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  • Learning from Esther at the Last Well on Earth
  • Alyssa A. Henning (bio)

Bible, climate change, Esther, ethics, Judaism

Literary scholar David Morris differentiates the practice of thinking with stories from thinking about them as follows: "Thinking about stories conceives of narrative as an object. Thinker and object of thought are at least theoretically distinct. Thinking with stories is a process in which we as thinkers do not so much work on narrative as take the radical step back … of allowing narrative [End Page 170] to work on us."1 In "At the Last Well on Earth," Laurie Zoloth guides readers through an exercise of thinking with scriptural stories about women's encounters at wells in the desert to engage some of the ethical challenges presented by climate change. In this response, I take up Zoloth's approach to scriptural texts and utilize the book of Esther to engage and expand Zoloth's argument that "responding to climate change as feminists requires not only acts we can understand as ethical (for example, changing our behaviors around individual consumption) but also acts that are political (as citizens within democratic states)" (142). Addressing the risks associated with climate change requires a multipronged approach that incorporates actions at the individual, community, national, and international levels. Individual actions alone can no longer prevent harms from climate change, but the need for collective or systemic changes cannot let individuals become or remain unreflective about personal choices.

The book of Esther offers an especially apt framework for thinking about such a multifaceted approach. Esther, a woman who hid her Jewish identity, was queen to the Persian king, Ahasuerus, when the king's adviser, Haman, sought permission to execute all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther revealed Haman's plot—and her Jewish identity—to the king, who, in turn, reversed the edict. Though celebrated as a hero of the Jewish people, Esther was initially a reluctant leader. By closely examining the text's description of how she decided to take action, we may better understand what we all must do to combat climate change.

Haman's edict, issued in the king's name, ordered people throughout the kingdom to "destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month … and to plunder their possessions" (Esth 3:13 New JPS). For Jews living throughout the kingdom's 127 provinces (Esth 1:1 New JPS), the edict decreed certain catastrophe and death on a massive scale. We can compare the edict's threat with the current, global threat of climate change. Like the Jews in the book of Esther, we know that if we do nothing, there will be widespread catastrophe. Faced with this overwhelming challenge, we may feel powerless to change the planet's fate. Like Esther, however, we must act.

The Jewish people's response to Haman's edict was widespread, vocal, and dramatic. According to the biblical text, "when Mordecai learned all that had happened, [he] tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly, until he came in front of the palace gate. … In every province … there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing, and everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes" (Esth 4:1–3 New JPS). When Esther learned what was going on beyond the [End Page 171] palace gates, "the queen was greatly agitated" (Esth 4:4 New JPS). Yet Esther's agitation appears to stem not from the decree, but from Mordecai's conspicuous behavior, for the text immediately continues, "she sent clothing for Mordecai to wear, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he refused" (Esth 4:4 New JPS). In fact, only after Mordecai refused to change his clothes did Esther send an attendant to "learn the why and wherefore of it all" (Esth 4:5 New JPS). Her instinct toward decorum—to keep Mordecai from "making a scene," evokes criticisms that the climate marches across the United States on April 29, 2017, disrupted traffic or made a spectacle. Yet, just as Mordecai's actions finally prompted...


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pp. 170-175
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