Lessons on Sex and Morality, from the Book of Esther

June 16, 2004 | 25 comments
By

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.

Tags: , ,

25 Responses to Lessons on Sex and Morality, from the Book of Esther

  1. Aaron Brown on June 16, 2004 at 2:23 am

    Your problem, Kaimi, is that you have no faith. You think you’re smarter than the scriptures. But God’s word is timeless, so I suggest you do what I do: Swallow your intellectual pride and commit to putting the lessons of Esther into practice. You will be blessed.

    “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.”

    Unless, that is, they remember their 12th Article of Faith, which tells them they believe in being subject to secular rulers of all sorts. And if their rulers are wrong, they need not worry, since the responsibilities for any bad acts will be on their leaders’ heads, not their own. My advice would be not to worry about any of this and to be strictly compliant.

    Isn’t the moral absolution we earn through unquestioning obedience just wonderful?

    Aaron B

  2. Aaron Brown on June 16, 2004 at 2:24 am

    :)

    Aaron B

  3. Julien on June 16, 2004 at 7:18 am

    Aaron, maybe I’m just stupid, but…. that comment was meant sarcastically, right?!

  4. diogenes on June 16, 2004 at 10:25 am

    Sarcastic or not, Aaron misapprehends Kaimi’s problem — his failure is in not one of faith, but one of what Harold Bloom would call a “strong reading.” There is more going on in the text than Kaimi acknowledges.

    In in the March/April 2002 issue of Tikkun, Bonna Devorah Haberman offers an activist reading of the Megillah that is worth careful scrutiny — see http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik0203/article/020314b.html Haberman’s reading suggests that Esther did *not* adopt the norms of the society she found herself in, but rather subverted them.

    Comparing the story of Esther to that of Abraham, she notes, “While the rabbis did often stress that one of the greatnesses of our Torah is that the protagonists are fully human, surely they did not intend that we emulate their shortcomings. We refine our own humanity by revealing their assumptions, and analyzing and engaging with their struggles. The goal of this interpretation is neither outrage nor alienation, but to embrace empathy and to resolve to improve our own behavior and that of our societies. There is evidence of this process in the text.”

    That process of change may be the proper lesson of Esther, rather than the lessons Kaimi suggests.

  5. Julien on June 16, 2004 at 11:00 am

    I agree, that is – if not completely – part of the conclusion I’ve come to, thinking about it and talking to others about it.
    When Christ came he brought the fulfillment of the law of Moses, and with that he gave a higher law. It is no longer, don’t kill, but don’t hate, not don’t commit adultery, but don’t lust, don’t just serve your friends but love and serve your enemies. It is clear that a God that is the same today, yesterday, and forever, doesn’t approve of immorality or murder or anything else just because of the time period, right? Well, then why does it seem like there are so many problems with the stories in the Old testament? One is I think we just don’t understand it all and it has been changed and corrupted over the years, but you can’t just explain it all away like that. The think that hit me was that God doesn’t justify it, and that isn’t what he is trying to teach. Much of the Old Testament is history, and stories that happened, but just because the people did something doesn’t mean God justifies it, but the stories are there for the good things that we are supposed to learn. He isn’t trying to teach us the other stuff. So maybe Ester wasn’t supposed to be a lesson on morality. The biggest thing though, is that we have a Prophet and Apostles today. Reading the scriptures is important, but not as important as listing to what God wants us to do now. There are a lot of things in the Old testament that help us, but that isn’t all we were given to guide us, and with what we have now, we know what we are supposed to do concerning morality and God didn’t leave us with only the Old Testament to teach us. Even more so yet, he has given us not only Prophets and other revelation to guide us now, but he has given us the gift of the Holly Ghost to testify to us of truth. If we don’t know what is right than we can pray about it. We don’t need to be confused about what is right and what we are supposed to be doing.

  6. John David Payne on June 16, 2004 at 11:20 am

    Speaking of the mormon obsession with sex, does anyone remember the post where we talked about which places have the best LDS singles scenes? A guy in my (singles) ward just put together a really good map, and I thought it deserved a link. But I can’t find the post where we were talking about this. Anyone?

