Monday, August 26, 2013

The Good Wife

The Biblical book of Esther has it's historical reference in verse 1 of chapter 1. "In the days of Xerxes" places Esther roughly halfway between the return of the exiles to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the returns of Ezra and Nehemiah. The Hebrews called the Persian leader Ahasuerus and Xerxes is the English version of that name. He was a fabulously wealthy and powerful king. Esther would not have merited a footnote in his kingdom were it not for the events told about in chapter 1. She was able to rise to a position of power in the kingdom because Queen Vashti forfeited hers. It is one of the great stories of the Bible. King Xerxes throws a magnificent banquet, if you were a member of his staff and male. The banquet went on for six months (banquet is just a fancy name for drinking party) and the duty of the women was to obey their husbands. First Lady Vashti is no exception so when her husband, the King, sends for her to dance before the staff, she must dance. When she says no (who knows how many times she has had to perform in this demeaning way - and she had reached her limit) the whole country shakes. What if other wives think they can disobey their husbands too. Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, points out that the Persian terms for husband and wife were master and mastered. The wife was her husband's property and it was her duty to do what her husband told her to do. Unlike, the Hebrew way of marriage where the husband is "her man" and the wife is "his woman". There was an equality of marriage in which each owned the other. No one who reads the stories of Old Testament couples (Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, etc) gets the idea that the husband got away with bossing around his wife! Adam and Eve were created to help each other, and yes, sin entered the picture and led to the situations where man takes authority over his wife, but every so often we get a picture of the creation ideal. So, while Vashti's refusal to act like a good Persian wife sent shock waves through the government and led to a ridiculous overreaction on the part of the King and his staff, the Biblical story is saying, she doesn't have to take it anymore (sort of like an Old Testament version of The Good Wife). She will pay the price for her choice to step beyond the bounds of her culture and her absence will lead to Esther's providential coming to power in order to save her people (God's people, too). But, in her defiance we see the Biblical value of women asserted and a blunt questioning of some cultural definitions of marriage. Goldlingay points out in his comments on Esther that there is nothing in the Old Testament that suggests wives have to obey their husbands. That may come as a shock for some Christians who have heard that assumption made during the giving and receiving of wedding vows at a Christian marriage service. The vow that states that the wife will obey her husband is attributed to something Paul said in Ephesians. But, it was said in the context of mutual love and service. The wife models the obedience of faith we owe Christ as the Head of the church and the husband models the sacrificial love of Christ. The Good Wife vows to lay down her life for her husband, and the Good Husband vows the same for her.