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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Do it your own damned self -- and you can start with me

What should we make of the Book of Esther? For a long time its place in the canon of the Jewish and Christian Bibles was questioned. Many Christians, notably Martin Luther, have been put off by its supposed Jewish racism. In late antiquity doubts about it were raised because Esther and Mordecai appeared to be cultically and/or ethically compromised and the book failed to mention God or present its heroes as pious individuals.

Frankly, I find all of this largely insignificant or wide of the mark. First, the Book of Esther has a definite, if implicit, theology. Second, the consequences of this theology are far more important than the author's viewpoints on Esther and Mordecai's personal piety or sexual morality.

A lot of people (read the commentaries or just google "Book of Esther") relate the threat of Jewish annhilation by Haman and willing helpers to the Holocaust, and rightly so. Fewer folks (I found one here) have considered the implications of the "historical background" to the book alluded to by the author's genealogical notices on Haman and Mordecai.

First Mordecai. We are first told that he is a Benjaminite; then we get a list of his ancestors. If you are inclined to regard the book as accurate history, it is best to read the list as his immediate ancestors culminating in Kish, who was taken into exile to Babylon in reign of Jehoiachin. This fits the supposed chronology of the book pretty well, assuming that King "Ahasuerus" is Xerxes. There are no other Biblical genealogies that mention Mordecai or any of these ancestors under this interpretation. On the other hand, the names Shimei and Kish make one think of old King Saul's family. Kish was Saul's father and Shimei a member of his "clan." Since "son of" in Biblical genealogies can simply mean "descendant of" and can refer to other types of relationships besides biological descent, it is possible that the individuals mentioned in the Books of Samuel are the intended referents of this genealogy. If that is the case, who had been carried into exile by Nebuchadnezzar? Under this interpretation, the only realistic candidate is Mordecai, but even this only makes sense if we assume the author was completely at a loss about the length of time between the deportation of Jehoiachin (597 BCE) and the reign of Xerxes (485-460 BCE) ... and that's assuming "King Ahasuerus" is not Artaxerxes I or II. Some people who adopt this interpretation suppose that the person carried into exile is Jair or some other unspecified intermediate ancestor. But this solution is forced. As a third alternative we can suppose that the author intended to refer to Mordecai's immediate ancestors, but it just so happened that some of them had the same names as (in)famous Benjaminite ancestors, and he listed those ancestors for rhetorical purposes (see below). Or, if you prefer, he decided to give Mordecai's immediate ancestors these names to relate them to the famous Biblical figures for the same rhetorical purposes. Depending on your view of the author's historical accuracy/intent you can pick one or the other.

Now Haman. We are given a much shorter but very pregnant notice. He is the son of Hammedatha, otherwise unknown. He is an "Agagite." Is this genealogical notice referring to some obscure ethnic background now lost to history? Possible, but not likely. Given the implied references to King Saul's family in Mordecai's genealogy, it is best to understand "Agagite" as a reference to King Agag, the Amalekite king captured by Saul in his raid against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). True, Saul supposedly killed all the Amalekites except Agag in the raid, and the prophet Samuel killed Agag shortly after that. Doesn't appear to leave room for any descendants. But David later is able to find Amalekites to raid and wipe out (1 Sam 30) and 400 escape. Another stray Amalekite claims to have euthanized King Saul (2 Sam 1). 1 Chronicles tells us that members of the tribe of Simeon destroyed surviving Amalekites in the days of Hezekiah, some 200 years later (1 Chr 4:43). Once again, the author need not be referring directly to the Agag of 1 Sam 15. The name could be evocative and simply indicate that Haman is an Amalekite.

According to Exodus 17, the Amalekites attacked Israel shortly after they had escaped from slavery in Egypt. After defeating them, the Lord tells Moses to write down that He will completely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. He will be at war with them from generation to generation (Ex 17:15-16). Deuteronomy 25:17-19 refers to Amalek picking off stragglers while Israel wandered in the wilderness. The people are to remember this until they have achieved rest from enemies in the promised land, and then they must wipe out Amalek completely. In 1 Sam 15 the prophet Samuel refers to similar events during the wilderness wandering and exhorts Saul to carry out genocide against Amalek to fulfill the Lord's promise. In the process, no living thing is to be spared and nothing brought back. Saul and the Israelites wipe out all the Amalekites but bring back livestock and other spoil and take King Agag captive. Saul's failure to carry out these instructions to the letter is one of the reasons given in the book of Samuel for Saul's loss of the kingship. The continued existence of Amalekites during David's reign and afterwards leaves a piece of unfinished business for the Lord and his people.

