Power, Deception and Comedy: The Politics of Exile in the Book of Esther by Alexander Green

, April 12, 2012

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)   

The Book of Esther can be interpreted as a political work with its own inherent logic and integrity. While the existence of the divine is not denied in the narrative, it appears to be beyond the reach and understanding of a people struggling for survival. In this sense, the Diaspora is presented as a kind of “lottery,” where the only way to survive is to overcome fortune through political cunning and strength of arms. By analyzing the particulars of Jewish political vulnerability as depicted in this narrative, as well as the methods used to overcome it, it may be possible to regard The Book of Esther as a sober guide to the limitations and consequences of Diaspora Jewish life.

The Book of Esther has generated numerous studies by commentators as to how and why it differs from all other books of the Bible. Some of the fundamental questions that are asked about this anomalous text are: why does God not appear in it, why does the narrative take place solely in Persia without any mention of the Land of Israel, and why do the heroes of this biblical work not appear as clear followers of the Jewish tradition?

The first medieval Jewish commentators attempted to solve some of these conundrums by reinterpreting the characters through subtle textual interpretations.[1] They frequently transformed the characters into pious Jews in order to show how the narrative is another example of God’s miraculous intervention in history to save the Jewish people.[2]

Modern critical scholarship, in opposition to the religious medieval readings, sought to look at the text not solely as the work of one writer, but placed it in a historical context (and not always the one necessarily shown on the surface) through interpreting it as a work of pseudepigrapha. Through source criticism, they also sought to divide the work into what they thought to be its Greek, Persian, and Babylonian sources, which were finally edited by a redactor.[3] Postmodern, feminist, and gender-studies scholars have gone even further by using “the Jew” in the Book of Esther as a metaphor for a variety of minorities (including ethnic, religious, and sexual) living in modern times, in order to foster awareness of the dangers of potential genocide faced by minorities.[4]

However, one methodology that is less commonly applied within the realm of modern scholarship is the viewing of the Book of Esther through a political lens.[5] This is an approach that would require the book to be understood according to its own inherent logic and integrity as a political work demonstrating the full precariousness of Jewish life in exile. Indeed, by analyzing the particulars of Jewish political vulnerability as depicted in this narrative, as well as the methods used to overcome them, it may be possible to regard the Book of Esther in a new light: as a kind of sober guide to the limitations and consequences of Jewish life in exile.

Notwithstanding the questions of when and by whom the Book of Esther was actually written, the work is set by the author in the time of the Persian King Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 to 465 BCE. This is a century after the exile of the Jews from the Kingdom of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians.[6] While scholars have debated the book’s historical and fictional elements, perhaps a more balanced approach would be to read it with both elements in mind. This approach would view it as written in the style of historical fiction, but with a specific teaching (perhaps similar to Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus).[7]

If read according to the historical period in which the work claims to occur, this places it chronologically as the last work in the Hebrew Bible.[8] The two other works set in the Persian period are the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which take place during the time of King Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 530 BCE. It is believed that these two books were originally one book.[9] One could read these three works as two parts of one larger and more comprehensive argument: the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were addressed to the Jews returning to the Land of Israel in order to restore the Jewish community there, while the Book of Esther was addressed to the Jews planning to remain in exile.[10] As such, the Book of Esther appears to have been written in order to be deliberately read as the last work of the Hebrew Bible, and is one of the only books in the Bible to take a serious look at the possible challenges and benefits of Jewish life in exile under foreign rule.[11]

Ahashverosh and Despotism

The initial message that the Book of Esther conveys to the reader is that the nature of the regime under which Jews live determines the stability of their life within that society. The choice to begin the work with the statement, “It came to pass in the days of Ahashverosh, the same Ahashverosh who reigned from India to Ethiopia, over 127 provinces” (Esther 1:1), emphasizes that the whole work to some extent depends on this powerful ruler who governed a large world empire. This first chapter also teaches that the regime and empire was an Oriental despotism (or tyranny), where all the power is centralized and determined by the whims and wishes of this one ruler, Ahashverosh. Gleicher goes so far as to argue that “considered as a study of oriental despotism, the Book of Esther might well be renamed the Book of Ahashverosh, for unlike Mordechai and Esther, who are absent from chapter 1, and Haman, who appears in chapter 3 and is dead by the end of chapter 7, Ahashverosh is ubiquitous.”[12]

Ahashverosh is presented throughout the book as the epitome of an unenlightened despot, who possesses power but little wisdom.[13] We see how he cannot make a decision for himself by the fact that his advisers are forced to make all the decisions for him, from the unknown Memuchan in Chapter 1, to the villain Haman in Chapter 3, as well as to Esther and Harvona in Chapters 5-7.[14] Even the king’s young attendants are compelled to propose the obvious action that, after Vashti’s expulsion, he should seek a new queen (Esther 2:2); similarly it is the servant Harvona who suggests to the king that Haman should be hanged on the gallows (Esther 7:9). Fox points out how he “tends to rely on others to supply even his obvious thoughts.”[15]

While Ahashverosh may be lacking independent judgment, he abounds in desire, and he has a great concern for honor. We can see how erosdominates the main topics on the king’s mind through his actions in the first two chapters, which are primarily concerned with “wine and women.” In these chapters there is no report of Ahashverosh ruling the empire, but merely organizing drinking parties and seeking one woman after another for his own pleasure. This perhaps explains why in the case of the beautiful Esther, Ahashverosh does not ask anything about her background, since he seems to be overwhelmed by her physical attributes. Of course, this ignorance produced by the dominance of desire in Ahashverosh will play an essential role in the unfolding of the story.

