Excerpts of a longer created piece, this reading, appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, self-published 2020, 51-59.
A second, related article titled “If You Keep Silent at Such a Time as This . . .” follows here.
This piece appeared in the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) Signs of the Times of March 1991.
The biblical story of Esther, known as a novella or a collection of several stories, occurred within the two-hundred-year reign of Mede/Persian kings following 550 BCE. The land area is now known as Iran, the content more ethnic than religious. Jews needed to learn how to be a minority among foreign rulers. King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), rebuffed by his first Queen Vashti, chose Jewish Esther as Queen, unaware of her race or religion. Adopted earlier by her uncle or cousin Mordecai, a Jew who frequented the king’s gate, Esther became instrumental in delivering her people from a vengeful decree. The decree was intended by Haman, a top-seated Agagite, to destroy all Jews. The date for that massacre was cast by lot (Pur); it later became a special holiday, Purim.
Adding to that history, Jews feared persecution. Vashti also feared her husband king. Ordered by the king perhaps to wear only her crown in revealing her beauty among the men, Vashti refused to so degrade herself. Removed, she needed to be replaced. Esther won the contest that followed. The strong test for her then became loyalty to her Jewish people and guardian Mordecai rather than husband Ahasuerus. She kept her Jewish loyalty a secret which raises more than one question.
Haman the Agagite was connected to Agag the Amalekite whose folk had been ancient enemies of the Jews. Moses had told Joshua to fight off Amalek attacks; he had told Israel to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deut. 25:19) In loyalty to Yahweh and due to collective memory, Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. Mordecai and Esther then advised Jews to celebrate Purim as a day that reversed earlier dread. “Tables had been turned” with grief changing to relief. During the reading of the book of Esther when they celebrated Purim, they could freely yell and make a racket every time that the name Haman was read aloud. Such Purim rituals, based on Esther 9:22, encouraged feasting, gladness, and gift-giving, to each other and the poor.
Excerpts of a longer, somewhat rhythmic reading appear here, not including the Jewish attack that follows the better-known account. Admittedly, Christians who promote efforts toward peacebuilding need to confront texts like Deut. 32:35-43 where God says: “It is mine to avenge. I will repay.”
Readers: Court Official, Narrator, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), Chorus (2 or 3), Haman, Mordecai, and Esther
“The Bible’s Only Royal Chronicle”
To note the time of year
to give details without much slant;
to tell ev’n more than incidents
is what a chronicler does chant.
“For seven days” makes clear the length.
“Sometime later” suggests a hunch.
True chroniclers will note details—
“The thirteenth day of the twelfth month.” . . .
A court tale sets the stage
for conflicts, heroes, customs—all.
The ruled group often finds
its role to be reversed, recall.
I, King Ahas’uerus, called Xerxes too,
welcome you to my winter palace in Susa. . . .
My reign began in 486 BCE.
My reign extends from India on over to Ethiopia. . . .
You’ll notice our turbans, our wisdom, our wealth.
Advisers plus eunuchs and lawyers add stealth.
“Dine the Day and Drink ‘Til Dawn”
Dine the day and drink ‘til dawn,
why not throw a banquet?
Have it last for days on end,
share Persian wealth and festive wit.
Dine the day and drink ‘til dawn
mostly men engage it;
Vashti’s women fear the sight,
avoiding what’s indecent. . . .
“The Stubborn King”
When the heart of the king
was all merry with wine,
he sent out seven eunuchs
to entreat his one wife.
He commanded the queen
her charm to parade.
He was proud of her beauty;
she should flirt, promenade. . . . .
He was proud of her beauty;
she should flirt, promenade.
Oh, King, she’s refused!
You’re Queen Vashti won’t come!
What was that? Did I hear?
She refuses to show?
She triggers my rage.
She risks needing to go.
With his ego at stake,
In a rage—a great rage
King A. gathered the wise
To decipher the law.
Sir, not only to you has Queen Vashti done wrong.
Her contempt cold spread far.
What a shame, what a flaw—
if all wives from their husbands due honor refuse! . . .
To show that you’re tough, that you don’t mess around.
We’ll search for a woman more fit for the crown.
“Do begin! Right away.
Send the letters; bring the virgins; fill the harem.
Why delay? Do begin!”
Why delay? Do begin! . . .
A girl in the harem delighted her watchmen:
fine clothes, choice jewels, and with maids numb’ring seven. . . .
Young Esther, an orphan, had lived with her cousin.
Being Jewish her secret; in court he checked often.
When Esther met Xerxes, her dress and appearance
combined with affection, appealed to his judgment.
Yes, she won the king’s favor.
The man who helped Queen Esther secure her role as queen
was Mor’decai, her cousin—a courtier with the King. . . .