    Here’s the map, by the way:

    http://neiljenkins.net/LDSSinglesMap/

  7. Ryan Bell on June 16, 2004 at 12:01 pm

    John, you’ll find that thread here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000644.html#more

  8. Julie in Austin on June 16, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    Adding to the list “Why Esther is Weird”:

    (1) The name of God does not appear in this book, the only book of scripture where this is the case

    (2) The book describes the origin of Purim, the only Jewish holiday (until you get to Chanukah, I suppose) that doesn’t originate in the Pentateuch.

    I’m conflicted about your comments, Kaimi. On the one hand, you have to play the hand you are dealt, and Esther couldn’t exactly go to Amnesty International and try to get the international community to rally to her cause. It would have been reprehensible for her to have the king’s ear and *not* use it to save her people. On the other hand . . . I agree with everything you said.

  9. Julie in Austin on June 16, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    [duplicate content removed]

    I think the only quibble that I would have with you is that I don’t see Esther starting out from the beginning with the thought, “I will use my beauty to bed the king, then he’ll have to listen to me.” I see her more as an innocent bystander, taken into sexual servitude, who then actually took great risk to tell the king what she thought.

    In other words, she had no other options.

  10. danithew on June 16, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Diogenes, is there anyplace specific where I can read more about Harold Bloom’s definition of a “strong reading”? That kind of classication of approach really interested me.

    On another note, the night my wife and I were engaged, I took her to a synagogue in Park City where we celebrated Purim and judged children’s costumes. Since we were non-Jewish visitors, I think they saw us as impartial judges. :)

    So I just want to hiss and boo every time I hear the name Haman. Purim is fun!

    Vashti is the real hero of the story, if I’m remembering the name of the king’s wife who refused to parade herself before his partying friends. Vashti must be one of the first feminists on record and she refuses to submit to the cultural rules. Unfortunately she suffers the consequences. Or maybe she was fortunate after all … would you want to stay married to this hard-drinking, hard-partying chauvinist king?

    I think Esther could be perceived as an example of the idea that sometimes rules and perhaps even commandments must be broken for the greater good. A sort of ultimate pragmatism. But I immediately see a problem with this conclusion — how could Esther have known that she was needed for the purpose of saving the Jewish people when she first entered the beauty contest? Also, as the faithful are wont to say, the Lord could have found another means to save his people. So what Esther did should not have been necessary. I don’t think Esther’s path was the way she was fore-ordained to go… but since she was there it was convenient for the Lord to use her in this way.

    This is also a story that really packs on the principle of vengeance. What do you do with your enemies? You find a way to get them killed before they kill you … and you make sure it’s a public spectacle so that everyone get’s the point. For those who support public executions, this would be a resource to cite.

    It might be interesting to see a comparison of King David and Esther. These are both figures who are very pragmatic, politically inclined, calculating, sexually-charged … and they wreak a lot of death and dstruction on their enemies (though it’s usually justified somehow). If we knew more about Esther’s life she could be a sort of female counterpart to David.

    It’s always interesting to me, when I see a set of scriptures in the temple, to realize how many stories there are in the Hebrew Bible like this. You could be sitting in the temple, a sacred place, and be reading stories that involve an unbelievable amount of violence, gore, sexuality, etc. Somehow seeing them bound in white leather just makes it even more ironic to me.

    It’s also stories like this that make me wonder at the objections so many LDS folks have to the mixture of sacred and the violent. When the movie “Brigham City” first came out, and I saw people objecting to images of the sacrament side-by-side with images of horrific violence, it seemed to me that these folks weren’t really in-tune with the scriptures and the images that they place continually before our eyes. The sacred and the violent (and sometimes the sexual as well) are constantly before our eyes anytime we open the scriptures. So we should be more used to it and not so surprised or morally horrified when these themes appear side-by-side in other places. I’m not saying we should seek them out… but we should be better prepared to deal with them than we sometimes say we are.

    My final conclusion: It’s not just the book of Esther that has these strange, wacky, unusual or seemingly out-of-tune moral lessons we could learn. The scriptures in general (perhaps particularly the Hebrew Bible) are chock-full of these sorts of stories and lessons. It’s just a matter of being open to that wacky and unusual perspective in the first place.