Another of Ahashverosh’s weaknesses is his constant need for honor (yakar), and in order to achieve this, he strives to appear generous. This is easily manipulated by those characters who know how to use it to their own advantage.[16] For example, Memuchan understands Ahashverosh’s high concern for his own honor, and hence turns Vashti’s refusal to appear at his banquet into a case of wives not “showing honor [yakar] to their husbands” (1:20).[17]


Haman and the Transformation of Amalek

The weakness of Ahashverosh makes him particularly vulnerable to those who are skilled at using that weakness for their own nefarious purposes, such as Haman. It is an opening for the cunningly manipulative. Though ostensibly Ahashverosh’s vizier, Haman achieves almost complete authority in the regime, so much so that other political leaders are required to bow down to him. He accomplishes this through playing on the king’s fear of assassination, and making it seem as if he is the only one who has the strength to suppress dissent or counter the threats by the king’s enemies who seek power.[18]

But perhaps most important for the work, the character of Haman is a paradigm for a political leader who seeks the destruction of the Jews, modeled after past persecutors such as Pharaoh, and reminiscent to us of recent historical tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin. Mordechai’s suggestion that Esther hide her identity-even though there is no previous evidence of danger in the book- and the sudden appearance of Haman in Chapter 3, reveal that the danger from those few individuals known as “enemies of the Jews” (Esther 9:1) is always lurking.[19]

The identification of Haman as an Agagite is significant for understanding his character. Since it was Agag, the Amalekite king, who fought King Saul and indirectly caused his downfall,[20] the author of the Book of Esther seems to be making a parallel to, or at least calling to mind, that struggle against Amalek, and even to Amalek’s original attack on the Israelites during a time of weakness, when they were leaving Egypt.[21] The eternality of the struggle seems to indicate that Amalek is not just a physical enemy, but represents a villainous side of human nature that will attack an enemy without restraint or justification during a time of weakness. Amalek did not attack the Israelites as a military battle so as to gain some advantage, but attacked women and children of a weak tribe fleeing Egypt with no military power.[22]

Furthermore, for Amalek there are no moral constraints on action, but only the endless pursuit of power as an objective for human action.[23] The Book of Esther seems to be the first to make the Amalekite the independent archetype of the ruthless evildoer, whether or not he is tied to political and military doings of the free Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Unlike the original Amalek who attacked a tribe fleeing in the desert, and Agag who attacked a strong kingdom under King Saul, Haman is different from his historical predecessors by the fact that he, like the Jews, is living under foreign rule in a foreign empire, where the Amalekites seem to have no more claim to rule than that of the Jews. Despite the lack of political dominion, the enemies of the Jews do not necessarily put down their arms; instead, they merely change their tactics. While Haman realizes he cannot overthrow the king, what he can do is recognize how to manipulate the king to serve his purposes through shrewd political rhetoric. Haman tells the king that

There is one people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of other peoples, and the king’s laws they do not keep, so that it is of no benefit of the king to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed, and I will weigh out ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries. (Esther 3:8-9)

Some scholars describe this speech to the king as a “rhetorical masterpiece.”[24] To achieve the effect he desires, Haman must understand the king’s soul, and in doing so he takes advantage of the king’s stupidity and mental laziness, and appeals to his grandiose sense of honor and immense desire for both power and wealth. By referring to the Jews as “one people” (am echad), he makes them into an anonymous people without personality, figuring the king will not do his own research into their identity and thus will not mind if one insignificant people in the kingdom are killed. He attempts to appeal to the king’s need for honor by calling them a people “kept apart” (mefoorad) who “do not keep the king’s laws,” suggesting that they consider themselves too good to respect the rule of the king.

Haman’s strategy is to exaggerate the separateness of the Jews, and to make it seem as if the Jews do not live by Persian law but rather by Jewish law alone. There is, of course, no evidence in the book that the Jews do not live by Persian law. However, as is evident from the example of Mordechai, the Jews are in fact loyal subjects of the Persian Empire, who generally put Persian law before Jewish law (except in the case of Mordechai boldly refusing to bow to Haman).[25] Indeed, the fact that Esther allows herself to be entered in the king’s beauty contest in search of a new queen might also suggest that the Jews generally adhere to Persian law and respect it.

