The story of Esther is often considered one of the Bible’s greatest love stories, which is too bad. Love – romantic love, anyway – doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it.
The odd thing about the Book of Esther is that it starts as if it’s going to be a love story. The relationship between Esther and Xerxes is at the center of the book, vital to everything that happens. And think of the story: A king, searching for a queen, chooses out of many women a girl who is an orphan, a girl in exile from her conquered nation. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a fairy tale.
Except that it isn’t. Here is a fact all too easily overlooked: All those other girls – the ones who didn’t become queen – Xerxes kept them. This is how a girl went “in to King Xerxes”, and what happened to her afterward:
In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. (Esther 2:14)
This passage establishes one of the key terms of the relationship between Esther and Xerxes: She was the only queen, but she would never be the only woman. He would always have his harem.
Another window is opened in chapter 4, when Esther answers Mordecai’s urging that she plead with the king for mercy on the Jews:
“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.” (Esther 4:11)
Much can be adduced from this. For one, Esther and Xerxes’ lives were so arranged that they would not touch unless he summoned her – or she went uninvited to him, which she did under risk of death.
Secondly, at this point it had been thirty days since Xerxes had summoned Esther – by the time she did go to see him, thirty-three days and counting. That’s how long Xerxes could go without deciding he wanted to see Esther. So she probably wasn’t his One True Love.
Thirdly, Esther believed so seriously that Xerxes might execute her that she didn’t want to go to him even with the lives of her family and all her people at stake. Again, not the stuff of true love.
I don’t want to be too much of a deconstructionist on the story of Esther. It’s a remarkable story, and Esther’s fate was not necessarily an unhappy one. Life has many satisfactions that have nothing to do with romance, and Esther enjoyed some choice ones. And, being acclimated to her own culture’s notions of marriage, she may have judged her marriage much differently than we would. We’ll never know what she thought of it, or how she felt about Xerxes.
Because the Book of Esther is not a love story.
So why is it taken for one? Because people don’t read it or, if they do, they can’t see what’s in it for what they think is in it. It’s not a matter of dishonesty; our perception of things is so easily colored by our expectations and assumptions. Call it the Esther Syndrome.
We humans are always being tripped up by this; we do it, not least of all, to each other. (How suspicious are the actions of people we don’t like!) We often do it in regard to stories – including biblical stories, as you can see with Esther.
The Esther Syndrome is at work in what gets labeled children’s stories; nothing else can explain the fact that “The Three Blind Mice” is considered a childhood staple. (Do parents even listen while they recite that ditty to their children?)
It’s at work in the stereotype of fairy tales as happy fantasies. The older fairy tales, the kind the Brothers Grimm published, are often cruel and occasionally so dark you can only wonder what demented imagination conceived them. Even the more modern versions, mercifully lightened, have their heavy moments.
I emphatically include Disney movies among those modern versions (emphatically = new paragraph). Disney is also stereotyped as being just too happy, by people who are apparently too caught up in the “Happily Ever After” ending to notice the unhappiness that came first.
Are there any famous stories, biblical or otherwise, that you think are misunderstood?