It may be that Esther’s mental state at a crucial moment in her mediated dialogue with her Uncle Mordecai is signaled by one small Hebrew word.
And they told Mordecai what Esther had said.Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:12–14 ESV)
The English translation quoted above has the merit of attempting to render this little word explicitly rather than blend it into the verbal construction of which it is a part: ‘Do not think to yourself …‘ So, for the translators of the English Standard Version, Mordecai knows that Esther may be deceiving herself behind the curtain of her words. Perhaps she is even attempting to double-talk Mordecai, arguing the impropriety of approaching the Persian king uninvited while secretly seeking he down exit.
The New International Version takes the other possible route:
Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.
The conundrum is the little Hebrew word בנפשך, which could be glossed very literally in context as ‘Do not suppose in your soul that …’ It is possible that the text merely wants to have Mordecai say ‘Don’t imagine …’. But paired with a verb of mental rather than spoken activity (the Hebrew דמה), this looks very much like Mordecai observing that Esther’s objections to assertive action in the crisis at hand may conceal an inner desire for self-protection. Perhaps the text even allows itself to insinuate that Esther would be prepared to see her people perish on a technicality so long as she made it through the storm.
No wonder Bible translators die young.
It would not be the first time an alarmingly daring Hebrew text found ‘help’ from scandalized translators who though the safest path is not to imagine that the Bible’s protagonists could be that human.
Let us suppose that Esther shares with us readers a heart that—especially in an existential crisis—does not know itself well enough to be sure its motives are simple. Let us suppose that, for one white-hot moment, Esther’s own survival looked preferable to securing her people’s future.
Would that make her unlike us? Or too close for comfort?
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Sometimes the tears must flow. To stop them would be to tell the lie that things are not so bad.
The Bible’s masterfully told story of Esther has the unlikely queen’s uncle leading the mournful charge as the Jewish community in exile faces extermination. In that way of cloistered royalty, Queen Esther seems the last to know, the last to come to terms with the imminent extinction of her people. Palaces can be oblivious places.
When she is apprised of her Uncle Mordecai’s extreme behavior in the public square—tearing his clothes, covering himself in sackcloth and ashes—she remedies the situation as the powerful and the naive are wont to do.
Mordecai will not have it.
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth.And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. (Esther 4:1–4 ESV)
Sorrow tells a truth that cannot be silenced by cheap tricks and new clothes.
Had Mordecai caved to the pressure to lighten up, there would be no Book of Esther, no Jewish people, no cradle of Messiah.
Truth will out, sometimes to the tune of unstoppable groans.
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Some find the violent pedigree of the Purim celebration distasteful. In a day that has seen too many religious massacres, it hardly seems right to gather with family and friends on the anniversary of an ancient one, when according to the book of Esther the Jews of the Persian diaspora brought vengeance down on those who had planned to destroy them.
To this reader, such moral sensitivity seems too finely tuned. (more…)
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In the face of Esther’s passivity when informed of her people’s peril, her uncle Mordechai has strong words. Considerable heat might well have surged as he dictated his response to his courtly adoptive niece:
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
At the risk of caricature, the book of Esther is in particular ways representative of the history of the Jewish people. Disproportionate achievement, access to the halls of influence, and acute peril comingle in this people as a constant that is persistent against the turn of generations and the shifting of circumstance. (more…)
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