The king is a fool, tyrannized by his own lusts. He celebrates hedonism, misogyny, unquestioned authority, and hatreds that suit his whims and purposes. He rules through strange, contradictory missives sent out of nowhere, whose chief effect is to bewilder and regularly terrify the public. His regime’s court is a mess of sycophants conniving deadly plots against one another. One courtier, smart, focused, and determined, loathes the mealy-mouthed cosmopolitanism of a vast, far-flung polity, and works toward a vision of a powerful nation purged of useless, undependable ethnics, who see kinship beyond borders and pledge fealty to a moral order above the state and its functionaries. There is no mercy in the fool’s palace. Weakness is despised. The view from the palace sees only conflict between the subjugators and the subdued in the land. God has left the building.
Does any of this sound perhaps a little familiar? Then stop, wait, and listen.
Welcome to the Book of Esther, the only work in the Hebrew Bible in which God simply does not appear—indeed, is not even referred to or named. It is set deep in the Second Temple period, when dispersion, powerlessness, and exile had become a way of life for Jews—what it meant to most Jews to be Jewish. Indeed, it’s the one Biblical book to use the word “Jew,” yehudi, as we know it. Centuries later, working to see this strange and seemingly very un-Biblical tale as a chapter of God’s covenant with His chosen, but regularly tormented, people, the Rabbis of the Talmud ask, “From where in the Torah do we know of Esther?” Their answer, a characteristic mix of literary playfulness and theological audacity: from God’s premonition in Deuteronomy (31:18) “surely I will hide My face”—in Hebrew, haster astir.
Esther is, like Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job, a Book of Wisdom, the Biblical genre in which the passionate, loving, demanding God we know from most of the Bible is gone. In His place is an austere, impersonal force that may care about the fates of human beings, or may not.1 The flaming Torah of Sinai, with its tangled, contradictory mix of unearthly law and unearthly mercy, and the prophets, seared and suffering as they voice those passions to the people they criticize and love, is not in evidence. Biblical Prophecy tries to remake the world into a place where people do justice and love mercy. The Biblical Wisdom books take the world as it is, imperfections and all, and try to figure out how to survive it with as much goodness and dignity as possible. This is a task made more difficult when there is no moral arc to power, and the king is a debauched, cynical jerk.
The King of the Book of Esther, Ahasuerus, rules a Persian empire of 127 provinces from the royal seat in Susa, where he goes through wives and harem girls with a lovelessness that would be pitiable if not for the human wreckage he leaves behind. The story opens with (what else?) a massive feast, for no reason in particular, other than to celebrate the flesh and the king’s rule. When he commands the Queen, Vashti, to join the parade, she refuses. Rather than taking this as a sign she may have a mind and sense of her own, and egged on by his authoritarian advisers, he sees it as an assault on male authority everywhere and has her done away with. Needing a new Queen, he has his men seize masses of young women and the one he falls for, though he doesn’t know it, is Jewish.
We’re not told much about the Jews of the Empire, exiles from Jerusalem, other than that their customs are different, not like the king’s. Crucially (for the story), they don’t bow down to other humans. The resentment this causes is both ideological and personal as Mordechai, the Jewish wise man, refuses to bow down to the king’s vizier, Haman, who then talks the King into declaring state-supported genocide against the whole wretched bunch. As the couriers rush out to spread the edict of doom, the king and Haman sit down to eat and drink “and the city of Susa was perplexed” (Esther 3:15). And to drive home the sheer senselessness of the coming orgy of killing, the date is chosen at random, by lot, pur—hence, Purim.
Mordechai convinces an understandably terrified Esther (his cousin) to stand up for her people, even at risk of her own life. She hatches a plan that draws the king in through what matters most: his appetites. She invites him, and, keeping her enemies closer, Haman, to a series of parties, stepping outside of protocol, weaving a web of delight and affection. Out on a limb without a net below, she asks Mordechai to ask her people, the Jews, to go, as she will go, without food and drink for three days before she sets out on her mission, “and if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
The only thing she has to draw on is solidarity.
The first party is a hit, but there’s a second—when Esther comes out to the king as one of the hated Jews. The king is furious and Haman is scared. Is the king jolted into empathy for the masses of people he’s slated for destruction? Does he come to understand at long last what it means to be on the receiving end of his merciless power, or at least see that his xenophobia will deprive him of the object of his desire? Is he furious at Esther’s ethnic solidarity undermining the reach of his lust and power? We don’t know.
Haman is summarily hanged, along with his ten complicit sons. But the machinery of genocide once set in motion by royal decree can’t be undone. All the king, powerless in the face of the furies he’s unleashed, can do is to allow the Jews to defend themselves, and they do. In the Book of Esther, the lion doesn’t lie down with the lamb. Instead, the lamb gets the chance of a fair fight.
When it’s all over, Esther and Mordechai decree an annual celebration, not a solemn festival, but a carnival. That’s just the thing for so improbable a series of events, in which who’s up and who’s down changes from day to day, images and reality swap places dizzyingly fast (it’s not a long book), and a good laugh seems the only true relief from the sheer terror of how things might have turned out.
Dizzy really is the word. Those of us used to polities of well-organized groups striving to shape policy and the public sphere, in contention or concert, but within well-understood written and unwritten rules, cannot but be addled by the book’s vision of a vast and powerful state whose fate is entirely determined by the momentary whims of an impulsive, insecure sybarite. We are aghast at the specter of a polity in which the only thing that matters is what the king happens to think of you that morning, or what he wrote on the spur of the moment in the epistle he sent out in the night. Even more dumbfounding is the thought of this mad emperor being not the excretion of some hereditary monarchy, but the conscious choice of a political class who—some out of avarice and appetite, others out of principled animosity toward minorities and universalists—join hands with forces that joyously set groups of people against one another, and, in full knowledge of who and what the king is, throw wisdom to the winds.
Esther and Mordechai do two other things at the end of the story. In addition to commemorative feasting and gift-giving, they first decree charity for the poor. This is a reminder that survival came through solidarity, the joining of the powerful with the powerless. And next, they do what Jews do: They write a book.
This book we Jews read over and over, year by year—and we do it in public, in a group. As we read we look in and between the lines for wisdom to help us survive, maybe even thrive, in a world shot through with human weakness and frailty, a world in which God’s revelation is but a memory, and all we have to go on is our care for one another. That, as the Rabbis said, is the essence; “All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
1Biblical scholars offer differing views as to whether Esther is properly catalogued with Mediterranean Wisdom as such. But it’s hard not to see that in crucial respects it breathes the same disenchanted air as the obvious representatives of the genre.