For Christians, the Bible is a rich and beautiful text filled with nuanced, complicated, and relatable characters. And few are as inspiring as Esther’s. Her tale captures our imagination with court intrigues, sweeping drama, and epic scale. But it’s also a hero’s story: One woman’s bravery and intelligence changes the course of two nations, and brings one of the worst villains in biblical canon to justice.
To Christians, though, the Bible isn’t just a book of stories well-told. We are also instructed to learn from them, and let those histories shape our futures. Here again, very few have received this treatment as often as Esther: “For such a time as this,” a phrase uttered by Mordecai to his adopted daughter Esther, is a common refrain repeated all over American Christianity, from the Christian Broadcasting Network, The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier Ministries, and Rick Warren, to right here at Sojourners. Use of Esther’s narrative often takes on a political hue — conservatives and progressives alike challenge other Christians to adopt Esther’s spirit to wield whatever political influence we have, despite the consequences.
There’s one character in Esther’s story who is frequently ignored: Zeresh, Haman’s wife. By the time Zeresh emerges from the background of the story, the conflict is well under way — Haman has put his plan in place to slaughter all the Jews in Persia. For the second time, he’s seen Mordecai refuse to make obeisance to him, and he returns to his wife filled with rage. Zeresh comforts him and suggests a plan: Haman should construct a gallows, and impale Mordecai on a seventy-five-foot stake.
It’s not surprising that Christians have found little to relate to in Zeresh. She’s one of the monsters of the tale, a biblical Lady Macbeth. But I do think one group of people in particular could stand to examine her character more carefully: white women.
In biblical womanist interpretation, white women like me are asked to realign our imaginations, and see ourselves not as the marginalized character, but in the role of the text’s oppressor.
I can think of few characters that fit this lens better than Zeresh, a woman who is part of a dominant ethnic group, and is very interested in supporting her husband’s power.
To do this, it’s important to start with Haman’s part in the narrative. We know he’s been given a position of high authority in Ahasuerus’ government, and that most of his life has been quite successful. He’s powerful, he’s rich, and he has demonstrated his masculine prowess by fathering ten sons. One day, though, he sees Mordecai refusing to bow, and that simple inaction enrages him. Mordecai has done nothing actively insulting — he just didn’t bow. But that’s enough for Haman to sentence Mordecai to death — along with every single person who shares his ethnic identity.
Haman’s behavior is one of the ways that whiteness functions in American society today. People of color are forced to make their obeisance to whiteness: Always be demurely respectful, excessively polite, happy, smiling, obliging. Never be angry, or frustrated, or fearful. Failure to follow these rules, especially around our police force, may end in extrajudicial execution.
The means of Haman’s genocide also has modern parallels: He calls on fellow Persian citizens to kill every seditious, rebellious, traitorous foreigner in their midst. His justification in the text, his rationalization for his ethnic hatred, is national security.
Zeresh is not just complicit in all this. She actively supports it. As Haman’s wife, she enjoys a stratospheric level of power for a woman in her culture. Through him, through birthing his children and supporting his career, she commands her own slivers of respect and authority. In order to preserve her own power she has to preserve his.
And so she makes her suggestion: Don’t just take your revenge on Mordecai. Don’t just execute him. Publicly execute him — mount his body on a seven-story-tall gibbet. Leave his body in the middle of the street for four long, miserable, terrorizing hours. Teach those people a lesson — warn them of what happens when they refuse to bow, when they jaywalk, when they sell cigarettes on a street corner.
Your rage is correct, rational, even inevitable, she tells her husband. Your economic anxiety is legitimate. Of course you should be afraid of Muslim refugees. Yes, that black man deserved to be executed without a trial because he wasn’t diffidently compliant.
White women — yes, even white feminists — have a long history of propping up white power. Susan B. Anthony once said she’d cut off her right arm before she’d “demand the ballot for the Negro and not a woman.” White women were an integral part of the fight to keep segregation alive, and were active in the Klan.
And still, today, white women consistently vote in the interests of our race over our gender. Like Zeresh, we are tempted not only to work to entrench our institutional power — but also to direct and focus white male rage.
The spokeswoman for the NRA, Dana Loesch, recently told members in menacing tones to fight back against Black Lives Matter, against progressive causes, against marches and protests with the “clenched fist of truth.”
Teach them a lesson. Impale their body on a stake.
Zeresh’s plan is cruel and brutal, and the ways that whiteness enforces its power really are often that bloody. But we should dig even deeper than that, for the systems and decisions that led her to this moment. When she appears, she’s accompanied by all of Haman’s friends. Every person in the couple’s life knows of Haman’s life and his plans, and none of them object. Zeresh and Haman’s communal life is homogenous, of the same banal racism that exists in many of our churches, even in our most progressive denominations; and in our elections, even in our most progressive communities. We occasionally elect a token Mordecai, but they have to be extraordinary — as extraordinary as uncovering a conspiracy to kill the king — before their work is respected and celebrated.
White progressive women: Let’s examine our own lives and our own choices. How are we supporting our own interests over racial equity and justice? Are we comfortable in our all-white or mostly-white communities and churches? Is our instinct to protect our own position, or promote people of color over and above ourselves? How do we react to anyone who dares to rebel, to anyone who dares stand upright when everyone else has been forced to bow?