Lessons on Racism in Esther

In a previous post, I looked at the racial motivations implicit in the book of Esther. There, I argued that racism, persecution of people because of their race, instigated the crisis of Esther. Haman demands the death of all the Jews because of the insult of one Jew. I argued that racism also motivated Esther’s author to highlight the race of Haman, a comedic resolution to an historic, racial conflict between the Amalekites and the Israelites. Racism is not only evident, but it is used as a plot device in Esther’s story.

In this post, I am going to about-face and argue that the story of Esther also reveals the solution to defeating racism. We must treat each other as individual persons, not as representatives of our group. In the story of Esther, we see the human tendency of condemning the whole group for the actions of one, or of a few. But, we also see what can happen when we personalize, or see the individual not the group. In Esther, the plot twists at each of these points.

The whole is sentenced with the one.

King Xerxes censured all the wives because of the action of one wife. At the beginning of the story, Queen Vashti refused to join the king and his drunken advisors. As a result, not only was she divorced, but a new law was written that all wives must obey their husbands. Because Vashti defied Xerxes, all the wives were reprimanded. Queen Vashti’s fate became the fate of all wives.

Haman condemned all the Jews because of the action of one Jew. When Mordecai refused to bend the knee to Haman, Mordecai explained it was because he was a Jew. When Haman heard this, “he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.” (Esther 3:6) Because Mordecai defied Haman, all the Jews were condemned. Mordecai’s fate was his people’s fate. 

Putting people into groups is instinctive.

To create categories is a natural tendency in human nature. We group people into all sorts of divisions: men and women, young and old, black and white, American and foreign, etc. The instinct to stereotype and generalize helps us to make quick decisions and simplify complexities. In Esther, naming Haman as an Agagite (Amalekite), generalizes him as one of Israel’s enemies, and shortcuts a lengthy explanation.

There are two problems that emerge from our predilection to categorizing people by their social groups.

  1. We tend to homogenize. We exaggerate the differences between groups and the similarities of those in the same group, and ignore the similarities between groups and the differences inside the same group. For instance, “Men are all alike.” Or in the case of the story of Esther, “Wives are all alike.” And, “Jews are all alike.”
  2. We tend to confirm our beliefs. We listen to information that corroborates what we already think, and disregard conflicting evidence.

The story changes when we see the individual, not the group.

The way to overcome our tendency to polarize differences between groups and overcome prejudice against those in different social categories is to personalize individuals. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote encourages us to do just that. It is the “content of a person’s character” that will give us an accurate assessment of a person, not a generalized belief based on their social category, like skin color, sex, race, religion or political party.

In the story of Esther, we see an example of this individualization at each plot twist.

  • The king remembers Vashti, an individual in the group he has condemned, and it prompts him to find a new wife leading to the introduction of Esther, positioning her to a place of influence.
  • The king reads about Mordecai, an individual in the group he has condemned, and it prompts him to honor Mordecai as the person who saved his life, initiating the fall of Haman.
  • Esther reveals she is a Jew to the king, an individual in the group he has condemned. This prompts the final demise of Haman and the resolution of the story with the Jews granted self-protection and Mordecai and Esther’s rise to greater power.

Our tendency to categories the whole group based on the one can actually work in favorable ways. When we get to know an individual, we contextualize our beliefs about the social categories they fall into. Instead of polarizing our differences, we begin to see the spectrum of similarities and become more open to being influenced and changed by those in other groups. We must learn to not let our group-category thinking blind us to persons as individuals.

The story of Esther is not a perfect example of individualization, as Esther demands the death of all 10 of Haman’s sons for Haman’s crime. This is an example of the influence of the ancient way of thinking regarding children paying for the sins of the fathers. It is not “eye for an eye” legality, which limits the retaliation of ancient vengeance to equal payment for wrongs done. Instead, the killing of the whole family for the father’s crimes extends justice into comeuppance and creates blood feuds. There is no denying the war between the two races of the Jews and the Amalekites. But hopefully, we can learn from the wrongs done in the past instead of being satisfied to repeat them.

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