Chapter C

Esther C:

1) Recalling all that the Lord had done, Mordecai prayed to the Lord


COMMENTARY:  When we suffer fear and despair, we can easily forget that anything good ever happened in our lives, or we can feel that the present griefs have swallowed them up.  Yet recalling blessings that have gone before, our own or other people’s, can restore hope. 


I know that when I have experienced the deepest depressions, to the point of wanting to die, it has always helped to remember that I have felt this way before, and yet after that feeling new joy followed, making me glad to be alive again.  I believe that our trials come and go, but the love of God remains permanent, and by holding onto that permanence I can get through the transience of misery.



2) and said: “Lord, Lord, King and Ruler of all, everything is in your power, and there is no one to oppose you when it is your will to save Israel. 3) You made heaven and earth and every wonderful thing under heaven. 4) You are Lord of all, and there is no one who can resist you, the Lord.


COMMENTARY:  So often we who believe in God don’t even realize how huge He is, and limit our vision to mortal capacity.  We think, “God has so much to take care of—how can He even have time for me?”  Or “Surely my prayer will get lost among the billions of prayers going up all over the world!” or “Why bother praying when plainly nobody could possibly do anything about a mess this big?” 


Yet if, as I believe, God is infinite, and capable of making something as enormous as the universe and as tiny as a subatomic particle, then surely He must have infinite attention, infinite memory, an infinite capacity to attend, with great personal interest and compassion, to every mote of His creation, including me.  God does not burn out.  God does not waver in attention.  God does not reach a limit beyond which He is helpless. 


(Granted, He has forbidden Himself to go against free will, but even there He can take whatever evil human beings dish out, compost it, and make something good grow from it anyway.  He does not command the evil, but He makes use of it, in defiance of malice.)


So if you pray, do so with confidence that God has the strength, love, and regard for you to answer.



5) You know all things. You know, Lord, that it was not out of insolence or arrogance or desire for glory that I acted thus in not bowing down to the arrogant Haman.


COMMENTARY:  So we come to another reason that Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes.  To reaffirm his humility in the face of accusations of pride—and perhaps to reinforce it in himself.  St. Thomas More, required to wear finery in the court of Henry VIII, secretly wore a hair shirt under his velvet tunics, to remind himself that all of this show had nothing to do with who he really was, and to keep the pomp from going to his head.


Admittedly, a political motive might also have influenced Mordecai: to try and communicate to Haman, or at least to others at court, that his refusal to bow had nothing to do with arrogance and insolence, or defying Haman personally.



6) I would have gladly kissed the soles of his feet for the salvation of Israel.


COMMENTARY:  This means even more in the Middle East, where merely exposing the sole of one’s foot to others insults them.  And it underlines that Mordecai has no problem with submission per se.


This matters.  Without the above passages of the Deuterocanon, one could rationalize all kinds of arrogance as “refusing to bow” and quote scripture to back it up.



7) But I acted as I did so as not to place the honor of a mortal above that of God. I will not bow down to anyone but you, my Lord. It is not out of arrogance that I am acting thus.


COMMENTARY:  So it was the specific posture of the prostration that Mordecai resisted, because it symbolized worship.  Mordecai may have been, of necessity, a collaborator, but he had his limit.



8) And now, Lord God, King, God of Abraham, spare your people, for our enemies regard us with deadly envy and are bent upon destroying the inheritance that was yours from the beginning. 9) Do not spurn your portion, which you redeemed for yourself out of the land of Egypt.


COMMENTARY:  Inheritance, in this sense, means what belongs to someone.  The people of God belong to God; the creation belongs to the Creator.  It is not the other way around.  Too often we treat our deity like our possession, to perform tricks for us on demand.  When we ask something of God, however, it is wise to understand the true relationship. 


That said, we are not His for abuse or neglect.  If you own a cat, a cow, or a canary, you owe something to these beings who depend on you.  If we believe that God is the source of all justice and goodness, then we must believe that God would know right from wrong in regards to those under His care, and would choose right.  So Mordecai invokes the bond between Creator and Creature.