One day, when “sitting by the gate,” he overheard a lot:
Two guards set out to kill the King—assassins with a plot.
A plot, a plot; assassins with a plot.
With haste, he to Queen Esther went informing her to act.
She to the King reported all. He checked it out—a fact.
The plotters soon ear-marked to hang,
and, fol-low-ing the rules
the Jewish hero’s praise appeared in the Book of Chronicles.
Soon after that, the King declared that Haman should be chief;
to whom the rest must always bow—or else expect some grief. . . .
But Mordecai refused to bow, for reasons less than clear.
When asked “’Why flout the King’s command?”
the Jew was mum, no fear.
“Why flout? Why flout?” The Jew was mum, no fear.
Toward such disdain, chief Haman balked—staunch Persian, have no doubt.
His ancestors with Saul had fought when Jews had tried to wipe them out.
Revenge in Haman stirred;
why not get rid of all the Jews and blame it on this nerd?
Frustrated by Mordecai’s refusal to bow,
bold Haman cast the pur, or lot
to discern the prime day to get rid of the Jews.
With the day then declared—the twelfth month, day thirteen—
he reported to the King.
Within your realm a scattered nation dwells.
With distinct laws, they dare to shun your will.
To tolerate such scorn is to admit
that you do not control as firmly as you think.
These folks are known to risk . . . to confront . . . to survive.
So, listen to my plan for their destruction.
Listen to his plan. A clever plan indeed.
If it please our good King
to decree to blot out this offense,
this disgrace, this vain nation,
I assure you I’ll pay
up to ten thousand weight in good silver and coins
to the bank . . . to the king . . . to the treasury.
Ten thousand weight! That’s quite a bit!
Never mind, never mind!
Keep the bakshish, my friend.
Keep the bakshish; what’s merely small change?
Furthermore, take my ring; use its seal.
You may do whate’er you will, whatever pleases you.
So, we’re agreed?
Yes, of course.
Yes, of course; the pact is made.
With that, firm tasks began.
On the thirteenth day of the first month
royal scribes all came to copy orders,
addressed by Haman to the king’s governors,
in the script of each province and people.
Signed in the King’s name,
sealed with his ring, made law n‘ermore to change,
the letters sent by runners—
efficient postal system that.
To destroy all Jews—
young and old, women, even children—
on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month,
went the bold order.
“From Sackcloth to Action”
While the king and Haman feasted,
all the Jews were torn and mourning.
Oh, they wailed; they wailed and fasted,
once they heard the word of warning.
[Depict wailing sounds, beating breasts, fear, and anguish]
Mordecai was quite dramatic.
Tearing clothes, he put on sackcloth.
Wailing, ran throughout the city,
Stopped before the court, exhausted.
Oh, he wore a rough, dark sack;
to show his grief, he sprinkled ash.
Esther heard the word through servants.
Overcome with grief, yet bolder,
she sent Ha’tach to her cousin—
Into action! Head and shoulder!
Not stopped by shock or pain,
To counter grief, she used her brain.
“To Nudge and be Nudged” (duet – Mordecai & Esther)
Now just listen to me—
that man Haman is rash.
To get rid of us Jews,
he made offer of cash.
I suggest that at once
you go in to the king.
Plead your case; don’t give up.
For our people strength bring.
For our people, our people, our people strength bring.
But you know, there’s a law—
to appear without call,
there’s a penalty sharp:
death, before the night fall.
And what’s more, be aware,
thirty days have gone by
since the king called me in.
So, I’m fearful to try.
Oh, she’s fearful to try.
Even she’s about to cry.
Just the same, d’you suppose
‘cause the king is your mate,
you’ll escape all alone
among Jews? It’s not fate!
To sit alone in silence
when relief must surely come,
be assured that you’ll die also.
Help must come, but who knows from?
Help must come, who knows from?
It must come. It will come.
You inspire! Go at once;
Gather Jews. For three more days,
do not eat. Do not drink.
Fast for me, night and day.
For the same prescribed time,
with my maids, I will fast.
After that, I shall go
to the king. Dye is cast.
Yes, the dye is now cast.
She’ll be brave, as in the past.
“Who knows . . . If I Perish” (recitative)
Whoever might presume to know?
I don’t know, but,
Perhaps . . .
Perhaps you have come to the throne . . .
Perhaps you have come to the throne for such a time . . .
for just such a time as this!
And if, oh if;
but if I perish?
If I perish for sticking my neck out;
If I perish for doing the right thing;
If I perish for trying to save my people,
then I perish.
I’m not fatalistic,
but just realistic.
If I perish, I perish; that’s logic.
Not meant to be rude, or even intrude,
now fear is the mood of my people.
So, I’ll cherish the thought—
hope the King won’t feel caught.
