The Purim story, also known as the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, is a unique narrative in our literary canon. In addition to stylistic anomalies, such as its use of Persian words, its departure from the strict grammatical rules of Biblical Hebrew, and the fact that God isn’t mentioned once in the story, evidence suggests that the Book of Esther stands alone as a book of the Hebrew Bible likely written simply to entertain. This certainly fits with our contemporary celebration of Purim, in which we focus on entertainment through costume, song, food, and drink.
As we find with other sources of entertainment, such as books, TV shows, movies, or plays, stories can still carry important lessons even while their primary purpose is to entertain. In the case of the Book of Esther, we have two strong female leads who offer two different approaches to feminism and social activism writ large. Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses, the first Syrian woman to become a rabbi, suggests that Queen Vashti and Queen Esther create a map for social change through their respective storylines.
While Queen Vashti’s storyline is relatively short, she provides a strong example by rejecting a problematic system. When King Ahashverosh demands that she “show her beauty” to his party guests, which later sources think is a euphemism for parading around naked, she simply refuses (Esther 1:11-12). She chooses to face the repercussions of standing up to authority rather than subject herself to this treatment. We see the potential impacts of such a strong refusal when the King’s advisors fear that Vashti’s protest will encourage women all around Persia to defy their husbands (Esther 1:17). The King turns this insecurity into policy, publishing an edict that both banishes Vashti from the kingdom and encourages all wives throughout Persia to honor their husbands (Esther 1:20). While Vashti’s refusal removes her from the rest of the story, her protest has implications throughout the kingdom, and shows us the power of saying “no” when encountering sexism and exploitation.
Queen Esther offers an alternative model of feminism and activism. When King Ahashverosh brings women from all over Persia for a sexually exploitative competition to become his next queen, Esther participates (Esther 2:14-15). She not only participates in this sexist system, she rises in power to the position of queen, keeps her Jewish identity a secret, and effectively becomes a part of the system that she eventually subverts. Esther’s position of power becomes extremely useful when the Jews are facing danger. When Mordechai refuses to bow to King Ahashverosh’s esteemed advisor Haman, all Jews are at risk of being killed. In Chapter 4 of the Book of Esther, she prepares to approach the King about this matter, an act that can be punishable by death (Esther 4:11). However, Esther had effectively played within the system, and used her status as the favorable queen to plan a series of banquets. It’s at that last banquet that Esther reveals her true identity, advocates on behalf of the Jews, and successfully lobbies against Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jewish people (Esther 7:3-6). Queen Esther shows us the potential of working from within a system, and using a position of power to stand against injustice.
Vashti and Esther both present valid approaches to feminism and activism. Vashti’s protest against the kingdom and its far reaching impact is an illustration of rejecting an unjust system. Esther, on the other hand, used her power to work for social change from the inside out. Both approaches can lead to meaningful progress and can even complement each other for greater efficacy. As we reflect on the joy of Purim, I hope we are also able to glean some of the holiday’s implicit lessons as well, such as Vashti and Esther’s examples of social activism.