We can add all the major players in this historical background to the list of unnamed presences in the dramatic world of the Book of Esther. We will focus attention on two of them, Yahweh and Amalek. They play a huge role in the story of Esther, mostly for what the thoughtful reader is led (tempted?) to infer about them from the indirect hints and ambiguous silences in the narrative.

Why does Mordecai refuse to honor Haman? The book does not specify a reason. Some have speculated that it may be out of concern for the 1st commandment. This is unlikely; he would have been unable to "bow down" and "honor" anyone in the royal court, including Xerxes. For that, he (and all other observant Jews) would presumably already be in trouble. A careful study of the phrases used to describe the honor the king wishes all the officials to give to Haman will show that in certain circumstances it was customary for Israelites to "bow down" and "honor" kings and other human authorities without compromise to the 1st commandment.

Given their genealogies, one could suppose that Mordecai refuses to honor Haman because he is an Amalekite. The book does not tell us that Mordecai knew anything about Haman's ethnic background; it does tell us that Esther knew it, at least by chapter 8. We could assume that she and Mordecai have this knowledge in common. But if Mordecai knew Haman's ethnic background, why was he not already seeking the execution of Haman and his entire family? One could explain this as a concession to the circumstances. Refusing to honor Haman is the best Mordecai can do to "remember Amalek" in the present situation. Perhaps he is waiting for a divinely-orchestrated change to open a door for the fulfillment of Israel's duty. Mind you, this is all speculation; the author never tells us what Mordecai's motives were. Still, without this speculation, Mordecai's behavior is completely unexplained.

And the author has purposely kept silent about Mordecai's motivations. His silence strengthens a parallel he has set up between Mordecai and Vashti. Both refuse to carry out a direct command of king Xerxes. In both cases we are not given a reason for their refusal. In both cases court officials perceive in the refusal a direct challenge to royal authority. In both cases there is an official response in the form of new law. The parallel foregrounds the differences between the two situations. The law against Vashti deprives her of her royal position but spares her life; the law against Mordecai threatens the annhilation of all Jews. The outcome of the law against Vashti is her deposition and disappearance from the story. The outcome of the law against Mordecai is his elevation to a position of power and authority second only to Xerxes himself and the utter defeat of the enemies of the Jews. How can we draw a "moral" from these vastly different results? The only bases the author gives us are the differences in their social/ethnic/religious status: 1.) Vashti is a gentile woman resisting the commands of her own husband; Mordecai is a Jewish man resisting the command of a gentile king. Baed on the book's explicit statements, the moral to draw appears to be "Don't mess with the Jews!" In fact, that's just what a co-worker of mine concluded after we had a 15-minute discussion of these issues!

On the other hand, our ignorance of Mordecai's motivations is one of several direct contrasts between Mordecai and Haman. The author gives us several glimpses into Haman's frame of mind by direct assertions and by snippets of conversations he has with his intimates. For example, we are told that Haman finds out Mordecai is a Jew. Furthermore, we are told that once Haman learns this, he is determined to have the entire Jewish population wiped out. The author never explains what it is about the Jews that incites Haman to seek their destruction. But really, do we need any further explanation? This is a case of revenge against the Jews for their many attempts to exterminate Haman's remote ancestors; no other explanation is needed. Furthermore, the author informs us that the law Haman devises explicitly orders the destruction of all Jews: men, women, and children. Now, where did he get that idea from? But of course, the author NEVER explicitly refers to any of the ferocious Pentateuchal legislation against the Amalekites, or any of the stories recorded in the books of Samuel and Chronicles about decimations of Amalekite settlements. "Why should I," we can imagine him thinking, "they're just Amalekites. Do I want anyone to care if their women and children are slaughtered wholesale? Do I want to write anything that might raise (God forbid!) sympathy for these damned wretches?"

