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The Queen You Thought You Knew
Video 1 of 6
There you are in synagogue, you’re listening to the Megillah, like you always do – and you’re kind of bored. Reading the Purim story year after year sometimes feels just a little bit like being back in third grade again. You learned the story back in Mrs. Schwartz’s class – why do you have to hear it again, every single year? But the truth is, the story you learned as a child shouldn’t be the story you see as an adult. Even if you are a kid watching this – ask yourself: Do you really want just the kid’s version of the Megillah? Can’t you handle more?
As it happens, questions pervade the megillah, obvious questions. Those questions, I want to argue to you, in this video series, are windows. If we crawl through them, we’ll be in a position to see the story in startling new ways. We’ll be in a position to read the story as adults.
By the way… If you like this video series, when you’re done, boy, have I got a book for you. The arguments I’m making here are taken, more or less, from a book I wrote a little while back called The Queen You Thought You Knew. These videos come from parts of the first section of that book. So, to explore these ideas further, and more completely, just check out the book. You can find the link below.
Anyway, let’s get to the questions in the megillah, the obvious questions. You just have to clear your mind and try to see the megillah as if you’ve never seen it before and suddenly I think these questions will jump out at you. And where I’m getting at here is the idea that your familiarity with the Purim story, the fact that you know it so well, will sometimes work against you. If you know the basic storyline of the Megillah, it can be hard sometimes to see the strangeness in how the heroes and villains of the story actually acted. When you know so well how Esther, Mordechai, the king, and Haman actually did behave, it’s hard to imagine that they could have done things differently. But each of the Megillah’s central characters surely could have.
So what I want to do with you is this, let’s read through the story, but pause at strategic points in the story, and think about the actions of these people, let’s place ourselves in the proverbial shoes of any of the major figures in the narrative, and ask ourselves: if we were them, right now, what would we do? When we arrive at an answer, we’ll then continue reading, and we’ll just compare what we would have done with what that person actually did do. More often than not, I think we’ll be surprised by the great chasm by what we expected to happen, and what actually did take place.
Let’s begin with Esther. Esther acts boldly, she acts heroically – but she also acts kind of strangely, at least at face value. Let’s fast forward to the moment that Haman has issued his decree. The Jews are mourning, everything seems lost, everyone going to die. Esther has until now succeeded in maintaining a secret. She has never told the king that she is Jewish. Mordechai now implores her to reveal this. She’s going to go to the king, she has to beseech him to save her people.
Esther initially refuses. It turns out that the king has sequestered himself for a while now in his private chamber – and that’s an inconvenient turn of events, since, according to the law of the realm, anyone who enters the king’s chamber uninvited takes his or her life in their own hands. Esther worries that it doesn’t seem like a good time to risk such a visit to the king. It’s been a month now since he’s called to see her, and she fears that she is no longer in his good graces.
Esther shares those misgivings with Mordechai, but he insists that Esther has to go to the king. So Esther gives in, she agrees to risk it all. She tells Mordechai that she and her ladies-in-waiting will undertake a prolonged, three-day fast, and after that, she will face the king, come what may.
So the moment of truth arrives. Esther dresses up in royal clothes and she dares to enter the king’s chamber. He sees her, and then, amazingly, he lifts his scepter, indicating permission for her to enter. As she approaches, he tells her that he’s going to grant whatever request she has, no matter what it is. Up to half the kingdom and it’s hers! “What do you need?” he asks.
Okay, stop right there; you play Esther. It’s your move. What would you do? How would you reply to the king?
I don’t know about you, but if I were Esther, this is actually the moment that I would seize to make my request:
“Well, you see, it’s very nice of you to offer half your kingdom, but actually, I just require a small itty-bitty favor. It seems that genocide has been decreed against my people. Don’t know how it happened – some sort of palace mix-up, probably. But luckily, it’s so easy to reverse, King. If you wouldn’t mind just signing right here this little document I prepared, we can undo that decree right now – I would be ever so grateful, King. Thank you so much.”
But that’s not what Esther says. Instead, she asks the king to meet her and Haman at a banquet she will make later on.
Why does she do that? This was the moment! The king had lifted his scepter and offered to give her half his kingdom. She would have done anything just the day before to get such a reception like that. Why does she squander the magic of the moment by postponing the reckoning for some later time? Is she ever going to get a better chance?
