“ESTHER BEHAVED LIKE THE SOIL OF THE EARTH”: AGGADOS AND THE LITERAL MEANING
Rabbinic aggadah – especially that which appears towards the end of the first chapter of Tractate Megillah – contains numerous interpretations of, and interpolations into, the Scroll of Esther. Many of these aggadic insights may appear, at first blush, to be far removed from פשוטו של מקרא, i.e., a straight-forward reading of the events.
In this essay I want to examine five well-known statements of this type and demonstrate how, instead of undermining the natural flow of the narrative, these aggados serve to make the narrative more understandable on its most straightforward level. Here are the statements, (in summary form):
1. Achashverosh had been a commoner – i.e., lacking royal lineage. He became king by overthrowing the previous king and marrying Vashti, who
was of royal lineage and who had been the queen of that previous king.
2. Esther was not a natural beauty; she had a green complexion. (Hadas, the root of the name Hadassah, means “myrtle”)
3. Esther was Mordechai’s wife when she was forcibly taken to the royal palace.
4. In order avoid the sin of adultery when compelled to cohabit with the
king, Esther acted as קרקע עולם [literally: (like the) earth’s soil (which is tilled)] – meaning, she remained consistently passive in her physical relationship with him.
5. Esther informed Mordechai that, when approaching Achashverosh to plead for her people, she must indicate to the king her willingness to be physically intimate with him. She will no longer be able to act as “the
earth’s soil”. As a result, she will be forbidden from then on to live intimately with Mordechai (as she had been doing secretly until that point).
Chapter one presents Achashverosh as a paradigm of the insecure Hollow-Man*, who had been a commoner and who is now a successful and powerful nouveau-royale. In contrast to the Bible’s usual format of presenting a king as “X, King of Y” [e.g., I Kings 12:23,27,28; 15:9,17], the Megillah presents Achashverosh, in its very first verse, as “Achashverosh, the Achashverosh who reigned”. The Megillah thus introduces him twice by his name only, without any title. Then, in that same verse, it avoids the nominative title “king”, and instead uses the verb: “Achashverosh who reigned”.
Manifesting his dependence upon the approval of others – clearly an indicator of insecurity regarding his self-worth – Achashverosh throws a half-year banquet in order to “display” the glory and wealth of his kingdom, following which he endeavors to “display” the beauty of his queen.
When Vashti defies Achashverosh’s command to display her body to the intoxicated men, the king reacts with murderous rage: his inability to control her, and the disdain indicated by her refusal, readily serve to reinforce the king’s subliminal fears of self-worthlessness.
These fears likewise may explain Achashverosh’s choice of Esther over all the “fairest virgins of the kingdom”: We need only to combine his low self-image with Esther’s passivity, i.e., her refusal to manifest any attraction to him or to make any attempt to charm him or to attract him. Since her behavior threatens to validate his deepest fears, he feels compelled to “rise to the challenge” of winning her over, of convincing her that he is indeed worthy of her love. it is thus not her beauty that compels him to choose her from among all the others – she could well have had a green complexion – it is, rather, her passivity, which threatens and thus challenges his fragile ego. He therefore makes her queen.
Her five years** of unswerving passivity likewise serves to explain his ultimate rejection of her has a bedroom partner: “I have not been summoned to the king these past thirty days!” Try as he may, Achashverosh has been unable to win her heart, her passion. She likewise refuses to reveal to him basic, definitional information about her identity – her nationality, her birthplace – a refusal that clearly indicates emotional distancing, even recoil. In short, her behavior towards him continues to make him feel diminished and disdained, emasculated and unloved. Ultimately he gives up; realizing that he will never win her love, he ceases consorting with her. She fully perceives, and comprehends, the depth of his disappointment with her – to such an extent that she expects him to have her executed if given any pretext to do so.
Esther, understands, therefore, that her only hope in exercising influence over Achashverosh is if she approaches him in a way that indicates to him that her feelings towards him have radically changed: she must act as if she really does love him and truly desires him physically now. She implicitly convinces him that his avoidance of her has worked; her passion for him has become so intense that she is even willing to risk her life to be with him once again.
One five-word image – subtly, or perhaps, not so subtly – indicates the proactively erotic element in Esther’s approach to the king. After Achashverosh extends the scepter towards her Esther arose and touched the tip of the scepter [5:2].
He is so relieved at the cessation of Esther’s passive-dismissive-denigrating trivializing of him, that he immediately offers her full equality with him. “Up to half the Kingdom!” This offer is even more striking in light of the culture of absolute denigration of women that has pervaded the narrative until this point:
•The denigration and objectification of Vashti at the party in Chapter One; • The murder (or, at least, the dethroning) of Vashti when she refused to be objectified; • The law promulgated at the end of that chapter one that all men shall “rule their households” (which, in the context of the Vashti incident, may mean that wives must make themselves physically available to their husbands, on demand, or be liable to governmental sanctions – sanctions which are left up to the reader’s imagination…); • The capture and palace-imprisonment of countless virgins, and the forced transformation of these young women into sex objects: six months in oils, six months in perfumes….
• The serial rape of these women by the king; • Consigning them to life-imprisonment after their rape – removed forever from their former social and familial contexts, with no hope of marriage or normal family life
Yet, Achashverosh is so relieved and delighted to be “wanted” by Esther – finally, after five long years of her passively rejecting him – that he readily offers her the co-regency!
Note that when, later on, Esther pleads with the king to reverse [void] the decree regarding the extermination of the Jews, he extends the scepter once again, but she does not “touch it” in return [8:4]. She has already rejoined him, and therefore no longer needs to demonstrate, symbolically, her decision to become proactive. ***
*As in The Hollow Men, by T.S. Eliot **Achashverosh marries Esther in the seventh year of his reign [2:16]; the decree of genocide against the Jews is promulgated in the twelfth year of his reign [3:7]. ***Also, when Haman approaches the palace to speak to the king there is no mention of the scepter at all. This is one of many indications that Haman was Achashverosh’s alter-ego. But that point clearly warrants a separate essay, iyh..