We should pause right now to utterly condemn and abominate Haman's scheme. To seek the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children for something their ancestors did hundreds of years ago is depraved. It serves no justice and rights no wrongs. It feeds a demonic hate. It settles nothing. Worst of all, it is "identity" justice, a non sequitur unworthy of refutation. It is beyond the pale. Look, there are plenty of people who will work hard to explain why in case A,B, or C this kind of thinking is OK (See this post for a related example). Yes, many of these people will swear that in THEIR case it is legit. Their chosen targets really deserves everything they are getting. They've considered all the alternatives to collective annhilation and found them worse, etc, etc, etc. As far as I'm concerned, humans would have been better served over the last few thousand years if a way could have been found to lock all the Jewish, Puritan/Reformed, Roman Catholic, Islamist and Nazi apologists for genocide in a room with each other. Maybe in close quarters they'd have recognized kindred spirits and been horrified enough with themselves to rethink things. Well, I can dream.

Back to our author. He, at least, is not in the least disturbed by Haman's tactics. Haman had the right idea, just the wrong target. This is a harsh judgment, and depending on the Bible version you use, it may appear to be unjustified. One of the key passages to understanding our author is Esther 8:11. Here we have the text of the law written by Mordecai with King Xerxes' authority to counteract Haman's edict. The text is ambiguous. According to one common interpretation (e.g., NIV), the Jews are authorized to destroy any force that opposes them or their wives and children. According to the other common interpretation, the Jews are authorized to destroy any armed force, including women and children, that opposes them. Some translations leave the ambiguity in place, so that you have to figure out for yourself whether the law is discussing attacks by Jewish enemies against Jewish wives and children or attacks by the Jews against their enemies' wives and children. There are problems with either alternative, but I think on balance that the latter interpretation is more probable.

First, some may object that it doesn't sound right to group women and children in an "armed force." The Hebrew word is most often used of an army. But the syntax does not require us to assume that the "wives and children" are themselves members of the armed force, only associated with the "people or province" sponsoring the "army." Second, if we adopt the latter interpretation, Mordecai's decree answers Haman's point for point. What was planned for the Jews; that very thing will befall their enemies. Under the former interpretation, you either have to say that wives and children were implicitly included or that the Jewish response did not match Haman's decree on this point. This last alternative is made improbable by the following: 1.) Haman's 10 sons were killed. We are not told that they were all members of an "armed force" of Amalekites. So, how are the Jews justified in killing them? Under any of the other alternatives, that they are sons of Haman is justification enough for their execution. 2.) The Jewish response in every other respect is rhetorically matched to Haman's decree: a.) doing what one pleases; b.) announced to everybody in the empire; c.) right to plunder enemy's possessions d.) "destroy, kill, and annhilate." 3.) Unless the Jews totally annhilated the Amalekites, women and children included, the author's repeated mention that they refused to touch the plunder fails to complete the contrast between the Jewish response in Esther and Saul's failure in 1 Sam 15.

This is sufficient, I think, to conclude that the author intends us to understand that the Jews were providentially enabled to complete the annhilation of the Amalekites by the events surrounding Haman's downfall. What does this mean to the author? First, it demonstrates the truth of Genesis 12:3: God blesses the Jews and curses their enemies. Second, it is cause for celebration by Jews everywhere at all times.

This is all bad. Some people read the Book of Esther as a fictional comic parody. "Relax and enjoy the humor in the book; don't take it more seriously than it was intended." OK, I can laugh over some of Xerxes' foibles, and Haman is a laughably pitiable excuse for a human being, but I draw the line at genocide. If you want to get your jollies that way I can't stop you, but don't expect me to join in. And while you're laughing, remember that Esther is in the Biblical canon. People read this story as the Word of God. Not only is it sober history, they think, it reveals God's character and will. God wants them to rejoice along with the 4th/5th century BCE Jews at the annhilation of another people. He may be planning the same fate for a contemporary group of people, and he may call on them to be the executors of his will. These people are duty-bound to take the story this way. If they really thought God was telling them to "blot out the memory of X from under heaven" they would try mightily to silence their protesting consciences. They would be in an Exodus 32 battle: "Do I follow what my conscience tells me God wants or the word of command I just heard?" You still laughing?

