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Knowing the Times

So. I’m reading Esther, as I do on Purim, and I get caught up on the verse 1:13: Then the king said to the wise men, which knew the times…. This is in the Vashti story—y’all remember my Vashti rant? I have decided that the best thing about Purim, other than the cross-dressing and the gifts of food, is the way we have redeemed and overthrown the Vashti story. Anyway, when Vashti refuses to come and display her beauty at the court, the King’s anger burns within him, and then he turns to his wise men. Who know the times.

That thing about knowing the times (yodayah ha-eeteem, to know the times, nothing obscure or difficult about the literal meaning there) had never struck me before, and I was surprised to discover, once I started looking into it, that it’s a Big Deal in the Christian Endtimes community these days. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Esther is a Big Deal for them, too. And they talk about the Men of Issachar from 1 Chronicles 12:32 who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”, conceiving of themselves as some combination of the Men of Issachar and the Wise Men of Ahasueros, people who are possessed of Knowledge and Understanding of the times. I am not making up The Issachar Economic Model, I promise I’m not. For them, knowing the times means knowing that the endtimes are coming. Well, and I suppose that’s fine for them. But for the rest of us? What does it mean for us to know the times?

Well, of course the Wise Men of Shushan may just know the times in the sense that we say that someone knows what time it is, meaning they know what’s what, they’re hip to the jive, they’ve got their eyes open, they are men of the world, there are no flies on them. The traditional commentators give two other explanations for the phrase: for some, times is a Schenectady for laws, because laws are so often about what times one is allowed to or obliged to do certain things (or forbidden or permitted to do them). For others, the phrase describes astrologers, who through study of the heavens were able to discern favorable and unfavorable times for the King to act. This latter is viewed in a positive light, by the way—for the Sages of Blessed Memory, or for their later counterparts, astrology was acute observation and analysis, not irreligious claptrap.

In fact the commentators generally view these advisors to King Ahasuerus in a positive light, and they consider the advice to be good advice. I kept having dissonance reading these commentaries, because of course it’s terrible advice, and the Wise Men are horrible. The king appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure, particularly that they should never spoil a party by saying no. This is specifically the half-year party culminating in a week-long drunken orgy that Vashti has decided to harsh. This is not a functioning court. This is not a functioning monarchy. These are not Wise Men.

In fact, this time around, I am convinced that much of the point of the Vashti story in the text is to show how Ahasuerus was ripe for being manipulated by a bad advisor. To show what a fool he was, sure, and how rich as well, but the point really is that he is an awful king, and that his advisors are at best sycophants and more likely wicked—at any rate, over time, the harmless yes-men will be crowded out by the ambitious and evil. And sure enough, at the beginning of Chapter Three, the King has filled that power vacuum with Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and we’re all in trouble.

So what does it mean that the Wise Men know the times? Even given that we are not talking about anyone with actual wisdom, even given that these are scarcely role models for our own attempts at wisdom, surely at least their knowledge of the times is a good thing, yes? But what does it mean to know the times?

Well, here’s a thing that my Perfect Reader came up with that I quite like: when we know the times, we know that times change. We know that there was a time when people thought that Vashti was a bad woman. We know that there was a time when people thought that the wife had to be subservient to the husband, and that a woman making her own choices would be bad for all men everywhere. Those were the times that the so-called Wise Men of Shushan knew. They are not these times. These are times when we can celebrate Vashti.

If you know the times, you can interpret the Scripture new, for yourself. If you know the times, you can take what’s valuable from the commentary, and leave the rest to its own time. If you know the times, you can appreciate that different people at different times will have different interpretations—and that you yourself can have different interpretations over your life. You can overthrow and redeem the Vashti story.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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