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Queen Esther's Legacy: From Hebrew Heroine to Miss California

6 years ago
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So why does it seem as though every prominent shiksa wants to be a Jewish queen? As in Queen Esther, a favorite heroine of the Hebrew Bible who used her feminine wiles -- and risked her life -- to save the Jews of Persia from a plot to exterminate them.
The latest Christian gal fitted for Esther's crown was Miss California USA, a.k.a. Carrie Prejean. As soon as Prejean was dissed for publicly objecting to gay marriage on the basis of her Christian beliefs, she was held up by Focus on the Family and other evangelicals as a "modern Queen Esther," who uses her good looks to witness for her faith and rescue God's people.
"Her faith was tested and she passed with flying colors-she showed the whole world the crown that she is really seeking, didn't she?" the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) wrote in an e-blast, comparing Prejean to Esther. In a televised interview with her pastor, the Rev. Miles McPherson, a nationally known evangelist at The Rock in San Diego, McPherson and Prejean discuss the Esther story as one of triumph over persecution. McPherson concludes: "This is exactly what happened to [Prejean]."
Sarah Palin also stuck up for Prejean, and no surprise. During last fall's campaign, Christian conservatives kvelled over Palin (also a onetime beauty queen, but runner-up, alas, as Miss Alaska) and her biblical role model. "She's our Queen Esther," Martha Mota told a Texas newspaper at a debate party as Palin prepared to square off against Esther's biblical antagonist Haman, er, Joe Biden. "She's going to save our whole country." Two years earlier, in 2006 when Palin became governor, she called her pastor and asked for a biblical example of a great leader. The Rev. Paul E. Riley told her to read up on Esther.
In Florida, Katherine Harris, the controversial state official embroiled in the 2000 recount, was also fond of modeling herself after Esther. An HBO drama about the recount had Harris-also a GOP operative and prominent evangelical-quoting one of Esther's big lines as regards her fate: "If I perish, I perish." In 2007, Harris also turned to Esther as she campaigned for Senate. As The Washington Post reported, while talking about her love for Queen Esther, Harris suddenly ran to her SUV and grabbed a Bible. "I'll give you one verse," she told the reporter," flipping to the Book of Esther. "On the day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, the opposite occurred, in that the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them." The reporter asked her what that had to do with the race. "November 7th," she replied.
Well, Harris lost that one. But no matter. Esther remains a touchstone for modern Christian women-a nice Jewish girl living 2,500 years ago in Persia.
The Book of Esther opens with King Ahasuerus summoning his wife, Vashti, to show off her beauty at a banquet. The proud Vashti refused, and was removed as queen. (Some traditions say she was killed, or banished.) Ahasuerus then held a beauty contest to audition for replacements. Esther won and became the new queen, though she hid her Jewish identity. Then Esther's cousin, Mordechai, offends the king's prime minister, the evil Haman (hiss-s-s-s-s), who retaliates by hatching a plot to wipe out all the Jews in Persia. Mordechai presses Esther to intervene with the king to avert the disaster, and after various twists-and a couple of lavish banquets during which she butters up Ahasuerus-Esther reveals that she herself is Jewish and would die at Haman's hands if the plan is carried out. Ahasuerus is furious, and it is Haman who dies on the gallows while Mordechai is named the new prime minister.
Jews read the Book of Esther at the annual festival of Purim, and celebrate with costumes and revelry. Interestingly, Esther is the one book of the Bible that does not mention God and was such an oddity that it was a late entry into the canon.
For many contemporary Christians, however, especially conservatives, Esther is a godsend. And for good reasons. According to Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, Esther represents "a willingness to risk everything on behalf of something greater than yourself, something you believe in." Hence the popularity of Esther's declaration, "I was born for such a time as this." Esther's words convey a powerful sense of vocation, Ammerman says, "the notion that there is a hand in history that brings a person to a particular place in which their particular gifts have meaning and have an opportunity to make a difference." The Esther story is also ideal for a Christian Right that sees itself as a besieged minority, as the Jews of Esther's day were. The vindication of the Jews, who then vanquished their foes, is also a gratifying scenario for today's believers.
Above all, the story of Esther allows conservatives to mediate-or accommodate-conflicting feelings about sex and purity, women and power. "I think in many ways she is a dubious role model," says Anne Lapidus Lerner, director of the Program in Jewish Women's Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. "But she does offer beauty and power together-and subservience. So it's a good mix, it would seem to me, for people who are interested in seeing women as subservient but not totally powerless, and to see their beauty as something that carries them to whatever modicum of power they achieve."
It's also a good fit for a Bible Belt culture that has eschewed dancing and drinking yet glories in female beauty, as long as it stays within bounds. Now those boundaries seem to be expanding: Carrie Prejean's pre-pageant breast enhancements smack of fiddling with God's handiwork, for example, and the racy photos that emerged after her gay marriage comments aren't exactly your usual Sunday School Bible lesson.
Then again, Christians have always liked to pick and choose tales from the Hebrew Bible for stories that offer guidance on more secular concerns, such as making war and making money. In 2006, Matthew Crouch, scion of the Crouch family that founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world's largest Christian television network, produced a film version of the Esther story, "One Night With the King," a somewhat Christian-ized version aimed directly at the theology and tastes of an evangelical audience. "It's Cinderella meets Lord of the Rings," as Crouch told the Dallas Morning News.
In that sense, Esther may be just the ticket, especially as Southern-style evangelicalism spreads across the national and political landscape. Indeed, at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Indianapolis last fall a self-described "devout Christian" stood up and said Clinton reminded him of Queen Esther-"and just like Queen Esther who took a stand and did what was right for the Jews, I believe you will do what's right for America." Clinton pointed to her heart and told him the story of Esther is one of her favorite Bible stories.
So is this the best Christian women can do? In fact, they needn't look far for one intriguing alternative who is becoming increasingly popular with Jewish feminists: that is Vashti, the king's first queen, who refused to be paraded about like a, well, beauty queen. "Vashti is the only woman in the Bible who when issued a direct order by a male didn't take it," says Lerner. One popular (no surprise) Jewish tradition says that the king told her to come wearing her crown-and only her crown.
Of course she refused, which is why she was not the heroine then – or today.
Filed Under: Religion
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