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The Queen You Thought You Knew
Video 4 of 6
“If I have found favor in your eyes, oh king, and if it’s good in your eyes – then give me my life as my request, and [the life of] my people as my petition. Because me and my people have been sold – to be destroyed, killed, annihilated…” (Esther 7:3-4)
The king listens to this, and he’s shocked, he demands to know who it is that would dare do such a thing, to which Esther replies:
“A man who’s a treacherous enemy: Haman, this evil one, that’s who it is.” (Esther 7:6)
So there it is: Esther finally reveals that her people, the Jews, are endangered, and she brings to light the identity of the aggressor, Haman. But go back and examine more carefully what she said. How did Esther deal with her two liabilities?
A first clue comes from the fact that Esther has not simply asked the king to spare her nation. She has asked him to spare her own life, too. Not only that, she mentions her own life first:
“…give me my life as my request, she said, and only after that, [the life of] my people…” (Esther 7:3)
You see, the news that someone is out to get his queen, that Esther’s own life is threatened, makes everything she says after this pale into comparative insignificance. It’s like the king doesn’t even hear anything else. Only one question matters to him: “Who is this, that’s trying to do this to you?”
And of course, Esther is only too happy to share the answer:
“Haman, seated right next to you.”
The announcement of her national affiliation, which in any other circumstance would be headline news in and of itself, has been virtually drowned out by an even bigger headline: someone’s out to kill the queen. And, of course, for Achashverosh, it’s even more personal than that: someone is out to get my wife.
As a first step in softening the threat to her Mother Persia image, Esther has distracted Achashverosh from thinking about her possibly divided national loyalties by giving him something even more compelling to think about. The woman he loves is asking him to rescue her. He has the chance to play the knight in shining armor. What kind of man wouldn’t rise to the occasion?
Lost in the drama of the moment, of course, is an inconvenient little fact: Esther’s claim that her life is threatened is not exactly true. He didn’t even know she was a Jew. No one knew she was a Jew, the king included, until just now, when Esther volunteered that information. So yes, now that she has, of her own accord, divulged her religion and national identity, it emerges that, technically, she is threatened by Haman’s blanket decree of genocide. But the threat to her own life is really something that’s of her own making. I mean, she could have just kept quiet, right? And, even now that she has divulged her identity, is she really threatened? The king could easily just issue her a pass. Esther’s claim that she is imperiled, once you stop to think about it, is really pretty dubious.
Esther, of course, hopes the king won’t stop to think about it. She wants him to act quickly and passionately, getting rid of the decree that’s causing all the trouble. Esther’s words beckon Achashverosh towards the hasty conclusion that she wants him to draw: If I am threatened by a man who would destroy me because of my national affiliation, why not just annul the decree that threatens me, and kill the man who thought it all up? Then you’ll have saved my life, you’re my knight in shining armor! The logic works perfectly! As long as you don’t think about it too much.
By cloaking her revelation as a Jew inside the more arresting news that someone is trying to kill her, Esther takes a first step towards insulating herself from whatever fallout her revelation of religious and national identity might create. But Esther goes beyond that, too. It’s not just that Esther is distracting the king from her disclosure of a particular provincial affiliation with other, more compelling news. In true martial arts fashion, she is actually turning that disclosure of provincial affiliation into her friend, rather than her enemy.
How’s she doing that?
Well, let’s revisit Esther’s “Mother Persia” liability. Esther knows that the king is looking at her, as he did Vashti before her, as the feminine symbol of his new empire. She has presented herself as the girl from nowhere, willing and able to assume this role. And, therefore, she also knows that if she betrays this vision of herself, she risks destroying herself, along with the Jews.
Okay, so now look carefully at Esther’s words. Even as she implicitly reveals herself as a Jew, has she shown herself disloyal to the grand vision expected of “Mother Persia”? The answer, astoundingly, is no.
You see, ingeniously, by casting Haman’s decree as an edict that above all threatens her own life, Esther’s made Haman into the villain – Haman, not Esther, is the one who is stuck in a tribal mindset, who won’t accept the king’s enlightened new way of looking at the woman he made his queen, the new Mother Persia. Esther is continuing to be exactly who the king wants her to be: she and the king share the dream of a Pan-Persian Empire transcending petty national allegiances. There’s only one person in the room, who doesn’t see the world in the enlightened way we do – and that’s Haman. Haman’s trying to kill me, along with all other Jews, because of nothing more than our ethnic identity. He can’t look past my provincial roots to see me for what I really am, the queen I am, the queen you, my dear, want me to be: Mother Persia. You see what she’s doing here, Esther has deftly moved out of the way; Mother Persia is no longer Esther’s liability. It’s actually an asset.
So how does Esther respond to her other liability – the king’s suspicion that she may be involved in a dalliance with Haman?
At first glance, she seems to confront and refute this suspicion head-on. She identifies Haman as her enemy, who will destroy her and her people. It’s pretty clear she has no warm feelings for him. So she just flat-out refutes the king’s suspicions about her and Haman, right? But that wouldn’t be really very martial arts-like. A closer inspection will reveal that she’s actually doing something else. In true martial-arts style, Esther is not so much refuting the king’s fear as diverting it. She is making it work for her, not against her.
How? Well, let’s revisit the scene at the second banquet, looking at it from the king’s perspective. If Achashverosh was in fact suspicious that Haman was romantically pursuing his queen, - how would he have formulated that suspicion to himself? What words would he say to think about that?
He would have looked at Haman as someone who was, potentially, trying to take his wife away from him.
Now, if that’s what the king was saying to himself, it emerges that Esther is confirming the king’s worst fears, because what if she really saying?
“You were worried Haman is trying to deprive you of your queen? Well, that’s exactly what he’s trying to do, you’re absolutely right. Just...not through romance; instead, he’s going to do it by killing me – but let’s not get distracted by the fine points over here. One way or the other, He’s going to try and take me away from you…”
See what’s happening? Esther has taken the king’s suspicion of adultery and gently diverted it. All the energy and sublimated rage the king had felt over the possibility that Haman was seducing her, is now redirected, it’s free to express itself as fury over the discovery that Haman was trying to kill her. Once again, an overpowering force was headed in Esther’s direction, and she managed to give it a little nudge and step out of the way – leaving Haman directly in the path of the oncoming train.
When Esther identifies Haman as the evil architect of the decree that would kill her, the king bolts to his feet, abruptly walks out of the banquet and goes for a stroll in the garden to think things over.
Until this point, the king has consistently dispatched every decision that has come his way with a minimum of thought and deliberation. Esther had been counting on that, she wanted him to respond impetuously. She wants him to kill Haman immediately and just annul his decree in one fell swoop, all in the service of saving his imperiled queen. But now, just this once, the king actually decides to think things over before acting. It’s like the worst possible luck.
Besides that, the king’s abrupt decision to exit the banquet leaves Esther vulnerable in another way. Haman will now have a precious few minutes to think of how he can explain this all to the king– and if he uses those minutes well, then even at this late hour, victory could yet be his. At this delicate moment, let’s you and I step aside to contemplate the nightmare scenario that may yet unfold at the banquet table, while an absent king paces in the garden, mulling over the implications of Esther’s desperate plea. Join me as we explore that scenario and tie everything together in final video. I’ll see you in Video 5.
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