10) Hear my prayer; have pity on your inheritance and turn our mourning into feasting, that we may live to sing praise to your name, Lord. Do not silence the mouths of those who praise you.”


COMMENTARY:  The courtier-side of Mordecai couldn’t help but add this appeal to vanity!  God, of course, does not need our praise, any more than the sun needs the unfolding of a leaf that spreads to receive its rays.  Praising God benefits us.  Our ability to feel happiness depends on gratitude, and praising our Creator provides a good way to feel that gratitude.  It also helps by putting things in perspective, to believe in a Higher Power with vaster resources having a vested interest in our well-being and the overall benefit of the planet—it’s not all on us.  I for one feel more confident if I see my life as part of a greater plan.



11) All Israel, too, cried out with all their strength, for death was staring them in the face.


COMMENTARY:  I find this verse human and moving.



12) Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, fled to the Lord for refuge.


COMMENTARY:  Esther has made her decision to join Mordecai in prayer and devotion to the God of Israel, even though she could have dodged the risk by continuing to hide her heritage (in effect renouncing it by default) staying docile, and hoping that the secret never slip out.  I think we’ve all known people, historically or personally, who have done just that—shed their heritage, nature, ethics and/or religion in order to blend in or enjoy the perks of the ruling class, or the in crowd—living in fear that somebody might find out their secret.  And yet their bid for security makes them perpetually insecure, vulnerable to blackmail.  And they always have something missing inside.  But it is the easiest, most passive way to get through life; one can even slip into it by accident.


I have a lot of white blood, and blue eyes; I could pass for unmixed white.  In many circles it is much better to be Indian than Mexican; I could simply not mention that my mother’s people came from Sonora.  I am a liberal; I could pass for pro-choice.  I am a Catholic; I could stay silent about my animism.  I am an animist; I could stay silent about my Catholicism.  I sometimes hang out with Protestants; I could let them mistake me for a Protestant.  I travel often in secular circles; I could conceal my faith and mysticism among those who deride such things.  I love to engage in intellectual debates among academics; I could just let them assume that I have a degree.  I have many middle-class friends; I could pretend that I didn’t grow up working-class.


All of these little deceptions would make my life easier...for a little while.  And I could rationalize it all so easily, saying that I didn’t actually tell a lie, I just allowed people to assume what they wanted to assume.  Except that when you pass, sooner or later someone tells a joke about your kind and expects you to laugh along, or deplores your category and expects you to join in, and if you’ve made a habit of passing, you will find yourself doing what others expect of you.  At that point the little deceptions cross the line, and you cannot go back without publicly admitting your deceit.  And you can no longer pretend that you haven’t betrayed your own and yourself.


You probably have a different list, but we all have temptations to pass for something we are not, and lose something of who we are in the process.  It often seems as if it would be easier to put on the mask of someone else.  But the mask can suffocate.



13) Taking off her splendid garments, she put on garments of distress and mourning. In place of her precious ointments she covered her head with dung and ashes. She afflicted her body severely and in place of her festive adornments, her tangled hair covered her.


COMMENTARY:  This is extreme, even by ancient standards.  But it shows the intensity of her emotion.  She makes graphic the secret disgust that she has always felt for her situation—for it wasn’t of her choosing.  If covering one’s head with dung seems crazy (and probably is) this poor girl has had more than enough to drive her crazy, as we shall see.  Traumatized people often do self-destructive things, and feel degraded when they’ve done nothing wrong.


Mystics also sometimes go to extremes to counteract extremes elsewhere that threaten to upset the balance of the world.  I remember feeling horrified to read of a saint who spent years crammed into a crack of rock, without enough room to move.  But then I read that in his day his emperor devoted himself to brutally grabbing more and more territory for himself.  Somebody, on some level, had to answer that, and this saint felt moved to do so by claiming as little territory for himself as he possibly could.



14) Then she prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel, saying: “My Lord, you alone are our King. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,


COMMENTARY:  At this point she realizes that she doesn’t even have Mordecai, disfavored in the court and threatened with death.



