Having an Esther Moment

The Book of Esther on a scroll of parchment from the 18th century
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Last week, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and a felony sex crime. This follows months of news about Jeffrey Epstein, which follows years of news about famous others, such as Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, and Mario Batali. Sexual innuendo, harassment, and abuse make women into objects rather than subjects, reducing human beings to body parts to be complimented or criticized, touched or molested. Sexual misconduct—from a lewd joke to nonconsensual relations—stems from men having too much power and women having too little.

With each new case, I feel a pound of relief and an ounce of remorse: Why didn’t we stand up to this earlier? Why does this happen so much? Why do I feel so powerless? The surfeit of stories becomes mentally and emotionally destabilizing. It’s enough.

None of this is new, of course, which is why I turned to an old story for some solace and guidance. Seeking ancient wisdom, I opened a biblical book in which women were also treated as objects: the Book of Esther. For those unfamiliar with this 10-chapter scroll, it’s the strange comic, tragic story of a young, beautiful Jewish orphan, an exile in Persia, who was forcibly taken, along with all the other virgins in the empire, to compete in a beauty contest to win King Ahasuerus’s heart. Ahasuerus, an impressionable buffoon, has been identified as the Persian ruler Xerxes, dating the setting of this tale to the fourth century b.c.

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The king had a queen by the name of Vashti, but when a drunk Ahasuerus summoned her to entertain his ministers, she outright refused and was banished. These courtiers then decided that new legislation was called for throughout the empire so that “all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” Dominance needed to be restored in every household. Male insecurity here is on full display.

In The Woman’s Bible, a landmark suffragette text, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucinda B. Chandler regarded Vashti as an iconoclast, a woman unafraid to confront male exploitation: “Vashti had exercised heroic courage in asserting womanly dignity and the inherent human right never recognized by kingship, to choose whether to please and to obey the king.” The only problem with using Vashti as a heroine is that she was likely killed for standing up to male power. She didn’t change court culture; she was its victim.

Esther won the contest and concealed her Jewish identity. Her victory, however, was no cause for celebration. The king’s evil minister, Haman, persuaded him to rid the empire of its Jews, using what is arguably one of the oldest canards of anti-Semitism: The Jews are different, and therefore not to be tolerated. Esther came from two powerless demographics as a Jew and a woman, but in a destiny moment, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and protector, persuaded the new queen to come forward, reveal herself, and save her people. In the space of one chapter, Esther went from object to subject, from a pretty face to an empowered, courageous leader. And this was millennia ago.

The story bears a striking resemblance to the frame narrative of the collected Middle Eastern folktales called “One Thousand and One Nights.” King Shahryar learned that his wife had been unfaithful and executed her. He then married one virgin after another, slept with them, and then murdered them in the morning before they could betray him. His kingdom actually ran out of virgins, except for the daughter of the very vizier who gathered these women for the king. Scheherazade, the vizier’s clever daughter, was able to weave together such intriguing stories each night that the king could not kill her until the story finally ended. The king postponed her execution for a thousand and one nights.

Both Esther and Scheherazade understood how to manipulate controlling men. Scheherazade, however, played upon the king to save herself. Esther, in contrast, was willing to sacrifice her life for a higher cause. Esther understood that what was at stake was more than her personal dignity or her survival, but the fate of an entire vulnerable, powerless population. Esther gave voice to the voiceless—and in contrast to Vashti’s public rejection of the king’s authority and Scheherazade’s literary seduction, she succeeded by making a strong case for justice.

Esther emerged as a commanding and influential trailblazer. Against the backdrop of an eviscerating news cycle that provides women with constant reminders of how small we’ve been made to feel, Esther inspires us to speak up to change the future narrative for girls and women. Last year, the Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman faced Larry Nassar in a courtroom and had her Esther moment. “I have both power and voice,” she said, “and I am only beginning to just use them.”