One Night with the Mayor…Retelling the Esther Story

Esther in King Xerxes's Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

Esther in King Xerxes’s Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

“Your daughter sure is pretty,” the sheriff said.  Then he spat.  A line of tobacco flew from his mouth, splattering like a twisted branch on the dry ground.  He reeked of stale sweat and old chew, and his pale eyes gleamed from within the fleshy folds of his face. “All willow-thin and fresh-faced. Oh, my.”

Essie looked up at her uncle, then back at the hulking lawman, her dark eyes wide.

The big man with the big leather belt and the big black gun just grinned and tipped his hat.  “Even her nose is perfect.  Not a big beak like most o’ you Jews.”  He ran his thumb across the side of his nose, then continued, not even looking at Mordecai.  “Course, I know she’s not really your daughter.  Her parents are dead, aren’t they?”

“Please,” Mordecai said, “she’s only thirteen.”

Even in the heat of August, Essie shuddered.  Her Bat Mitzvah – and her first flow – had come only two month ago.

“That’s okay.  The Mayor likes ’em young.”  The sheriff tugged at the strap of his Sam Browne belt while his gaze crept over every inch of Esther’s body.  “Maybe not this young.  I think we’ll keep her around the mansion for a while, till she ripens up a little.”  He cupped his hands at chest level and mimed squeezing.  “I think a year will do it.”

“Sheriff -”  Mordecai’s face grew red.  He knew not to appeal any further to this pig’s sense of decency.  Obviously, he had none.

The sheriff laughed so hard his belly shook.  “I told you the Mayor likes ’em young.  Don’t worry, little Essie, you’ll have plenty of company.  He’s got every pretty little thing in the county livin’ up there.  I think you’ll be the only Jew-girl, but that don’t matter much. I’m sure you’ll pretty up just as well as the rest of them, if they can get your hair to behave.  I declare, girl, it’s wild as a badger’s backside.”

“Damn you -”

“What are you upset about?” The Sheriff said, turning on Mordecai, “The Mayor’s gon’ choose a new wife when all this is over.  Your little Essie here could be the new first lady, live in that mansion forever, maybe even do some good for your scrawny little tribe.”  He snorted. “If she pleases him.”  He leaned in close to Esther, his breath thick and dank, his eyes hard as diamonds.  “You know anything about pleasing a man, little girl?”

“That’s enough!” Mordecai snarled, pulling Esther back and raising his fist.

The sheriff stepped back, surprisingly nimble for all his bulk.   “Watch your step, boy.  We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  He tapped the butt of his revolver, as if to remind them both what ‘the hard way’ meant.  “Either way, the girl goes with me.”

Mordecai swallowed hard.  “Go with him,” he whispered, “I’ll find a way to be there for you.  Just keep yourself alive.  And remember who you are.  Remember where you come from.”

Esther swallowed hard, tensing her jaw and raising her head.  She would not let him see her tears.  She walked, head held high,  to the sheriff’s car, sliding into the back seat like a prisoner, and like a queen.

The preceding, despite being time-shifted 2,500 years, and despite the liberties I took with Mordecai’s social status and the secrecy surrounding Esther’s religion and ethnicity, was still a far more accurate and truthful retelling of how Esther came to be in King Xerxes’ Harem than the rape-apologist, misogynist “exegesis” Mark Driscoll posted and preached Sunday.  An “exegesis” so wrong, so dangerous, that refutations have sprung up like white blood cells at the site of infection.  Rachel Held Evans has a good one (and kudos to her for bringing this to my attention).  So does Sarah Over the Moon.  So does Can’t Catch My Breath.

Honestly, I think (and hope) there can be some value to seeing an old story in a different setting.  Maybe we can see Esther’s humanity and stop slut-shaming one of God’s heroes, a true woman of valor.

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Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.

Repetition: Jacob and the Angel, Part 2

Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling the Angel (painting)

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, detail, 1861

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, waiting.  A hot breeze blew through the desert night, drawing water from the Jabbok, making the air strangely wet and heavy.  For a moment, Jacob wondered if this was what it was like to drown.  The moon shone down, one bright, impassive eye in the heavens.

