March 21, 2019


The Secret Political History of Queen Esther: From Queen Elizabeth to Abraham Lincoln, the story of Purim has shaped our most contentious debates (Ari Lamm, March 21, 2019, The Tablet)

[T]he image of Esther as reactive protector who sought merely to save her people is incongruous with the actual biblical narrative. Esther's response to Haman's assault on the Jewish people is not simply to request that her people be spared. Esther demands that the perpetrators be held to account. She has Haman charged and hanged for his crimes. She ensures that the Jews of Persia take up arms against those who sought to kill them. And many other people within the empire, seeing justice done, even ally themselves with their Jewish fellow citizens. Esther's story is not one of reactive hunkering down, but of confident, assertive action in maintaining a decent society in which injustice would not be tolerated.

But if the Elizabethans overemphasized Esther's reactive, self-protective posture, the opposite mistake featured at a crucial moment in American history, three centuries later. About a week and a half before issuing a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln spent a quiet Saturday morning meeting with prominent abolitionist Rev. William Weston Patton. A few months earlier, at a June cabinet meeting, Lincoln had declared his intention to issue an edict of emancipation. But his worry over the Union's military prospects, and the accompanying concern over seeming to act from a position of desperation, had so far prevented Lincoln from publishing any such edict. In the hopes of encouraging him in the right direction, Patton met with Lincoln to make the religious case for emancipation. Patton concluded his remarks to the President by comparing him to Queen Esther. Drawing upon Chapter 4 in the Book of Esther, in which her cousin Mordechai exhorts Esther to seize the moment and exercise moral leadership, Patton beseeched Lincoln to recognize the wondrous opportunity presented to him by the Almighty to right an historic wrong: "[we] believe that in Divine Providence you have been called to the Presidency to speak the word of justice and authority which shall free the bondman and save the nation." As Patton saw it, as soon as Esther was made aware of an injustice, she took action and damn the consequences. He felt Lincoln should do the same, assuring the president: "If the Leader will but utter a trumpet call, the nation will respond with patriotic ardor."

Patton's interpretation of Esther as zealous idealist is, like the Elizabethans before him, difficult to square with the Book of Esther itself. According to the biblical narrative, when Mordechai informs Esther of Haman's murderous intentions, she does not immediately confront the king and demand that he rectify the situation. Instead, she devises a political strategy that takes into consideration Haman's power and influence in the royal court. Counting on Haman's growing sense of complacency, Esther waited for a moment of maximal opportunity to make her case before Xerxes. Far from throwing caution to the wind and depending upon a miracle, Esther was a deeply strategic thinker who knew that the arc of history does not bend toward justice of its own accord. It must be bent with human participation.

In the end, it was Lincoln himself who best captured the nuances of the biblical Esther. In his response to Patton's invocation of the biblical queen, Lincoln replied: "Whatever shall appear to be God's will I will do." This is a striking, likely deliberate echo of Esther's words upon hearing from Mordechai of Haman's plot: "I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish." Like Esther, Lincoln knew the dire risks his proposed course of action entailed for his people, and nevertheless resolved to do the right thing. But, also like Esther, Lincoln refused to take impulsive action. The president had already determined that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation months before he met with Patton. He felt, however, that it would take a decisive battlefield triumph by Northern forces to vest his edict with the necessary legitimacy in practice. He therefore kept a draft of the edict in his drawer for the entire summer of 1862, biding his time, waiting for the moment when doing the right thing would not only feel good, but be effective. In this respect, Lincoln embodied the legacy of Queen Esther. And if David Gilmour Blythe's 1863 painting of Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation--in which Lincoln looks for inspiration to two documents: the Constitution and the Bible--is any guide, perhaps Lincoln knew it, too.

Posted by at March 21, 2019 12:02 AM