Tag Archives: Persian Empire

A Game of Thrones: Esther 5:1-8


Esther 5: 1-8

On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace. 2 As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor and he held out to her the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3 The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” 4 Then Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet that I have prepared for the king.” 5 Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, so that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet that Esther had prepared. 6 While they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 7 Then Esther said, “This is my petition and request: 8 If I have won the king’s favor, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I will prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.”

In George R.R. Martin’s book, The Game of Thrones,  there is a scene where Ned Stark reveals the knowledge that will eventually get him killed to Cercei who simply replies back to him, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” which proved true for Ned and many others throughout the series of books. In Esther, Esther and Haman (unknowingly) are playing a game of thrones and while I don’t want to draw to close of a line between Esther and Cercei (who is a character despised by most readers of The Game of Thrones), she does understand the game she is playing and she plays her part very well here.

Much is at risk for her and her people here, and so she prepares carefully and plays cautiously. Unlike Vashti who refused to go to the wear the royal crown before the king, Esther adorns herself in royalty before approaching the king. It is not a fair world in which she must make her appearance and the image of the golden scepter would probably be rich territory for someone wanting to interpret this from either a feminist or Freudian position, but suffice to say the king’s authority compared to the queen’s is significantly different and the game she must play is real and dangerous (especially in a world where rulers have good reason to be paranoid, even of family). The king gives her leave to approach, let’s her know figuratively (no one really expects him to give up half his kingdom, and this also occurs in Mark 6:23 and parallels with Herod Antipas) but as a reassurance to make her request. The king realizes that Esther would not have risked approaching this way without a reason and so he attempt to reassure her.

In our world we would ask as soon as the possibility came, we are impatient for games-and we would not survive long with our impatience in the ancient Near East (and I would hazard a guess that this continues to be a problem with the interaction between Western and Middle Eastern societies where the rules of interaction are much different-in even modern Middle Eastern societies one never makes one’s major request right away). Esther invites the king and Haman to a banquet, and the king gladly attends giving indication that he is disposed to concede to Esther’s request. Once again, when he is once again drinking wine the king asks again what her request is, and Esther’s reply is indeed shrewd. If I have won your favor, fulfill this request (coming to a banquet with Haman tomorrow) and I will indeed know that I can safely lay my petition before you because you have truly shown me your favor. She has played her hand well in the game of thrones, in a matter of life and death for her people, and Haman is unaware (again the sign of a well played hand) that the game is being played in this way, indeed he views his presence as a sign of his increased honor, but he has just been played.

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The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders: Esther 4: 9-17

Altas Sculpture on a building on Collins Street, Melbourne

Altas Sculpture on a building on Collins Street, Melbourne

Esther 4: 9-17

 9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law– all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

A young person is thrust into a life or death situation, and while I may disagree with Mordecai (and perhaps Esther might too) that she personally might have been able to avoid the ordered purge, the personal and emotional consequences of not speaking, of not acting would be high indeed. The risks are great and now the young person in a life or death situation has to muster their courage to act. Esther apparently is trying to let Mordecai know the reasons she shouldn’t go: she hasn’t been summoned for 30 days (her influence is small), the boundaries between even the king and the queen are great, and the consequences could involve death. The story revolves on the irony that one queen refuses to come when summoned and then for her act of rebellion is exiled and now the new queen must come when not summoned and risk death. Mordecai pushes her, through Hathach the messenger, that she must act but we see a transformation taking place: the once pliant Esther now gives orders, she will go but all the Jews are to fast for three days first. Mordecai goes and obeys, the one who raised her now must rely on her for action.

In contrast to the King and Hamath who feast while the city is confused around them, Mordecai and Esther fast. The King may end up being the one who provides a way for the salvation of the people, but ultimately it will depend upon who the king will listen to. Even though God is not mentioned there is an element of providence or fate in the story, and most readers know how the story will end, but one of Jesus’ proverbs plays itself out in this story: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (in Luke’s gospel this occurs in Luke 14: 11 and 18:14, it also has a Matthean parallel)

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Waiting on the World to Change: Esther 4:1-8

Job by Leon Bonnat (1880)

Job by Leon Bonnat (1880)

Esther 4: 1-8

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

 4 When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.


John Mayer’s song ‘Waiting on the World to Change’ tells the story of a person who may see what is going on but feels powerless to change it (Mayer’s song is set in the context of post 9-11 America and a critique of American foreign policy that the artist feels powerless to change). Here is a part of the lyrics:

Now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door
And when you trust your television what you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information,oh, they can bend it all they want
That’s why we’re waiting, waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change
It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair
So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change.

