Esther and the Politics of Negotiation
Public and Private Spaces and the Figure of the Female Royal Counselor
Publication Year: 2013
Was Esther unique—an anomaly in patriarchal society? Conventionally, scholars see ancient Israelite and Jewish women as excluded from the public world, their power concentrated instead in the domestic realm and exercised through familial structures. Rebecca S. Hancock demonstrates, in contrast, that because of the patrimonial character of ancient Jewish society, the state was often organized along familial lines. The presence of women in roles of queen consort or queen is therefore a key political, and not simply domestic, feature.
Attention to the narrative of Esther and comparison with Hellenistic and Persian historiography depicting “wise women” acting in royal contexts reveals that Esther is in fact representative of a wider tradition. Women could participate in political life structured along familial and kinship lines. Further, Hancock’s demonstration qualifies the bifurcation of “public” (male-dominated) and “private” (female-dominated) space in the ancient Near East.
Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers
Series: Emerging Scholars
Title Page, Copyright Page
The book of Esther introduces the problem of gender relationships in the first chapter. The private dynamics between the king and the queen, who refuses to do as her husband asks, quickly become a matter for which the royal sages are consulted. Immediately, the counselors express their fear that this minor dispute will set a national precedent, impacting the relationships between men...
1. Introduction to the Problem: Esther in Scholarship
A brief survey of literature on the book of Esther quickly reveals that scholars have subjected the title character to widely divergent interpretations.1 On the one hand, some have seen Esther as merely a beauty queen, a woman with little else but her appearance to recommend her. Lewis B. Paton, a scholar of the early twentieth century, viewed Esther as remarkable for her looks rather than...
2. Theoretical Problems with the Language of Public and Private
The previous chapter demonstrated the way that the narrative portrayal of Esther has been greatly contested, which often leads to one of two very different conclusions: either that Esther is a passive figure or that she defies gender stereotypes and acts in a public way. Furthermore, these divergent interpretations are often rooted in a distinction between public and private...
3. Narrative Representatives of Space, Gender, and Women’s Roles in Esther
In this chapter, I will examine the narrative portrayal of Esther to determine whether there is textual warrant for the use of the categories of public and private. Specifically, does the picture presented in the literary world support the use of gendered and dichotomous language regarding public and private spheres? In order to do this, there are several requisite steps. First, I consider the...
4. Esther and Representations of Persian Royal Women
As we saw in the preceding chapter, the book of Esther represents a highly fictionalized account, one that deliberately employs exaggerations and absurdities about Persian life for literary purposes. Thus, it is likely that there is little correspondence between Esther’s narrative portrayal and the lives of actual Persian royals. There are, however, two significant reasons to look at various...
5. Esther the Politician: Traditions of Counseling Women
This chapter will look to the particulars of the narrative context of the book of Esther to see whether the view that Esther is an exception—that is, a woman who overturns gender expectations by acting in the public sphere—is warranted. It is my contention that one problem with seeing Esther as an exception to normative portrayals of women is that her characterization draws...
The primary question that this study has sought to answer is, how might we characterize the narrative depiction of Esther’s political involvement in the affairs of the Persian state? Most scholars have tried to answer this question by focusing on another question: Does Esther represent an aberration from gender norms or an embodiment of male patriarchal values? The project undertaken...
Appendix: Suggested Reading
Index of Authors
Index of Biblical References