible civility, of course), or must some level of subterfuge  be involved? If subterfuge is deemed necessary, are there any rules on how far it can be taken? If Vashti's direct approach was in the right, what does it mean that the story seems to approve of her dismissal?

What moral lessons are we to learn from this? "If you are the prettiest virgin in the land, you can ask the king to release you from one immoral edict by issuing another immoral edict, as long as you serve him dinner and liquor him up first"?  Why is this a better source of moral guidance than, say, Aesop's Fables or Grimm's Fairy Tales?


  1. Interesting blog. I think the reason young Jewish boys and girls like this story is a) you get to wear a princess/queen dress costume or king costume, possibly cross-dress, and make lots of noise in a place where parents tend to shhhhh you, and b) finally, there is a female with some power, and some kind of justice for a Jew, in a world of tiresome persecution. Yes, like much of the bible, it is riddled with contradictions, sexism, amoral decrees, and often ridiculous requirements (the prettiest virgin--OY!), but I liked Emmy Lou's focus on the need to speak up to power.

  2. Speaking of cross-dressing, Jon Stewart may not always comport himself to the letter of the seven principles, but these clips are uncannily timely:



  3. Many scholars believe that the story of Esther is historical fiction -- a tale with a suspect story line that accurately describes customs and notable figures of the time. One custom was to treat women as property, which is what makes this story remarkable: It features brave acts performed by two women. At the risk of death for challenging the king, Vashti defies her husband to defend her principles. Esther, too, risks her life to advocate for her fellow Jews. I may be all wet, but I believe the purpose of this story is to highlight the importance of defending one's values even, sometimes, at risk of harm.

    1. Many scholars believe that much of the bible is historical fiction, from the creation story to the exodus story to the miracles throughout. The purpose of these stories often seems to be a Rorshach test where readers "find" the meaning they were looking for before they started reading. If the moral of this particular story is the importance of defending one's values, it strikes me that there is a great deal of "noise" that must be waded through (condoned sexism, condoned slaughter, etc.) before stumbling across the desired message. Of course, it's all subjective. To me, the "defend one's values" message is a minor eddy in the larger whirlpool of misogyny and slaughter.

      Perhaps the appeal of this holiday will diminish over time, similarly to how Columbus Day is losing its luster as people become aware of the atrocities he participated in after discovering the new world. In any case, we can do better. MLK. Ghandi. Aren't their stories at least as impressive as Esther's, without all the retributive slaughter?

    2. Your perspective is an interesting one, and I don't disagree. The bible is full of misogyny and slaughter and contradictions as well. For example, god commands: "You shall not murder" yet commands murder on many occasions. I cannot reconcile the contradictions and so I pick and choose what to believe. Nevertheless, when I consider the time during which the Book of Esther was written, I find it remarkable that the brave acts of two women were noted.


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