Lastly, Haman appeals to the king’s desire for power and wealth by arguing how the Jews are “scattered” (mefoozar), and by bribing the king with money. Haman’s emphasis on the scattered condition of the Jews appears to make it seem as if they are everywhere, and even perhaps insinuates that by being “scattered” everywhere they are trying to take control (a tactic of anti-Jewish rhetoric from Pharaoh to Hitler),[26] while in fact the Jews were clearly not the only scattered people within the Persian Empire.[27] This was particularly effective rhetoric on Haman’s part, since there had been a recent assassination attempt and the king was particularly wary of those who might be plotting to seize control. The Talmudic authority, known as Rava, discerned the craftiness of Haman’s rhetoric, and pointed out how there “never was a slanderer so skilled as Haman” because of his ability to spread lies that are based on kernels of truth.[28]


Mordechai as Pragmatic Leader

The question for the Jews that follows from this type of scenario is a familiar one from history: how are the Jews to act politically in foreign lands under despotic regimes, where one cannot trust the ruler to defend them against political forces that want to destroy them? (Note that the absence of any Jewish characters in the first chapter may reflect the author’s perception of the Persian regime as not overly concerned with the fate of the Jews, since they are just one of many peoples in the empire.)[29] The Book of Esther presents two possible political options through the two Jewish heroes in the work-Mordechai and Esther. In fact, one possible way of understanding these two characters is as paradigms for political action: Mordechai is a political actor who represents the Jewish people in the public arena, and attempts to gain the favor of the ruler. Alternatively, Esther is a Jew in disguise as a Persian queen, who uses her feminine beauty and charm to gain the favor of the ruler through her skill in the bedroom.

Chapter 2 presents the dichotomy between their two approaches, even before there is any immediate threat to Jewish survival. Esther gains favor by “sleeping her way to the top” to become queen (Esther 2:17), while Mordechai, who happens to overhear plans for an assassination attempt on the king, attempts to gain Ahashverosh’s favor by reporting it in his own name to the king (Esther 2:21).[30] But it is, of course, only through Esther’s high position that Mordechai can report the information directly to him (Esther 2:22-23). The successful capture and hanging of the enemies of the king, through the combined efforts of Mordechai and Esther, foreshadows their combined political teamwork of forces on “the inside” and on “the outside” to stop threats to their own people later on in the work.

A careful analysis of both Mordechai and Esther’s words and actions, however, reveals that each one has different skills and tactics that he on the one hand, and she on the other, uses to gain favor and manipulate Ahashverosh so as to save the Jewish people against Haman’s own powerful manipulation. Mordechai is depicted as the ideal leader of the Jewish community in the Diaspora (or the “court Jew”), who is both favored and empowered by the ruler; he becomes the vizier, and at the same time is supported by the Jewish community as its leader representing Jewish interests at court.[31]

One of Mordechai’s attributes that clearly distinguishes him from Esther is his outward Jewish pride, which can be deduced from the frequent appellation of “Mordechai the Jew.”[32] Mordechai is also endowed with a practical knowledge (prudence) of what must be done for the Jews in orderto survive in exile, and exhibits the foresight through both his words and actions to prepare for dangers before they arise.[33] As Gleicher puts it, this is a type of political savvy that is necessary for Jewish survival, pointing out that “Mordechai is prudent enough to be willing to get his hands dirty. He sees that, for the Jews of the Exile, to avoid political involvement with such a flawed prince may be in effect to concede rule to the likes of Haman.”[34]

One of Mordechai’s skills, like Haman’s, is in the art of persuasion, though Mordechai’s strength lies in his carefully knowing when to speak and when to be silent, unlike Haman, whose lack of control leads to his downfall.[35] The rabbis in the Talmud go so far as to credit Mordechai with knowing seventy languages, perhaps implying that he could gain favor with others thanks to his understanding of their personal perspectives. According to this view, Mordechai also learned the plot of the conspirators against Ahashverosh by understanding their language.[36]

The most important instance of Mordechai’s utilization of his rhetorical skills is when he convinces Esther to intercede in order to thwart the plot against the Jews (Esther 4:12-14). He achieves this by provoking the passions of anger and fear in her, while at the same time flattering her personal honor.[37] In this speech Mordechai shrewdly calculates that the only way to rouse Esther out of her passivity is to begin with inciting her anger. He appeals to her sense of outrage (and concern for justice) by specifying the amount of money Haman wants to use to pay off the king for killing the Jews (Esther 4:7).[38] As Levenson argues, “the mention of the astronomical sum that Haman is prepared to pay in order to obliterate the Jews will give her a chilling sense of the degree of Haman’s hatred.”[39]

Mordechai realizes, however, that Esther may have embraced her role as a gentile queen to such an extent that she might have distanced herself from the plight of the Jews, and thus not feel enough anger to drive her to action.[40] Therefore in 4:13-14, Mordechai changes his tactic to that of arousing fear in her for her life, both through human means (“don’t imagine that you alone of all the Jews will escape”) and through divine means (“relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another quarter but you and your father’s family will perish”). Mordechai ends his rhetorical masterpiece, though, with an appeal to Esther’s sense of honor, implying that her role as queen is divinely ordained, as if she was chosen by God precisely for this noble purpose. It is only after this skillful combination of flattery mixed with the arousing of anger and fear that Mordechai succeeds in convincing Esther to finally act.