If I perish, I perish. So be it!
Narrator: Excerpts from Esther’s Prayer [The Jerusalem Bible]
“Yahweh, my people’s Lord, our only One,
come to my help, for I am alone
and have no one to aid but You.
About to risk my life. . .
Recall, faithful One; reveal yourself
in this our time of distress.
As for me, give me courage,
true King and master of all power.
Put persuasive words within my mouth. . . .
You know . . . that I your maid know no pleasure
except in You. O God, whose strength prevails. . . .
free me from my fear.”
On the third day, [Chorus – repeat first 4 lines after Narrator]
as her Jews prayed,
to the king went at that moment
frightened, but hopeful Esther.
Showing courage, without flourish.
I extend to you my scepter; do come in.
What is the matter, Queen Esther?
Tell me what you most desire.
If it’s merely half my kingdom,
I grant whate’er is required.
Would you, my king, find it pleasing
to come with Haman to dine?
I’ve prepared an intimate banquet
and will explain then, a-long with wine.
If in your eyes, I’ve found favor;
if you agree with my plea;
if you’d be pleased to contribute,
eat on the morrow with me.
On the next day, [Chorus – repeat each of 4 lines]
what would she say?
made suspense thick. . . .
Next day, as the queen’s banquet was set to begin,
the king repeated his vow to his Queen:
Tell me what you most desire.
If it is half of my kingdom,
I grant what e’er is required.
If in your eyes, I’ve found favor,
grant me my life—to be free.
For, I, plus my people, will perish;
doomed to be killed by decree.
Who could have made such decree?
Who is the culprit, the thug?
None but this man who is seated
next to you—Haman—so smug!
The King up and exits in rage.
While Haman then panics and pleads with the Queen—
pleads on her couch, for his life. . . .
Haman: (Singing, to the tune of “All glory, laud and honor”!)
Queen Esther, Oh, Queen Esther,
You hardly can believe,
How much I need your help now,
I’ll bend upon my knee.
But Esther the Queen and the Jew—
Yes, Esther whose prayer had been vented,
whose prayer next evolved into action,
had plans of her own, clear re-lief. . . .
Any group of youth that shares reading this account might benefit from follow-up discussion of related themes. Possible starters for their exchange include:
“If You Keep Silent At Such A Time As This . . ..”
[Meditation presented near close holidays of several religions that occurred in 1991.]
Multiple Middle East connections affect us in the current gulf Crisis. I invite you to recall the Old Testament story of Esther as framework for looking at Middle East commonalities and contrasts, even calendars.
The story of Esther occurred within the 200-year reign of Mede/Persian kings following 550 BCE, in what is now Iran. King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), rebuffed by his first Queen Vashti, chose Jewish Esther as Queen, unaware of her race/religion. Adopted earlier by Mordecai, a Jew who frequented the king’s gate, she became instrumental in delivering her people from a vengeful decree meant by Haman, a top-seated Agagite, to destroy all Jews. The date for that event, cast by lot (Pur) and now a special holiday Purim, occurs in 1991 on February 28.
A previous deliverance, Passover, celebrated by Jews for eight days, begins on March 30. With each generation the story is retold, partly through the Seder meal. With the blood of a sacrificed lamb rubbed on their door post by the angel, households were spared. Told by Pharaoh to leave immediately, the sojourners ate metsah (unleavened bread) en route. Rejoice in freedom, each year!
Born in Jerusalem four centuries after Esther, Christianity celebrates Easter on March 31, 1991. Jesus’ victory over death follows Holy Week and culminates forty days of Lent begun on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 13). To observe Lent is to search and destroy human idols of work, wisdom, and wealth. The intent of Lent is to repent lest we perish, or to reinstate loyalty to God. “If I perish, I perish,” says a confident Esther when faced with the choice of action for her people.
With ancestry traced to Abraham and Hagar’s son Ismael, Arabs claiming the Islamic faith look to founder, Prophet Mohammed born in 570 CE. Perhaps adapted from Lent, the Prophet established fasting (Ramadan) as one of five great pillars. This year’s month of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset begins on March 17. Goals focus on the Koran and revelation through Mohammed, prayer, pardon from sin, and gratitude for God’s guidance. ‘Id al-Fitr, a three-day feast concluding the fast, endorses giving alms to the poor.
In Esther’s story plus each religion loyal to one God and one Book contrasts of eating and fasting recur. Pomp and splendor, contrasts with sackcloth and mourning. Outrage and power contrasts with counsel and truth. Will CPT people keep silent amid contempt and shifting loyalties? Between charge and counter charge? Among the guilty and innocent? Through tactics and sorties? Said Mordecai to Esther: “If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise . . . from another quarter, but you and your household will perish.”