Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Esther: Countergenocide

The Book of Esther is the story of the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and it’s pretty short at only ten chapters. I suppose there’s possibly a little basis in reality for it, but almost certainly it’s had some legendry attached – I just don’t see real people acting in the way the people in this story act.

It’s set in the time of king Ahasuerus of Persia, and starts out with the king throwing a massive party for his officials that literally lasts for months. On one of the days, he summons his queen, Vashti, to come join him so he can show her off to his cronies and have them ooh and ahh over how beautiful she is. But Vashti refuses to come, and of course that pisses off his royal highness. Also, his hangers on claim that an example must be made of her, or else all the wives in all the kingdom will suddenly become contemptuous and disobedient to their husbands. So Ahasuerus strips her of the title of queen with the promise to give her title to someone better (i.e., more obedient). He then sent out a decree to have loads of beautiful young virgins shipped into his harem so he can choose a new queen.

This is when we get introduced to Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her cousin Mordecai. She fits the qualifications for the king’s decree, and so is taken into the harem and quickly becomes one of the king’s favorites. He eventually gives her the queen’s crown. At Mordecai’s insistence, she keeps her Jewish origins a secret.

Now Mordecai would hang out by the palace gates, and there were these two eunuchs guarding it. And Mordecai overheard them plotting to assault the king.

Est 2:22 And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23 When the affair was investigated and found to be so, the men were both hanged on the gallows. And it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.”

Just gonna leave that quote there. We’ll come back to it later.

OK, so all of that was just setup for the real conflict of the story. There’s this dude, Haman, who is the king’s most favoritest official ever. So much so that he gives orders that everybody is supposed to bow down and pay homage to Haman whenever he goes by just like they would for the king. But Mordecai won’t do it. So Haman gets pissed. But, being a monumental asshat, Haman isn’t content to punish Mordecai for it. No, he decides that he’s going to destroy all the Jews in Persia because this one dude won’t bow down to him.

So Haman goes to the king and tells him that all the Jews refuse to obey the king’s commands, and so they should be destroyed. He also offers to pay 10,000 talents of gold into the king’s treasury if he’s allowed to destroy the Jews. So the king gives Haman is signet ring and tells him to write up the orders and send them out to all the governors. Haman does so, and for some reason specifies that all of this is to happen on one specific day nearly a year from the date the orders were issued (the text says the orders were drawn up on the thirteenth day of the first month, specifying the purge to happen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month).

Apparently the whole thing wasn’t even kept secret. There were public decrees about the upcoming purge, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Weird.

But Mordecai has himself an ace in the hole: Esther.  So he asks her to intercede with the king. At first she’s reluctant, on the argument that anyone who enters the king’s chamber uninvited is supposed to be put to death, and the king hadn’t invited her. For some reason, this hadn’t been an obstacle when Mordecai needed her to tell the king about the plot in that section I quoted above. But now, with dramatic tension needed, it suddenly becomes an issue.

Mordecai overcomes Esther’s objection by telling her that if she doesn’t help, God will just find some other means of saving the Jews and will kill her instead. This is a pretty standard religious tactic, actually.

So Esther agrees to try and prevail upon the king. She goes to visit him, and he’s so happy to see her that he refrains from having her killed.

Est 5:1 And the king said to her ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Now, that would seem to be the answer to the problem right there. The king just offered half his kingdom! Take it! Or at least ask for Judah back. Then all the Jews can move there, and there would be no more left in Persia for Haman to kill. Bam! Problem solved!

Oh, wait, I forgot what book I’m reading for a second there. This is the Bible, where a plan like that suffers from an insurmountable flaw that renders it wholly unacceptable: nobody has to die.

So no, given the option of requesting half the kingdom, Esther settles instead for requesting that the king and Haman come to a private feast she prepared for them. At that feast, the king again offers her half his kingdom, and she again skips right past that to ask for the king and Haman to attend a second feast the following day, where she promises she’ll finally tell him her real request. What’s with all this coyness? The text never indicates Esther’s reasoning for all this.

