The Book of Esther
This is one of the best stories in the Bible, but not because it teaches moral lessons, reveals human goodness, or glorifies the Lord. It's short on all three counts. Instead, it's a great story because it's got sex, subterfuge, violence, and revenge, and four main characters straight out of David Mamet. I'm amazed Esther has never been turned into a movie! Update—Wednesday, May 2: Within 15 minutes of this being posted, readers alerted me to not one but two Esther movies. There's One Night With the King, which was in theaters, briefly, in October 2006 (watch the trailer here). And there's the 1960 film Esther and the King, starring … Joan Collins!
We begin with a jerk. Not merely a jerk, but a vain, egomaniacal, fickle, childish cad. Ahasuerus is emperor of, well, everywhere. Based in Persia, he rules 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. Notably for our purposes, he rules the Jews, who have been liberated from their Babylonian oppressors and now live throughout the Persian empire.
Soon after he inherits the throne, Ahasuerus decides to hold a six-month-long party in his capital, Shushan (a precursor to the notorious bacchanal the last Shah of Iran held in 1971, a four-day, $100 million blowout feast celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian empire). The final week of Ahasuerus' party is a never-ending banquet, where, as at Mardi Gras and the Sigma Chi house, "the rule for drinking was, 'no restrictions.' " On the seventh day of the feast, the soused king orders his queen, Vashti, to come and "display her beauty to the partygoers."
What does "display her beauty" mean, you ask? Good question. I don't know! Does he want her merely to be admired from afar? Or lasciviously ogled? Or does he actually expect her to strip for them? It's not clear, and we never find out, because Vashti bravely refuses. Ahasuerus flips out. His ministers tell him that Vashti has not merely insulted her hubby, she has committed a crime against the empire, because now all women will think it's OK to disobey their husbands, and what a mess that will be! "There will be no end of scorn and provocation!"
Egged on by the prime minister, the king orders Vashti banished from his presence. He concludes, hilariously, that their divorce will improve marriages nationwide: From now on, "all wives will treat their husbands with respect." So ends our setup, one of the most entertaining chapters in the whole Bible.
Playing the role of royal pimps, Ahasuerus' ministers assemble all the beautiful young virgins in the empire, placing them under the care of the emperor's top eunuch. This passage includes a fabulous line, one that reminds us just how little has changed in 2,500 years. The ministers instruct the eunuch to treat the girls right. "Let them be provided with their cosmetics." When the virgins arrive at the harem, they don't go immediately to Ahasuerus' bed. Rather, they prepare for an entire year! "Six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women's cosmetics."
It's the first Miss Universe pageant, complete with a tiara as the prize! (Plus one sleazy Persian monarch.) And your new Miss Universe, 483 B.C., is … Miss Shushan, Esther Cohen!
(Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that Esther turns out to be the most stunning girl in the empire. Not to reveal my biases, but have you seen how great looking the Jewish women of that region are? Readers, I married one!)
Esther is an orphan but has been adopted by her elderly cousin Mordecai. They're descended from the Jews exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
The emperor makes Esther his queen. At Mordecai's urging, Esther "passes," not revealing herself as a Jew. (Passing is a key theme of the Bible and of Jewish tradition—the fear always being that non-Jews with power will take it out on Jews, which they usually do. Abraham hid his identity. Moses' mother hid his, of course. And there are incidents I am forgetting. Please remind me.)
Loitering outside the palace gates, Mordecai overhears two eunuchs plotting to assassinate Ahasuerus. (And who can blame them? If someone eunuched you, wouldn't you want some payback?) He tells Esther, who reports it to her husband, who has the plotters impaled on stakes.
The king appoints a new prime minister, Haman. (Boo! Hiss!) Everyone else in the court bows to Haman, but Mordecai refuses. It doesn't say this, but I presume that Mordecai won't bow because Jews are supposed to bow only to God. Is that right? (Question: If that is the case, how does Mordecai get away with not bowing to the king?) The detestable Haman is "filled with rage" at Mordecai and plots to annihilate all the empire's Jews. Haman casts lots to determine the date of the massacre. (Lots is purim in Hebrew, which is why the holiday inspired by Esther is called Purim.) Now Haman needs to get the king on his side. Haman tells Ahasuerus that his empire is filled with Jews who don't obey the king's laws and follow their own. The king mustn't tolerate such dissent.
What's curious is that Haman is right. From Persia to Spain to the United States, Jews have always set ourselves apart from the societies where we live, following our own customs and laws (though also the laws of the host nation, too). That separation is what has allowed Jews to maintain their faith and culture through 2,500 years of diaspora. The question, of course, is what conclusion you should draw from that separation. In places with wise rulers, leaders recognized that Jewish separation posed no threat, because Jews contributed so much to the nation. But in other places, rulers exploited Jewish separateness as a threat and an opportunity. Jews could be scapegoated and attacked, and their difference treated as a menace to what should be a homogenous society. (See Inquisition Spain, or Nazi Germany.) The story of Esther turns out to be a lesson in the virtue of diversity over sameness.
The king, an easily led fool, listens to Haman for about 15 seconds and agrees that Jewish extermination is a great idea. (Then, presumably, he immediately goes back to what really interests him—playing video golf or fondling the latest batch of virgins.)
Haman dispatches orders across the empire, under the king's signature, to "destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day." That tripling of verbs—"destroy, massacre, and exterminate"—is incredibly powerful, emphasizing the existential menace of Haman. Remember that there were no Jews anywhere else in the world then. If you wiped out the Jews in the Persian empire, you wiped them out, period. It's not hyperbole to compare Hitler to Haman or Haman to Hitler.