Mordecai is powerless to change what Haman has done, he finds himself with few options other than mourning and waiting on the world to change. God’s action is never mentioned in the book of Esther, nor is the word God or prayer ever mentioned, but to the Hebrew mind God is at work behind and through the nations as well as the Jewish people and God can be swayed by mourning and repentance, for example the people of Ninevah in the book of Jonah who put on sackcloth and ashes and God changes God’s mind about the disaster God planned to bring on them. Here God is not the instigator of the coming disaster, and yet perhaps in the wailing, rending of clothes and wearing sack cloth and ashes God might hear the distress of his people and respond (although the action is focused on Mordecai, we also learn that many of the Jews are also mourning publicly).

We also get a window into boundaries that are set around people in society, no one can enter the king’s gate in sack cloth. Esther, though she is literally writhing inside (the word translated deeply distressed) can not or will not risk going out to Mordecai who was like a father to her, but rather tries to alleviate his pain and bring him (properly clothed and cleaned up) inside the palace. The entire conversation is strained because it is not direct, messages are relayed back and forth by Hathach. One of the interesting notes is that both Esther and Mordecai are apparently literate (which would not be the norm ) because Mordecai is able to pass on the written decree for her to read (or perhaps some scribe would read it for her-but she has been a queen for five years, perhaps she has been taught).
Esther has been the obedient one throughout the story, obedient to Mordecai, obedient to Hegai the king’s eunuch, obedient to the king and now she as a young woman is at a point where she will have to make choices that will impact both her and potentially her entire people.

Since the book of Esther is the book that is read during the book of Purim, it is helpful to know what Purim is all about. It began at sundown yesterday and so there have been a number of helpful articles in the past week.  I have linked to Eitan Press’ helpful article in the Huffington Post ‘Purim: How to Get Drunk on God’. Here is another from Deborah Rosenbloom also in the Huffington Post ‘Purim: A Tale of Women’s Empowerment’

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Bureaucracy and Collusion: Esther 3:12-15

Ring stone bearing the Aramaic name mirror-imaged Yishak bar Hanina, excavated from Zafar/al-Asabi/Yemen

Ring stone bearing the Aramaic name mirror-imaged Yishak bar Hanina, excavated from Zafar/al-Asabi/Yemen

Esther 3: 12-15

 12 Then the king’s secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. 13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. 14 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. 15 The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.

                 Genocide does not happen without collusion. The letters and orders can be given, but if nobody carries them out they are merely words on paper. The danger is that oftentimes people are all too willing to participate in the elimination of another people. A people may be scapegoated as the cause of every problem and demonized to be something less than human. People may hide behind the desire to ‘follow orders’ and yet without people following the order to kill and plunder, it does not happen. Haman and the king sit down to drink while the city that surrounds them is confused, “what’s going on, why the Jewish people?” The advisors may know, but most people appear to be caught off guard. Certainly some will pounce on the opportunity to destroy, kill and annihilate men, women and children and plunder their goods, others will merely stand aside, others may attempt to stand with the Jewish people, but the die is cast, the plan is set in motion, the danger is real. Genocide is set in motion by the hatred of one man, but will need the collusion (both of those who actively participate and who passively do not oppose)of many others to actually occur.

Somebody will need to do something to deliver the Jewish people, the exiles and wanderers in the midst of the empire of the day. Even in the midst of their assimilation they are singled out for extermination. The story is at its turning point, and the lives of the people will rely on the actions of a young queen and her uncle Mordecai.

This reminds me of Martin Niemőller’s quote from World War II Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

  This from a man who was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, who would spend seven years in a concentration camps but would still feel years later in 1964:

“Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself

The quotes come from the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

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Rolling the Dice: Esther 3: 7-11

Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice, 6th Century BCE Greecian Pottery

Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice, 6th Century BCE Greecian Pottery

Esther 3: 7-11

 7 In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur– which means “the lot”– before Haman for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” 10 So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

The dice are rolled, the lot is cast for the date that will come to be Purim. It will be a day of reversals, but at this point in the story it is foreshadowed as a date that will bring disaster to the Jewish people. The king once again receives bad advice from an advisor, advice that will have long lasting consequences and the king never once asks a question or attempts to probe Haman’s motives. The king trusts Haman and is willing for an enormous pile of money (a ridiculous sum, 375 tons of silver, this is roughly 2/3 of the annual Persian kings’ income) to put his authority behind it. Perhaps in both the ancient world and the modern world enough money seems to make something evil more appealing.