  11. lyle on June 16, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    hm. interesting read kaimi. even more interesting however is that the feminists here haven’t attacked you for attacking one of the few biblical books that focuses on a woman. hm…

  12. danithew on June 16, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    Kaimi,

    I just wanted to add that I loved this post. After writing up my little storm I half-pondered the idea of creating a blog that dealt solely with Hebrew Bible stories and texts. That’s a single-focus type blog I could really enjoy doing.

    WordPress hasn’t developed the capability yet to do bi-directional text (both Hebrew and English). I don’t think I want to do it unless I can really dig down into the language. If that ever happens, get ready for some major Hebrew-Bible havoc.

    Maybe I’ll stroll over to WordPress Support to make a special request …

  13. Kristine on June 16, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    um, lyle, perhaps that’s because feminism is a tiny bit more complicated than wanting women to be the stars of the show all the time.

  14. Aaron Brown on June 16, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    I sincerely HOPE that Kaimi, at least, realized I was being sarcastic. Could anyone familiar with the tone of my comments over time really think I wasn’t?

    Besides, that’s what the smiley face in my second post was meant to convey. :)

    Aaron B

  15. diogenes on June 16, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    Danithew — You’re right, Purim *is* fun, but is paradoxically based on a story of murder, rape, and oppression. That is precisely the tension that Haberman believes we need to explore.

    Most of Bloom’s career has been spent delineating the role of strong, interpretive readers (as opposed to weak, or passive readers) in dis-covering the structure of truth. You might start with Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), and The Breaking of the Vessels (1982). See also A Map of Misreading (1975).

  16. danithew on June 16, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    Diogenes,

    Thanks for the suggested titles. I’ll definitely be headed in that direction. I need to add these to the Kierkegaard book on the Abraham/Isaac story that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

  17. lyle on June 16, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    could have fooled me based on the feminist biblical texts i’ve looked at; and the comments made here at T&S & elsewhere complaining about the lack of face/name time in the scriptures.

  18. greenfrog on June 16, 2004 at 4:40 pm

    Is there a connection between the Biblical account of Esther and the Babylonian accounts of the goddess Ishtar? While such a connection might not be terribly inspirational, it might suggest a way of understanding the story in a larger context than as a simple history.

  19. AaronC on June 17, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    Hello everyone, I’ve never read this blog before, and I was impressed by Kaimi’s interesting take on Esther. I’d just like to make two quick points.

    The first is on the supposed “lesson” in the book that we should “embrace the morality of the world you’re put into.” Perhaps we are ascribing to Esther an acultural approach to her sitation which isn’t very realistic. Culture has so many elements to it that are unconscious that it is a rare person indeed who even realizes he or she is embracing anything. The way you comb your hair in the morning is indicative of inculcated cultural values that you probably don’t think much – if at all – about.

    So how does that apply to Esther? Assuredly, if she was raised by faithful Jewish parents, she was taught not to sleep around. But what was she taught about submission to authority? Someone was right to point out that there aren’t many female protagonists in the Hebrew scriptures – what does that say about assertive Jewish women?

    The second point I wanted to make was about one of the “gems” that Kaimi only suspects might be in the book. Kaimi’s reading seems to suggest that Esther’s actions show her use of sex to get power. But remember the great risk she ran in entering the king’s chambers. She was putting her life on the line, and it was with a thought to saving the lives of her countrymen, not increasing her personal comfort. She is not the Eva Peron/Lady MacBeth/Hillary Clinton do-anything-to-get-ahead type, because that type will not risk death on behalf of others. To paraphrase General Patton, one does not rise to the top of the food chain by dying for their country, but by making one’s enemies die for it. That is elementary – if Esther was the calculating political schemer Kaimi sees, assuredly she would have figured that out.

    It was precisely in this willingness to risk everything for selfless means that we find the most important gem in the book, IMO.

  20. Kaimi on June 18, 2004 at 10:26 am

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I agree that it’s entirely possible to rationalize Esther’s actions as just doing her best in the situation, playing the hand she was dealt.