Here's a fascinating verse. When the decree is announced in Shushan, the king and Haman sit down for a celebratory dinner, but "the city of Shushan was dumfounded." Presumably, this is because Shushan itself has a huge Jewish population. It must be the New York of Persia.
Mordecai asks Esther to go to the king and intercede. She quavers. She tells him that Ahasuerus has not seen her in a month, and she can't go to him on her own, because the penalty for seeing the king without having been summoned is death. Mordecai tells her she's going to die anyway if Haman isn't stopped—her position won't protect her—so she has to petition Ahasuerus. She asks the Jews of Shushan to fast on her behalf, then agrees to take her life in her hand and visit the king unbidden. (Pause to note the Vashti/Esther parallel. Vashti risks her life by refusing to go to the king when summoned. Esther risks hers by going to the king when she has not been summoned.)
Esther shows up in the throne room. Ahasuerus, rather than chopping off her head, is thrilled to see her—she's a stone-cold Persian fox, after all—and says she can have whatever she wants, even half the kingdom. She asks only that the king invite Haman to a feast. At the feast, she requests that Haman and the king return for another feast the next day. Haman is delighted at the royal favor, until he runs into Mordecai, who again refuses to bow. Haman goes home in a sour mood and tells his wife that Mordecai is spoiling his good time. His wife and friends, who just want to cheer up gloomy old Haman, tell him to erect a 75-foot-high stake and have Mordecai impaled on it the next day. "Then you can go gaily with the king to the feast." This puts a spring in Haman's * step and a smile in his heart!
That same night, the king has a hard time falling asleep, so he asks his servants to read to him from "the annals"—the history book/Congressional Record/New York Times where all key imperial events are recorded. (Smart move by the king: There's no better sleeping pill than having someone read a history book to you.) His reader opens the book to the story of Mordecai stopping the eunuchs' plot. The king is dismayed to hear that Mordecai has received no reward for his good deed. Haman happens to arrive at the palace at this moment to get a bright and early start on the impaling. The king summons Haman and asks him the best way a king can honor a man. In a wonderful case of mistaken identity, Haman assumes that Ahasuerus wants to honor him and says that the king should put that man in royal robes and crown, and parade him through town on a horse. The king then orders Haman to do this … for Mordecai! Haman gulps, but does it.
Chapter 7 and Chapter 8
Esther holds her second feast for Haman and the king. Ahasuerus again asks what he can do for her. This time she pleads for her life and the lives of her fellow Jews, who are scheduled for extermination. The king—who is either amnesiac, or criminally inattentive, or a moron—doesn't seem to remember that he himself ordered the slaughter of the Jews, since he exclaims indignantly, "Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?" Esther replies—and you can imagine her pointing her bejeweled finger—"The adversary and the enemy … is this evil Haman." Haman cringes in terror! The king storms out of the room. Haman begs Esther to save him. In a marvelous moment—again, so cinematic!—Haman lies next to Esther on her couch and pleads for his life. At this moment, the king returns to the room and assumes Haman is trying to rape her. "Does he mean … to ravish the queen in my own palace?"
It's curtains for Haman, as you can imagine. They impale him on the stake meant for Mordecai. The king gives all of Haman's property to Esther, who hands it over to Mordecai. The king names Mordecai as his new prime minister. With the king's OK, Mordecai cancels the order to slaughter the Jews and tells them they can defend themselves if they are attacked. All of Shushan celebrates the reprieve.
If it ended there, the story of Esther would be a perfect set piece, with unambiguous moral clarity. But it doesn't. The first dark hints come in the last verse of Chapter 8, which says that many Persians now "professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them."
Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
And then it turns very ugly, very fast. On the day Haman scheduled for the Jewish extermination, the 13th of Adar, Jews muster throughout the empire and attack their enemies. What's troubling is that the Jewish assault is not in self-defense. There is no indication that the Hamanites actually tried to attack them. Quite the contrary, as the last verse of Chapter 8 suggests, they seem to have been thoroughly cowed by Mordecai's new power. Rather, the Jews are taking vengeance on their already defeated enemy, killing more than 75,000 people in a one-day spasm. (One verse vaguely suggests it was not simply mass slaughter: The Jews "fought for their lives," indicating their enemy was armed. But given that the book doesn't report any Jewish casualties, it's pretty clear the fight was one-sided.)
It gets worse. After the first day's killing, Ahasuerus comes to Esther and tells her that 500 people have been killed in Shushan alone. He asks her what she wants now. The bloodthirsty queen says it's not enough. The Jews of Shushan must be given a second day to kill. Moreover, she wants all of Haman's 10 sons impaled on stakes. The king says OK, and the massacre continues. The day after the murders, the Jews celebrate "with feasting and merrymaking," and Purim is declared a Jewish holiday for all time.
I'm from a family of lax Jews, and I'm sure our Purim celebrations weren't quite up to code. Even so, I am shocked at the difference between the Purim story I heard in synagogue and the Purim story in the Bible. We certainly celebrated the death of Haman at synagogue, but I don't recall hearing about the orgy of violence that followed. The 75,000 killed, Esther's insistence on a second day of slaughter, the vindictive impaling of Haman's sons—all that was left out of the kid-friendly Purim story I was raised on. Those horrifying acts make Purim a much more ambiguous, and troubling, holiday.
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