By Hannah Matis
If thrillers, even when unrealistic, give you a sense of what people are afraid of in contemporary society, romance novels can be surprisingly effective barometers of hope. Precisely because all genre fiction relies, to some extent, on tropes and reader expectations of them, what tropes are used reveals a great deal about its readers. What does “happily ever after” even mean for people at the time these stories were written, and what can they tell us about the outer limits of what readers would find believable? At what moment does the fantasy of a “happily ever ever” start to break down, even within the confines of its own fairy-tale premise?
The ancient world loved romances no less than we do today, and, like Shakespeare, didn’t attempt to relegate them to a feminine audience. The Book of Esther is one such romance, I would argue — not between Esther and Ahasuerus per se, but between the Jewish people and the Persian culture and society in which many found themselves. It captures the sense of surprise felt by many Jews, that after the trauma of the Babylonian exile and then the near-miraculous edicts of Cyrus of Persia, that it was possible, not only to survive, but to thrive in a foreign land. By any standards, the centuries after the exile represented a remarkable period of coalescence for Jewish religious and social identity, in Babylon and elsewhere in the diaspora. Written later still, the Book of Esther deliberately evokes this past golden age, in much the way that a Regency romance would today, and with about as much need or desire for gritty historical realism as you’d find in Bridgerton.
Bait and Switch: The Limits of Assimilation
But then you reach chapter three, and the fairy tale inverts. The focus of the tale moves away from the queen in the palace, at least for the moment, and introduces both the villain and, arguably, the real hero. Haman, the royal favorite who prefigures the evil viziers of the Arabian Nights, whose giddy ascent to power complicates, somewhat, our view of the benevolent Ahasuerus, and Haman’s nemesis, the prophetically clear-sighted Mordecai. It is, we are told at the outset, because Mordecai will not bow to him that Haman hatches his grandiose scheme to destroy, not just Mordecai, but his entire people. In other words, the major roadblock to full Jewish assimilation into the Persian Empire, as with Daniel and the Babylonians, is that Jewish reservations about who and what receives veneration will be inevitably misconstrued by their enemies as disloyalty and treason. God is never explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, and yet it is that hard-won moral conviction, that God alone deserves our full worship — not the king, however supreme he may appear, and certainly not his apparatchiks — that will be enough, one day, for those apparatchiks to mark you out for destruction. And when that day comes, you may be sure, all the forms will be filled out correctly and sealed with the ring of the king himself.
From verse seven, the rest of chapter three is the stuff of historians’ dreams: an account, however stylized, of Persian administrative process. What impresses the reader is the inexorable thoroughness of the machinery, once it has been set in motion by Haman: the date set by lot, securing divine favor, the threat of the Jews’ existence and their status as dissidents confirmed, appropriate bribes paid to the king’s treasury, and the edict circulated, on Persia’s famous road system, to all corners of the realm. This can all sound a bit exotic for modern ears, but it is possible to read this passage as a very deliberately barbed riff on Persian propaganda and procedure. One of the most famous edicts from the reign of Darius the Great, the father of Xerxes, who is sometimes identified with Ahasuerus, proclaims the greatness of his reign on the grounds that he “made everything orderly.”
The classicist Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones notes that one important aspect of the pax Persiana established by the Achaemenid dynasty is what we might call its multiculturalism: the many peoples and languages of Esther 3:12 acknowledge the supreme rule of the great king, who tolerates and even encourages their diversity. But this wonderful symbiotic circle, the author of Esther seems to be arguing, works only until the moment that you find yourself on its wrong side.
Privilege and Responsibility
In this inverted fairy tale, the queen’s palace is transformed into her prison, even if she doesn’t know it yet. Nothing of what has happened to Esther, so far, has really been her choice, and it would be extraordinarily easy to continue in that vein. To deny her own power of agency, to refuse to mourn, to pretend nothing untoward is happening, and to believe that nothing will reach her in the palace: this would require nothing of her, and indeed, as she explains to Mordecai, all the systems and protocols of access to the king are naturally closed to her anyway. To some extent, in that moment Esther is all of us: “We can’t possibly; don’t you see what would happen if we tried?” And secretly, a voice whispers, for our ears alone, “I’m quite comfortable right now. If I do nothing, I risk nothing, and it could be that nothing very terrible will happen to me.”
Mordecai’s response, at vv. 13-14, is the heart of the Book of Esther, the moral at the heart of the fairy tale: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will arise 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.” Again, although the name of God is not explicitly invoked, God’s saving intentions are clear. The privileges and comforts of our lives most properly should be offered to further those intentions, but apart from God they are no guarantee of blessing or abiding safety. The brave fatalism of Esther’s response is, in fact, a form of hope and trust in those saving intentions, as is her three days of fasting and prayer.
Girl on a Mission
And now the fairy tale inverts again. Esther is making her way back to the magical world of the king’s presence, which can make anything happen; she is in the palace audience halls. Except, this time, we know what they cost, and we know how precarious her place is here, amid their golden grandeur.
We can imagine Esther, bowed down under the weight of her regalia, slowly walking the length of the audience hall and wondering exactly at what point she really has gone too far to turn back and now must go on, however it ends. We can imagine her, the subdued whispers of surprise from his advisers, the first moment she sees the king in the distance, the first moment they make eye contact, perhaps, and the long wait while she wonders if what she has done, who she has been to him, is enough to save her life. We wonder if she drops her eyes, if she is staring fixedly at that golden scepter in the king’s hand, willing it to reach out to her. We wonder if Esther thinks of Vashti at all in those moments, if she can sympathize with Vashti’s anger and ultimate refusal to cooperate with court protocol, and just how deeply inside she buries that secret sympathy. Because she has come all that way, she has put her life in the balance — oh, the delicious anti-climax of out-Persianing the Persians! — to deliver a formal dinner invitation.