    On the other hand, don’t the scriptures (including, and especially, the Old Testament) contain a number of stories that emphasize the importance of _not_ just playing the hand one is dealt? In particular, take a look at Daniel. It’s not his fault that he’s required to pray to other gods. It’s entirely within reason to just play the hand he’s dealt. But he refuses to do so.

    Why doesn’t Esther do the same? Why doesn’t she say, “you can cast me into the lion’s den if you’d like, but I’m not going to violate commandments and allow myself to become a sex object for the king’s lust”? (After all, it’s only the law of chastity involved!)

    And there is no indication that this even crossed anyone’s mind. Which brings me to another vague idea, which perhaps the real scholars around here can help out with. The recent emphasis on the primacy of chastity seems to run against a lot of history. It doesn’t seem that chastity was emphasized much or cared-about much until recent years. Is Esther just evidence of this shift? I’m not sure.

  21. Gary Cooper on June 18, 2004 at 11:05 am

    I’ve stayed out of this discussion ’till now, but I’ll jump in here with just one comment. Many of the threads on this post seem to assume that Esther was “sleeping around”, so to speak—that she was just the kings’ mistress. However, it seems clear that she was, in fact, a wife—or at least a concubine, and so in this context was legally married to the king. Granted, she did respond to the king’s call for all the beautiful women of the kingdom to come forth for him to select as a wife, but I’m not sure she did much more at such an event than what we expect single LDS girls to do at church dances: stand around and look pretty, hoping a man will be interested enough to eventually marry her :>. Okay, I meant that toungue in cheek, but I think my point is clear—Esther did *not* violate the law of chastity—and though she did marry outside of Israel, one wonders if she was not put up to do this by the elders of her people, precisely to be in the position to help Israel that she ended up being.

    Finally, I must admit that personally, I feel the Book of Esther, like the Song of Solomon, is not inspired scripture—but I could be wrong.

  22. cooper on June 18, 2004 at 11:30 am

    I think the review of Esther here has been reduced to a level I cannot comprehend. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as long as it is translated correctly.” I hate to be a lone dissenter, but I think the story of Esther has true validity and meaning to all of us as we try to understand worldwide religions. I don’t think Esther did the beat she could given the circumstances. I believe she was called to her position by God. She did the things she was aksed of, and commited herself to a fight she didn’t want. Someone asked if God names appeared in the text. While it is not there literally it is there by her asking the members to fast with her in preparation.

    I drove to work this morning and heard that Madonna has now become a devout follower of the Kaballah. She has chosen to take the name of Esther. It made me groan. This thread, coupled with that story has reduced Esther to a mere titilating story with which to entertain one’s self.

    Kaimi has asked the learned to bring some true meaning to this. I ask to set aside the world’s learning and seek the spirit for some real answers.

    I am not trying to be snarky. I am hoping someone else can see the value in the story.

  23. Gary Cooper on June 18, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    Cooper,

    Now there you go, blending reason and revelation to make a faithful statement that brings the book of Esther back into the canon of Scripture and a positive spot therein. You’re right, sometimes we may fool ourselves into thinking that all of our education and speculations really “mean” something, when in fact “all is vanity” (to quote Eccleciastes). Okay, I take back what I said about Esther not being an inspired book. It certainly inspires our brethen, the children of Judah and his companions, so why do we, the children of Ephraim and his companions, have to be different? Thanks for some needed “spiritual grounding” to this discussion.

  24. diogenes on June 20, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    I think Kaimi may be correct that ancient writers would not necessarily share our modern concerns, let alone our modern definitions, regarding sexual misconduct. I have often been struck, for example, by the lack of such concerns in the Book of Mormon — amid all the warnings and exhortations that Mormon packed into his abridgement, there are no more than a couple of verses about chastity. Apparently he was worried about other problems, and whoever compiled the Megillah may have felt the same way.

  25. Mike on June 22, 2004 at 10:50 pm

    I don’t know- Mormon’s abridgement seems to have a few pretty clear things to say on the subject of chastity- The inclusion of Alma’s counsel to his sons coming to mind. Also the inclusin of the small plates- I thinkt that every time he speaks about chastity Elder Holland quotes Jacob at the begining to explain that he would rather not talk about such subjects but they are so important he needs to do so.