Hazel McHaffie

Esther: Star of Persia

Last year and this, before, during, and after both lockdowns, a number of reports appeared which drew attention to the customs of Hasidic Jews in this country who were flouting the regulations about social distancing and mask-wearing and meeting in large groups, and the consequences in terms of the high incidence of Covid infection. Two jumped out at me: mass gatherings for weddings, and for the Feast of Purim. Reports also came in that in Israel, a curfew had been imposed and strict limits set for the number of people allowed to gather in closed spaces during that festival time.

Mention of the Feast of Purim made me think of its origins: the story of Queen Esther in the Bible; the casting of lots (pur) to decide what date the extermination of the Jews should take place, and how the nation was saved through the bravery of the young queen risking her life for her people, and the feast established to commemorate it.

Also during lockdown, I did a storytelling course, where we were asked to take stories from the Bible and bring them alive. It was then I realised how much careful research and work is needed to do this convincingly and with integrity. Authenticity comes in the detail.

These two things encouraged me to buy two more books for my growing collection of biblical stories told through fiction. Star of Persia by one of my favourite authors, Jill Eileen Smith, and Hadassah: One Night with the King, by Tommy Tenney. And I was impressed by the attention to detail which gives both a ring of authenticity and makes them into page-turners even when we know the basic story and the outcome.

Both are eminently readable, both stick pretty much to the story in the Bible, both create sub plots and additional characters which appear entirely sympathetic to the original. The book of Esther is the only one of the 66 books that make up the Bible not to mention God, and yet the hand of God and reliance on prayer to the Hebrew God pervades the account. Modern scholarship has it that the story is not historical but weaves a moral tale into a period of time where the Jews were scattered, and this particular group were settled in Persia at the time of Xerxes (rule: 486–465 bce).

At its core, is the pagan king – tyrannical, brutal, impetuous, capricious, paranoid for his own safety and sovereignty. He treats women as objects and has an insatiable sexual appetite. In a drunken state he sends for his queen, Vashti, to flaunt her exceptional beauty before all the important men in his land. She refuses to come and is instantly banished from court lest she sets a bad example to wives everywhere.

Who will succeed her? The king is advised to summon all the beautiful virgins to the palace and spend a night with each of them to find a new queen. They are all given a year undergoing extravagant beauty treatments to prepare them to a standard he will find acceptable. Among them is a young Jew, an orphan girl, called Hadassah – Persian name, Esther. She is the one Xerxes eventually favours, and it is she who goes on to save her people from the selfish and ambitious machinations of the king’s advisor, Haman, an Agagite, and long time enemy of the Jews. She is seen to have been placed in that position for just that purpose – as her guardian, Mordecai, says: Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?

There are a few issues about historical accuracy both in the original and these fictitious works, but they don’t detract from the overall merit of the stories told. And I learned a lot about the customs and thinking of those times – in a most palatable form! They made me check up on facts; they stirred my imagination; they challenged my preconceived ideas. And they gave me ideas for my own fiction! All good.

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