Yesterday, I talked briefly about Queen Esther of the Bible and how examples like hers smash our perceptions of women in the Bible and the patriarchy it is often said to contain. In so many ways, Esther directly challenges the patriarchy, not as it existed in the Bible (which may be different than we think), but as it exists today.
A Woman to Teach
The biggest thing I noticed in my class and in actually reading the entire book of Esther, was how it conflicted so strongly with the patriarchal tradition in the Church. Rather famously, Saint Paul proclaimed that, “I suffer not a woman to teach.” This is from the Book of Timothy and the whole passage goes like this:
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).
For many Christian denominations, this has been a justification for a priesthood that is only open to men. In my own denomination, the traditional Anglican in the United States, the issue of female priests is verboten. There will never be a consideration that women could be allowed into the ministry. They have a stance very similar to that of the Roman Catholic church.
It is important to note, however, that in many ways this patriarchal tradition of only having men in positions of authority has had a reach beyond just the priesthood. To a great extent, this has served to erase the role of women in creation of church tradition. For instance, the role of women in maintaining and managing the house churches that were the initial gathering points for Christian services has been largely erased from commonly received Christian history. Elizabeth Clark, the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion at Duke University, had this to say about the subject:
“What seems to happen within the first few centuries is that whatever limited activities women might have had in the beginning begin to get curtailed as you have the development of a hierarchy of clergy members with bishops, presbyters and deacons, and it’s pretty firmly established that women should not be either bishops or priests. Many church fathers write about this. So that women tend to get excluded from those functions, [though] they do have some roles, [such] as joining a group called the widows or deaconesses in the fourth century.”
This evaluation indicates that the erasure of women’s roles and the authority they held in the early church was erased in accordance with the rise of patriarchal institutions over the church’s history. This certainly seems to be true in our own time.
Biblically speaking, the role of women seems to have experienced a similar erasure. Other than being a fun story to tell children, Esther does not get much attention. It is not a commonly taught book of the Bible and it is easy to understand why. Esther has a pivotal role in the spiritual life of the Jews by instituting the holy day of Purim and it is one that some may well want to forget.
The book of Esther says it happened this way:
“Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm this second letter of Purim. And he sent the letters unto all the Jews, to the hundred twenty and seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, with words of peace and truth, To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fastings and their cry. And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.” (Esther 9:29-32)
What we see here is two things: First, a woman is giving a religious order to establish a festival. This is not what we think of when we think about holy days. For instance, in our times, the Pope is the one who decress most of the holy days of the church. With the canonization of John Paul 2, a new commemoration was created. We’re used to that idea because the vast majority of our clergy are men, but the example of Esther provides a different perspective. Here, we have an example not only of a woman involved in religious matters, but of her authority in them.
That authority is the second important thing we see in this passage. Mordecai and Esther may have written the letter together, but it is Esther’s authority that “confirmed” the feast of Purim. Her authority is what gets it “written in the book.” A woman being in a place of religious authority is so counter to what we think of that it often gets overlooked. But Esther provides a powerful example of a woman’s power that Jews still honor today.
In trying to determine what to do, Christians turn to Scripture in order to figure out what is right. Biblical arguments against the female priesthood abound and in many denominations are still the accepted wisdom. But what do we do when there is a conflicting argument from the Bible? Esther is one of those conflicting arguments and it is a powerful example of what happens to them. They get erased, ignored, and forgotten.
The real question is why? I have my own theories. What can be seen beyond any personal theories, though, is that forgetting what is hard to accept has kept power all on one side – a side that largely does not include women. By forgetting Esther, we have forgotten all women. And I believe that it has been intentional. Esther should really make us examine how we use the Bible to support our arguments. We cannot cherrypick the truth.
So what do we make of Esther and its conflict with Saint Paul? That is a matter of interpretation that is beyond this post. But at the very least, it shows that there is a lot of room for argument.