|Esther: Hero or Heroine?||May 30, 2005|
Esther’s is a story of a woman who faced a truly epic challenge, and in the process of meeting this challenge blossomed into a major political figure at a time when women were savagely belittled and mistreated just to keep them in their place. But in spite of her femininity, Esther was more hero than heroine. Her actions were revolutionary, but they remained sadly defined within the narrow constraints of traditional masculine ideals.
For those needing a refresher, here’s Esther’s sordid tale in a nutshell:
King Ahasuerus of Persia summons one of his wives, Queen Vashti, and she does not come. Fearing for the stability of an empire which tolerates unruly women, the king exiles the disobedient queen and announces a competition to find her replacement. Esther, a comely young Jewish maiden, wins this competition with help from her shrewd cousin Mordacai, all the while concealing her religion.
In the meantime, Esther’s cousin Mordacai has valiantly saved the king’s life by uncovering a sinister plot to assassinate him, and a conniving man named Haman has managed to gain the king’s favor. The king decrees that everyone must bow to Haman, and Mordacai boldly dares to refuse. This refusal is an insult too large for proud Haman to bear. Infuriated, Haman plots a twofold revenge. He plans to execute Mordacai by impaling him, and he bribes the king into allowing a decree to destroy the Persian Jewry. This last deed earns him the epithet “the enemy of the Jews.”
Mordacai escapes execution when the king realizes that it was Mordacai who saved his life by uncovering the assassination plot. But not even Mordacai has enough influence to persuade the king to reverse a decree issued in the king’s noble name. Esther has the inside track, and she must act to save the Jews from certain elimination. To do so, Esther twice approaches the king without having been summoned, both times committing a crime much worse than the previous Queen’s defiance—one that can even trigger the death penalty. Esther must also reveal her Jewishness and thereby risk her own destruction under the very decree she is plotting to overturn.
In the end, Esther’s gambit succeeds. She persuades the king to order Haman’s death by impalement, reverse the previous decree, and decree that the Jews may slay their enemies. Jews everywhere gleefully slaughter their enemies while scrupulously taking no plunder. Everyone left standing lives happily ever after.
The Book of Esther is notoriously the sole book of the Bible that makes no mention of God. It’s characters struggled to fulfill divine wishes, though the divine was never immediately evident in the their lives. There was no theophany or voice from the whirlwind. Like us, Mordacai and Esther were adrift in an ocean of moral ambiguity and had to chart their uncertain course using the word of God and discernment.
Esther represents for us all of the Jews of the Persian diaspora. Though a female, she is their Adam or Everyman. But Esther is also the prototypal women. She is a Persian Jew. This alien and alienated ethnicity underscores the separateness she shares with all women.
Esther’s dramatic elevation began in the most demeaning manner imaginable. The king selected Esther for her looks and her ability to please him for a night. Once she obtained her high place in the Persian court, Esther enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, but she was little more than a chief sex toy. Aside from her lavish lifestyle, Esther held the same low position held by every other woman in the empire. This reflects a deeper tragedy, one that is never touched upon within the story: Esther was born and bred in a culture of systematic oppression. It was all that she or anyone else ever knew.
But when Esther assumed her mantle, she filled the role of the traditional hero type, fusing feminine nurturing traits with the masculine tendency to aggressively exercise power. The traditional hero seeks to nurture or protect good people and to harm bad people. The feminine hero can protect people who are in danger while eschewing unnecessary aggression and avoiding the separatist view of those who put them in danger. The feminine drive to nurture will strive to avoid unnecessarily polarizing labels such as good or bad, words historically bandied about by the masculine to justify the aggressive exercise of power that so often accompanied their protection of others.
I find it sad that Esther had to conform to the masculine prejudices. She was surrounded by men and became a hero on their terms. Neither her story nor her heroism are complete until she secures a gratuitous vengeance for the Jews against their enemies. In a less paternal society, Esther would have been able to save the Jews without requiring the slaughter of so many others, making Esther a true heroine capable of more perfectly feminine heroism.
2,600 years later, we appear to have more opportunities to succeed than ever. But when we succeed, are we heroines or merely heros? Are we doomed to embrace the masculine heroic ideal embodied by Margaret Thatcher or The Bride in Kill Bill or Condoleezza Rice? How should we respond to the fact that heroines such as Hillary Clinton must behave in gratuitously masculine ways in order to gain credibility and appeal to mainstream Americans? Does the notion of aggressive use of power relate to our ideals of heroism within the Church? To what degree is the dominant priesthood culture analogous to the masculine culture of ancient Babylon? Is there a proper place within Mormonism for us as heroines? Are we being true to ourselves if we settle for being heros?