Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Esther and the Politics of Identity — Amy Merrill Willis

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[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

No Reference to God?!
Just a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. news erupted with headlines out of the Democratic National Convention– the party platform contained no references to God. How could this be, many wondered with outrage?!  God was there in 2008! And in 2004!  Reporters hounded top democratic leaders about the lacuna and, in response, Dems stumbled through unconvincing responses. Some media outlets and Republican voices used the opportunity for identity politics. These voices attempted to brand democrats as truly secularist and godless, while promoting  the Republican Party as the party of God (by virtue of its 12 references to the divine in its party platform).  The DNC response, re-instating the God language with a clumsy voice vote, did little to attenuate the charges.  The re-inserted statement, having something to do with people achieving “their God-given potential,” really just showed how trivial the use of the G- word can be. And the move looked poorly thought-out and reactionary. There was no substantial theological offering at the end of the day, just a cave-in to those groups who wanted to use the matter as more fodder in America’s culture wars.

Even though the allegations felt contrived and over-sensationalized and the responses seemed cynical, the situation raises important questions about the relationship between faith, theology, and the public sphere: Could democratic leaders have made a more robust and principled case for the party’s platform, with or without God language? And beyond the missteps and the pseudo-controversy, are there times when people of faith should leave God language out of their political rhetoric even as they attempt to engage the public sphere from a position of faith?

Maybe the top democratic voices weren’t able to formulate a robust response, but there were some good attempts to speak to these underlying questions, the most substantial of these came from democratic Sen. Chris Coons. Putting his Yale Divinity School education to work in a September 13th column in the Huffington Post, Coons rightly stated what should be obvious, that there is “more to honoring God than reciting His name.”

But isn’t this really déjà vu all over again? This week’s lectionary readings just happen to give us the one look at Esther contained in the entire 3 year-cycle. In its Hebrew version (which is also the earlier version–a Greek revision emerged later), this book tells a story about God and human politics without a single reference to God.  Not only is God not a character in the book, but God is not even mentioned once, not even in the course of a prayer. Yet, remarkably this book was not jettisoned to the pile of secularist, godless writings when it came under scrutiny nearly 2000 years ago. Instead, it was elevated to the status of sacred scripture for Jews and, eventually, Christians.

 

Hidden Identities, Both God and Human
The writers of Esther’s story along with its earliest readers, understood God to be at work, somehow, in the events the chosen people faced in exile—even when the characters deliberately obscured their connections to the God of Israel. The notion of hidden identities and connections is central to the plot of this biblical story, as Esther’s name reveals.  Although there is some dispute about etymology, both of the names of this main character—her royal name, Esther, and her Hebrew name, Hadassah—have etymological connections to the language of hiddenness. (The name Esther may be related to the Hebrew verb “to hide,” while Hadassah may be connected to the word for “darkness.”) Indeed, Esther’s cousin and adoptive father, Mordecai, had urged Esther to keep her identity a secret at the beginning of the book as she entered the beauty contest to become the next queen of Persia. Since the Jews were a minority population, and subject to suspicion because of their distinctive beliefs and laws, keeping her identity secret was a strategy of circumspection and caution that allowed Esther to gain power and status in the dominant culture. But keeping her identity hidden also meant obscuring the God whose name and reputation was inevitably intertwined with that of the Jewish people.

Esther does finally reveal her identity, at great risk to herself, when the political situation becomes dire and her people are threatened with genocide. Mordecai urges her to do so, saying “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:14). The implication is that divine providence has been at work, moving this Jewish orphan into a place of prestige at just the right time so that she might protect her people. But even as Esther reveals herself and her affiliations to the king, she does so carefully and strategically. And while Esther works to preserve her people from an evil plan, Mordecai acts to save the life of the silly, rash, pagan, Persian king .

While it has no problem depicting the Persian king as bumbling and stupid, and his right hand man Haman as calculating and evil, the book offers no judgment on Mordecai’s actions or Esther’s. Instead, the story invites the reader into the messy and compromising world which these characters must negotiate. Mordecai advocates discretion in one instance and then practices defiance in another. Esther’s ambitions to be Queen compromise traditional Jewish injunctions regarding sexual and dietary purity and yet she displays a moral courage worthy of her Jewish identity. And both characters work to save others even as they actively promote a violent bloodbath that overshadows the festivities at the end of the book. The reader is invited to consider the actions of both Mordecai and Esther as both morally questionable and as heroic and salvific, less than ideal but worthy of annual remembrance in the feast of Purim.

The Book of Esther understands well the challenges of living in a world where one might have to juggle and negotiate different, even conflicting, identities and loyalties– one political, one ethnic and religious.  On this point, see further Amy Oden’s insightful commentary on WorkingPreacher.org. But it is interesting that while these identities are sometimes open and sometimes undisclosed, they never correspond neatly to the categories of “public” political lives vs. “private” religious lives. Esther’s hidden religious identity makes claims on her public life as well as her private life. And part of what makes the story so effective in illuminating these challenges is its reticence when it comes to the G-word.  God is at work, yes, but the narrative refuses either to trivialize that presence or trivialize the difficult work of the moral agents in this story by ascribing everything to the transparent will of God in history.

 

Controversies Ancient and Modern
Despite its early and ongoing popularity among Jewish readers, Esther, like the recent DNC party platform, generated its share of controversy. The Jewish rabbis determined that it was sacred scripture, but other early readers were troubled by the absence of God’s name. So as the book evolved in its Greek version, it got a pious makeover. Prayers were added; Esther was made to look less ambitious, less sexy, and less compromising; God got top billing throughout the book. But did these revisions really make it a more holy book? Probably not. The revisions made what was already there more palatable to the squeamish and more explicit for the unsubtle reader. But more seriously, it also undermined the narrative power of the Hebrew version by reducing or eliminating the moral complexities faced by the characters. In the end, God is not trivialized, but something that might be even worse happens—the messy compromising world that most humans face gets unrealistically sanitized by the insertion of divine commands. God gets credit (and blame?) for commanding the bloodbath at the end of the book. Sometimes less really is more.

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Amy Merrill Willis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Her teaching and research interests include Apocalyptic Literature, Biblical Theology, and the Bible and Popular Culture.   She is the author of Dissonance and the Drama of Divine Sovereignty in the Book of Daniel from Continuum Press.

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