Sure, there are people who read Esther as the Word of God and allegorize the offense away. I found a rabbi who posted a nice allegorization of the Amalekites as the evil impulse in the human heart. Yes, we all ought to commit genocide against our evil impulses. The author of the letter to the Ephesians pulls a similar move in chapter 5: "Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." The proper target of genocide is the demons. The problem with all such indirection is that it leaves the original, "historical," human referents in place, ready to be replaced by another generation of human referents whenever another "prophet" arises to reapply the "sure word of God" to a new situation. Enough apologies, enough reinterpretations, enough laughing. Can't we just take the author at his word and condemn him?

"You can't blame the author for this." Oh? If he wanted to parody the idea of genocide as a ridiculous and monstrous, he could have dropped a few hints. But no, this author never parodies the picture of genocide against the Amalekites. This part of the story we are to take with serious joy.

  • When Haman's decree is publicized, the author grabs for the tissue box. Nearly all of chapter 4 is Jewish lamentation. When Mordecai's decree is publicized, we have nearly a whole chapter of Jewish rejoicing. For the Amalekites, a wall of silence.
  • We are supposed to believe that all the Amalekites were gung-ho to carry out Haman's decree. They lined up publicly in the streets and jeered the Jews, threw dung at them, maybe killed a few when carried away by their eager anticipation. No conscientious objectors. Nope, they all stuck together. When the day for Jewish vengeance came, the Jews had no trouble finding them either. Everybody who died that day was a bona fide "enemy of the Jews." No innocent bystanders were taken down. And none of the real bad guys got away.
  • All the Jews in his story toe the Deuteronomy 25 party line, and none of them gets jabbed for it. All the Jews rejoice at the news of Mordecai's decree. They send one another gifts. They gather together as one nation and "do what they please" to their enemies. They happily slaughter 75000+ people. No Jewish conscientious objectors.

With real Jews this would not happen, because real Jews are human beings, not dummies for an "identity" justice set-up. Even if God himself said it, at least one or two (and in fact, a LOT more), would raise voices in protest and refuse. This author won't allow such unpleasant realities to intrude on his little fantasy. He would probably be tickled to find out that his book is treated as Scripture. In short, this author is a Jewish Drumont. He is just as slimy, just as craven, and just as guilty, whatever little rhetorical/theological tricks he may have tried to disguise his naked race hatred.

What do do? Esther is already in the canon. We could try to convince the church/synagogue to rip it out, but I think it's too late for that. Instead, we should use the book in the Hebrews 5 way: learn to discern good and evil. Have people read it in light of the "historical background" described above. Have them put themselves in the story. Let them imagine hearing the decree of Haman announced on the evening news. How do they react? Now let them imagine hearing the decree of Mordecai announced on the evening news. How is their reaction different? Why or why not? What would happen if, instead of carrying out genocide, the Jews/Amalekites tried A, B, C, or D first to satisfy their outrage over past injustices? Do you think there is any A, B, C, or D that is more just than genocide? If so, what makes it a more just solution? Does the author of Esther speak for God? Does the author of Exodus/1 Samuel/Deuteronomy speak for God? Let people discuss it from both sides and from a "neutral" viewpoint openly and honestly. Sooner or later, someone will probably say, "I don't care if everybody else in the room wants to annhilate X, I don't care if you all think God commands me to annhilate X, I won't do it." If you don't have anyone voice this sentiment, voice it yourself. Let the people decide what to do with you. And if they dodge the question, force it on them: "Look, I won't let you get away with this. If you are going to annhilate X, start with me."

Too dull? Too dry? "A typical liberal Bible study -- honest, open, boring sincerity." Fine. Have a real Purim reading of Esther. Ask everyone to bring their noisemakers. And when you get to the name of Mordecai, blast away. And when all the Fundamentalists are offended, guide the discussion as above. I'll bet it won't be boring sincerity anymore.

This is the only satisfactory response we can give to the apologists for genocide and still be true Christians. And until a potential pawn of the genocidal maniacs is prepared to defy them to the death, he has not become a disciple of Jesus.


James Jordan said...

