Esther: A queen in deed (IV)

By Ebere Nwakpa

ENTER MORDECAI

While Haman contemplated the outcome of his thoroughgoing machinations with dark satisfaction, other players in the narrative were not so happily disposed. Mordecai’s reaction in particular was dramatic, public and noisy. There was no ambiguity or subtlety on his part. That he took the matter to heart was an understatement. He undertook a one-man protest; tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and proceeded to the center of the city crying loudly and bitterly. For good measure, he went as far as the king’s gate beyond which anyone wearing sackcloth was barred from entering. He pushed the limits of law and custom. There was no ambivalence. Mordecai’s disposition and actions were not singular in this respect. Jews throughout the empire, in every province where the king’s decree was published, mourned with fasting, weeping and wailing in sackcloth and ashes.

Owing to his earlier stance of insubordination regarding the matter of making obeisance to Haman, it is clear that Mordecai is not one to shrink from confrontation or controversy. However, given the fact that he had a stable job in government and a well-appointed, if minor position of influence arising therefrom, a rather less visible reaction might have been expected. In addition, with the recent elevation of his beloved niece as queen, some in Mordecai’s position might have acted with restraint, so as not to rock the boat. An understandable preference for self-preservation and conformity common to elites would have kicked in for many. Recourse to the most public and activist response at the very onset would be far from contemplation. Even where extreme action becomes necessary, that realization is likely to be reached gradually, even as the giving up of comforts that it entails is done reluctantly. Mordecai is undoubtedly unique in this regard.

Perhaps, Mordecai’s lack of equivocation may have received impetus from another source. Viewed from a less charitable standpoint, it could be said that Mordecai’s earlier conduct precipitated the current calamity. The reasoning would be that, had he found accommodation with bowing to Haman, following the lead of his colleagues at the king’s gate and not made such a point of his religious objection, Haman might have found other things to engage him. Even so, most observers at the time would agree that Mordecai or anyone who acted likewise could not have foreseen the sheer evil scale of Haman’s retaliation, even though some would likely have blamed Mordecai for his part in it. Whether or not Mordecai accepted this line of reasoning, it is likely that his acute response was informed by it.

Esther, on the other hand, appeared to be sheltered from the rising tensions, perhaps, by reason of her office. That oblivious state did not last long. In short order, multiple reports reached her about her uncle’s activism and his state of undress. Still unclear about what brought on the former, she set about addressing the latter. She sent clothes to Mordecai with a plea to him to wear them and remove his sackcloth. Mordecai promptly refused. Sometimes, the nature of caring belies and may even underestimate the situation it seeks to address, particularly when the symptoms prove more accessible than the root of the matter.

On receipt of her uncle’s negative response, Esther went one step further. She summoned Hathach, a trusted servant, and sent him to Mordecai to enquire into the ‘why’ of the matter. Hathach proceeded to meet with Mordecai in the city square in front of the king’s gate where Mordecai was maintaining a very visible presence. Mordecai lost no time in disclosing to Hathach the full extent of Haman’s plot. Mordecai’s skill in acquiring information was in full display in the comprehensive and detailed report he made to Esther through Hathach. That report included Mordecai’s role in precipitating Haman’s retaliation, the scope of Haman’s plot, the exact sum of money Haman had invested in the scheme and a copy of the king’s decree. In addition to his report, Mordecai ordered Esther to seek out the king and plead with him on behalf of the Jews.

Now, the matter of the money in question here bears a little further scrutiny. It has been argued that the pecuniary dimension to Haman’s plot was decisive in obtaining the king’s favour. In this formulation, the payment to the treasury was an active inducement that was deployed to obtain the king’s assent. Further to the argument advanced herein, Haman hoped to recoup his investment from the proceeds of the plunder of the Jews as set out in the decree. So, quite apart from the annihilation in prospect, the perpetrators of the evil scheme and the participants thereof stood to gain handsomely from a successful execution of the same. Mordecai and Esther as well as all the Jews in the empire would have understood the direct implications of this dimension of the decree.

Even so, Esther was initially hesitant to approach the king. Her disposition was well founded and understandable. She sent Hathach back to Mordecai to explain that by law no one, herself included, could approach the king in his inner court without an invitation, the punishment of such law-breaking being death, except the king holds out the golden scepter to the uninvited guest. Furthermore, she informed Mordecai that she had not seen the king in thirty days. The obvious implication being that given that time lapse, she could not be sure of the king’s state of mind.

The circumstances of queen Vashti’s removal, in refusing to appear at the king’s command, must have figured prominently in Esther’s thinking. The small matter of capital punishment must have given her pause, likewise. But the extent of her anguished thought process did not end there. There were at least two other important factors that would have complicated her deliberations. The first was that hitherto, in obedience to Mordecai, she had kept her identity as a Jew secret. The current urgent contingencies apart, this would not have been her preferred way of revealing her true identity. Second, from childhood, submission and deference had been Esther’s way of life. Those were the qualities that advanced her to the position she occupied. And yet, she was being asked to abandon her most cherished guiding principle in the most public and potentially controversial way imaginable. This young lady and Queen was at her Gethsemane.

When Mordecai’s was told of Esther’s ambivalence, he doubled down without hesitation. It was clear to Mordecai what must be done in spite of the enormous risk. His reply to his niece was unequivocal and pointed. He warned her not to think that she would escape the fate Haman sought for the Jews just because of her exalted position. He raised the possibility that if she demurred, deliverance might come from other quarters. Finally, he suggested to her that perhaps this was her divine calling and purpose. Mordecai’s words had the desired persuasive effect.

A word on the strength and dynamism of the relationship between Mordecai and Esther is warranted here. Bear in mind the extreme change in circumstances that now defined their relationship. The proximity that once obtained was now a thing of the past. The fact that they had to communicate with each other, on such a sensitive and consequential matter, through an intermediary was a case in point. Given the foregoing, the status differential between Esther and Mordecai, introduced by Esther’s elevation, and the potential for role reversal did not help matters any. Add to that the subject matter in contemplation and the content thereof of their communication and a breaking point could have been reached. And yet, despite the incredible stress placed on the relationship, it held. Mordecai maintained his role as guardian and instructor. Esther despite her elevation remained obedient and loyal, to the point of risking her life. Mordecai resolutely set out and defined the vision for their partnership and Esther dared greatly in its execution. It is clear that this relationship was about more than the mere comfort of the parties to it.

With the conclusion of her remote interaction with her uncle, the ball was now firmly in Esther’s court. She had received her marching orders as it were. In her hands now lay the destiny of the Jews in the empire. The pressure must have been immense. The considerable achievement of keeping her identity a secret on her way to becoming queen was in comparison a mere prelude. The circumstances required a feat exponentially more difficult and fraught. The real prospect that she might forfeit her life even before she could really embark on her mission would have provided scant comfort.

In a significant bit of role reversal, Esther instructed her uncle to gather all the Jews in the capital together and fast three days for her, to complement a similar fast to be undertaken by herself and her servants. Mordecai observed the command with exactitude. That preparation was to prove vital in undoing Haman’s perfidy. The cool cunning and wisdom Esther deployed subsequently could only have come from on High. But first, she prepared to die