This last thought reminds me, in a way, of the plot of the movie the Box where a man and a woman are given a box with a button where if they push it they will receive one million dollars, but someone they don’t know will die and so they are entered into the ethical dilemma of whether their own very real monetary needs outweigh the life of a stranger. Now it is not the greatest movie, but the ethical question of the power of money to cause a horrible decision, especially when you don’t have to carry it out, more appealing. The king never carries out his decision, he is always insulated and while his ring may mark the life or death of many, he allows others to be the executioners.

The king not only takes the advice of Haman, he seems to compel it along even more so. The king’s authority is placed behind the plot of Haman. One man’s revenge now becomes imperial policy and the story’s crisis is set in motion. This is a strange story since the Persian empire was actually pretty benevolent as far as ancient empires go toward their subject people maintaining their own laws, religions and traditions so long as the empire is served (remember Cyrus, also a Persian emperor is lifted up as a ‘messiah’ in Isaiah 45 and the Jewish story is in general very favorable towards Persia). But this story turns on the conflict between Mordecai and Haman, and the plot is moving.

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From Insult to Genocide: Esther 3:1-6

Persian and Median Soldier, Apadana Palace,Persopolis (Iran)

Persian and Median Soldier, Apadana Palace,Persopolis (Iran)

Esther 3: 1-6

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. 2 And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. 3 Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. 6 But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.

Our villain is introduced in the story, Haman the Agagite and in the reading that would occur on Purim I understand that his introduction and place throughout the story is accompanied by boos and hisses. What comes to mind for me is if you go to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight in a theater and people jeer and throw popcorn and the audience becomes a part of what makes the story go, in fact the audience becomes a part of the telling and enacting of the story. But Haman is the villain, and his actions will drive the story from this point forward.  We don’t have a reason why Haman is promoted to the position of second only to the king, he is not lifted up as doing anything great like Mordecai has, but ultimately why and how he got in his position is not important. What drives the story is that he does have the king’s ear and is able to act with the king’s authority on his desires.

The next perplexing part of the story is why doesn’t Mordecai bow-is he just stubborn? Is there some other reason? Is it an interpersonal conflict-or does it reflect a blood feud a long standing ethnic hatred. Haman’s identity as an Agagite points this direction going back to King Saul and King Agag of the Amelikites in 1 Samuel 15: 8-33, but how would a person tell a descendent of Benjamin from Agag apart. Apparently, unlike Esther, Mordecai’s Jewishness becomes known, but why offend in this way when you are an exiled people in a foreign land.

It reminds me of an incident in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which takes place on June 17, 1940. Dietrich, a Lutheran pastor who would later be executed for his part in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, was sitting with his friend Eberhard Bethge in the garden café in Memel. While they were in the café the announcement came that France had surrendered, and the people in the café stood on their chairs and began singing ‘Deutchland, Deutschland über alles.’ Bonhoeffer stood and extended his arm in the Hitler salute, while Eberhard stood there in shock. Bonhoeffer whispered, ‘Raise your arm! Are you crazy?’ saying later ‘we shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute.’  (Bethge 1970, 2000, 681)  (Wind 1991, 139)

The reaction does not fit the offense, to take on Mordecai is beneath Haman and so his thought is like the Emperor in the Star Wars series, “wipe them out, all of them.” A personal offense is met by genocide. Perhaps, like so many other genocides some long simmering hatred comes to the surface when it is favorable for one party, like in Bosnia. Perhaps this may also point to the danger that can come even in the most assimilated populations, as the German Jews were prior to World War II and the Holocaust. Genocide is a very distasteful topic, but it rears its head here, as in many times in both ancient and modern history. There perhaps is some drive to set up insiders and outsiders, to protect the insiders and to destroy the outsider and you could make an argument that this is payback for the Jewish wiping out of the Amalekite people but at some point we need to understand that the oppression of another people based on race or ethnic group is evil.

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Rumors of Assassination: Esther 2: 19-23

Two Persian Soldiers on the Persepolis

Two Persian Soldiers on the Persepolis

Esther 2: 19-23

 19 When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. 21 In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. 22 But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23 When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.

There are a lot of things that are unclear in this little passage: Esther is already queen, why are they gathering the virgins together. Does the competition go on? It doesn’t seem so, but there is no indication they are being sent home either. As confusing as it is we have our two protagonists, Esther and Mordecai, who have assimilated to the Persian culture and who are in the court of the king working together to expose a coup attempt. Mordecai comes into knowledge of the plots of Bigthan and Teresh and he informs Esther, and Ester tells the king. Mordecai doesn’t expect or receive any reward at this point and the two conspirators after an investigation are executed. This gets recorded, and it is critical to the story moving forward, but ultimately it is recorded and forgotten for now.