In his mind, he replayed every detail.  The gifts would arrive: first the goats, then the sheep, then the camels, then the bulls, then the donkeys, each sent with the same message, “These belong to your servant, Jacob.  They are a gift sent to my lord Esau.  And he is coming after us.”  He smiled.  The mind that stole the birthright and spotted Laban’s flocks knew that one gift, no matter how rich, might be rejected out of anger.  But few men could reject gift after gift, each more valuable than the last.

Jacob heard – or more accurately felt – a sound.  Just below the range of hearing, thunder rolled.  He turned his head, glancing back at the visitor with a smirk.  “Who are you, Esau’s angel?”

“Why do you want to know?”  The stranger asked.  The voice seemed to speak within Jacob’s mind, yet echo off every hill in Canaan.

Jacob turned fully to face him.  This stranger was no man, clearly.  The moonlight seemed to dance across his body, as if buoyed by a greater source.  “What do you want?”

The stranger merely tilted his head and smiled.  Perhaps he was not Esau’s angel.  Perhaps he was one of the small gods the Canaanites worshiped, Ba’al or Dagon or some such.  He did not look like the house idols, but why should he?

“Are you simple?” Jacob said, his neck tensing, his hands closing into fists, “Or did you just come to stare, to gawk at the mortal whose own brother may kill him tomorrow?”  He stepped forward, fear and frustration boiling into a rage that pushed past all reason, a rage that might drive him to attack a god. “Answer me!”

The stranger sank into his knees, just a little, and spread his hands wide.

Jacob grinned, mirroring his stance.  “Wrestling, then?”  He said, “Good.  I’ve been doing that since I was formed in the womb.”

 

Jacob hit the stranger with all his strength, crouching low, trying to pull him off-balance.  But the shining man sidestepped, shaking off the hold.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Jacob snarled, shouldering into the visitor wildly.  At the last moment, he slipped his foot behind the stranger’s calf, tripping him.  Momentary surprise flashed across the stranger’s face.  Then they hit the hard, stony ground, with Jacob solidly on top.

Jacob struggled to pin the stranger, tossing one leg across his chest.  The visitor locked arms with him, shoving back with a strength even Esau never equaled.  Jacob’s arms burned with the effort, while his lungs labored against the Jabbok river mist.  The stranger, of course, seemed not the least bit tired.

“Submit,” Jacob said, “you’re beaten.”

The stranger bucked like an unbroken mare, tossing Jacob to the ground.  Jacob’s fingers clenched and squeezed painfully, struggling to keep hold on the stranger’s, then failing.  Jacob scrambled to cover his adversary, but the visitor was too quick, and rolled out of reach.

Both men scrambled to their feet in the fading moonlight.  Jacob stared, trying to formulate a plan between ragged, painful breaths.  But the stranger gave him no time, hitting him like a raging bull, bearing them both to the ground.  It was all Jacob could do to keep conscious.  By luck or miracle, his head missed a jutting rock that would have certainly broken his neck.  The outcropping grazed the strangers head, stunning him momentarily.

Jacob tried to escape, but by the time he regained control of his body, the stranger had as well.  Knowing his adversary’s inhuman strength, Jacob held tight, his rage flagging to fear.  He no longer cared if he won or lost, no longer dared to think he could bow this being’s head in defeat.  He only hoped he could occupy the stranger’s hands so he could not strike him.

Jacob imagined the shining visitor rising above him, raining blows upon his head like fire on Sodom, leaving him as dead as that cursed city.  That thought, that fear, gave him strength, and he locked up the stranger’s arms with his own, pulling him tight against his chest, too close to strike or even slap.  Jacob held tight, his fear giving him endurance almost beyond measure, until the silver moonlight had gone, replaced by the faintest orange glow of the morning sun.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said.  All his plans seemed like desperate grasping.  Esau might forgive him, but his life could still end here.

The stranger moved his hand downward, twisting against Jacob’s grip, until his fingertips rested against the mortal’s hip.  Jacob’s eyes grew wide and he screamed as the muscles in his thigh ripped apart.  His face turned pale, and cold sweat drenched him, but his arms only clenched tighter.

“I said let me go.”

“No,” Jacob gasped, breath ragged, “Not until you bless me.”

“What is your name?”  The stranger asked.

“Jacob.”

The stranger smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”

Jacob released his grip and lay back, his breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps.  The pain in his thigh had subsided, but its memory alone was enough to set him shuddering.  “You – you could have done that all along.”

The stranger nodded.

