Wives and Archetypes

Three women come to greet a man, someone sits on the outside, and inside there are other women. Courtyard of a palace scene.
Detail of "Rudaba's Maids Return to the Palace", Folio 71v from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmaspca. 1525, Abu'l Qasim Firdausi. No, it’s not the Book of Esther, but too much art of the Book of Esther portrays everyone as Eurocentrically white and looks like it happened in Germany or France. I thought Iranian art would be a better illustration for a story that takes place at Persian court. This kind of looks like it could be a detail from the story, no?

Today is Purim, (Purim sameach to all who celebrate!!🎉) the holiday in which Jews read the Book of Esther and celebrate, yet again, evading our destruction (aka one of the “they tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.” holidays). In its honor, I thought it might be interesting to jump out of where we are in Exodus and have a look at a cross-Biblical parallel that I’ve been thinking about this year. It requires us going alllll the way back to the beginning of Genesis, but hopefully you’ll find this interesting as well.

Remember the midrash about Lilith? It’s from the Alphabet of Ben Sirah, based on Genesis 1:27:,

“And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created [the human]; male and female God created them.” 

That is to say, we have a creation story in which two humans are created equally, and it happens before the created-from-the-rib story in Genesis 2. So then the Alphabet of Ben Sirah gives us this text:

When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.”  [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above.” She said to him, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.” And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God's ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, “Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!” The Holy Blessed one immediately dispatched the three angels Sanoy, Sansenoy, and Samangelof after her, to bring her back. God said, “If she wants to return, well and good. And if not, she must accept that a hundred of her children will die every day.” The angels pursued her and overtook her in the sea, in raging waters, (the same waters in which the Egyptians would one day drown), and told her God's orders. And yet she did not want to return. They told her they would drown her in the sea, and she replied. “Leave me alone! I was only created in order to sicken babies: if they are boys, from birth to day eight I will have power over them; if they are girls, from birth to day twenty.” When they heard her reply, they pleaded with her to come back. She swore to them in the name of the living God that whenever she would see them or their names or their images on an amulet, she would not overpower that baby, and she accepted that a hundred of her children would die every day. Therefore, a hundred of the demons die every day, and therefore, we write the names [of the three angels] on amulets of young children. When Lilith sees them, she remembers her oath and the child is [protected and] healed.

Then we go to the Book of Esther:

It happened in the days of Ahasuerus—that Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Nubia..in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all the officials and courtiers—the administration of Persia and Media, the nobles and the governors of the provinces in his service. For no fewer than a hundred and eighty days he displayed the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty.

At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike.

Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design.

And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” In addition, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for women, in the royal palace of King Ahasuerus.

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him.

“What,” [he asked,] “shall be done, according to law, to Queen Vashti for failing to obey the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?”

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.”

The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers, and the king did as Memucan proposed. (Esther 1:1-21, abridged)


Back to the Eden story. In Genesis 2, Adam gets “another” partner, fashioned from his rib, we’ll call her Eve (she’s actually named Chava, lifeforce), even though that name doesn’t come until later—at this point she’s just woman, an extension of man (or isha, an extension of ish, in the Hebrew.) Then she’s bored, wandering around the garden, and she gets into a chat.

The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Genesis 3:2-6)

Back to the Book of Esther. Ahasverus decides to go get another wife, so he holds a beauty context! For all the virgins in the land! That he “tries out” before picking a wife! (Can we talk about sex trafficking? MAYBE!) Anyway, then he picks Esther the Jew who is advised to hide her Jewishness because, you know, social stigma, Haman the wicked adviser, pays Ahasverus some money for the privilege of genociding them after he is butthurt when Esther’s uncle Mordechai refuses to bow down to him (because we only bow down to God, yo) and after some prodding to take a risk to leverage her privilege, we see these scenes:

On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace. As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor. The king extended to Esther the golden scepter which he had in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.

“What troubles you, Queen Esther?” the king asked her. “And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be granted you.”

“If it please Your Majesty,” Esther replied, “let Your Majesty and Haman come today to the feast that I have prepared for him.”

At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, “What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

“My wish,” replied Esther, “my request—if Your Majesty will do me the favor, if it please Your Majesty to grant my wish and accede to my request—let Your Majesty and Haman come to the feast which I will prepare for them; and tomorrow I will do Your Majesty’s bidding.”

On the second day, the king again asked Esther at the wine feast, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for aEmendation yields “a trifle” (ḥiṣṣar), lit. “little finger.”the adversary-a is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”

“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. (Book of Esther, Chapters 5 and 7, abridged)

What do you think? Are there parallels, here? Similarities, differences between the two stories? How the relationships work here? How do the stories function? What’s the dynamic here?

If there are archetypes here, what and why? What’s the message?

Have fun, y’all. Looking forward to watching this conversation unfold.

Also, in case you missed it: You can now read Life is a Sacred Text in the new Substack app for iPhone.

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