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Esther and Joseph: beautiful people

September 17, 2012

Rachel Held Evans has commented on Esther, and wishes a different interpretation than Driscoll’s. Here is one Jewish interpretation,

In particular, the author of the book of Esther in part modeled his heroes on Joseph, as if to say: we can survive in the Diaspora if we act like our forefather Joseph. The plot of his story contains numerous parallels to that of Joseph’s story. Consider the following:

  • A Jew rises to prominence in the foreign court.
  • There is a downturn in the hero’s fortunes.
  • Two courtiers challenge the king and are punished, and through them the hero becomes known to the king.
  • The fortunes of the heroes are reversed through the king’s sleeplessness.
  • The drama ends with a banquet where the invitees do not know the identity of the host.
  • As a result, the heroes rise to even greater, royal power.

In case these parallels were lost on any particularly obtuse readers, the author included a few lines guaranteed to bring the Joseph story to mind. read the rest here

But in addition to this we read that Esther was יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה beautiful in form and fair in appearance, while Joseph was יְפֵה-תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה  beautiful in form and beautiful in appearance. This he inherited from his mother who was יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וִיפַת מַרְאֶה also.

Esther had this in common with Joseph that her beautiful appearance made her vulnerable to the desire of a foreigner. Joseph was beautiful and desired by Potiphar’s wife. Esther ended up in the king’s harem while Joseph landed in prison. Both subsequently achieved power through their intelligence and were able to serve their own people.

Others who were labeled as beautiful in the Hebrew Bible are David, Absalom, Abigail and Tamar. For Absalom and Tamar this lead to an unhappy ending, but for David and Abigail it was perceived as a good thing. For Joseph and Esther beauty brought them to the attention of the powerful, and although this lead to misfortune, they were able to survive the initial misadventure and live to see a positive resolution.

Perhaps Driscoll and co. would not like the Hebrew Bible very much, since heroes are sometimes beautiful and sometimes strong, or both; and heroines are the same, sometimes beautiful and sometimes strong, and sometimes both.

Perhaps we will soon be able to read on Rachel’s blog a rabbi’s response to Driscoll’s interpretation.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 7:54 am

    Some of the best things Rachel Held Evans does is to ask these rhetorical questions:

    Is this not how women have been silenced throughout history–by rendering them either helpless princesses or dirty whores? And is this not how victims of patriarchy and male violence are treated around the world—as sexually culpable, as guilty, as “wanting it”? Will we let our pastors do this to Esther as it has been done to countless women before?

    She goes on, then, to reject also what she would call “equally irresponsible interpretations that render Esther a feminist hero.” Well, at least Held Evans engages with Driscoll. I wish she would not be so turned off by her interpretations of feminisms and of feminist deconstructions of the patriarchy.

    Nancy Mairs has noted, for example, how “the fundamental structure of the patriarchy is the binary.” And so notice how Rachel Held Evans uses a feminist strategy herself to expose such a binary in Driscoll’s reduction of Esther (and other biblical women) to “either helpless princesses or dirty whores”!

    At this blog, in one of our several and various looks at the many different interpretations of Esther, I early on stressed “how Esther in either Hebrew or Greek [that is, in the Hebrew Bible if not also in the Septuagint translations of it] deserves a feminist re-reading.” I linked simply to Sidnie White Crawford’s online essay that compares the biblical canon or standard of one woman and not the other: “Esther Not Judith: Why One Made It and the Other Didn’t.”

    White Crawford‘s suggestion in her conclusion is that the one “made it” and the “other didn’t” mainly “Because Esther never threatened the status quo, but Judith was a dangerous woman who had the power to subvert Jewish society.” Judith is dangerous, more, as a feminist perhaps? And the male compilers of the scriptures mainly for men by men primarily for manly purposes over women were convinced of this as well? I think this is a smart question, although one any of us could debate.

    My point is that Rachel Held Evans doesn’t want to be a “feminist” whatever prototype she must reject. And yet, she uses feminist rhetoric herself, and by that I mean she takes on in public the misogyny and gynephobia of Mark Driscoll’s interpretations, his patriarchal ones, his reduction of women to a not-male and therefore to either a princess or whore binary, where females must be under males as their counterpart and would-be complement. So cheers to Rachel but no so fast there Rachel.

    Suzanne, I love your post here, the comparisons you draw, right from the Hebrew Bible! Esther and Joseph! This is how Sidnie starts in too: she makes comparison between Esther and Judith: “Brave, wise and stunningly beautiful, Esther and Judith have much in common. Both Jewish heroines live under foreign domination. Both risk their lives to save their people from oppression. ” The biblical texts and the would be biblical texts do not easily reduce beautiful and brave people to “female” and therefore “not male” or even to “female” and therefore “not feminist.”

  2. Jenny E permalink
    September 17, 2012 2:12 pm

    I think you might have misinterpreted Rachel just a little. If you read her blog regularly, I believe you will see that she DOES, in fact, want to be a feminist and isn’t shy about saying so. She just believes that a contextualized reading of Esther may not yield a heroine that we would recognize as a feminist today. This does not render Esther less heroic, but merely points to the vastly different primary audience the writer of Esther envisioned.

  3. September 17, 2012 4:20 pm

    Thanks much, Jenny. Yes, I agree Rachel is not shying away from being a feminist herself. What I was responding to is her paragraph in which she’s written the following:

    Now, let me be clear: I am not interested in countering these irresponsible interpretations with equally irresponsible interpretations that render Esther a feminist hero. No, as with the rest of scripture, we have to read this story on its own terms. And, like it or not, this story is not about sex, it’s not about gender roles, and it’s not about marriage (though these themes are present and should certainly be discussed). At the end of the day, this is a story about Jewish identity and heritage. It’s a story about what it means to be Jewish in the context of diaspora. It’s a story about God’s preservation and providence to a scattered people, God’s presence in God’s hiddenness.

    There are plenty of responsible and feminist and Jewish interpretations of Esther:


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