Queen Esther accuses Haman before King Ahasuerus, chromolithograph, published 1886

Will the Real Esther Please Stand Up?

The heroine of the Purim story is portrayed in contradictory ways in the biblical book that bears her name.

Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, is included in a few rabbinic lists.

According to the Talmud, she is one of the four most beautiful women in history (alongside the prostitute Rahav, whose name alone is said to be dangerously arousing). In the Midrash (Esther Rabba), she is listed with other warriors of the tribe of Benjamin. And she is even included in the Talmud’s list of prophetesses, for her part in authoring the Scroll of Esther.

These lists suggest divergent, and frankly contradictory, identities that may reflect different stages of Esther’s development. In the early part of the Purim story, Esther is portrayed as a natural beauty who catches the king’s eye and keeps her Judaism a secret. When the time is finally ripe to reveal it, she uses her charm and sexual allure to gain favor with the king and save the Jewish people from destruction.

Later in the story, we see a different side of Esther. She emerges as a leader of her people, boldly interceding with the king on their behalf and enabling the Jews to fight back and defend themselves against their enemies. Esther later writes the story that will become the Scroll of Esther and helps establish the holiday of Purim. The Talmud even casts her as the one who advocates for the scroll’s inclusion in the biblical canon.

While these identities chart Esther’s development from a naive girl into an independent woman and spiritual leader, we can’t ignore the inherent contradictions between them. Esther’s compromised position as a beautiful woman who distanced herself from Judaism to find favor with a non-Jewish king is one of the reasons that the Scroll of Esther wasn’t universally accepted at first as part of the Bible. (Another is that God appears nowhere in the story).

Many interpreters, troubled by these seeming contradictions in Esther’s divergent roles, made various efforts to harmonize them. The first clean-up can be seen in the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Megillah, which added scenes of Mordechai and Esther praying at critical moments and sought to make God’s involvement in the story more evident. Similarly, the Midrash suggests that Esther had handmaidens who helped her keep kosher and observe Shabbat in secret.

On the other hand, the Talmud entertains the possibility that Esther ate pork, suggesting that the pure version of Esther is too good to be true. Moreover, even if we accept that Esther had to eat non-kosher food to maintain appearances — her Jewishness isn’t revealed to the king until late in the story — there’s no getting around what may be the most perturbing detail of all, that her power is largely due to her beauty and her role as consort to the king. Is this a model of Jewish leadership we want to embrace?

Jewish sources grapple with this issue in a number of ways. The Talmud debates whether Esther was in fact beautiful, as a simple reading of the biblical story implies, or whether she won the heart of the king not on account of her sexual allure — but, miraculously, despite her lack of it. Another talmudic source describes her as “ground of the earth” during the sex act — detached and passive, an unwilling participant. “You know that …I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised or of any Gentile,” Esther prays in the additions to the Greek translation.

These texts highlight discomfort with the idea that our Jewish heroine must sleep her way to power in order to save her people. One fascinating motif pushes this ambivalence toward Esther into the realm of absurd.

The Scroll of Esther says that Mordecai took Esther as his adopted daughter (bat, in Hebrew). But both the Septuagint and the Talmud say that he took her as a wife (bayit, literally “house”). This idea sparks a full-blown dramatization of Esther’s double sex life in the Talmud, which reports that Esther would emerge from the king’s bed, immerse herself in a ritual bath, and then join Mordecai in his. On a formal level, this means that Esther continued to observe a significant commandment for Jewish women — going to the mikveh — even if the practice is not one normally used to permit a woman to two husbands.

This move aims to preserve Esther’s virtue, but is it better to have an adulterous woman as our heroine rather than a Jewess hiding out as queen in the Persian court? Even the most successful whitewash of Esther — in which she eats only kosher food, has only the purest of intentions, and is the unwilling object of the king’s desire — cannot erase the basic facts of the story, in which she exploits her position as consort to a non-Jewish king to save her people. Rather than hide this problem, the idea of a love triangle magnifies it.

Such interpretations cannot truly resolve the contradictions, but they invite us to read the various Esthers as metaphors representing the various challenges of living as Jews in the Diaspora. Are we to blend in to the dominant culture and compromise on public Jewish identity for the sake of security or power? Or do we take risks and stand up for our people, as Esther does when she boldly petitions the king without being called and finally reveals that her people, the Jews, are in harm’s way.

The Talmud’s motif of the love triangle doesn’t really solve the problem of determining the true Esther as much as it dives into the breach, describing a woman living her inconsistencies. Esther provides us with neither an ideal of women’s leadership nor a perfect model for Diaspora Jewry. Rather, it invites us to engage in the complexities of both.

These unreconciled contradictions provide a mirror for the numerous everyday decisions we make in the absence of God’s unequivocal voice. Deciding how our portrait of Esther will look is the process of compromise. As many of us in the 21st century know, there are no ideal heroes — only complex negotiations.

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