The last of the 24 books included in the Old Testament, the Book of Esther, takes place in Persia, roughly today’s Iran. It is surprisingly topical in light of events in the Middle East and around the globe. It shows how decisions made in societies ruled by deistic/dictatorial conceptions, where arbitrary rules can bring a perpetual Damocles’ sword of violence to hang above them – occasionally saved by a vital few with moral backbone.
The events take place in the court of King Achashverosh. After a failed attempt on his life, the king appoints Haman to be prime minister, without any due diligence, who then promptly orders everyone in the empire to prostrate themselves before him.
Mordecai, a Jewish courtier, refuses. Haman, his pride and vanity wounded, tells the king that not only Mordecai, but all the Jews in the empire, are violating the laws of the kingdom, though they have not done so.
The king impetuously gives Haman permission to kill all the Jews, Haman promising to “weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries” (Esther 3:9). This rings some bells now.
Zeresh, Haman’s wife, chooses the method for the killing: “Let them make a gallows fifty cubits high, and in the morning say to the king that they should hang Mordecai on it, and go to the king to the banquet joyfully.”
By this time Esther, a relative of Mordecai, has become queen of Persia, after Achashverosh impetuously got rid of his first wife for not showing up at a dinner party. Courtiers suggested the king to do so promptly, before all the women got the idea that they could disobey their husbands with impunity.
Mordecai convinces Esther to intervene with the king and save the Jewish tribe. But Persian law was that the king could not be mistaken, and he could thus not reverse even his own decrees.
But the deistic/royal law had a loophole: The king had the right to transfer powers with respect to specific decrees to someone who could then reverse the king’s earlier decree.
Indeed, the king allows Queen Esther to reverse Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews in the empire, after finding out that Mordecai had saved his life when conspirators planned to murder him. Mordecai never revealed his loyalty to the king or asked for honors and compensations.
Queen Esther then passes a decree to get rid of Haman, his family, his tribe – in self-defense, which results in the killing of 75,000. In contrast to Haman’s decree that allowed to plunder the Jews’ wealth, the Jews do not take a penny from the assets of the 75,000 killed.
The concluding chapter of the book consists of only three sentences. The first sentence says that after these events the king raised taxes. The second states that Mordecai was “great.”
The very last sentence of the book, though, notes while some Jews were happy seeing Mordecai and Queen Esther assimilated and in positions of power, not all of them were.
That’s it – end of the story, and of the very last book added to the Old Testament.
What is one to make of this book? Turns out that close reading shows how relevant it is now and why the name of the coming Jewish holiday based on it is called “Purim” – which means “The Dice.”
People matter, but institutions matter more
The main Jewish characters in this book, Queen Esther and Mordecai, are assimilated, and Esther married to the king. So why is this book included in the Old Testament to start with? These characters can hardly be the poster children for Judaism. As the end of the story reveals, they are not, notwithstanding their success in saving their tribe. The book sheds light on the dangers that arise when societies are ruled by deistic conception.
It turns out that they are in fact ruled by arbitrary decisions of people in power. At times such decisions are stabilizing and at other times not, depending on their moral character of the players who happen to have the ruler’s ears.
By ending the Old Testament with this story, the book recognizes that it did not find a solution to how a society can be ruled without resorting to violence: The best it could come up with is having people with moral backbones in positions of power.
The Book of Esther describes a society where there are no checks on power. The king delegates decision-making without the slightest due diligence (when appointing Haman), and rules without displaying any curiosity about who are the loyal people in the kingdom.
Pride, envy, vanity and greed motivate Haman’s decisions, condemning an entire minority to death. The king relies on just one adviser when passing powers to Haman. Only Queen Esther’s personal intervention checks his power – an unstable state of affairs.
In contrast to Haman’s decree that would have allowed the Jews’ property to be plundered, and his henchmen to kill Jews for money, Queen Esther’s decree allows Jews to kill Haman’s tribe only in self-defense – the book notes explicitly and repeatedly that there would be no monetary incentives:
“The Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled and protected themselves and had rest from their enemies and slew their foes, seventy-five thousand, but upon the spoil they did not lay their hands.”
Where do “The Dice” come in that give the holiday its name, “Purim”? Haman relies on casting lots (purim, plural of the Hebrew pur) to decide on the date to kill the Jews and plunder their wealth.
Since the Old Testament makes frequent reference to decisions made by casting lots without condemning the practice, why is Haman’s casting condemned? How did it differ from all the others?
In all other instances God commands the casting of lots, reflecting God’s will, the goal being to have a pacifying effect. Proverbs 16:33, for example, says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” – legitimizing its use and eliminating any link to “chance.”
The priesthood regularly cast lots to discover God’s will on issues such as selection of a king (I Samuel 10:20-21), the scapegoat for the atonement ritual (Leviticus 16:8-10), the identification of parties guilty of sacrilege (Joshua 7:10-26), and to select important dates, such as for Saul to become king (I Samuel 10).
In other instances, priests cast lots to divide other forms of wealth and duties, preventing conflicts during successions. Numbers 26:62-66 says, “The Lord said to Moses … The land shall be divided by lots, according to the names of the tribes of their father they shall inherit.”
In contrast, pride and greed motivate Haman’s throw of the lot choosing a date for carrying out sheer violence and plunder, as the text puts it: “For Haman, the adversary of all the Jews, had devised to destroy the Jews, and he cast the pur – that is, the lot – to terrify them and destroy them.”
The virtuous Queen Esther and Mordecai – loyal, moral characters, having been in the right place at the right time and taking initiative, exercising free will – overcome Haman’s decision based on “chance.”
Mordecai is explicit about this when noting to Esther: “Who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you came into royalty?” (4:14), preventing the execution of bad decisions.
Indeed, who knows? Not surprisingly, the holiday based on this story is called “Purim” – as reminder that people can overcome disastrous decisions based on casting lots, bringing happy ending.
And yet. Although this sequence of events ends happily for the Jewish minority, the book ends with three dry, puzzling observations, each in one brief sentence: that the taxes in the kingdom were raised; that Mordecai was a good man; but not all the Jews were content.
However, this may not be that surprising: The laws and politics of the land did not change so as to diminish the chances of violence and arbitrariness when another minority’s courtier and a beautiful woman get a future ruler’s ears.
True, this time assimilated Jews were in the right place, saving the Jewish tribe in the nick of time. But in contrast to the Book of Ruth, which ends with a genealogy leading to King David, this book just ends – open-ended. The Jews melt further in the Persian pot – but with the Damocles’ sword of violence hanging above their heads – a conclusion ringing more bells now with the global anti-Semitic manifestations.
So, yes, loyalty and morality matter. But better have institutions to prevent absolute power than rely on actions of few people, moral and courageous as they might be. There are times when such a vital few may not be enough to counter arbitrary, ruthless power and prevent violence.
This article draws on Reuven Brenner’s books History – the Human Gamble (Chicago, 1983), Force of Finance (Thomson/Texere, 2002), and World of Chance (Cambridge, 2008). Part 2 of this series, “When vital few with moral backbone overcome the mobs,” is to follow.