15) for I am taking my life in my hand.


COMMENTARY:  Sometimes exposing who you really are literally puts your life on the line.  And the wise know that the unauthentic life is not worth living—better to die as yourself than to drag on as an imitation of something else.  And yet we can so easily give away this precious gift of who we are, not even for survival, but for a moment’s acceptance, even among empty people who have lost themselves before they urge us to follow suit!



16) From birth, I have heard among my people that you, Lord, chose Israel from among all nations, and our ancestors from among all their forebears, as a lasting inheritance, and that you fulfilled all your promises to them. 17) But now we have sinned in your sight, and you have delivered us into the hands of our enemies, 18) because we worshiped their gods. You are just, O Lord.


COMMENTARY:  This is, as we have seen in other books of the Deuterocanon, the post-exilic narrative.



19) But now they are not satisfied with our bitter servitude, but have sworn an oath to their idols 20) to do away with the decree you have pronounced, to destroy your inheritance, to close the mouths of those who praise you, to extinguish the glory of your house and your altar, 21) to open the mouths of the nations to acclaim their worthless gods, and to extol a mortal king forever. 22) Lord, do not relinquish your scepter to those who are nothing. Do not let our foes gloat over our ruin, but turn their own counsel against them and make an example of the one who began this against us.


COMMENTARY:  The deity of the Jews and the pantheon of those around them had quite a bit of similarities, and some of the tales might have sprung from the same source.  The feature that the Jews felt distinguished their deity was in not needing physical representation in a human work, and His followers not confusing the God with the depiction.  The wisdom books of the Deuterocanon will look at idolatry more closely—what it is, what understandable human inclinations give rise to it, and what the Jews saw wrong with it.


This matters, because many today who decry what they see as idolatry in others practice it themselves, and many accused of it do not.  The nature of idolatry needs clarified!


But for now suffice that Jewish contempt for it, and Esther’s disgust at “worthless gods” came, at least in part, from their enslavement in Egypt.  The slaves were forced not only to take care of their living masters, and their monumental building projects, but also to feed, bathe, clothe and take care of the household idols, at the same time as meals, baths, dressing and bedtimes occurred for the human beings—basically doubling their duties.  And they did not believe that any deity actually inhabited these works of clay and wood, but that didn’t matter; they had to go through the labors anyway or get beaten. 

The words for the labor of the Israelites in Egypt, in the Bible, have been translated into the Christian versions much too mildly; the original Hebrew has special words for “crushing labor”—the kind of work that can break someone and is in fact intended to.  To add idol-sitting on top of that made it all the more cruel.  More and more I’m learning about how widespread acts of oppression against a targeted group can traumatize a people for generations; this was the trauma of the Jews.



23) Be mindful of us, Lord. Make yourself known in the time of our distress and give me courage, King of gods and Ruler of every power.


COMMENTARY:  Esther needs courage right now more than any other virtue.  The pressure on her to submit, no matter what, has been terrible, even deforming; now she must find it in her to do the opposite.



24) Put in my mouth persuasive words in the presence of the lion, and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy, so that he and his co-conspirators may perish. 25) Save us by your power, and help me, who am alone and have no one but you, Lord.


COMMENTARY:  How often have I thought that I had to rely on my own words!  And how often has that gotten me in trouble!  But the more I pray for guidance in my words, daily in the morning plus again before especially delicate situations, the better things work out.  It helps me to remember that it’s not all on me.  By myself I am a finite resource, soon expended.  But, as I believe, I or anyone can tap into the infinite beyond myself.



26) “You know all things. You know that I hate the pomp of the lawless, and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised or of any foreigner.


COMMENTARY:  And now we come to it.  Esther is indeed a rape victim.  The selection of a queen might have been more courteous than your typical rape, it might have carried on an illusion of courtship, but in the end she had no say in the matter, in a match abhorrent to her culture.  (Keep in mind that “Foreigner” here means someone who does not worship the same deity or keep the same customs as her; it is not a racial distinction.)  She wasn’t even supposed to marry outside her tribe within Israel, according to the beliefs of her day, let alone marry the conquering enemy of her people. 


