Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Book of Esther

One of Several Treatments of Esther by Rembrandt

After Ezra and Nehemiah, the twin chronicles of the Jews’ return to Judea from Babylonian exile, comes Esther, a story about events during the captivity. I say “story,” because it feels more like a tale than the various forms of historical account that we have read in the Bible up to this point. Certainly, it has the narrative arc of a fairy tale, and many of the usual tropes: a beautiful queen, treachery punished, and happiness ever after. I’ll give you the condensed version.

How Esther Became Queen

It all starts with a big party. Xerxes the Great throws a half-year extravaganza to show off the magnitude and splendor of his empire, which stretches from Ethiopia to India. After this proto-World’s Fair, there’s a seven-day afterparty for everybody who lives in the capital, complete with an open bar. The text goes into particular detail about the open bar. Then, as ever, a fine thing.

At the end of the party, the king calls for his queen to appear before the nobles, so he can show off how beautiful she is. She says no. This causes much consternation, and the nobles are afraid that when word gets out that the king’s wife disobey him, wives everywhere will stop obeying their husbands. It’ll be chaos! CHAOS!!!

So, it’s decided that the queen will lose her standing, and Xerxes will pick a new queen from among the most beautiful virgins in all the empire. Esther, a lovely Jewish orphan girl who was raised by her uncle Mordecai, enters the contest. Since this is the Book of Esther, not the Book of Mary Lou, you will not be surprised that after much rigmarole she is selected to be the next queen of the Persian Empire.

Enter the Villain

Now that he’s a royal hanger-on, Mordecai takes to loitering about in the palace courtyard. One day he overhears two guards making a conspiracy to assassinate Xerxes. He tells Esther, who tells the king, who escapes the plot and executes the conspirators. Things are going well for the Queen and her uncle.

The trouble starts when Xerxes promotes a guy named Haman to be his second-in-command. Everybody is supposed to bow down to Haman, but because Mordecai is Jewish (and so only supposed to bow down to God, I think the reasoning is here) he won’t. Whenever Haman comes through the courtyard, there’s everybody bowing down except Mordecai. It stands out. It rankles Haman, who develops such a loathing for Mordecai that he tricks Xerxes into letting him proclaim a pogrom against all of the Jews in the reign. A day is chosen by lot when all of the Jews will be rounded up, plundered, and killed, and Haman sends out a proclamation to this effect throughout the empire.

This naturally causes considerable consternation in the Jewish community, and Mordecai implores Esther to try to use her influence on Xerxes. It turns out, though, that this is very tricky. No one, not even the Queen, is allowed to approach Xerxes without him calling for them. If you enter his presence without being asked, you will be put to death – unless he decides on the spot that it’s OK, in which case he will point a special golden scepter at you. You touch the tip of the scepter, and everything’s OK. Freudians, start your engines!

The Villain’s Comeuppance!

Esther works up the nerve to disturb Xerxes, and luckily he is so fond of her that he points his special scepter at her and, after she has touched it, promises to give her whatever she wants. She says that she will prepare a banquet for Xerxes and Haman the following evening, and make her request then.

At the banquet, Esther reveals Haman’s plans and pleads for her life and the lives of all the other Jews in the Empire. Xerxes, who is only just now learning about the pogroms, is livid that he has been tricked, and goes out in the garden to cool off. Haman stays behind to try to beg Esther for mercy, but when Xerxes comes back inside it looks to him like Haman is putting the moves on her. Haman’s goose is pretty much cooked at this point, and shortly afterwards he can be seen dangling from the same high gallows that he had been recently hoping to hang Mordecai from.

So Xerxes calls off the pogroms, the Jews are saved, Esther is happy, and Mordecai is promoted to be Xerxes’ new chief of staff. And this is where we would fade out in the modern after-school special version of the tale.

More Comeuppance!

In the rough and tumble world of the Old Testament, though, there is an important additional aspect to this particular happy ending. The letter that Xerxes sends out doesn’t cancel the pogrom, because the King’s word once proclaimed – or forged, apparently – can not be rescinded. Instead, Xerxes grants all Jews in the empire permission to defend themselves against the pogroms, and


To destroy, kill and annihilate any formed force of any nationality of province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies. (8:11)

With the imperial administration now clearly rooting for the Jews, many converts begin discovering the attractions of Judaism.

