Friday, October 2, 2015

Queen Esther

Nazeen often thought that, if one had to be a slave, one could do worse than being the slave of Queen Esther. For a start, the queen was quite the most beautiful woman in all the Persian Empire. In fact, that was the reason she had been chosen as queen. She was so beautiful that sometimes that Nazeen would forget all about her work as the queen's maid and simply just stand there staring at her, almost forgetting to breathe as she gazed at a woman so lovely that it was hard sometimes to believe that she was a human being.

If the queen saw her staring, she would simply smile at her and say 'Wake up, Nazeen! You mustn't stare. I am only a woman like any other,'

That was the other thing that made working for the queen so nice – she was not only modest, but kind and gentle. Nazeen knew other slaves whose mistresses would have them beaten if they thought they weren't working hard enough – mistresses who were far less important than the queen. But that was never Queen Esther's way. With her, it was always a smile and a kind word. The only time she had come close to being cross with Nazeen was the first time she had caught her staring as they sat together in the royal apartments of the palace and reminded her that she was only a woman.
'Oh no, my queen!' Nazeen had cried out. 'You are too beautiful to call yourself merely a woman. Someone as beautiful as you must surely be one of the gods!'
At that the queen had frowned.
'Never say such a thing, Nazeen,' she said. 'Never. You must never treat any man or woman as if they were a god. It is a sin to even think such a thing!' And then she smiled. 'But I do not mean to be angry with you, Nazeen. You are only a child and do not understand such things and mean no harm. You have much to learn about life. But please, never think of me as a god again, or act as if I might be one. I am your mistress and your queen, but a mortal woman nonetheless and that is all. Do you understand?'
The girl nodded.
'Yes, mistress. But you are so very beautiful. I only wish I were half as beautiful as you!
'Do you, Nazeen?' said the queen, with a sad smile. 'Why is that?'
'Because if I were beautiful, one day some rich man might fall in love with me and wish to marry me. Then I would be free, and a great lady, and would live happily ever after!'
'Like me?'
'Why, yes, my lady.'
'Be careful what you wish for, my child. My beauty, as you call it, often seems to me to be a curse rather than a blessing. True, I am queen. But I did not choose to be. I was chosen by the king so that he might have the most beautiful wife in all the land. I never saw him before the day he chose me; and even now I rarely see him. It has been more than a month since he last called me to him. I spend all my days in these rooms, hidden from the world, waiting in case he should call me to the court. In many ways, I am as much a slave as you. More perhaps; because one day you will grow up and marry, my sweet little Nazeen, and it will be someone you love and who loves you and you will be with him every day as long as you both shall live!'
Nazeen was surprised.
'Don't you love the king, my lady?'
The queen smiled.
'Oh, yes, Nazeen. He is my husband and my king and it is my duty to love him. And I would love him even if it were not my duty, for I fell in love with him the moment we met. But I am not sure that he loves me. I fear that he is simply dazzled by the great beauty that everyone tells me I possess and that I am simply another treasure for him. But whether he can see beyond that and love me as an ordinary man would love his wife, I do not know.'
'But why do you not simply go to him and ask?' asked Nazeen.
'Oh, child,' said the queen with a laugh, 'there is much that you must learn about the court. For anyone to enter into the king's presence unless he has summoned them is death.'
'Even the queen?'
'Even the queen. Unless, of course, the king should choose to forgive the crime.'
'And would he not forgive you?'
'I do not know. He is a man who can become very angry very quickly. If I were to enter his court uninvited I think his anger would be roused in a moment; and before it were cooled he might well have me put to death. I think he would be sorry after, but by then it would be too late. But enough of such things,' she said with a laugh. 'We shall never know what the king might do, for I shall never put him to the test.'
And so the days passed and Nazeen continued to be astonished by the queen's kindness and beauty. Until the day came when for the first time she saw Queen Esther less than radiant, for her eyes were red with crying.
'My queen,' cried the little girl. 'What is wrong?'
'Oh, Nazeen,' said the queen. 'A terrible thing has happened. The king has made a decree that all the Jewish people in the empire are to be destroyed. On a certain day, all their enemies are to be allowed to rise up against them and attack them and kill every single one of them, man, woman, and child.'
Nazeen's mouth fell open in astonishment. The Jews were a strange people from a far away land that had been conquered long ago and made part of the empire. They had an odd religion – they believed that there was only one God, not that there were many gods as everybody else thought; and more, they thought that their God had created everything – every person, every plant, every animal, even the world itself. They took their religion very seriously and would die before they would worship what they called a false god, or treat a person, no matter how great they were, as if they were a god either. But for all that they were good people, honest and hard working. Nazeen could not understand why anyone would want to hurt them, much less kill them all.
'This can't be true, my queen! Why would the king wish to do such a thing?'
'Because he was tricked, Nazeen. That wicked Haman has told him lies. He said there was a people who lived in the empire who were a danger to it because they would not obey the law. And because Haman is his chief minister and the second most important man in all the empire, the king trusts him and gave him permission to deal with it as he saw fit. And so a decree has gone out in the king's name that all the Jews are to be destroyed!'
'But why would Haman do such a thing? Why would he wish to kill so many people? What harm have they done him?'
'None at all. But he hates the Jew Mordecai. He of all men will not bow before him as he goes by, for he, like all Jews, refuses to treat a man as if he were a god. And because he is a wicked and evil man, he can not stand the thought that there is anyone in all the world who will not treat him as he thinks he deserves. And so he has decided that all Jews must die, so that no one will be left in all the world who will not bow before him. And, of course, once he has killed them all, he and all who help him will steal all that they own and become vastly wealthy themselves!'
Nazeen struggled with the enormous wickedness of the plan, shaking her head. Then she remembered something.
'Wait. Didn't the Jew Mordecai save the kings life once? I thought he warned him of a plot to assassinate him not all that long ago? How can the king allow him and all his people to be killed like this?'
'The king doesn't know,' said the queen, tears still streaming down her face. 'That evil Haman never mentioned to him that it was the Jews, Mordecai's people, that he was accusing of being a danger to the empire. And now it is too late; the decree has been issued. Not even the king himself can take it back.'
'That is awful. Is that why you are weeping? Do you have friends who are Jews who will die?'
The queen shook her head.
'No, child, there is more. Mordecai sits at the gate to the palace. He has sent word to me and asked that I should go to the king and try to save his people.'
Nazeen stared at her in amazement.
'But surely he knows that if you go to the king without being summoned you will almost certainly die? And what would the point be? The king's decree can not be changed. Surely he knows that also?'
'He does.'
'Then why would he ask it of you? And in any case, how does any man dare to ask such a thing of the queen?'
For a long while the queen was silent. Then she answered the girl who sat before her, staring at he tear-stained face.
'Because he is my uncle and the man who raised me as if I were his own daughter. Because I also am a Jew and the people condemned to die, his people, are my people also.'
Nazeen's mouth hung open.
'I had no idea, my queen. Does this mean that you will be killed by Haman too?'
Queen Esther shook her head.
'No. Haman has no idea. No one does.'
'So then you, at least, are safe.'
The queen bent forward and kissed her on the forehead.
'Almost certainly I will be the first to die.'
'Why? You said nobody knows!'
'Because I will do as my uncle asks. I will go to the king. And if he spares my life I will plead for my people.'
Nazeen's face went pale.
'My queen, no! You mustn't do it. You already said the king will surely kill you for breaking the law if you go to him; and even if he does not, there is nothing he can do. The law has been set – even he can not change it. And if you plead for your people, he will know that you are also a Jew and must die with all the others.'
The queen sighed.
'I know all this. And yet I must try.'
'Why? Why die for no reason?'
The queen again was silent for a long time before answering.
'You know, Nazeen, that we Jews believe in One God who is the creator of all things. We also believe that we are his special people, chosen from all the world so that he might teach all people through us about him. Because of this, he has always taken special care of us. Sometimes when we are unfaithful he punishes us, as any good father does his children – that is why many of us are in exile now – but it is only to teach us to be obedient and return to him. My uncle Mordecai reminded me of this when he asked me to help. And he said that if I do not, then surely God would find some other way to help his people – but what would then happen to me, the one who would not even try? And what if this was the reason why I am the Queen – that this is the way that God intends to help his people; that it was God who made it happen that one of his chosen people would be queen so that when this terrible threat arose I would be there to help them?'
Nazeen shook her head.
'I am only a child, and a slave at that; I know nothing about gods. But I do know what you have told me about the king and his laws. Even if he does spare your life if you enter the court, how can you help your people? The king's decree can not be changed; and with it in place, your people will not even be able to defend themselves against their enemies when they rise up to destroy them.'
The queen gasped and stared at her for a moment. The she clapped her hands in delight and kissed the girl again.
'Oh Nazeen, you are so clever! Of course; that is it!'
'What? I don't understand. What did I say?'
'As you said, the king can not change the decree that has gone out. But he can issue another decree – one that allows my people to defend themselves if anyone should attack them!'
'Would that work?'
'Of course! Haman's plot depends on the fact that all who attack the Jews do so with the king's authority – if any defend themselves, they break the law and all his governors and armies throughout the empire would have to uphold that law. But if there is another law allowing them to defend themselves, then the authorities can not stop them from doing so; and my people are so numerous that they can crush any who try to attack them!'
Nazeen smiled with delight. Then her face fell.
'But first you must get the king to agree – and you do not know if he will even let you speak to him.'
'I know. But now at least I have hope. So come, my clever little Nazeen; help me take off this royal robes. I will spend the next three days in prayer and fasting and then I will go before the king.'