And even if this barrier didn’t exist, she just plain doesn’t like Ahasuerus—he’s pompous and lawless.  And yet, against her will, she must have sex with him—as often as he wants it.  She’s expected not only to service him on demand, but also to bear his children, and brace herself to see them raised outside of her heritage, to become in turn new oppressors for her people.  She lives in a chronic state of rape.


Without this chapter the Book of Esther seems like the story of a privileged woman who has decided to use her position to save Israel.  Courage can come easily to the privileged; they have not had anything shake their confidence.  But instead we have a woman beaten down, grown accustomed to daily degradation and erosion of her will, frightened of the consequences of resistance.  Her deeds become much greater in that light.



27) You know that I am under constraint, that I abhor the sign of grandeur that rests on my head when I appear in public. I abhor it like a polluted rag, and do not wear it in private.


COMMENTARY:  “Polluted rag” is a euphemism for a sanitary napkin.  Menstruation itself, though accounted “unclean”, did not repulse the Israelites.  For evidence take the name of Edna, mother-in-law of Tobias.  I only recently learned that “Edna”, a popular Jewish name, means both “menstruation” and “pleasure”, the connection being that menses signaled womanhood and the ability to enjoy sex.


But nobody wants to keep a sanitary napkin around once one is done with it!  It’s something that one has to deal with for a time and which one quickly gets rid of when one can.  In the same way Esther wants quit of the ornaments that glorify her degradation, making it appear respectable even as a sanitary napkin protects one’s outer garments, one’s appearance, from stain.


We’ve touched on the concept of “uncleanness” before as the unavoidable encounters one has with life-loss on some scale—for instance, the end of fertility in menstruation (and departure from the body of blood, which Jews see as a loss of something sacred.)  It is not something to be punished but to be healed, in ritual purification.  Esther’s life has become chronically drained by her unwilling marriage and position.


(Interesting, the layers of meaning in the original words.  Does pleasure require that we allow some degree of loss, in order, in the long run, to be made still more full of life?  After all, every door we open closes some other door—we always have to let go of something to have something.  But if we choose nothing at all, holding onto all possibilities perpetually, we never become pregnant with the joys of a tangible future.)



28) I your servant, have never eaten at the table of Haman, nor have I graced the banquet of the king or drunk the wine of libations.


COMMENTARY:  Apparently Ahasuerus did learn something from his attempt to command his first wife to join him!  But Esther must have managed some tricky maneuvering to avoid eating ritually taboo food in his palace.


Regarding the “wine of libations”, that would mean an urn of wine from which a portion had been drawn to pour before the altar of one of Ahasuerus’s deities, before sharing the rest with the company.  To drink of it would signify worshiping that deity.



29) From the day I was brought here till now, your servant has had no joy except in you, Lord, God of Abraham.


COMMENTARY:  All of her seeming good fortune is, in fact, a bitter charade.  Does she say this to steel herself to the possibility of death?



30) O God, whose power is over all, hear the voice of those in despair. Save us from the power of the wicked, and deliver me from my fear.”


COMMENTARY:  Fear has dominated her life up till now.  It has weighed in on her every decision, including the decision not to decide. 


Notice the two separate things:  “Save us from the power of the wicked” (“us” meaning save her people, through her) and “Deliver me from my fear”, herself alone, not asking that God save her life if her death saves the others, but only that she be delivered from the fear that rules her days and makes her sacrifice so hard, after everything that she has endured in order to survive.


One additional thought has come to me since posting this. 
Mordecai and Esther have this much in common--that they have both been forced, sexually, to violate the taboos of their people--he by suffering castration and she by being forced into this unwilling marriage. So this is not only about their courage, but also about not judging people who have, in our eyes, been, apparently, "degraded" by circumstances beyond their control--especially those who outwardly appear to have profited from it. We don't know what they cry out to God behind closed doors.

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