It follows, then, that Mordechai’s other strength is his ability to take decisive action in the political realm. This is no easy feat, since on the one hand Mordechai must attempt to gain favor with the king, and on the other he must represent and lead the Jewish community in exile, whose interests may at times be at odds with the king. Mordechai is extremely successful in gaining favor with the king insofar as he manages to stop an assassination attempt against him and at the same time does not cash in on it until he needs it most. As a leader of the Jewish community, Mordechai, unlike many other biblical leaders, did not become the leader of the Jews through institutionalized succession or election, but through his own deeds that are confirmed by the community. (Notably, Jews are not shown to have princes unlike other peoples in the empire.)[41]


Esther’s Guile

The reality of this Jewish political situation in exile, where there is no apparent organized structure, is that the one who is most prudent at achieving success among the governing bodies of the regime becomes a leader in the Jewish community.[42] Therefore it is Mordechai who makes new laws for the Diaspora community, perhaps most markedly by refusing to bow to Haman, seemingly because of being Jewish. Gleicher argues that this act is in fact an attempt to counter Jewish assimilation and concludes that “by refusing to bow before Haman, Mordechai is…establishing a new and obvious barrier to distinguish Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors, in order to prevent their total assimilation into the surrounding culture.”[43]

Mordechai’s leadership is further demonstrated by the fact that once the decree against the Jews has been issued, he begins to mourn (Esther 4:1-2), even before the rest of the Jewish community is reported to be aware of the decree (Esther 4:3). At the same time, the mention of the Jewish community beginning to mourn, as appears in 4:3, seems to divert the normal flow of the narrative (of Mordechai’s mourning, and Esther’s response to it). This inclusion perhaps indicates that Mordechai’s actions serve as an example for the rest of the Jews in Persia, who then imitate his behavior.[44]

But when Mordechai becomes de facto exilarch, his primary purpose is no longer simply to win favor with Ahashverosh (with the notion that it may come to benefit the Jews in the long run), but to use his role with the king to immediately strengthen the position of the Jewish people in Persia.[45] He begins by reinvigorating his people by endowing them with a sense of confidence and strength. Psychologically, this is accomplished through several means: the decree that the Jews can militarily defend themselves (Esther 8:9-14); Mordechai’s public appearance dressed as royalty (8:15-16); and through his inaugurating public Jewish celebrations (8:17).

Once he awakens this confident mentality in his people, he then must begin a process of military rearmament, as well as convince other local governments and peoples to join his cause.[46] While the decree allows for only a few days of fighting, this is all that is needed for the Jews under Mordechai’s leadership to achieve justice and retribution against their enemies and to deter plots against them by future enemies. Mordechai’s position of strength, and the mighty image that accompanies it, begins to represent the newfound strength and confidence of the Jews,[47] leading the rabbis to go so far as to describe Mordechai as a dragon.[48]

At the same time, it should be noted that Esther also exhibits political strength, but unlike Mordechai’s, it is accomplished behind the scenes and out of the public eye. While Haman is a skilled orator and uses rhetoric successfully to control the king, Esther has a talent that Haman does not have-the female wiles, which can be classified as a source of power, though of a subtler kind. As one can see from Vashti’s failed rebellion in Chapter 1, women do not necessarily wield many outward signs of strength or power in the empire, but with the knowledge of how to manipulate the king through their feminine wiles, they can achieve great strength when practiced at these skills or arts. Although Mordechai convinces Esther to intervene, it seems that his lack of true understanding of the female mind may account for why he does not tell her how exactly to achieve this end.

Esther’s insight into the king’s love of honor, and that this is a weakness of his personality, is something that she takes advantage of in order to save the Jewish people. As Fox points out, Ahashverosh’s “concern is not for the endangered people, and not even primarily for Esther’s safety, but for the royal honor.”[49] Esther takes this lesson to heart: when appealing to the king, she comes dressed in royal garments (malchut, Esther 5:1),thus honoring the king. This is the opposite of Vashti, who refused to appear before him even in her royal crown (keter malchut, Esther 1:11), hence dishonoring the king in front of his guests.