Plots were not uncommon in the Persian courts, nor were coup attempts. The act of saving the king at this point will prove important for Esther, Mordecai and the Jewish people going forward.

If you are going to plot an assassination, probably best not to do it at the king’s gate where many ears are listening. Eunuchs did have a fair amount of power but they would never lead themselves, and we will never know what they are upset about. Perhaps they believe the king is a fool, perhaps they think he parties too much, perhaps some policy worked against their people. We will never know the reasons, and ultimately they are a necessary side plot that will be important later, but once the investigation commences it is not a good day to be named Bigthan or Teresh.

Let the Party Begin: Esther 1: 1-12


This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. 2 In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were present, 4 while he displayed the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, one hundred eighty days in all.

                5 When these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in the citadel of Susa, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings tied with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and colored stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.

 9 Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.

10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.

Roll them bones!

Oftentimes we get too uptight about approaching a Biblical story and we forget the way they are approached by people throughout the generations. Esther is a story told at the Jewish festival of Purim, which quite likely has its origins in Persian or Babylonian celebrations[i], and it is heard with raucous laughter-it should be a fun story perhaps shared over wine or beer. Are there things we can learn from this story: Absolutely, but we should be aware that God is never mentioned in the book, nor are there any indications (other than fasting which was widely practiced beyond Judaism) of any Jewish practice. It is the story of excess and foolishness, of the people of God who are trying to navigate living in the world where they are mixed in with everyone else, trying to make their way in the world of the Medes and Persians. There are things to learn from all of this, but also we need to learn to laugh at the story, to find humor where there is humor. Even Martin Luther who I respect greatly wished the book of Esther did not exist, perhaps this was a moment when Luther was taking himself too seriously.

First, Ahasuerus is probably to represent King Xerxes of Persia, and some translations will automatically change Ahasuerus to Xerxes, but this not intended to be a historical work as much as a story, and the fact that the story was linked with a festival is probably the main reason it was included in the canon. It is a story of excess and the excess begins with a six month long party (take that college students) yet unlike a college student the king has the financial wherewithal to finance a six month long party where the wine flows liberally and people are able to recline on couches of gold and silver in addition to the other lavish surroundings. This is a scene that puts the largest royal banquet in Game of Thrones to shame, and while a banquet that lasts for seven days seems excessive to us in the West for whom eating is functional, I am reminded that for many cultures something like a wedding will last days or even as long as a week.

All this lavishness sets the scene for the king’s command sent through seven eunuchs to retrieve his extremely beautiful wife (who is throwing her own party with the women) to display her before his officials and those with him at his banquet. This is not a fair world, in our society it would not be uncommon for a woman to refuse a drunken request but this is an extremely patriarchal world which women did not have a great deal of freedom, and even queens are only queens so long as it pleases the king. But the amazing happens, Vashti refuses, the king is enraged and the stage is set for the unfolding of a new drama. It will be set with overreactions and a paranoid defense of the patriarchal order (can’t have a queen who disobeys a king, what would that do to the fabric of society-it is a fear we will see expressed.) Most modern women and many men have some empathy for Vashti, but the reaction of the men in the court of Ahasuerus will be much different.

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[i] I owe this observation to Sidnie White Crawford, (Actemeier, Elizabeth et. al. 1999, 3:860). This is not a unique phenomenon, Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter at the times when they are celebrated as a way of displacing holidays celebrated by the people that Christianity was spreading to. Or think of the conjunction of All Saints day (November 1) with All Hallows Eve (or as we call it today Halloween).

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 4: Re-establishment, Disillusionment and Germination

Wojceich Stattler, Machabeusze (Maccabbes) Public Domain Art

I think I need to be clear at this point that while I am doing a historical trek through Israel’s story, I am not trying to do a history of Israel at this point, or even of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I am intentionally trying to locate where authority rested within their story.  Within key transitions the places of authority do change and how the people react to that authority changes and see how that might inform our current questions of authority.  Hence, while it might be interesting to focus in greater detail on particular events, or to spend more time interpreting what is going on within a particular piece of scripture or what the theology of a particular author might be, that will have to be for another time and place as we continue on through the story.