"Not only is it sober history," -- is it? Not everyone has always taken it to be so. From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

"Nor is the view of Jensen, followed by Nöldeke, more convincing to the unprejudiced mind. He endeavors to prove that the origin of the whole story lies in a Babylonian-Elamitic myth. He identifies Esther with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (Aphrodite); Mordecai with Marduk, the tutelary deity of Babylon; and Haman with Hamman or Humman, the chief god of the Elamites, in whose capital, Susa, the scene is laid; while Vashti is also supposed to be an Elamite deity. Jensen considers that the Feast of Purim, which is the climax of the book, may have been adapted from a similar Babylonian festival by the Jews, who Hebraized the original Babylonian legend regarding the origin of the ceremonies. The great objection to such a theory is that no Babylonian festival corresponding with the full moon of the twelfth month is known."

I'll have to read the story again, but the way I've always read it in the past, the people who were killed were the ones who were plotting to kill the Jews themselves. How they knew who precisely was plotting this and who wasn't is an interesting question, and I think George W. Bush and Barak Obama need to answer the same question on who they target with drones and how they determine exactly that this person or that was a 'terrorist.' At least in this story the boots are on the ground and so presumably it is more likely they only hit their intended targets.

James Jordan said...

"Yes, we all ought to commit genocide against our evil impulses." We'd just become wooses if we did. The evil impulses must be controlled not exterminated. This may be the ultimate lesson of the book of Esther. Compare Esther to the Holocaust, and ask why in one case (whether fictional or true history doesn't matter) the Jews successfully defended themselves and in the other they didn't and the USofA had to bail them out? The answer is they were woosified in one and not the other. They exterminated the fighting impulse, and Hitler steamrolled them. In the Esther story, they still had the ability to fight. From the modern pansy American limpwristed-leftist way of thinking fighting is always wrong, even to defend yourself. If someone attacks you with a knife, just get stabbed to death. If someone attacks you to rape you, just enjoy it. But is this the right way to think? Doesn't it make more sense to say, if you're trying to destroy me, I'm going to destroy you? That's how Obama thinks, and he's the leftist Messiah. So there is an interesting hypocrisy there on the part of the left.

Jim Moore said...

James, you say "the way I've always read it in the past, the people who were killed were the ones who were plotting to kill the Jews themselves." Read the passages in the Pentateuch and 1 Samuel 15 that I referenced carefully and compare them with the specific statements I mention in Esther. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Esther is about God's "final solution" for the Amalekites. Actually, though, the solution isn't really final, because the author doesn't believe that the end of the Amalekites is the end of the story. Other enemies will arise with the same intents; the book proposes to apply God's solution for the Amalekites to any future enemies of the Jews. As I suggest in the entire series of posts, the author of Esther adopts the policy "the best defense is a good offense," i.e., commit genocide against your enemies before they do.

Many people have noted the absence of religious language, the failure to mention God, etc. People have drawn different conclusions about what this means. I think part of the answer is that the author wanted his readers to understand that "ordinary" Jews -- not Jewish religious specialists who have an "in" with God and are receiving further revelations -- can come up with the appropriate solution to Gentile hostility simply by applying the message already written in the Bible. Not long ago Benjamin Netanyahu said of the Palestinians, "Think Amalek." That should send chills up your spine.

As for your final comment, I'm sorry, but f* you. "From the modern pansy American limpwristed-leftist way of thinking fighting is always wrong, even to defend yourself." I know some Amish people, do you? I wouldn't call them "limpwristed leftists." Your representation of a pacifist's views is ignorant and vile. I'm not a pacifist either, but I am a "leftist," I guess. There is no hypocrisy; people on the left who oppose wars opposed Obama's policies in Afghanistan and Libya. You would know that if you were paying any attention to "leftists," but apparently you are not.

James Jordan said...

I am a pacifist myself with regard to warfare, but if you attack me personally that's another matter. I believe in a right to self-defense. I don't think turning the other check makes sense for anything but insults or in cases where it is more feasible to do so because the harm inflicted by your oppent would not have been much anyway.

My point is simply we need those violent passages so we don't become a bunch of homosexual wooses who don't know how to do anything but assume the position. Peace and love in too high of doses is toxic--it kills brain cells.

Nobody on the left even knows about Obama's policies in Afghanistan and Libya. They don't pay attention when one of theirs is in office. They're too high on the wacky weed.