Rhetorically, Esther does not appeal to the king on behalf of the Jewish people, but on behalf of the “queen and her people” (Esther 7:4), thusemphasizing how it is his queen, and the people of his queen that Haman is trying to destroy. Of even greater dishonor to him is the fact that he would attempt to sexually assault the queen in the king’s momentary absence (Esther 7:8).[50] As Plato’s discussion of honor illustrates, the spirited part of the soul that desires honor is the same part of the soul that is responsible for our feeling of anger.[51] This perhaps explains why Ahashverosh’s response to the slight on his honor is a rush of anger, forcing him to leave the room in fury (Esther 7:7). Furthermore, Esther’s strategy is apparently to build the suspense before actually naming Haman (Esther 7:5-6), which can also be seen as an attempt to increase the king’s anger before revealing to him that the guilty party is the very same Haman.[52]

The king, however, is also ruled by his rampant and uncontrolled desires. Esther’s manipulation of these desires so as to gain his attention is a skill she has also learned to use to her advantage. The most important, and most untrammeled, desire of the king seems to be his sexual passion. While the narrative does not mention this explicitly, it is hard to imagine why else he would need a constant flow of virgins entering the castle. Perhaps this is why Esther needed two banquets, with sufficient time between them to have sexual relations with the king.[53] If so, it is significant that Haman leaves the first banquet but Ahashverosh does not, making it ironic that while Ahashverosh and Esther make love, Haman and Zeresh make war.

Esther also takes advantage of Ahashverosh’s desire for alcohol, and uses the banquet to put him in a good mood so as to be more receptive to her requests.[54] Her awareness of his weakness for alcohol is also an understanding that in this way his already low intelligence can be further weakened in decision-making.[55]

But perhaps one of the greatest desires of Ahashverosh is that of power. In a similar way, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the tyrant, through the character of Macbeth, illustrates how the tyrant’s desire for maintaining power can be an endless and never-satisfied pursuit. Ahashverosh is extremely wary of assassination attempts, especially after the failure of one such attempt on his life earlier on. He may be worried that Esther’s invitation to Haman to attend the banquet may be part of a larger conspiracy against him, which leads him to stay up at night worrying, and trying to think of someone who can serve as a “check” on the power and ambition of the vizier (forcing him to look at the chronicles). Esther recognizes this and creates two banquets, allowing enough time for the king to build up enough suspicion and anxiety toward what Haman may be plotting and scheming.

It is Esther’s combination of being both shrewd and hidden, along with the ability to execute a plan perfectly, that saves the Jews in the end. This can also be extracted from the complexity of Esther’s names and biography, if read as a metaphor or symbol. She is introduced as “Hadassah, that is Esther, his [Mordechai’s] uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother” (Esther 2:7), and by the end she is referred to as “Esther the Queen, the daughter of Avihayil” (Esther 9:29). Hadassah, which is the female myrtle, is one of the four species (Nehemiah 8:15, Leviticus 23:40),and it was used with other leafy branches for covering the booths (sukkot) in the desert. Perhaps, as Gleicher points out, it is the role of Esther to “shelter the Jews in exile as would a booth in the wilderness.”[56] Furthermore it stresses the female myrtle, emphasizing this important role for Jewish women in exilic regimes.

The fact Esther has no parents accentuates the fact that she cannot rely on anyone to save her but herself.[57] Is she in this way also somewhat like the Jews in exile, that is, vulnerable like an orphan, and relatively unprotected by the “parental home” of their own state? In Hebrew, “Esther” also means “I will hide,” indicating that she must hide her true Jewish identity in order to rise to the rank that she does and become “the queen.” It is only when she combines all these techniques that she can succeed and become known as bat Avihayil or “my father is a man of valor,” subtly emphasizing the victory that she achieves.

The name Esther also derives from the Persian goddess “Ishtar,” who is the goddess of the planet Venus, i.e., the same as the goddess of love.While Haman relied on the lots of astrology to determine the fate of the Jews, Esther’s victory ironically reverses the dependence on astrology to guide fate. Under her leadership she brings about a victory for the Jews, demonstrating how victory was won by the “star” of politics (i.e., Esther)and not by the stars in the sky.[58]


The Role of Humor

Even though Mordechai and Esther are examples of Diaspora Jews rising to great heights, for most Jews throughout history it has been difficult if not impossible to attain such heights within a foreign regime. Outside of relying on the political action of those few politically motivated Jews, there have been few forums for political freedom that have been readily available to them.[59] Hence, the strength of the story of Mordechai and Esther is in its teaching for the few who are able to achieve such a position. At the same time, the creating of comic narratives is a means of achieving a kind of freedom for the majority of the people who cannot otherwise attain such a position, allowing them to feel superior to their rulers and enemies by mocking their weaknesses.

This type of humor is what is found in the Book of Esther, and may account for its appeal to the Jewish masses through the centuries, most of whom cannot be heroic like Mordechai and Esther. The first character who is mocked is King Ahashverosh, whose name resembles in Hebrew “King Headache.”[60] He is the model of the idiotic ruler, who cannot make a single decision for himself and is ruled by his love of honor and hisuncontrolled passions. As shown earlier, Ahashverosh spends most of his time indulging in large drinking parties and chasing after women, rather than properly administering his vast empire. His kingdom is one that, instead of having laws prescribing moderation and prudence in matters such as drink, actually requires indulgence in alcohol, so much so that at drinking parties there is a minimum amount of alcohol that one is required to consume (Esther 1:8).

