Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Esther: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

In the days of the Persian emperor Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes--yes, that Xerxes), when the Jews were scattered among the nations and even Israel was a Persian province, the emperor held a week-long banquet/party for all his nobles, in the capital city of Susa.  On the last day of the banquet, when Xerxes was quite drunk, he sent for his wife Vashti, to show off her beauty in front of all the people.  Vashti refused, and Xerxes got pissed.  He issued an edict forbidding Vashti from ever coming before him again.  He also ordered that all women in the empire obey their husbands as their masters.  It was a patriarchal society.

"Bow down to me, bitches."  -- Xerxes

Then Xerxes sent for virgins to be brought to him from all over the empire.  He was seeking both to increase his harem, and to find a replacement for queen Vashti.  One of the virgins brought to Xerxes’ harem was a beautiful young woman named Esther, who was a Jew.  Xerxes liked Esther more than all the other virgins, and he decided to make her queen.  She kept her ethnicity a secret.

"Esther" by Francois-Leon Benouville (1844)

Esther had an uncle named Mordecai, who had raised her after her parents died.  One time, Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate Xerxes and told Esther, who told the emperor, and his life was saved.  This will become important later in the story.

Meanwhile, Xerxes appointed a man name Haman to the position of Prime Minister.  Whenever Haman went anywhere, people had to bow down to him, but Mordecai refused.  This pissed Haman off.  When he found out that Mordecai was a Jew, he decided to exterminate all the Jews scattered across the empire.  Haman was like Hitler, or Himmler.  Haman persuaded Xerxes that the Jews were a threat to the empire, and devised a plan to exterminate them all (men, women, children) on the same day.  Letters were sent out to all the Persian provinces ordering this mass genocide.

"Mordecai Refuses to Bow to Haman" by Seth Haak

When Mordecai learned about this plan, he tore his clothes, put ashes on his head, and went out into the city, wailing and weeping.  Indeed, there was weeping, wailing, fasting, and praying among all the Jews of the provinces, when they heard of their coming annihilation.  Mordecai told Esther about this plan, and encouraged her to intercede for her people before the emperor, to save them.  Esther was afraid, because anyone who went before the great Xerxes uninvited could be killed.  Mordecai wrote a letter to Esther, saying: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

Here it is important to note that the book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions “God.”  Instead, God is perceived to be working “behind the scenes of history,” so to speak.  In making Esther (a Jew) queen of Persia at a time of genocide, it seems that God is beginning to work, not through fire and plagues and overt miracles, but through the subtle guiding of human events.  This subtle God is a fundamentally different sort of God than the one we find in the Torah.  This shows that the very idea of who God was and how he worked evolved as the Bible progressed, and as history progressed.  

Okay, back to the story.  Esther, the hero of this story, told Mordecai to assemble all the Jews living in the capitol and have them fast and pray for her.  She decided to risk her life by going before Xerxes unannounced.  “I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law,” she said, “and if I perish, I perish.”

"Esther Before Ahasuerus (Xerxes)" by Jacopo Tintoretto (1547)

So Esther went before the emperor, and he spared her life and asked what was troubling her.  She asked that a special banquet be organized, and invited Haman.  At first, Haman was thrilled that he was invited to this special, exclusive banquet with the great Xerxes and his queen.  But, when Haman saw Mordecai, he became angry again, and had a gallows built to hang Mordecai on, after the banquet.

That very evening, Xerxes could not sleep, so he decided to do some late night reading of the royal archives.  He found the account of when Mordecai had prevented his assassination, so he decided to honor Mordecai.  He called for Haman, and told him to place royal robes on Mordecai (whom he hated) and parade him through the streets of the capitol, proclaiming, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the King desires to honor.”  This had to be particularly humiliating for Haman.  Instead of hanging him, Haman had to publicly honor his enemy.  Then Haman went to the banquet.

"Mordecai is Led Through the City by Haman" (c. 1430)

At the banquet, Esther revealed that she was a Jew, and that Haman’s plan of mass extermination would be the end of her people.  Xerxes became furious at his prime minister, and ordered him to be hanged on the gallows he had made for Mordecai.  Then Xerxes promoted Mordecai to Haman’s position.

And here’s where the story becomes troubling, from an ethical point of view.  Instead of simply nullifying Haman’s genocide order, Mordecai reversed it, giving Jews throughout the provinces the legal right to kill their enemies.

An so, at the appointed day of the genocide, the Jews went ahead and killed those who were planning to kill them, including women and children.  75,000 people were killed by the Jews.  This is the origin of the Jewish holiday Purim.

Xerxes, pissed at Haman.

1 comment:

  1. So good Jesse. I love your way of telling these stories. Just perfect. I feel like I was there. :p