Saturday, February 23, 2013

Esther, Vashti and eunuchs on Purim: Queer models for such a time as this

Queen Esther by Jim Padgett, Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing (Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Esther, a role model for LGBTQ people, helped save the Jews from destruction in ancient Persia, an event commemorated today in the Jewish festival of Purim (March 4-5 this year). LGBT Jews see her as an inspiration for coming out. A possible lesbian love story between Biblical queens Esther and Vashi has fired the imagination of a lesbian playwright, while a scholar says both queens are role models for gay and lesbians in ministry.

Esther hid her Jewish identity in order to become the next queen of Persia. Later she "came out" as Jewish to the king, thereby saving her people from a planned massacre. Their story is told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Vashti was a Persian queen who refused to obey a summons from her drunken husband, the king.

Queer characters fill the Book of Esther. Every chapter includes at least one eunuch -- an ancient term for gender nonconformists who today would be called LGBTQI. There are a dozen eunuchs in the Book of Esther: Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, Carcas, Hegai, Shassshagaz, Teresh, Bigthana and Hathach. They play a variety of roles, including messengers, advisors, guards, assassins and soldiers.

The Washington Post article Gay Jews Connect Their Experience To Story of Purim reports that some see Purim as an unofficial LGBT Pride Day. Esther is traditionally considered the heroine of the story, but independent-minded Vashti has been reclaimed by feminists and now LGBT people.

Lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage imagined a love story between the two queens in her play “Esther and Vashti.” Gage describes her play as “a fast-paced, high-action drama where the love story of two women of different cultures and class backgrounds plays itself out against a backdrop of anti-Semitism and the sexual colonization of women.” Her “radical feminist retelling” fills in the blanks of scripture. In her version, Esther, a radical Jewish lesbian living in exile, and Vashti, a Persian woman of privilege, were lovers before Vashti married the king. The plight of the two women coincides with their successful effort to stop the impending massacre of the Jews.

Rev. David Bahr applies the strategies of the two queens to contemporary challenges in “Openly Gay and Lesbian Pastors Called by Predominantly Straight UCC Congregations,” a research project for his Doctor of Ministry degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in 2006. His theological reflection states, “As Esther and Vashti wrestle with their callings, I believe they can be instructive for gay men and lesbians called to ordained ministry. When should we wait, wondering if we are being prepared for something bigger? And when is enough, enough? What gives us the greatest sense of integrity? Or perhaps, who is best served? Both Esther and Vashti also present ‘models of resistance to wrong’ – one of direct dissent and one of working within the system.” Bahr went on to become pastor of Park Hill Congregational Church UCC in Denver, Colorado.

In a famous quote from the Book of Esther, the man who had urged her to hide her Jewish identity changes his advice when their people are about to be massacred: “Perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) Now is a good time to reflect what Esther and Vashti mean to queer people and our allies today.

Related links:
The Proudest Queen of Purim (Human Rights Campaign)

Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano

Closets (Esther 4:13-14) (The Bible in Drag Blog)

Esther: The Queen Who Came Out (Talking Dog)

Mona West also writes about Esther in The Queer Bible Commentary

Carolyn Gage page at
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

The traditional view of Esther is presented in the following:

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