Moreover, the king’s advisers devise ludicrous laws in response to serious problems. This can be seen in the reaction to Vashti’s refusal to come to the banquet, which is interpreted by his advisers as a female uprising, and is squelched by a comedic decree ordering all men in the empire to go home and command their wives.[61] Haman also becomes a buffoonish figure for comedy, as he accidentally stumbles into honoring the man he attempted to kill, and is caught appearing to sexually assault the queen in front of the king.

Mordechai’s later command to have a mishte (drinking party) as a central feature of the holiday seems to be an attempt for Jews to not only annually reenact the carnival of Ahashverosh’s regime and mock Haman’s evil, but also to apply these precedents to their own “Ahashveroshes” and their own “Hamans,” using comedy as a means of survival in exile. Within the later interpretations of the holiday of Purim, the comedy is emphasized through the “Purim Schpiel,” which brings the reenactment of this comedy into full dramatic play.[62] In fact, the plethora of Jewish comedians in modern times is often traced back to the fact that Jews developed a talent for comedy as a response to oppression throughout their history. While many scholars have traced the origins of Jewish comedy to oppression in Eastern Europe, one can go back as far as the Book of Esther to find an early blueprint for future Jewish comedy in the Diaspora.[63]


Divine Absence

While Mordechai and Esther form a political duo to assure survival for the Jews in exile, one of the fundamental questions that the work raises is whether God plays a role in this process. For the medieval Jewish commentators, the absence of any mention of God in the Book of Esther signifies that this is merely a more powerful example of the miraculous nature of God, whose power is shown to be greater, and to better effect, precisely through being hidden.[64] Modern scholarship, however, sees the absence of any direct mention of God as an example of the “secularity” of the work (or even as a proto-Nietzschean teaching).[65]

But if viewed from a Maimonidean perspective, both extremes can be seen as deficient. The Book of Esther seems to be in conformity with the well-known mishnaic statement that “all is foreseen yet freedom is given” (Ethics of the Fathers, 3.19). While the work stresses the necessity of Jewish political action in order to save the people, it also conveys the view that the Jewish people are fated to survive with the aid of forces of a greater if hidden power. This is revealed by Zeresh and Haman’s advisers, who seem to present this as a well-known historical fact.[66]

Therefore, the question perhaps is not whether God exists or whether He makes himself accessible to the Jews during exile, but rather whether the Jewish people have the ability to understand and hear the word of God without prophets while in their dispersion. As Maimonides argues, the ability to receive prophecy is predicated on intellectual perfection, which also requires a Jewish state. As he puts it, “the many sciences devoted to establishing the truth regarding these matters that have existed in our religious community have perished because of the length of time that has passed, because of our being dominated by pagan nations.”[67]

Even if prophets did exist in exile, the chances that most Jews would hear their words are very slim, to the extent that the rabbis said that “whoever lives outside the Land of Israel can be considered as if he has no God.”[68] It is Mordechai who presents the true religious teaching of the Book of Esther in telling Esther, “for if you insist on remaining silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.” Mordechai’s ambiguity in the use of the word “from elsewhere,” or “from another place” (raising the question of whether is it a divine or a human force), can be attributed to his status as a political man, and not as a prophet.

As Rashi astutely points out, Mordechai chose the life of “rule and not Torah.”[69] It is the ability of prophets to look at the past and future and see the actions of God in history, but Mordechai understands the limitations of his own knowledge and does not attempt to make a theological statement of any sort about the world. Mordechai’s ambiguity about God’s role reflects his larger understanding of such issues. He seems to be aware of the problem of discerning God’s role in history, in a world without prophecy and without a Jewish state to support it.

It is the holiday of Purim established by Mordechai at the end of the work that emphasizes the nature of life in the Diaspora and the proper Jewish response to it. The name of the holiday, “Purim,” refers to the lot (pur) that Haman cast in order to decide when to destroy the Jewish people. The Book of Esther also contains a kind of “Machiavellian” teaching that life in the Diaspora is like a lottery, in which the only way to survive is to overcome fortune through cunning and human arms,[70] or to put it simply, through fraud and force. While the existence of God is not denied, He is merely beyond the reach and understanding of a people grasping at straws for survival. Judaism at this time was redefined by Mordechai as being no longer simply a way of following the laws of God (and consequently of understanding God). It now also became a means of achieving the necessary political power so that in exile the Jews could ensure their survival.[71]

 Hazony boldly states “that the ambitious and strong will remain Jews only if being a Jew were a badge of strength, for power attracts power, and strength attracts strength.”[72] Those who are unable to exert political power through their governing bodies will nevertheless imbibe the spirit of political strength and freedom through reenacting the Purim story and its comedic elements.


A Zionist Solution?

