Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reflections on Esther

So yesterday I had a plane ride from Michigan to Boston, and I decided to take the time to catch up on some Bible reading. For no particular reason I decided to look at the book of Esther, which I hadn't read before.

This is about a Jewish girl in Persia during the period of the Persian rule over Israel (the Persians had conquered Israel from the Babylonians, as Isaiah had foretold). After the Persian queen Vashti falls out of favor, Esther wins a beauty contest and becomes the next queen of Persia. She finds out about a plot by the emperor's evil minister Haman to commit genocide against the Jews, and she thwarts the plot and saves her people. It's really a good read. If you do read it, you should read the longer, Catholic/Orthodox version which includes several chapters not included in most Protestant bibles. These chapters are among the best in the book, and their beauty alone indicates that the Catholics, Orthodox and Eastern churches were right to keep them.

People read the Old Testament in different ways. Personally I don't get hung up on which parts of the Old Testament are literal fact: I read it not as a textbook of history, biology, or paleontology, but as an inspired work written by fallible men whose function, for Christians, is to prophecy Christ. I read the Old Testament only in light of the New, for the light that it casts upon the story of Christ. Jonah wasn't really swallowed by 'a big fish', and his story isn't simply a fable about interreligious tolerance, though it is that too: rather it is a remarkable prophecy of Christ. It was with this 'typological' interpretation in mind that I read the book, and was struck by how many remarkable parallels it has with the story of Salome in the Gospels. Salome, of course, used for evil ends the power that Esther used for good.

This parallel came to my mind when I noticed the promise that Xerxes makes to Esther, reminiscent of the promise Herod Antipas makes to Salome: "Ask for anything and I will grant it, even unto the half of my kingdom."The story of Salome, like the story of Esther, shows us the power that sexuality carries with it, and the power that love has to rule over the actions of men. As Rousseau acknowledges in the 'Discource on the Origins of Inequality", even in a communistic state where men no longer have wealth and resources to fight over, they will still fight over love. Salome, like Esther, was a woman of great beauty who used her beauty to advantage. But the difference, of course, is that while Esther used her power to bring life, and to succour the suffering, Salome used hers to bring death. The true God is a god of life, who made himself incarnate "that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). The evil power, whatever name we call him by, is a power who loves death.

Here is another difference. Xerxes truly loved his queen, and physical attraction was intermixed with tenderness and affection. When she approaches him with fear and trembling, he responds with gentle kindness: "And the queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from the throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. And he comforted her with soothing words..." (Esther 15:7-8). Few things lead us to feel tenderness and solicitude more than to see the vulnerability and tenderness of those who suffer. The sight of anyone who suffers- a crying baby, a fearful child, a forlorn adult man or woman crushed by poverty, sickness, or oppression- leads us out of ourselves, into empathy and sympathy. And to be brought out of ourselves is the beinning of virtue, and wisdom. In this way God brings good out of evil: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but [he was born blind] that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). How many of us have been asked for food, or for money, by an adult and been overcome by cynicism, but then when we see that they have a hungry child with them have changed our mind? Again, "Though he will not get up and give him anything because he is is friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise up and give him what he needs" (Luke 11:8). This is one reason that Christ became man, so that those who were unready to love a distant and absolute heavenly king might be touched, and their hearts moved, by the sight of a wandering carpenter nailed to a cross. Incidentally, one line from this scene, "The law was not made for thee, but for all others" (Esther 15:13) has been interpreted as a prophecy that St. Mary would be conceived free from original sin; for if we understand the law in its broadest sense, as having to do with sin and its consequence, then this line is foretelling that at least one human person would someday be born without original sin, and that would be the Mother of God.

In the love of Xerxes for Esther, then, we see both spiritual and physical elements: and most of all, we see how through love, physical desires are transformed and ennobled into something spiritual. For the sake of his love, Xerxes became the vehicle of the protection and deliverance of the Jews. Through his story we see how romantic love can be added to and converted into something greater. Like Severus Snape, Xerxes was saved through his ability to feel love, and his love led him to realize the enormity of what he had done. Contrariwise, in the passion of Herod for Salome was pure and unadorned lust, and the worst and most unnatural form of it. Esther was a child of adoption, her cousin created a family where there had not been one before. Herod's desire for Salome was, of course, incestuous, and in this sense it was a violation of the very institution of the family. More than that, actually: it was triply incestuous for she was his distant cousin, his neice, and also his stepdaughter. The fact that consanguineous relations are a crime against the very notion of the family, and that they corrode filial affection (filia) by converting it into something lower, is the reason this is considered, cross culturally, to be the worst and most unspeakable of all crimes. Where Mordecai built a family, Herod destroyed one, and in so doing he mirrored the destruction of innumerable families that his father had been responsible for at Bethlehem during the massacre of the holy innocents.

Herod, like Xerxes, was a man torn between good and evil. Xerxes, remember, signed his name to the irrevocable order for genocide before his love for Esther made him think better of it. And Herod, too, had some vague sense of who St. John the Baptist was, and even who Christ was. He had refused his wife's request to kill John, "knowing that he was a righteous and holy man", and fearing the consequences (Mark 6:20). And he had a strange fascination with Christ too, for when He was on trial for his life Herod summoned him to talk to him: "He was very glad, for he had long desired to see him...and he was hoping to see some sign done by him" (Luke 23:8). Oscar Wilde, for all that he shocked Victorian England with his lifestyle, was at heart a Christian all his life, not just when he converted on his deathbed, and his portrait of Herod in the play "Salome" is a dark, haunting vision of a man who knows that e is doing evil, has some vague and instinctual sense of what good and evil are, but somehow cannot stop himself from going over the edge, and laments at the end, "I have committed a great crime against some unknown god." Herod, who had allowed himself to pervert and corrupt true love- through fratricide and incest- at long last, faced with the choice of good and evil chose evil: Xerxes, caught between good and evil, chose good. When the round table breaks, as C.S. Lewis said, all men must choose the side of Galahad or of Mordred.

The last thing I'd note about Esther is that it indicates, perhaps, that today's incessant arguments about gay marriage, and some of the other sexual issues, are perhaps missing the point. Clearly, going by sacred scripture, by natural law, and by tradition, God is not a big fan either of polygamy or of divorce: "Whosoever puts away his wife, saving for adultery, causes her to commit adultery" (Matthew 5:32). They are sins, and I would be happy to condemn them. Yet in spite of that, he was able to work through Xerxes' polygamous marriage following a divorce, and to use it for his ends. Xerxes should not have divorced Vashti, and he shouldn't have married a whole slew of different women: but given his sins, God was still willing to infuse his marriage to Esther with love and affection, and to use that love and affection to make Xerxes a new and better person, and to save him from becoming an accomplice to genocide. If God could work through and ennoble a divorced polygamous marriage, which we generally agree is sin, then why could he not work through a gay relationship, or an unmarried relationship, which not all of us are even sure if they are sins? The story of Esther, finally, tells me that God is ultimately more concerned about the content of a romantic and sexual relationship, and of whether it is characterized by love and by self-giving, then by the form. "For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Domine Jesu Christi, Fili Dei, miserere mei peccatoris. Amen.

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