The book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts the genocide of her people. Though it’s read aloud in synagogue each year, the reading is accompanied by so much raucous celebration that I never paid close attention to the details. I listened for Esther’s and her cousin Mordechai’s names so I could cheer, and I listened for the evil Haman’s name so I could shake my noisemaker and boo. The costumes, treats, drunkenness—the experience of the Purim holiday celebration—distracted me from the intricacies of the story.
I thought the story was a simple one: a beautiful Jewish girl wins the king and saves her people with the encouragement of her cousin. I couldn’t understand why it took so long to read. Each year, about a quarter of the way through the reading, my thoughts had already sped ahead to hamentashen, wine and dancing.
To see what was delaying the final phase of the party, I started to read along. Later, I read it again on my own. I was confused. Esther didn’t seem like a true heroine. She seemed to be an indecisive girl who would have allowed the genocide of her people if not for Mordeachai’s harsh prodding. Beauty and obedience are the only assets mentioned. In fact, the king’s choice of Esther from among all the virgins is summed up, “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins,” leaving us to look for the description of her up to this point that may have made her attractive to him. The most telling description of her seems to be that she was “shapely and beautiful.” Beyond that, we have only her deference to the wisdom of Hegai, “She did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch and guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won the admiration of all who saw her…” and her deference to Moredechai, “But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.”
When she finally does disobey a man, it’s not due to a new strength and independence. It’s due to cowardice. Mordecai instructs her to go to the king to reveal that she’s a Jew and ask for her people’s lives. She responds that going before the king without being invited is an offense that is punishable by death. Mordechai, upon learning that saving her people is not enough of a reward for risking her life, tells her, “Do not imagine that you, or all the Jews, will escape with your life… if you keep silent… you and your father’s house will perish.” It is only then that she decides that she will go to the king, and issues the most famous quote from the story, “…if I am to perish, I shall perish!”
To answer this question, I dove more deeply into the story. What I discovered was that on the face of them, a number of Esther’s choices don’t make sense. Beneath the surface, however, is an Esther who is strategic and cunning.