Breaking the Silence – Sept 30, 2018
Today is the only day in our 3-year lectionary cycle when we hear something of the story of Esther. The verses printed in the bulletin, those assigned by the lectionary, tell only the climax of the story. It assumes we know what happened in the first 6 chapters of the Book. Given that may not be a good assumption, it seemed a good idea to tell a simple version for all of us, including our young ones. If, like me, you’re not very familiar with this Old Testament tale, a more fullsome telling is also called for, for the details and the backstory matter. What’s more, this whole book is a page turner. That’s not something we can say about every biblical book, but this one definitely is. So I encourage you to spend the 30-45 minutes it will take you to read the whole thing. It’s a potboiler of humour and intrigue.
The Book of Esther opens with a party. The King, historically identified as Xerxes, shows off the great wealth of his kingdom ending with a 7-day banquet. The storyteller takes pains to describe the excess of it all, in particular, the excess of drinking. It reads: “On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded [his attendants] to bring Queen Vashti before [him], wearing the royal crown, in order to show the people and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold.” (1:10-11) But Queen Vashti says “no.” She refuses the king and he is enraged. Maybe it was the excessive drink. Whatever the case, with his anger burning within him, the king consults his advisors. They express their fear, saying: “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of [the king]. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands…” (1:16-17) The men fear losing their power over, and control of, their women. And so Queen Vashti is dismissed, never to be spoken of again. Losing everything, she pays a high price for saying “no.” And a decree goes out into the whole kingdom “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.” (1:22)
I can hardly describe to you the shock I felt reading this story this week given the resurgence of the #metoo movement with the drama playing out south of the border. The current version may not be about kings and queens but we have certainly been witness to a powerful man burning with anger at the loss of control. Women’s vulnerability and men’s anger have been dramatically on display this week. It isn’t hard to imagine how this kind of biblical story can be used to support the subjugation of women. I mean, it says so directly. And it supports a view of women as primarily, if not solely, objects. Beautiful objects to be admired, sure, but objects none the less, firmly under male control. It also describes the reality of intense male anger and the price women pay if they refuse to participate in that system. And this beginning with Queen Vashti is only the prelude.
It is important to recognize that genre of this story is satire. Satire seeks to disarm the powers of the world through humour. According to the dictionary, satire “uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Throughout the story, King Xerxes is portrayed as a highly suggestible, clueless idiot, even though he holds much power. In other words, far from a description of how things should be, the story is like a skit on an ancient This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Daily Show or The Late Show mocking the sad state of affairs and seeking to give hope through dark humour that exposes the brokenness of the world. The story of Queen Vashti is only the beginning, the backstory. It matters in part because of what comes next.
A search ensues for the most beautiful girl in the kingdom to replace Queen Vashti. Again, I encourage you to read the whole description of it in chapter 2, and be horrified by the selection process, including the Bachelor-esque fantasy suite scene. The long and short of it is that it is the Jewish girl Esther who wins the final rose. In the meantime, Esther’s uncle and surrogate father Mordecai discovers an assassination plot against King Xerxes and warns him about it. Also in the meantime, Haman gets promoted in the official ranks, and when the Jewish Mordecai doesn’t bow down to him, Haman’s great anger causes him to plot the destruction of all the Jews throughout the whole kingdom. I told you… it’s a potboiler with much intrigue. Haman gets the king’s permission for his plot by giving him only part of the information and an edict goes out to the whole kingdom naming the day for the extermination. In one verse, the story highlights the vastly different experiences of the powerful and the vulnerable: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” (3:15) As one commentator describes, “For the king and Haman, the edict is just another paper to sign, while for the people in their charge, it is a calamity.” (WP)
Mordecai learns of what has happened and goes to pains to contact his niece, Esther, to intervene. He begs her to use her influence and position to save her people from eradication. Esther is afraid, for “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.” (4:11) The king doesn’t know that Esther is Jewish, nor that it is the Jews who Haman has ordered annihilated. Mordecai assures Esther that her position will not save her from the murderous pogrom. But her position does give her an opportunity. His counsel is the key verse of the whole story. He implores her: “… if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther’s life is in danger either way. But if she finds the courage to speak… if she finds the courage to break her silence about who she is and the reality of Haman’s plot, then many, many lives, her people, can be saved. She is who she is, and she has the position she has, for such a time as this. Her time to speak is now.
There has been much discussion and debate this week about when, or even if, one should speak and when to keep silence. Some believe that “what happens in high school should stay in high school.” Others believe that there has been too much silence for too long. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford chose to break her silence and speak out because she believed it to be her civic duty. Whatever the eventual outcome of her decision for the American drama it has created, what we already know is that her choice has already saved lives. Sexual assault helplines have seen triple digit, 150%, increases in calls. A whole conversation has broken open, again, continuing what began last year, because of one woman’s courage to speak.
In Esther’s story, more intrigue ensues, and the climax of the story is printed in our bulletin. Esther plans carefully and at the right moment, she speaks up. Despite her fear, Esther breaks her silence. And she and the Jewish people and Haman all experience a reversal of fortune. The gallows Haman had set up to hang the Jews are used for him instead. It’s hardly a happy ending, for violence still wins the day. From the perspective of the Jewish people, it is a day to celebrate a reprieve from destruction. The festival of Purim is inaugurated to remember and to celebrate Esther’s courage.
When we speak the truth about who we are, others too are saved. It was true for Esther and it is true for Dr. Ford. When we use whatever position and privilege we have to unmask the powers of injustice, of pain, of death, others who have kept silent are also inspired to speak. And so I wonder, what is the courage to which you are being called? Is there a silence you need to break? Is there a truth in you, or about you, that is crying out to be spoken? Or is there a hard message you need to hear from someone else? It could be about some big, societal issue. Or it could be something smaller, more individual or interpersonal. Whatever the case, know that acting out of the courage to which you are being called has the power to change the world, even if it’s just for one person.
Speaking truth to power isn’t easy. It may even cost us greatly, but “… if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise… from another place, but you and [yours] will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to [be here] for such a time as this?”
Now is the time for courage.
Now is the time to speak.