The Secret Political History of Queen Esther

From Queen Elizabeth to Abraham Lincoln, the story of Purim has shaped our most contentious debates

By Ari Lamm

Presidential election season in America is heating up in a political environment that feels more polarized than ever. At such a precarious moment, it is valuable to consider the surprising influence upon Western political history of a relatively understudied biblical work: the Book of Esther. In particular, two crucial disputes at moments of great polarization—one during the rise to power of Queen Elizabeth I, the other during the American Civil War—turned upon dueling interpretations of Esther’s story.

Set during the reign of the Persian Emperor Xerxes, the Book of Esther narrates an attempt by Xerxes’ viceroy, Haman, to exterminate the Jewish people. It then records the Jews’ subsequent salvation through the forceful efforts of Xerxes’ Jewish queen, Esther. With the rise of powerful women in the English royal court, political references to the storied Jewish monarch began to proliferate. The reign of Catholic queens in England and Scotland—Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots—provoked a vigorous debate over whether or not the Bible sanctioned rule by a woman.

The Scottish Protestant writer John Knox, in perhaps the sharpest formulation of the point, regarded such a possibility as “monstrous,” contrary to nature, and offensive to God. Knox’s claim—published on the eve of Elizabeth I’s coronation—proved challenging not merely for Catholics, but for his Protestant colleagues in England as well, who supported the new Protestant monarch. In response, Elizabeth’s allies pointed to Esther as a model.