The big day comes, and the Jews kill 500 people in the capital, including Hamam’s ten sons. Xerxes, in celebration, asks Esther if she has any additional wishes, and she says yes please: Can we string up the corpses of Hamam’s sons, and can the slaughter continue tomorrow, too? Spunky girl, the queen, and Xerxes indulgently grants her wishes. Three hundred anti-Semites are dispatched in the capital the next day; the two-day body count in the provinces is 75,000. Much feasting and celebration ensues. The end.

Historical Note

The modern Jewish celebration of Purim, I read here in the Wiki, is a commemoration of these events. It is traditionally viewed, reasonably enough, as a celebration of national self-preservation, and a reading of the Book of Esther is a key part of the Purim service.

7 comments:

The Calico Cat said...

Great timing, Purim is right around the corner!

Nichim said...

During the reading of the book of Esther at Purim, every time Haman's name is mentioned everyone boos and hisses. Then they eat three-cornered cookies called Hamentoshen which are shaped like Haman's hat.

Serendipity said...

This one used to baffle the hell out of me when I was a kid. I'd read the part about the special golden scepter over and over again trying to figure out what it would be like being married to somebody you couldn't approach without fear of death, and what it felt like from his point of view too. I did not have much success.

Eversaved said...

I can not WAIT until we celebrate Purim at my school.

On the other hand, these stories just get more and more disturbing the older I get.

I did love Vashti when I was younger, because she had balls. Figuratively. And also I love Esther for being smart and brave, up until the point when she orders other people killed. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

MRTB--It's ASW. I've missed you during haitus! In any case, interesting to log back in to this item. Perhaps the contemporary view we could bring to this story is, "How to approach things when you are married to a world-dominating despot." Doubtless the Food Network would have some specials dedicated to "feasts appropriate to saving your people and setting up your court rival." I can also envision Cosmo having some tips about how to approach the golden scepter and get what you want. As we approach Women's History Month, I can't help reflecting on how many images of women historically have been heroic by dint of using "feminine wiles" to get their way(s). There are those who would argue that this was the only path open to women for so long, so this was an admirable resistance. But, like Eversaved says here, it's clear that Esther wasn't exactly using her influence to address injustice in broad terms. She was using her skills as a broad to address injustices of particular interest to herself. Was this savvy? Was this her recognition that she had to play the bloody game of Xerxes to the advantage of her people? Or was it a bloodlust of her own? The part that sticks with me is the addition of a sort of national gamesmanship to the whole ordeal, as though Esther was engaging with X. in a sort of foreplay: Yeah, yeah, let's add some public display of bodies to this, and maybe another day of titillating sport, eh? I'm sure that made her invaluable to him. We don't celebrate Marie Antionette. We excoriate and pity her, and quote her for saying, "Let them eat cake" about the peasants before she lost her head. The typical stance toward her is that she deserved to die with the other despots of the realm. And yet Esther managed to behave like the wife of a despot and her life was written by the people who benefitted from her role, so we have a feast for her as a humanitarian who saved her people. Would Marie Antionette appear the same way if she'd defended some group somewhere along the way? Perhaps this is the lesson of this chapter. If you're going to become the help-meet of a world-dominating tyrant, you need to use your wiles to ensure that whatever thing or group you champion will survive you and write you into its collective history. Otherwise, you'll just be a sell out (?)

Michael5000 said...

@Calico: Is it? I just go through in order....

@Nichim: I understand there are special noisemakers, too. I wonder if I'd be more religious if religion was more closely associated with cookies.

@Serendip: I'll be frank -- I don't really think the golden scepter thing is healthy in a marriage.

@Eversaved: She is brave, certainly. The text would suggest that Mordecai is doing most of the thinking for the team, though. So, even with a book named after her, she doesn't seem like a fully realized female Bible heroine.

@ASW: Yay! I'm glad you are still reading! I hope the helpmeet of the next world-dominating despot to come down the track will find his or her way to your Sage words.

Eversaved said...

That's because a "fully realized female Bible heroine" doesn't exist (possible exception: Deborah? But even she is kind of marginal)

Sadly Esther is kind of as close as we get.

And so we have reason #31 for why I have a hard time with Judeo-Christianity, and in fact most religions