The next three days were hard. The queen and all the Jewish people of the city with her, ate nothing and spent all their time in prayer. But at last the time was over. The queen arose from her prayers and Nazeen helped her put on the finest of all her royal robes. Then she walked with her through the long corridors to the court of the king. Outside the door, the queen stopped.
'You must go no further, Nazeen. It would be death for you to do so.'
'Oh my queen, let me stay with you; I am happy to die with you!'
'I know, child. But there is nothing to be gained in that. Stay here instead and pray that I may succeed.'

And with that, Queen Esther turned and walked through the door into the court of the king. She took only a few steps past the threshold and stopped. Nazeen peeped round the frame., muttering prayers under her breath. She could see the king sitting on his throne, surrounded by his courtiers. For a moment he did not see the queen. Then he noticed her. At first his look was one of surprise; the others with him saw her too, and began to whisper among themselves in amazement. Never had such a thing happened. Then the king's face clouded over with anger and he opened his mouth to speak. Nazeen trembled; it was all too clear that he was about to call on the soldiers standing by the door to strike Queen Esther down. And then he paused; his face changed. He smiled. He held out his sceptre to the queen and beckoned her to come to him.

Nazeen knew then that all would be well. The king would listen to the queen. The evil plot of Haman would be overthrown and her people would be saved. Queen Esther's uncle Mordecai had been right: God had made his niece queen so that when this evil threat to his people had arisen she would be able to save them. Had he not cooled the great anger of the king before her very eyes, causing him to spare the queen? How great was the God of Israel, she thought. So great, that everything his people thought about him must be true – that he was the only God and the creator of all things. And as she stood there, still watching from the doorway as the smiling king took the queen's hand in his own and kissed it, she began to say a prayer of thanks to the God of the people of Israel.

A story told to the children of the Wandesforde National School 2 Oct 2015
(C) Rev Patrick G Burke

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