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Looking for Wisdom in a Deranged Palace

The story of Purim begins with a debauched, bloody-minded despot and ends with a triumph of solidarity. A tale of Persia in the time of the Second Temple, it resonates today.

Published on: March 10, 2017
Yehudah Mirsky, a former State Department official, teaches at Brandeis University’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He is the author of the award-winning Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014), and tweets @YehudahMirsky.
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  • Jon Robbins

    The idea that Esther is “wisdom literature” is far-fetched to say the
    least. The book, often referred to misleadingly as a “historical
    novella,” is essentially a Jewish revenge fantasy. There is no
    indication of any real historicity in the account. If Persian Jews had
    really killed 75,000 people including the grand vizier figure (Haman),
    you’d think it would appear somewhere else, and the assertion of Haman’s
    lineal descent from the notionally ancient enemy, the Amalekites of the
    Sinai, is another give-away.

    Probably authored by a Hellenized
    Jew of the third century BC (or thereabouts) who used a pastiche of
    Greek accounts of Persian history (Herodotus et al) and then inserted a
    Jewish narrative and Jewish characters. The oft-remarked lack of any
    religious context certainly suggests a later rather than earlier date,
    further supported by the absence of Esther from the collection of “Dead
    Sea Scrolls” at Qumran, which is dated to the span of the 4th century

    What was his motive? Perhaps he was writing allegorically
    from somewhere in the Jewish diaspora such as Egypt where the locals
    were already becoming unhappy with massive Jewish immigration–and the
    accompanying sense of entitlement–and responding to it with hostility.
    Or perhaps it was simply a function of ethno-national self-obsession.
    The precedent of the a historical Sojurn in Egypt/Passover narrative,
    itself largely a revenge fantasy, is suggestive.

    Either way, the
    attempts of the Israeli government to pretend that Esther is a herald of
    Iranian hostility to modern Israel is ludicrous on many grounds. And
    the idea here that this murderous fantasy is a vehicle for wisdom is
    simply risible.

  • Jon Robbins

    Does this passage from Book III, para 79 of Herotodus’s Histories (c. 460 BC) sound familiar?

    “Thus were the Magi slain; and the seven, cutting off both the heads, and
    leaving their own wounded in the palace, partly because they were
    disabled, and partly to guard the citadel, went forth from the gates
    with the heads in their hands, shouting and making an uproar. They
    called out to all the Persians whom they met, and told them what had
    happened, showing them the heads of the Magi, while at the same time
    they slew every Magus who fell in their way. Then the Persians, when
    they knew what the seven had done, and understood the fraud of the Magi,
    thought it but just to follow the example set them, and, drawing their
    daggers, they killed the Magi wherever they could find any. Such was
    their fury, that, unless night had closed in, not a single Magus would
    have been left alive. The Persians observe this day with one accord, and
    keep it more strictly than any other in the whole year. It is then that
    they hold the great festival, which they call the Magophonia. No Magus
    may show himself abroad during the whole time that the feast lasts; but
    all must remain at home the entire day.”

    It’s Purim without Jews. Looks like someone’s been stealing Herodotus’s material.

    Instead of Haman and 75,000 of his closest friends being murdered, it’s the
    Median magi (about whom Greek authors consistently wrote disparagingly.)
    It’s mass killing turned into a national holiday. Where are the
    magus-taschen? Clearly, the Esther author imitated this and other bits
    and pieces culled from Greek historians, simply adding Jewish characters
    and a Jewish narrative to create a how-to guide for manipulating and
    prospering in the diaspora.

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