Feminist Aspects of Megillat Esther: Part Two

The inferior status of women in the Empire of Persia and Mede is even more noticeable in the Megillah's description of the selection of a new Queen. What was expected of the new Queen - to what kind of candidate was this lofty position being proposed? ChII, 2-4:

Then the king's servants who ministered to him said, 'Let fair young virgins be sought for the king; and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, to gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan, the capital, to the house of the women, to the custody of Hege the king's chamberlain, keeper of the women... and let the girl who pleases the king become queen instead of Vashti."

It is not the King's senior counselors who advise him how to choose a new queen, but simple assistants, "the King's young lads" - and their language is similarly simple. The King is advised to hold a sort of beauty contest, where the only requirement of the contestants is that they should be fair virgins. Participation is to be compulsory. From among the candidates - whose only quality for the position is reduced to superficial criteria - the best in appearance will be sent in to the King for a trial night and the King will select the girl who pleases him most, after which she will join the concubines [i.e. the royal harem].

The Megillah's author gives expression to his reservations about the manner in which the King chooses a wife and words the young lads' conversation in a style and register reminiscent of the tithe collections in the Egypt of Joseph's days: Genesis, ChXLI, 34-37:

"Let Pharaoh ... appoint officers in the land... and take up ... in the seven years of plenty ... against the seven years of famine ... And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh..."

Esther, ChII, 3-4:

"Let fair young virgins be sought ... and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces ... to gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan ...And the thing was good in the eyes of the king..."

Women are treated as a negotiable commodity - preferably esthetic, like food. The Megillah repeatedly brings to the fore, through the literary conventions at its disposal, to what extent there is a lack of personal and emotional relationship towards women and how much it is an external, functional one. The text emphasizes that every candidate is required to spend half a year at a beauty parlor before being summoned to the King, and the extensive treatments are even described in detail: ChII, 12:

"... for so were fulfilled the days of their annointing: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with sweet fragrances..."

The choice of phrasing recalls a parallel in the Book of Genesis: Genesis L, 3:

"... for so are fulfilled the days of those who are embalmed..."

The description in Genesis, however, refers to the preparation of Jacob's dead body - while that of the Megillah is of a live woman. The parallel in language intimates that the entire frame of reference to a woman was in terms of her body, without any consideration for her mind and soul.

Esther - so it would appear from the Megillah - is totally uninterested in becoming one of the candidates to be crowned Queen, and the text emphasizes that she was taken to the palace against her will. ChII, 8:

"... that Esther was brought also to the king's house..."

It specifically states that this was the King's command and precept (=law), that the girls were "collected" to Susa, the capital and that Esther was "taken" to the palace. The language of the text continues in the same chapter in this fashion, even when Esther goes in to see the King: ChII, 16:

"So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal house..." This verse recalls the taking of Sarah - against her will - to the house of Pharaoh, Genesis XII, 15: "... and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house."

The girls are taken in to the King for a trial night, and on the following morning they are transferred from Haga, the women's guard, to Sh'ashgaz, king's eunuch and keeper of the harem [ChII, 14].

One has the distinct feeling that the author of the Megillah is describing this "animal" attitude towards women with revulsion.

When Esther's turn approaches, there is emphasis on the gap between Esther's dignified stature and the humiliating situation into which she has fallen in the Persian Empire. ChII,15:

"... she requested nothing but what Hege ... apointed. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her."

Moreover, although all the candidates had the opportunity to improve their chances by making personal requests for artifices which would enhance their appearance - ChII,13

"... whatever she desired would be given her to take with her out of the house of the women into the king's house"

Esther, uninterested in 'success', "requested nothing" [ChII,15]. All the evidence points to the fact that Mordecai's request to Esther not to reveal her true identity actually stems from his disatisfaction with the idea of her becoming the wife of Ahasuerus. [ChII, 10, 20] [See also Rashi on II,10 about her dignified family background.] Nevertheless, Esther is chosen queen, and to celebrate the choice of a new Queen, the King yet again holds an enormous feast - the Feast of Esther. [ChII,18]

Nothing is told of the relationship between the King and Queen during their years of marriage. It emerges as purely "functional". In precisely the same way as the candidate for the crown was left to the guard of the concubines unless,

"the King desired her and called her by name" [II,14],

the Queen awaits the next call.

The Megillah makes it abundantly clear that, recently, the King had rarely felt the need for the services of his wife and Queen, and Esther specifically says to Mordecai: ChIII,11:

"but I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days."

Queen Esther was as inferior in status as any other woman. She risked her life if she should come before the King without his specific permission, as did any other member of the court.[III,11]. Esther's life was luxurious, but she was really isolated in the King's court. Only when Haman's decree fell did she express her independent nature. She was called upon by her cousin Mordecai to try to save the Jews and only then does Mordecai pose a possible reason for her becoming Queen. ChIV, 14:

"... who knows whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this?"

It is apparent that men viewed the women of the King's court as objects of entertainment, whose role it was to satisfy a man's needs and to serve him in whatever manner possible. The woman's own wishes - whether it be Vashti or a candidate for the queenship - had no importance in the story of the Megillah and a woman's independence was denied her. The descriptions in the account convey superbly - through associations with the story of Joseph in Genesis - the relationship devoid of feeling and humanity existing between men and women, together with the lack of freedom accorded women to express their opinions, their wishes... themselves.


 

 

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16 Jun 2005 / 9 Sivan 5765 0