While the book is frank about the dangerous realities of life in the Diaspora, it is also worth considering whether the solution that the Book of Esther proposes could only function in situations where the ruler is as weak and prone to vanity as Ahashverosh. It also requires heroes as strong and canny as Mordechai and Esther, who manage to cleverly work their way up into the highest echelons of political power. Indeed, the message of the book seems overly “idealistic” in suggesting that all rulers will be as weak as Ahashverosh, and all future Jewish leaders will necessarily be as strong and clever as Mordechai and Esther. As events of the last century in Europe illustrate, this is rarely the case.

Perhaps, then, the hidden message of the Book of Esther is that survival in exile is possible under the right conditions where Jews are able to thrive, so much so that the non-Jews might sometimes even fear their strength. But ultimately living in exile is almost always living by the whims of fortune to a much greater extent than it is through self-rule in one’s own political state. Furthermore, without the ability to reach the Maimonidean ideal of intellectual perfection that might ignite the return of prophecy, Jews are likely to become a people like any other, who simply possess another version of nationalism but most often without the higher truths of revelation.

Perhaps the ultimate solution that the Book of Esther hints at, but never says, is to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild a Jewish state there.[73] Mordechai is more cynical than Ezra and Nehemiah, and realizes that perhaps Jewish life in exile may not be coming to an end and hence Jews require a means of survival there. But the careful reader will realize as one of the messages of the book that perhaps the only way for the Jewish people to acquire stability and political strength while maintaining religious truth, is to return to their biblical homeland. While the Book of Esther may be the end of the Hebrew Bible, it can be argued that it is also a prolegomena to both classical and modern Zionism as well as a way of bringing one around to the beginning of the Hebrew Bible again.


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* My thanks to Prof. Clifford Orwin, whose inspiration and guidance was crucial for the writing of this article.

[1] An example of such a reinterpretation is adding a letter to a crucial word that conveniently changes the meaning. For example, at Esther 2:7, י was added to לבת (as a daughter), making it לבית implying that Mordechai and Esther are married. See Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 13a.

[2] For a comparison of the different medieval commentators’ analyses of the work, see Barry Walfish, Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[3] See Elias Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 171-240.

[4] For two postmodern interpretations, see Timothy K. Beal, The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, Annihilation and Esther (London: Routledge, 1997); Timothy Laniak, Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998).

[5] There have been two other distinctly political interpretations of the work. The first is that of Yoram Hazony, The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 1995); the second is by Jules Gleicher, “Mordechai the Exilarch: Some Thoughts on the Book of Esther,”Interpretation 28 (2001): 187-200. While both are fascinating interpretations, to be drawn upon here, the interpretation offered here will expand on many points in their studies and differ from them on many others.

[6] Michael Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 14.

[7] Jon Levenson, Esther: A Commentary (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 25; Adele Berlin, JPS Bible Commentary: Esther(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), xvii.

[8] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1913), iv, 365.

[9] Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament-An Introduction: The History of the Formation of the Old Testament (Oxford: Harper & Row, 1965), 541-542.

[10] Hazony, Dawn, 464, n. 4.

[11] Fox, Character, 4-5.

[12] Gleicher, “Mordechai,” 190.

[13] Ginzberg, Legends, iv, 379.

[14] Hazony, Dawn, 168.

[15] Fox, Character, 29.

[16] Ibid., 172-173; Levenson, Esther, 13-14.

[17] Fox, Character, 172.

[18] Hazony, Dawn, 51.

[19] Fox, Character, 32-33.

[20] Samuel II 15:8, 15:32.

[21] Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 25:17-19.

[22] This is brought out by Isaac Abarbanel in his Commentary on the Torah (Venice, 1579) on Deuteronomy 25:17, where neheshalim (נחשלים), the “hindmost,” refers to a similar word nehelashim (נחלשים), the “weakest.” See Avi Sagi, “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem,” Harvard Theological Review 87, 3 (1994): 326.

[23] One could perhaps say that Amalek chose “might” over “right.” The interpretation of Amalek as power-hungry is brought out by Samson Raphael Hirsch. He described Amalek as “the sword-requiring the sacrifice of all divine, human, spiritual and moral values.” See Samson Raphael Hirsch,Be’Maagalei Shanah: Pirkei Iyun Midei Hodesh be-Hodsho, vol. 2 (Bnei Brak: Netsach, 1966), 191 [Hebrew); Moshe Amiel, Derashot el Ami, vol. 3 (Tel Aviv: Va’ad leHotsaat Kitvei HaRav Amiel, 1964), 132 [Hebrew]; Sagi, “Punishment,” 333.

[24] Levenson, Esther, 70.

[25] Fox, Character, 48-49.

[26] Similarly, in Exodus 1:9, Pharaoh seems to exaggerate the number and strength of the Israelites, arguing how “the Israelites are more and mightier than we.”

[27] Fox, Character, 48.

[28] BT Megilah 13b; Fox, Character, 47-48.

[29] While this may be merely a reflection of the Jewish author of the work, it is confirmed by Herodotus in the fact that the Persian Empire was the first “multicultural” empire in that Cryus allowed conquered nations to keep their own laws and practice their own culture. For one example, see Herodotus, The History, trans. David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 97 [1.135].

