Sunday, January 22, 2012

Folly Esther

The book of Esther highlights a snapshot of jewish history, roughly 400-500 BC, during the time of King Xerxes' reign of Persia. This is probably more of a legend than factual with some details exaggerated, but there are accounts of his reign in persian and greek histories, so something similar to what happened in Esther seems likely.

Anyways, the tale opens with a festival where Xerxes brings in all of his lords and nobles from around the empire to show off his vast wealth and splendor and glory of his reign. Drinking and eating and partying abounded for everyone, from the highest noble to the lowest peasant. Xerxes has been heralded by some christian scholars as a "good" king because he did not force his jewish citizens to follow his religion, possibly some form of zoroastrianism, and instead left them to continue their own belief structures. He seemed indifferent to the whole matter. During this party, he summons the queen, Vashti, to come before the gathered nobles and eunuchs (not sure why eunuchs are referred to so frequently in the bible, but sometimes it can refer to the physical type of eunuch as well as someone who has just given themselves to celibacy, not necessarily lopping off their member) to show off her incredible beauty, but she declines. This is a no-no. The story doesn't go into detail about why she declines, just that it gets Xerxes angry and he makes a decree that she is never to come before the king again. This also hints at a much more sinister underlying problem with family life that exists to today, the idea that men are the rulers of the household and that women should be subservient to them in all matters.

Esther 2:17-22 "For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, 'King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come'. This very day the Persian and Median women of nobility who have heard about the queen's conduct will respond to all the king's nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord. Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king's edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest. The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memucan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people's tongue that every man should be ruler over his own household." NIV

Ah, there's nothing like a royal decree to force those damned, freethinking, independent, unruly women into submission.

Now, the king is on the lookout for his next wife, and sends commissioners to search the land for the most beautiful virgins so that they can "please" the king and "win his favor". He is basically setting up a concubine of women, a harem to take care of him. Esther happened to be one of those women chosen, however she concealed her Jewish nationality because Mordecai, her cousin who looked after her, had informed her to do so. She was a stunning woman and immediately won the favor of the king, eventually becoming his new queen.

Some time in the future there was a plot by some of the guardsmen to assassinate the king. Mordecai hears about this plot, informs Esther who, in turn, informs the king. The plotters were hanged on the gallows. Later, King Xerxes gave a noble named Haman honorary status, higher than any of the other nobles in the land. Haman used his newfound position of power to elevate himself and required all to kneel before him (except the king of course). Mordecai refuses to kneel before him and Haman became enraged. But not just at Mordecai, but also the whole jewish people in the land. (There must have been some previous bad blood here, otherwise it seems absolutely ridiculous to slaughter an entire race of people because one man wouldn't kneel before him - but we are given no more details here, so we must assume the worst. That Haman is evil and dead-set on extermination.)

Haman convinces the king to issue another decree to destroy the Jews, because they are different from everyone else in the kingdom and do not obey the customs and laws of the land.

Esther 3:8 "It is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them."

The king made the decree and Haman put together the details for the military exercise. Haman put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury to employ soldiers for the task. He was told by Xerxes to "keep the money" and "do with the people as you please". Couriers were sent to the various provinces with the message that the order was to "destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews - young and old, women and little children". The Jews were obviously stunned by this, as they had been living in the land previously with no issues from the king, they were allowed to practice their religion without persecution until Haman comes into the picture. Mordecai hears this news and is distraught and pleads with Esther to speak with her husband, the king, to change his mind. Esther, now being older, hasn't spoken with the king in 30 days (he probably had some younger, hotter concubines "serving" him at this point). Apparently, the queen can't even approach the king without being summoned by him (nice relationship), so she put together a plan. In a few days she approaches the king at her own peril and luckily he is pleased to see her. She invites him and Haman to come for a feast that day.

Later that night the king couldn't sleep so he had his attendants read him the book of chronicles, the records of his reign, to help him sleep. It was then that he discovered it was actually Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate him. The next day he made Haman honor Mordecai with a robe and a horse for his valor and service to the king, this really got Haman's goat. Esther had a second day of feasting and this is when she reveals her ancestry. She pleads with the king to save her life and spare her people from the coming destruction by Haman's army. The king seems surprised to hear that Haman is behind this, when it was his decree that gave him the power to destroy the Jews. This is where this story starts to go haywire and fall apart for me. How can the king not remember his own decree? He gave Haman his ring to seal the orders and said "do with the people as you please". What did he think was going to happen? Haman told him he would pay for soldiers to carry out the decree. Frustrating.

Anyways, Haman gets hanged on the gallows, and his estate gets willed to Esther. Esther pleads with the king to put an end to the evil plan by Haman against the Jews. Xerxes responds by telling Mordecai to write another decree to override that of Haman, and he would seal it again with his ring, making it permanent. This is where Mordecai and Esther could have taken the high ground and put an end to the situation for good. Instead of repealing the initial decree, thus allowing the Jews to continue to live in peace in the kingdom as they had before, able to observe their own customs and follow their own deity, they decide to go for war themselves. They could have dissolved the fund that would have paid any advancing armies (as it seems that was the only reason the enemy militia soldiers were there once Haman is killed). Instead, they write a wholly new decree, sealed by King Xerxes, that "granted the Jews the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies".

Why? Why go to this length? What purpose can this serve, if only to continue with a war that seems, from any reasonable perspective, as one that could have been easily avoided? Why not issue a decree deploring violence and plundering of any kind especially to the Jews, but allowing for mutual respect of cultures and for civil coexistence? We are left wondering these profound questions of intent on Mordecai's part. The war begins. The Jews defeated their enemies.

Esther 9:5 "The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them."

All-told, they killed over 75,000 people! They avoided their own extermination, which is certainly something to celebrate, but they were also given an incredible opportunity to find a way to coexist with other people. Using the kings decree for something good, something positive for humanity, and they squandered it by choosing instead to war and kill. They did not plunder, but that seems moot at this point. Esther goes even further, and gets the king to hang all ten of Haman's sons on the gallows as well (we are never told that they had anything to do with the war).

This destruction is celebrated by the Jews today, as the holiday of Purim. They celebrate the fact that they overcame an attempt to exterminate them and Mordecai's heroics, but we must not forget that they also killed a lot of people themselves, something that could have been avoided. Is there any moral here? It seems the king is easily fooled into allowing his closest confidants to usurp his power to kill people. He seems to have no notion of how to treat women (although this was a cultural norm back then - and still seems that way to some extent today in persia). He seems to have no notion of how to create and maintain a civil society. If he had that much power over his nobles and their provinces, he could have made sure that Haman's army never coalesced to make any attacks. He could have also stopped the Jews from doing their own slaughtering. Haman is the villain in this and he certainly seems to have gotten what he had coming to him. Esther and Mordecai don't seem to be much better though. They could have taken the high moral ground and ended it, but pushed the envelope and made the Jews go to war anyways, hanging Haman's sons and slaughtering thousands of their own accord.

I see no silver lining here. I only see what could have been done to suppress a volatile situation, that instead is made worse and is then celebrated with a two-day festival. I see no true "heroes" in this story.

Purim - Wikipedia

Artaxerxes I of Persia - Wikipedia

The Triumph of Mordecai

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