The Old Testament gives us all sorts of strange stories. One that I’ve been thinking about lately is the delightfully wacky book of Esther. In particular, I’ve been wondering about the lessons on sex and morality that we can learn from this book. And I find the answers a little surprising, to say the least. We’ll start with lesson one from Esther:
Use sex to get power.
Indeed, that’s a major message we can learn from this strange morality tale. Does the king notice his faithful servant for his good deeds? No. Is he willing to slaughter large numbers of his subjects for no apparent reason? Sure. And how is tragedy averted? Because a beautiful woman had access to the king’s ear — access that she bought by being willing to sleep with him. Use sex to get power, you never know when you’ll need it.
What a great lesson for today! But that’s just the beginning. Here are a few of the gems we can extract from this book:
Lessons for women
1. Make sure you’re hot. It’s all about the looks, baby.
2. Make yourself sexually available to powerful men. You never know when you’re going to need that political connection.
3. Keep yourself pure and chaste — so that powerful men will want to hop into the sack with you.
4. Save yourself for the right guy. And who is that? He needn’t be a good person, or a church member; it doesn’t really matter if he’s a mass murderer who has a thousand other women on the side and a real temper with women. What matters is that he’s powerful.
5. Overlook indiscretions like mistresses and occasional murderous rage, as long as the guy is powerful.
6. If a powerful man insists on taking you for a “test drive,” go for it! Be enthusiatic! He’s probably sleeping with a hundred other women; you need to do something to make yourself stand out. (Besides being a hottie, of course).
7. Whatever you do, don’t upset your powerful man. Cater to his every whim. No one wants to be a Vashti.
8. Above all, don’t forget to be a hottie. It all comes down to looks. And sexual availability, of course — for the right (powerful) guy.
Lessons for men
1. Find out who the cute girls are and get in their good graces. That way, you can hook them up with powerful men.
2. Remember that these men will give you power too, if you find cute enough women for them to have sex with.
3. Powerful men want to sleep with your relatives? They want to take them for a one-night test? Go for it! You might end up getting some power too. (And hey, then it will be you taking out the local cuties).
Are these “lessons” disturbing you yet? We haven’t even gotten to the best part, which is the overarching moral lesson of the entire book:
Embrace the morality of the world you’re put into. If it’s a screwed-up moral system where the king has a huge harem and you’re expected to participate, well then, try to become the sexpot of the harem. If you’re required to send off your daughters to the king, be enthusiatic! If it’s a tribal world where women are property, conform! And above all remember, it’s just fine to embrace wicked customs of morality and sex, as long as everyone else is doing it too.
I don’t particularly like these lessons. Many (most? all?) of them are contrary to church teachings. And I find it awfully hard to apply them today. The whole story seems despicable. I suspect that if President Bush suddenly declared martial law and demanded that the most beautiful Mormon women be sent to him for his sexual use, members and church leaders would rightly fight that immoral order. And yet, accession to such an order is just what Esther did, and she is celebrated for it; “jump at that opportunity,” the book of Esther tells us.
How do we reconcile the morality lessons of Esther with modern teachings, and how to we apply it (if at all) to the moral quadaries we face today? Is the book a hopeless relic of the past? Is it just another egregious illustration of the larger problem that the entire Old Testament should be consigned to the dust bin of history? Or is it salvageable?
I’m not sure it’s salvageable. I’m struggling to find anything honorable in Esther and Mordecai’s twisted assumptions (and actions) about sex and morality. Perhaps (and given my obtuseness, it’s likely) I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s a real gem or two in here. But for the moment, I’m not sure, and I find the lessons on sex and morality that I do see in the book of Esther to be quite disturbing.