A humorous illustration before we proceed. The Hebrew people remain deeply suspicious of external authorities which exercise authority over them, and so there will remain an antagonism between them and those who come to occupy their land.  In another Monty Python reference we have the scene of the French Castle where the French refuse to recognize Arthur’s authority. For this period the Hebrew people will stubbornly resist assimilation by the empires that they are a part of.

Beginning around 538 BCE, during the reign of Cyrus of Persia, there is the beginnings of the return to Jerusalem and Judea.  There are at least four major stages of the return which span a period of roughly 80 years, longer than the original period of exile, and even with the final return many of the people choose to remain settled and scattered throughout the empires of the day.  The diaspora (the dispersion) those Jewish people scattered throughout the empire continue to at various levels maintain their practices and stories that make them distinguishable from the nations around them, but I will be focusing in on the remnant that returns to the promised land since that is where the final pieces of the remembered story of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) come from.

Over the eighty years of re-establishment, many of the people return and their first concern is the reclamation of their land (or perhaps in some cases the claiming of land for their family).Remember that in an agrarian society land is the primary source of wealth and power. It takes a great deal of effort by the leaders and prophets to get the people to focus on the effort to rebuild the temple, and even once it is rebuilt it cannot compete with the memory of the former temple.  In the memory of the people it is a shadow of the greatness of their past.  Even with the codification of the Torah (law-quite possibly Deuteronomy) by Ezra and the completion of the city wall under Nehemiah, Jerusalem and what remains of the former nation are completely dependent on the will of the nations around them.  The temple worship does regain some of its former status as one authority figure, but in the absence of a true monarch-temple authority that has the power to authorize the story of the people, the written and oral set of practices begin to take on a greater and greater role of what it means to be the chosen people.

Internal fault lines begin to emerge, not that they didn’t exist previously, but issues of purity and justice come into conflict with one another.  At least, in the remembered story it seems that in the time of re-establishment purity becomes the dominant issue, the removal of foreign influences—even when it means disbanding families—and being a ‘purer’ Hebrew people who worship the one Lord in holiness. This is the mark of a society intent on establishing and maintaining boundaries between the insider and the outsider—and I don’t mean this to sound as critical as it may sound—when one feels the world is out to destroy you it is natural for an us/them (or Jew/Gentile) dichotomy to emerge. Yet even though this seems to be the dominant voice a counter-voice emerges, the prophetic voice that never went away and attempts to refocus the central focus on justice.  Although there is a strong presence of the prophetic voice in the collected scriptures, it also never seems to gain the influence to reframe the story to create the type of society the prophets imagine.

Certainly within the prophetic voice, but also within the population there is disillusionment with the way things are.  Things are not the way people hoped they would be, the temple is a shell of its former self, different religious groups vie for power and influence among the people, various incarnations of leaders try to rally the people with varying levels of success-but the reality is that for most of this 500 year stretch they are a people under the rule first of the Persians, then briefly under Greece. When the Greek empire splits up into the Ptolemaic Empire (in the South) and the Seleucid Empire (in the North) Jerusalem will find itself firmly at the middle of the struggle for power.

A final defining moment comes in 167 BCE with the Maccabean revolt, an event commemorated by Hanukkah today and remembered in the books named Maccabees, where the pressure of the outside influence to conform to a Hellenistic (Greek) culture causes a religious revolt which for a brief moment grants Jerusalem its independence.  It is short lived, but it gives the people a memory of their practices defining themselves as a people who are willing to die for what they believe in.  Again this is not universal, there are certainly those willing to accommodate, but there are also those willing to revolt, and that fire will not go out again for some time.

Deep divisions continue to grow within Judaism. They will not be fully in control of their own destinies after the fall of the Maccabees , but the hope for a new king, a new David, a messiah will persist.  Religious authority will split between Saducees, who predominantly control the temple and accommodate with the kings like Herod, or whichever government official Rome places to govern Judea.  With Herod the Great (who rules from 40 BCE-6 CE) reconstructing the temple in magnificent fashion (at a magnificent cost) the Sadducees are able to operate from a position of privilege.  The Pharisees in contrast are more of a people’s movement focused on maintaining their identity through purity and right practice of the Torah. There are other groups, the Essenes who pull away and isolate themselves to remain pure, the zealots intent on driving the foreign influence from the promised land.  Herod and Rome have the military authority, the Saducees in partnership with the Roman authorities run the temple and all is in a state of tension at the turning of the ages.  We are approaching a great turning point in the story, from one group will emerge two-one that is new and one that will be completely reshaped.  It is to the turning of the ages that we turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com