After this first feast, Haman goes home feeling really full of himself. But he passes Mordecai by the gates, and of course Mordecai refuses to bow as usual. So Haman, head swelled with self-important rage, goes home and orders his servants to build a gallows from which he intends to hang Mordecai.

Meanwhile, the king finds himself unable to sleep. So he orders his servants to bore him to sleep by reading from the court records (I guess they didn’t have a copy of Leviticus or Numbers sitting around). One of the bits they read is the record of Mordecai uncovering the eunuchs’ plot to attack the king. And the king is all like “Wow! That was totally awesome of the Mordecai dude to do that! How did I reward him?” I’ll reference you back to the quote I placed above, where it says that these proceedings all took place in his presence in the first place. I rather have the impression that the king is a complete mental deficient, or at the least doesn’t give a flying fuck about running his kingdom. Either that, or he’s just a plot device that people struggle over controlling, rather than an actual character.

Anyway, when his servants inform him that he’d done nothing to reward Mordecai, he decides that’s something he has to fix right away. So when Haman shows up for work the next day, the king asks him how he should reward a man he intends to honor. Haman assumes the king is talking about him, and so he comes up with all this elaborate shit about dressing the guy up in royal clothes and parading him around town with people proclaiming how much ass he totally kicks. And the king is like “Right! Do that for Mordecai!”

So this is already shaping up to be a shitty day for Haman, but it only gets worse when he goes to the feast with Esther and the king that night. Esther finally gets around to telling the king what her request is: that the king spare her life and that of her people, because some wicked person has conspired to have them destroyed. And the king’s response is “Gosh! What evil person would do something like that?” as if he hadn’t personally given Haman permission to do exactly that. And Esther names Haman. When Haman throws himself at her couch to try and beg for mercy, the king thinks he’s trying to attack the Queen and so orders him to be hanged from the very gallows Haman had made for Mordecai.

Then, the king regretfully informs the Queen that any orders issued under his name and seal can’t be repealed even by him. Because that’s not totally one of the dumbest fucking rules that can exist in a kingdom. Not that it’s likely to be a real rule; it’s probably just a plot device to make it necessary for there to be shitloads of bloodshed to resolve a problem that could easily be solved without it. What the king does do is give Esther his signet ring and permission to give whatever orders she deems fit in place of rescinding the previous orders he’d allowed Haman to issue.

So Esther and Mordecai get together and pen a proclamation that, on the day when they are supposed to be slaughtered, the Jews are allowed to gather together to defend themselves (because I guess otherwise they just would have waited in their homes to be slaughtered?). But not only were they allowed to kill their attackers, the proclamation also gave them permission to go after their women and children and to plunder their goods.

Like, what the fuck?! You see what I mean about the Bible’s preference for bloodshed as the solution to all problems, even if it requires the most moronic plot contortions imaginable to allow it to happen? We’ve seen several opportunities to resolve this issue turn up in the course of the story, and the one that’s settled on is just to issue two sets of orders that essentially demand genocidal civil war between two factions in the kingdom. No ruler capable of rolling out of the puddle of his own drool would run his nation this way!

So anyway, the appointed day rolls around and the slaughter commences. All of the king’s governors and officials side with the Jews, so it’s kind of unclear exactly who would have been trying to carry out the original orders to exterminate them. Nonetheless, the Jews kill 75,000 people (no mention is made of any Jewish casualties). Then Mordecai sends out letters to all the Jewish people ordering them to keep an annual feast in honor of this day, and that’s the feast of Purim (named for the lots, called Pur, that Haman had cast to decide what day to carry out his attempted genocide).

So that’s the story of Esther. In my opinion, it reads more like a “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns,” kind of parable rather than an accurate portrayal of historical events. But who knows? In my brief research, I haven’t found a definitive conclusion either way.

Next time, we’ll get into a Book I’ve really been looking forward to: Job! Until then, be well!

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