Friday, 25 May 2012

Esther: a light in the darkness

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has raised funds from philanthropists to distribute copies of the King James Bible to schools throughout the country. The initiative marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of what I’m frequently assured is a great work of English literature.

I imagine there will be queues of kids in every school waiting to read their school’s new bible and be uplifted by it. 

Some of them might even gain moral guidance by reading the book of Esther. And what a story it contains.

Ahasuerus was a great Persian King. Some of us like to think of him as Xerxes but, hey, I’m not picky. Ahasuerus will do.

It seems that he decided to hold one hell of a party, inviting all his friends and all his servants to seven days of carousing. From the account in the bible, they got well and truly plastered, and Ahasuerus decided that his friends deserved a treat. He had a particularly beautiful wife, so he called for her to come and be paraded for the revellers.

It’s hard to believe, but she refused. And after being dissed like that, what option did he have? How could any wife reasonably refuse to be shown off to her husband’s friends by her husband? Particularly if that husband is an Emperor? So naturally he divorced her.

That unfortunately left his bed empty, not a desirable state of affairs, particularly for a lustful emperor. Fortunately, he had servants who knew how to look after his every need. So they brought in a bunch of virgins from whom he could take his pick. Of course they were virgins. You expected him to accept someone else’s seconds?

Now one of the virgins particularly attracted him: Esther daughter of Mordecai. Father and daughter had decided to keep it quiet that they were Jews, because as so often since, it wasn’t particularly good news to be known as Jewish around then. 

How Asuaherus fell for it I’ll never know, given they were called Mordecai and Esther, but I suppose the kind of guy who goes on seven-day binges isn’t likely to be sharpest knife in the drawer.

Someone else who fell for the deceit was the king’s adviser, Haman. He decided a pogrom against the Jews might be a good idea, and organised one. He ordered all the Jews to assemble in various places at a particular date so they could be conveniently massacred. This wasn’t news that they took to with any particular enthusiasm. Just so that you have at least one sample of the beautiful writing which so many claim is the hallmark of the King James Bible, here’s how it describes their reaction:

‘And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, [there was] great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.’

Mordecai was one of those put out by Haman’s decision, especially when Asuaherus endorsed it.

‘You’ve caught the King’s fancy,’ he told his daughter, ‘time to make something of it.’

It turned out that the King was indeed totally smitten with her. She could twist him round her little finger.

‘What would you like? It’s yours,’ he kept saying.

She wasn’t backward in coming forward. First she had the head of the adviser Haman, which presumably taught him he should have been more careful in finding out the background of the people around his boss. Next she had the heads of Haman’s ten sons. And then she really got going. Instead of everyone else getting a day to wipe out the Jews, she obtained from the King that the Jews would get the chance to wipe out their enemies. And when just one day wasn’t enough in the capital – they’d only killed 500 – Esther got them a second day when they could massacre another 300.

What fascinates me about all this is the way it captures the spirit not just of those times but of our own. Binge-drinking. An attitude towards women free of any trace of hypocritical political correctness. And a salutary endorsement of the principle that the best response to anyone who threatens your people is to wipe out rather a lot of theirs.

No wonder that as well as being celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim, this fine story has inspired many of our greatest Christian artists. One of them, Aert de Gelder, kept returning to the theme. It was one of his paintings, in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, that first put me onto this edifying story.

Aert de Gelder's Esther and Mordecai:
a real inspiration to me, as it should be

What a good move, in this confusing age, that Michael Gove has made sure this kind of material is available to more of our young people. Won’t it provide just the light they need to find a way out of the moral darkness that afflicts us all?


Keith said...

Once you start looking there is lots to learn from:

Awoogamuffin said...

The only thing I remember from trying to read the bible while I was at school was a passage about new wine in old bottles exploding or something and I promptly gave up.

Anonymous said...

From the portrait in the blog, I find it difficult to understand how the fat ungainly Esther might have
had such sway over Xerxes. But then you do say that he was in a perpetual alcoholic daze.


David Beeson said...

Thanks Keith - you've pointed me at a great source of inspiration.

Of course, Michael, the best thing to do with old wine is to get it out of the bottle, old or new.

San, I hadn't thought of that. Not exactly seductive is she? But then perhaps that's why de Gelder really isn't up there with the painters of high reput (not exactly (not exactly Titian or Manet, say).