“You could have done that to my neck,” Jacob whispered, slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position, his breath slowly returning to normal, “You could have killed me with a touch.”

Once again, the stranger nodded.

“But you did not.”

The stranger smiled gently, then touched Jacob’s forehead, offering a blessing greater than the one Isaac had offered, greater by far than the one that had set this enmity in motion.

“Who are you?” Jacob said, his voice small and awestruck, “You are not one of Laban’s idols.  Are you a servant of my father’s God, or are you -”

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  “Go, Israel, and be blessed among nations.”  And in a moment he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, hope rising in his heart like the warm light of the morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and I live.  And I will live.”

Repetition: Jacob Wrestles the Angel, Part 1

Jacob wrestling the angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, watching Rachel and Leah and all their children recede into the gathering dark.  Rachel glanced over her shoulder, a nervous I love you, a battlefield farewell.  He’d told her not to worry, told her he’d find a way out, just like he’d found a way out of Laban’s household and even out from under his anger.  But in her beautiful eyes, he saw doubt.

Esau was coming.

Whatever happened, Jacob knew he deserved it.  But the cunning mind that had stolen his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, had little time to spare for guilt.  The word of the day is survival, if not for him, at least for his children.  He’d sent gifts ahead.  He’d split his servants and herds in two, hoping to protect at least half his wealth.  And now he’d sent his wives and sons away.

Jacob stood alone, listening to the last sounds of his family vanishing in the distance, until all that remained was the lapping of the Jabbok river.  He shivered in the chilly desert night, as much from dread as cold.  In his mind he saw Esau as he’d left him; young, wild and strong from a life spent in the fields, the wide-eyed hunter towering above him.  He saw the rage, loss, and hurt twisting Esau’s ruddy features, heard him bellowing threats of revenge.  At the thought of his brother, Jacob spat on the ground, but his dry mouth sent only flecks of foam floating slowly to the ground in the still night.

He felt the stranger before he saw him – an inhuman presence, a roll of thunder like a god.  Jacob turned, barely bracing himself.  Without a word, the stranger was upon him, soundlessly bearing him to the ground.

Jacob snarled, future fears tossed aside by the here and now, his attention sharpened to the point of a spear.  He sunk his fingers into the stranger’s arms, struggling for a stronger grip.  Surprise rippled across the stranger’s body.  His satisfied smirk said it all.  So you will fight.  Good.  Jacob shot his right arm up, sliding past the stranger’s grip, under his arm, and wrapping around his shoulder.  With a sharp shove of his hips, he rolled his divine opponent over, slamming him to the ground, landing on top.  It occurred to him, mid-throw, that he’d learned to wrestle from his brother.  Even if he kills me tomorrow, he’s saved my life tonight.  Jacob almost laughed.

But the angel wasn’t beaten.  He arched his body and slung Jacob to the side, breaking his hold and tossing him roughly to the ground.  Both men recovered, their breath coiling and rising in the cold night air.  Jacob felt his muscles tearing, but fought on out of sheer desperate will.  Esau may kill me tomorrow, but tonight I will win.  The two men struggled, strained, and rolled until the sun’s pale rays lit the eastern sky.

The angel wrested one hand free and slammed it into Jacob’s hip, and pain shot through the man.  He cried out, but his grip only tightened.  He knew that wound would never fully heal, even if he somehow survived his reunion with Esau.  But it didn’t matter.  Pain didn’t matter.  Fatigue didn’t matter.  Despair and fear and guilt didn’t matter.  Right now, by the banks of the Jabbok, deep in the shadow of death, only victory mattered.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said, his face red, his eyes leaking tears, “Not until you bless me!”

“What is your name?”

“Jacob.”

The man smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”  The shadow of death lifted, bringing with it the new light of dawn.

“What – what is your name?”  Jacob asked, leaning back, kneeling near his adversary.  He knew what he had wrestled was not a mere god, no Canaanite idol, but someone far greater.  He had battled a messenger of his father’s God, the God of Abraham.  Perhaps he’d wrestled that God Himself.  His throat tightened at the thought, and he dropped his eyes to the ground.

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  He reached down to touch Jacob’s forehead, bestowing a blessing far greater than the one he’d stolen.  And then, in a moment, he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, peace and healing rushing over him like the warm morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.”  He turned his face toward the west and, for the first time in many days, smiled.