Esther: An Overview

This excerpt was taken from Dr. Erica Brown’s Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile published by Maggid Books, 2020.

Esther: An Overview

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The Book of Esther is much beloved in the biblical canon. It is a story of suspense and intrigue, royalty and beauty, great heroes and terrible villains. It has inspired countless plays, theatrical productions, and princess costumes. Beyond its cultural impact, the book ostensibly presents a radical proposition:  Jews can be successful in the diaspora. In contrast to the prophet Jeremiah, who conceded that life outside the homeland must continue for the sake of survival and continuity, Esther represents the opportunity for Jewish strength and influence in exile. Jeremiah wanted his exiles to remain productive but hardly expected diasporic communities to thrive. He told those in his charge to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit.” He advised Jews to marry and seek the welfare of their host government ( Jer. 29).

The Book of Esther, however, offers a vision of Jewish power in exile and a promise of more than just basic sustenance. Aaron Koller notes in Esther in Ancient  Jewish Thought  that when the events of the book took place, “not a person alive remembered  a time when the Persians were not in control.  As the reality became less traumatic and more ‘normal,’ the theological challenge it presented became more difficult.”¹

The normalization of an exilic state softened the theological blow. This new reality did not come without accompanying difficulties, spoken and unspoken, yet the Book of Esther presents an unapologetic narrative of Jewish pride in a land not their own. The Jews, like Esther herself, perceive themselves as a chosen people who find themselves in harm’s way. They strategize for survival and, in so doing, create a platform for lasting impact. While this is the story the book tells, there is a deeper truth behind the carefully constructed  façade of success; namely, success does not persist; sometimes it lasts for decades. Sometimes it lasts for centuries. It will not last forever. The fortunes of Jews living without true autonomy, independence, and self-governance can change instantly, as they so often have.

Adam Kirsch reminds us that the double bind of Esther has been true throughout history: “When the Jews are powerless, they are prey to the murderousness of their enemies, but if an individual Jew becomes powerful enough to defend his people, the fact of Jewish solidarity is another proof of dangerous Jewish difference.”² It seems that there is no winning strategy for diasporic success. Nevertheless, as the events of the book unfold, Esther and Mordecai act with the understanding that they are living in a momentous epoch, a time worthy of record.

This excerpt was taken from Dr. Erica Brown’s Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile published by Maggid Books, 2020.

Footnotes

1.       Aaron  Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 8.

erica_brown

Author Dr. Erica Brown

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