By Johnny Townsend (originally from his blog Queer Mormon)
Women do not often have starring roles in the scriptures, so when they do, it must be because they’ve done something extraordinary. Surely, women did many more interesting or incredible things than were recorded, but the action had to be extraordinary enough to capture a man’s attention, since it was men who wrote the scriptures, and men did not always notice things which were worth noticing.
In fact, in recording the account of Esther, it is clear that the man writing the story pretty much missed the significance of Queen Vashti’s refusal to be treated merely as a sex object to be displayed at will. Vashti gives up her crown and possibly her life rather than be bullied and degraded, but this heroic event is only mentioned as background for the story of Esther, whose main accomplishment in life seems to be that she managed to inherit genes which made her beautiful through no effort of her own. Her spiritual fortitude is that she can win a beauty pageant. And as the story progresses, it seems again that the writer misses some significant points, but at least he records the information so that we can still learn those points on our own.
Esther is the heroine of the Jewish festival Purim, celebrated every year, so this is not some tiny story which has become a footnote. And yet the story is problematic not only for Jews for also for Christians, who share this same religious heritage. Esther, it turns out, sees the notice the king has posted requesting virgins to apply for a position in his harem, and the best applicant will get to replace Vashti. Esther signs up.
Some may claim that her uncle and guardian, Mordecai, put her up to it, and as an obedient girl, she complied meekly. But are we really supposed to admire her for this? She could have refused (remember Vashti?) or she could have run away or she could have talked to Mordecai and bore her testimony, or something. But she goes along with the plan, despite the obvious fact that the king is Persian and is not Jewish. Are we supposed to learn from our heroine that marrying out of the faith is acceptable if it’s to gain money and power? Are we supposed to accept that being a concubine in a pagan harem is the equivalent of a church-sanctioned (or synagogue-sanctioned) marriage? And yet nowhere in the story are Esther or Mordecai described negatively. There is nothing to make us think they are bad at the beginning but then repent and become good at the end. In fact, at the end, Esther is still married to the non-Jewish king.
Moreover, Esther can hardly be actively practicing her religion since she tells no one in the royal court that she is Jewish, and she certainly is not free to roam about the city as she pleases. She apparently is giving up an awful lot just for some temporal comforts. And yet she is a heroine.
Ah, but it’s because of what comes next. When the evil Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews, it is Esther who comes to the rescue. Spurred on by Mordecai, Esther “comes out” to the king, revealing herself as a Jew and pleading for her people. Because of her, hundreds of thousands of lives are saved. It would be as if Eva Braun told Adolph Hitler that she was Jewish and he immediately canceled all his plans for the Final Solution. Esther prevents a Holocaust in Persia. This non-practicing Jewish harem girl having sex with a Persian king is God’s chosen vessel for saving His people.
So is it the fact that she was successful that makes us overlook what otherwise would surely be seen as faults? Jews used to forbid intermarriage upon pain of death, and even today, parents in many religions will declare that a child who marries outside of the religion is “dead” to them. They are excommunicated from the family or the religion.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith said that what is wrong at one time may be right at another. God, apparently, is the one who makes these decisions. We would look at Esther or the ambitious Mordecai rather negatively, but they were evidently following the Lord’s plan for them. God knew what Hama was plotting, we say, and so He had to put Esther in a position where she could do some good. Perhaps that is so, though there is no hint in the account that God planned any of this.
Of course, the story raises other questions as well. Even if Esther is the applicant chosen as queen, there is no evidence that she knew she wouldn’t become just another common member of the harem when she applied. There is certainly no hint that God revealed it to her or Mordecai in any way. Even as “top girl,” she is still a willing participant in a sexually less-than-pure marriage. She knows and accepts what is going on with the other women. And yet not once in the story is there a negative word about her, for her sexual ethics, her economic motives, the fact that she doesn’t practice her religion, or for not even mentioning her religion, when before Haman announced his plan, it was surely no crime to be a Jew.
One wonders why, considering our acceptance of Esther, we can so easily condemn others who don’t quite “follow the plan,” either. Gays, for instance, are usually depicted as living with sexual standards much like those of a harem, but even their monogamous relationships we condemn. They’re not doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing.
Well, obviously Esther wasn’t either, at least according to the official rules. But she seems to have fit right in with God’s plan. It’s quite possible that gays and lesbians do as well. There is no way to accept Esther without admitting that not everyone always has to live by the same rules, that for some reasons which we may not even be aware of at the time, God has a reason for letting people “get away” with something which seems wrong. It was over a year after Esther joined the harem before Haman made his decree, so at least for a year, before Esther’s usefulness became apparent, she should have been viewed as a major sinner, for marrying outside her religion if for nothing else.
Perhaps the moral of the story isn’t the traditional one we usually attribute to it. We can agree with Esther’s bravery in “coming out” and follow her example, but perhaps just as important is the example of Vashti who overcame cultural norms and demanded respect millennia before women’s rights were even contemplated by men. And if she can overcome cultural norms, and Esther can prove that sexual values are sometimes relative, maybe we can learn a little tolerance and understanding as well.
We are told that the scriptures have been given to us so we can learn important principles as we study and meditate and make the scriptures as important to us as they are supposed to be. Perhaps in the story of Esther there is more to learn than we have allowed ourselves thus far, because we have been more captivated by beauty ourselves instead of by more substantial elements. But if Esther can help the hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gays in our churches and synagogues today, she may yet become an important heroine all over again.
Johnny Townsend earned an MFA in fiction writing from Louisiana State University. He has published stories and essays in Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The Progressive, Christopher Street, The Massachusetts Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, and in the anthology In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions. He has also spoken at the Sunstone symposium in Salt Lake on the subject of gay Mormon literature.