Identity, Politics, and Ancient Fake News

Like its heroine, the Book of Esther defies categorization. It’s presented as the backstory for Purim, a spring holiday that is easily the wildest party on the Jewish calendar. The Book (or “Scroll”) of Esther gets read twice: at night, as the revelry begins, and the next morning, when the previous evening’s folderol may have left a few folks feeling rough around the edges. The story of how Esther saves her people comes to life in children’s plays and costumes. There’s a lot of food and special treats for the kids and adults are encouraged to drink excessively.

Esther’s story is all about liberation. But is it true?

That’s been a perennial problem for scholars. The writer gets some details right. For instance, he (or possibly she) knows a lot about Persian palace protocol. This allows historians to date Esther about 200 years before the Common Era, making it one of the latest books in the Hebrew Bible. (The Book of Daniel, which has a lot in common with Esther, is the last.) But, also like Daniel, there are a lot of questions about this story. Neither the characters nor its events are known to history. Those who insist the Bible is factually “true” try to bend Esther to fit historical counterparts. But the book resists mightily.

The rabbis would ask: Does veracity matter? And they would reply (and have replied), “Not one bit.” The ancients were brilliant advocates of stories whose ability to explain origins, ethics, and faith transcended human events. They saw something bigger in these tales than historical record.

They were also well aware—and wisely wary—of fake news. Rewriting history was every ruler’s prerogative and I mean that literally; previous records often were replaced with newer ones that erased or exaggerated the flaws of past monarchs while valorizing current ones. We see this happen with King David, who is a complex, not always admirable character in Samuel and Kings, while the David of Chronicles (written much later) is simplistically pictured as the greatest king of all time.

Instead of settling for malleable history, Esther tells a story that surpasses facts. At its center is an extraordinary woman who understands the politics of identity and human susceptibility to beauty. Esther has courage; but her bravery is amplified by her uncanny sense of timing and recognition of how the world works. She also knows how men work and, man oh man, does she work them!

Esther raises a lot of important questions for 21st-century Christian readers: questions about gender and identity politics, history and fiction, biblical interpretation and the problems of hanging one’s faith on scriptural literalism. There’s a lot to learn from Esther and we’ll dig into that this coming Thursday at our weekly Bible study. Do your very best to join us!

Don’t miss Part 2 in our three-part “Her Story” series. This week we look at Esther and identity politics, along with how brilliantly scripture blurs the lines between fact and fiction to lead us to important truths. We meet each Thursday evening at 7:30pm CST in the parlor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake Street, Oak Park. If you’re able to be with us in person, join us online via FB Live.

We need your help!

As we think about the future of Gather, please let us know what gifts you bring and would like to share with the community. There are many roles that have to come together to make Gather happen every week. This includes setup, technical support, worship, managing handouts and information, coordinating drinks, and teardown. We need your help. Please let us know what type of service you’d be interested in!

Watch God Work,
Tim & Shea

As we prepare to become a vibrant worshipping community, we invite you to enjoy a Spotify playlist that captures the kind of worship we hope to embrace. Give it a spin while you’re driving. Make it your workout jam. Add it to your devotional time. Most of all, feel yourself becoming part of a sacred village of believers who love their God and one another!
Check out the Gather Worship Playlist here.