Having emerged from a long run of OT lesions on Job, for the next few days we are given a choice: Judith or Esther. So I chose both. They are both very short and very colorful, and in fact, they read like novels. Judith is explicitly pious. Esther never explicitly mentions God. And they are about women.
Judith, a deuterocanonical book, contains so many ahistorical references that it is now considered an historical novel. The first half describes the buildup of the forces against Israel for not acknowledging the Persian/Assyrian king identified as Nebuchadnezzar. Achior, a royal vassal, reveals the Jewish plans for resistance, and for his pains is hauled off and dumped up a mountain pass on Israeli soil. For the Jews’ part, they remain faithful to God in practice, that is, until the food and water run out. Then the priests tell the people that in five days they will surrender, and at least save their lives. A devout and beautiful widow Judith requests that the Jews continue to be faithful while she hatches her secret plan.
Judith and her maid go to the camp of Holofernes, a general loyal to his king, even carrying kosher food for themselves, and begin a charm offensive. Ultimately, Holofernes invites her into his tent to seduce her. After all, how can he keep his dignity as a man if he cannot bed this amazing creature? Although the text insists that the general is too dead drunk to perform, thus preserving Judith’s honor, it seems pretty clear that she would have gone to whatever length to complete her plan. And so while he slept, she cut off his head, and through the carefully designed plot, leaves the tent to pray, or rather to go back up the mountain with her trophy. When this grisly act is discovered, the invading army is thrown into a panic, as planned. Israel wins the day and Judith is honored with a parade and songs of praise. It is a colorful tale.
But insofar as Jewish religious literature is concerned, this book has no place, although it did in early Christian thought. While the judge and prophet Deborah is welcomed for hammering a nail into an enemy commander’s skull, after seducing him, Judith’s book, probably of Roman-Hellenistic vintage, has experienced a culture shift such that so much heroism is no longer acceptable in a woman.
The Book of Esther (using the shorter canonical form) describes a woman who saves her people. Or does she? Perhaps the hero of the story should be Mordechai, the uncle and adoptive father of Esther. The villain is clearly Haman, with a little help from his wife.
Two cultural incidents set the frame of the story. Queen Vashti, wife of the Persian king, refuses to come to his banquet when sent for. She is disobedient to her husband. She repeatedly refuses, and ultimately is denied her title and station, and, as the king proclaims, so that her disobedience will not be a model to other women. The second has to do with Mordechai, who, being a good Jew, will only bow to God. But he is a good minister and reports a plot to kill the king. He places Esther to be seen by the king, who takes the beautiful virgin into his harem, where all the chosen are carefully prepared for a year in cosmetics and perfume, and who knows what, but I’d bet are taught the contents of a pillow book. But she is also prepared by Mordechai in the subtle social nuances of court life, and forbidden to reveal herself as a Jew.
Haman is offended by Mordechai’s refusal to do observance to the king, and hatches a plot not only to kill him, but for genocidal annihilation of the Jews. Mordechai excludes himself from the court area by wearing the forbidden sackcloth, but instructs Esther to approach the king without being called. Unlike Vashti, who refused to come, Esther does approach the king and is given permission to speak by touching his golden staff (phallic power?). She doesn’t blurt out the plot, but invites the court to a feast on the next day. She, then, when invited to speak, asks one of those “what would you do with a subject who did such and such?” It is a trick question and she exposes Haman. The king is not a Jew. These are not his people, except through his wife. But he is also a man of morals and ethics, and he doesn’t like to be tricked into something he might regret. So Haman is taken off and hanged on the gibbet he had built for Mordechai. This tale is identified with the feast of Purim, which incorporates elements of carnival, complete with costumes, noise makers, and lots of rich food. And Esther is given the credit. But until modern times no woman was allowed to read her book aloud, although its reading is mandated on the holiday.
Sexual relationships are complicated. Judith was permitted to commit murder because her victim was not of her tribe. Esther was obedient to her tribe and her husband, and so was entitled to expose a deed which was neither good for her tribe nor her husband. Each woman was following the rules. We are in another sex scandal in the case of the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge. Can women be believed? What is it wrong with “boys will be boys”? Without stringent ethical rules, nothing is wrong. “Not my tribe. I can do what I want.” In today’s anger, we are all forgetting the natural law that humans historically have had sexual appetites mixed up with power. Like it or not, there it is. In conflict with hormonal excess there still is and will always be a gender based desire to be cherished and protected, or be protective and honored. Perhaps we are socially moving away from these traditional notions, but are we? Are we flattening socio-sexual relationships by not recognizing the variety of needs in both genders? I have no answer, but Disney princesses are still a hot number amongst young girls.
What Haman did was wrong, not because he wanted to kill a lot of innocent people, but because he lied to his king. The manipulation of Esther was not wrong in the context of her society, although today the Tweets would be flying. Likewise, Judith was a hero, in the model of the WWII resistance fighters, but would not have been if it had merely been murder. I suspect that the accusation against the SCOTUS candidate came so late because he did not confess, express contrition, because contrition is meaningless unless one confesses to the victim, and the stakes were too high, Back then, where were the judge’s parents, his priest, his school chaplain, his teachers? What we must keep in mind is that we have rules: Jesus’ rules. For all the baptized they are Law. Love and obey God, and love and respect all people in the Holy Spirit. Can we forgive “boys will be boys”? Yes, but the boys need to confess and make amends, not to lie before God, and before us.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.