Ok, so much for Esther. What about Haman? He has decided to wipe out the Jews out once and for all on a single blood-soaked day. In order to do that, though, he needs the consent of the king.
Now, before we look closely at what he says, let’s just take a minute to contemplate what we might have said had we been in his shoes. What charge could you level against these Jews to incite the king’s wrath and allow you to proceed with your murderous plot?
I can think of a lot of things Haman could say. The Jews, they poison the wells; they bake the blood of Persian children into their matzah on Passover; you name it. Haman certainly doesn’t feel himself constrained by the truth. As it happens, though, Haman says three things – and at least two of them seem entirely beside the point. Here are his complaints:
a) The Jews are scattered throughout the Persian Empire.
b) They observe their own laws, making them different from other nations.
c) They don’t keep the king’s laws.
Now, why on earth does he bother with the first two? I mean, if I were Haman, I would have dropped those first two points and mentioned only the third, they don’t keep the king’s laws. I means, that’s the only one the king’s likely to care about.
Think about it. He is basically arguing that the Jews are criminals. And you know, it’s logical to argue that the Jews are criminals, because if they’re criminals, if they don’t keep the laws of the realm, if C is the only thing you get to over here, then you could certainly argue that they deserve to be done away with. But who cares about the first two things, who cares where the Jews are located geographically and that they observe a set of laws that distinguish them from other peoples in the kingdom? The same could probably be said for every one of the king’s hundred and twenty-seven provinces. They all likely observed certain laws and customs that distinguished them from the others. The conquered people of India, in all likelihood, they had different zoning laws than the people of Ethiopia -- but is that grounds to do away with one or the other in a frenzied, state-sponsored bloodbath?
Presumably, though, Haman is not being foolish. He actually has a plan. He knows the king well, and the charges that he is making are likely those that give him the greatest advantage. Our task is to figure out what he knew that we don’t.
So that’s Esther and that’s Haman. Let’s turn now to the king, King Achashverosh.
If you read the first twelve verses or so of the Megillah, you’re gonna find that they are all about the glory and grandeur of King Achashverosh. We hear that the king was emperor of the world, sovereign over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces stretching all the way from India to Ethiopia. We read about his lavish hundred-and-eighty day long party - the riches – the fine linens, the gold, the delicately fashioned utensils. So had we been reading the royal archives of the Persian court, all that would be understandable. But we’re not reading the archives of the Persian court, we’re reading the Megillah, a Jewish book...why do I need to know about all that splendor? Why start a book in the Bible with such a banal, extended, digression?
And let’s talk about the king himself. Many readers of the Megillah perceive Achashverosh as a naïve, foolish guy. This perception arises, in part, from one of the very first moments in the Megillah, where the king seems to make this really impetuous decision regarding his queen, Vashti. At the end of this 180-day feast, he orders Vashti to be brought before the throngs and the multitudes, and here’s the verse:
He asked to have Vashti the Queen brought before the king, to show her beauty off to the nations and princes – for indeed, she was very beautiful… (Esther 1:11)
What, exactly, was the king thinking here? I mean, it seems crazy what he’s doing. Putting your wife on display and inviting other men to marvel at her? It’s just plain gauche. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing, not just for the poor woman at the center of attention, but for all the men in attendance, too. It’s just not a very royal, refined thing to do.
Why then did Achashverosh do it? So you could say, look, maybe he wasn’t a very refined person. Maybe he was drunk. And that’s certainly possible. But I’d like to suggest, perhaps there was a method to the madness of Achashverosh. Perhaps if we take the time to understand things from Achashverosh’s point of view, we may well find that the king’s course of action was not all that irrational after all.
When we get around to answering all these questions we’ve just now raised, I think we will see that the story of the Megillah is far more complex than it at first seems. It’s not just about a genocidal villain with a bruised ego, or a beautiful queen who succeeds because she chances upon lucky situations, or even a goofy king who doesn’t see what’s happening right under his nose. As we venture through the Story of Purim we’re going to actually use the questions we’ve asked in this video, these observations about the strangeness of each character’s actions, to guide us. Why is everyone acting so strangely? What exactly is behind each of their plans?
Join me as we explore these questions, seeking to uncover a richer understanding of the holiday, the book of Esther, and the meaning of it all. Follow me into this next video.
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