[30] Hazony, Dawn, 31, 39.

[31] Fox, Character, 191.

[32] Mordechai is described as “Mordechai the Jew” at 2:5, 5:13, 6:10, 8:7, 9:29, 9:31, and 10:3. “Jewishness” is his identifying feature, not wisdom, piety, courage, or obedience to Torah. See ibid., 185.

[33] Fox, Character, 186; Levenson, Esther, 79.

[34] Gleicher, “Mordechai,” 192.

[35] Levenson, Esther, 95-96.

[36] There is a Jewish tradition that there are seventy nations and seventy languages in the world, deriving from Noah’s seventy children in Genesis 10 (Genesis Rabbah, 37), and that members of the Sanhedrin were required to know all seventy languages (BT Sanhedrin 17a). The Midrash argues that Mordechai was a member of the Sanhedrin and because he knew seventy languages, this allowed him to understand the plot of Bigtan and Teresh in Tarsian (BT Megilah 13b). See Ginzberg, Legends, iv, 382-383, 391.

[37] Aristotle discusses the tactic of arousing the passion of anger and fear in political rhetoric in Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 124, 139.

[38] Lewis B. Paton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther (Edinburgh: ICC, 1908), 217.

[39] Levenson, Esther, 79.

[40] As Aristotle argues, to feel the passion of anger it must be directed at an injustice done to “oneself or those near to one.” See Aristotle, On Rhetoric,  124.

[41] Fox, Character, 228.

[42] Ibid., 187. Mordechai is similar to Ezra in this respect.

[43] Gleicher, “Mordechai,” 196.

[44] Levenson, Esther, 78.

[45] Joseph is the preeminent biblical example of the passive political approach under Pharaoh. Only when his brothers come to visit him does he reveal his Israelite identity. For Joseph “is unable to act where his deeds are likely to displease his master, because of his tacit assumption that the good of the Jews depends on the preservation of his power.”  See Hazony, Dawn, 138.

[46] As Hazony writes, “Mordechai has to build an alliance of pro-Jewish forces so vast that the anti-Semites will find themselves abandoned by their following, and without capacity to mount a serious assault in any province.” See ibid., 189.

[47] As Esther 9:3 states: “And all the princes of the provinces, and the satraps, and the governors, and those that conduct the King’s affairs supported the Jews because the fear of Mordechai had fallen upon them.”

[48] Midrash Esther Rabba 8:5.

[49] Fox, Character, 86.

[50] As both Fox and Levenson point out, this is what seals Haman’s fate. See Fox, Character, 87; Levenson, Esther, 104.

[51] Plato, Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (Cambridge: Penguin, 1955), 439e-440c.

[52] Fox, Character, 84.

[53] Thanks to Prof. Orwin for providing this author with this careful insight.

[54] This is the opinion of the Vilna Gaon. See Levenson, Esther, 90.

[55] Gleicher, “Mordechai,” 192. At 3:15, right after releasing the edict to kill the Jews, the king casually goes to have a drink with Haman as if nothing has happened.

[56] Ibid., 198.

[57] Cf. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and ed. Harvey Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago, Press 1985), 21-25.

[58] Hazony, Dawn, 293, n. 14.

[59] Since the work clearly is not written just for the few political agents, it follows that it must contain a political teaching for the many subjects who are not directly involved in politics as well.

[60] Ahashverosh is a play on the words “chash” and “rosh,” which means headache. See Midrash Esther Rabba 1; Yehuda T. Radday, “Esther with Humor,” in On Humor and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Worcester: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 296.

[61] Radday, “Esther,” 298.

[62] Berlin, Esther, xlviii.

[63] Fox, Character, 253, picks this up, arguing how “The Book of Esther begins a tradition of Jewish humor.”

[64] In BT Berakhot 57b, it is argued how the Book of Esther is the greatest example of miraculousness.

[65] Fox, Character, 235-236.

[66] Ibid., 249-251; Levenson, Esther, 21.

[67] Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. and ed. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 175 [I 71]. See also Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 67-68; Hazony, Dawn, 4.

[68] BT Kethubot 110b.

[69] Rashi on BT Megilah 16b; Hazony, Dawn, 39, 268, n. 22.

[70] Cf. Machiavelli, The Prince, 98-101, where he compares fortune to a turbulent river that must be overcome and a woman who must be subdued.

[71] Hazony understands Rava’s statement that the Torah was accepted twice, once at Sinai and once during the time of Esther (BT Shabbat 88a), in this way. See Hazony, Dawn, 244.

[72] Ibid., 240.

[73] While Levenson is correct in pointing out that the author is stressing the necessity of focusing on survival in exile, rather than returning to Israel, it is suggested here that the author is also pointing out the long-term defects of such a view, hence also pointing to the necessity of a return to Israel in the long run. Cf. Levenson, Esther, 14.

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ALEXANDER GREEN is a PhD student in religion and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, where he is writing his dissertation on the ethical and political thought of Levi Gersonides. Green completed his MA in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.