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Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Book of Esther: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition, Part 2

Before carrying on with this project, I would like to point out a pair of posts that seem to be pursuing some of the same concerns as these posts on Esther, but from a Jewish viewpoint and much better written. See Remembering Amalek Part I and Remembering Amalek, Part II.

Ok, now for another version of Esther that never got written. In this version, there is no reference to the Amalekites whatsoever. Haman's ethnicity is not discussed, only his animosity toward Mordecai, who of course no longer refuses to bow down to Haman. No, in this case Haman is angry at Mordecai for his self-possession, his confident piety, his scrupulous adherence to Jewish customs, or his monotheism. In other words, the story conforms more closely to the scenarios typical of stories located in post-exilic diaspora Judaism. Haman's reason for wanting to kill all the Jews? Their non-conformity. People who insist on being so different from the rest of us must be terribly evil in some way or other. They MUST be disobeying Persian law somehow; they've got to go. When Haman falls, all his willing accomplices fall with him, but nobody else. When Esther pleads for her people, she pleads exclusively for the right of self-defense against real enemies. Mordecai's edict explicitly limits Jewish vengeance to those planning an active role in Haman's plot, and the remedy is not blanket execution but forcible disarmament of the "enemies of the Jews," arrest, trial, and judgment. The story makes a big point of this to illustrate the difference between Jews, who honor the law of God, and wicked murderers like Haman. Personally, I like this version much better than the one we have now. Nothing in this outline would have required the author to sacrifice drama. He could have used all the irony in the existing story and thrown in even more to boot.

I suspect the author held the Torah in as high a regard as most post-exilic Jews. It is highly unlikely that he would have felt comfortable directly challenging the validity of Exodus 17 or Deuteronomy 25 even if he wanted to. But had he a mind to reflect the most enlightened outlook on social justice available in the Torah, he would not have used either text as a template for Jewish relations with their enemies. He would have ignored them and looked elsewhere for precedents, as perhaps the author of the Book of Jonah.

But this version did not get written. Why not? Was the author cowed by Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25? Maybe he thought his Jewish audience would not have accepted any story about relations with Gentiles that did not include a Haman-like figure. Maybe his target audience was experiencing a great deal of Gentile hostility and would not have been encouraged by a story promoting conciliation or evenhandedness. Or, maybe his audience WAS looking for this type of story, and the author thought they were degenerate. To provoke them, he wrote a genocidal tract and framed the genocide in as positive a light as possible. After all, by the end of the book, a Jew who was offended or left cold by the genocidal acts of chapters 8 and 9 may have felt lonely. The author creates a narrative world in which that kind of Jew would be all alone.

Let's try another version of the story. Our next version radically alters the approach Mordecai and Esther take to Haman. Haman's ethnic identity is presented as in the existing story. But neither Esther nor Mordecai respond to that with animosity. In chapter 3, Mordecai honors Haman along with all the other officials. On the other hand, Haman is enflamed with hatred when he finds out that Mordecai is a Jew, and he decides to plot the destruction of them all. When the plot is announced, Esther requests the king to grant her a private audience between herself, Haman, and Mordecai. During that audience, Esther and Mordecai plead the case for humanity with Haman and beg him to issue a countermanding law. He refuses. Esther requests a conference with the king, reveals her nationality and pleads for the life of the Jews. The king is moved and summons Mordecai and Haman. He strips Haman of his office and replaces him with Mordecai. He authorizes Mordecai to issue a countermanding law and condemns Haman to death. Esther immediately pleads with the king for Haman's life to be spared, based on the possibility that the desire for revenge has overmastered him. Mordecai's edict calls for Jewish self-defense ONLY against active attackers. The narrative describes how "fear of the Jews" and the support of the existing authorities led to a bloodless 13th and 14th of Adar. This version can resolve the problem of Haman's hatred either by his remorse, repentance, and restoration to some degree of authority, or by having him attempt to lash out again only to be caught and executed at the order of the king.

This version makes the story a midrash on the Proverb, "When your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, when he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In this way, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you." (Proverbs 25:21-22) Now the use of Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25 is not just ignored but actively resisted, although without any explicit criticism of either text. Instead, a different model of how to handle the "enemy of the Jews" is adopted and presented in as positive a light as possible. To my mind, this is about the best we could hope for from Jewish thinkers in late antiquity. The authority of the written word of God was just too great to be directly rejected. In my opinion, a good bit of early Christianity is just this sort of thing. The Hebrew Scriptures are the Word of God; they can't be wrong. But they can be read in such a way that apparently scandalous or evil things no longer appear so bad. And we can tell new stories that develop the good things found in the old Torah even further. There are plenty of smarter and more articulate expositions of this method of interpreting divine Scriptures out there. I defer further explanation to the pros.

Of course, this story was not written for the same reasons the other alternative stories were not written. It has nothing to do with the "facts" of the case. Even if all the "facts" actually occurred and the author felt duty-bound to report them, he still had some freedom. He was not constrained by the actual course of events when he decided to dwell on the anguish of the Jews and report nothing about the anguish of the Amalekites. No "facts" prevented him from specifying exactly how the Jews carried out their "self-defense" or against whom. If he knew nothing about these things, how does he know about Haman's conversations with his friends and family? I don't take the historicity of the details of this story seriously for one minute; I only mention these points to indicate how weak a defense of the author it is to say that he was "just reporting what happened." No, these clues to his attitude, taken together with the details that a fundemantalist would want to call "facts" all point the same way, and they condemn him outright.

To expand on the conclusion of my May 30th post, IMHO the only satisfactory way to deal with this book is to openly oppose it. We need to tell the alternate stories, the best ones we can come up with, whether they come from other parts of the Bible, or are "inspired" by them or by good examples from later history or our contemporaries, or even just "good imaginations." We want to celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. What better way than to tell this story, uncover its ugliness, and then refresh ourselves with a story that upholds the good. We should not be cowed by this book's presence in the canon, any more than we should be cowed by anything else found in the Bible. Yes, we need to use the "canon within the canon" to ferret out the ugliness in the canon and call it by its proper names.

Opposing the promotion of genocide in Esther does not go far enough though. The author of Esther did not invent these ideas; he just applied them. We have to go back to the Torah and deal with the texts that "inspired" the author of Esther. This should not be surprising. There is no apriori reason to suppose that any particular part of the Bible (or any other religious literature) will be freer of the stain of human malice than any other. At some point I hope to deal with parts of the Torah, and with a better account of the overall approach to the Bible I am using here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Book of Esther: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition

In my post of May 30th, I characterized the author as a scoundrel and a coward. I would like to re-examine that conclusion by supposing the author had other stories he could have told and by using the existing book to understand why the other stories were not told.

This post assumes that the story is a work of fiction. Those who believe it is factual or intended to be factual, and that the author was largely constrained by his knowledge of the actual events and/or by existing documents will find much to quarrel with here. That's OK by me. If you have a complaint, let me know!

Alternate story 1: Sometime after the coronation of Queen Esther, Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, enters the king's service. It becomes known to Mordecai and Esther that this Haman is an Amalekite, whereupon Mordecai incites Esther to seek an audience with the king to request a search-and-destroy mission against the Amalekites. Esther obeys Mordecai. During the audience, Esther regales Xerxes with the historical crimes committed by the Amalekites, the repeated attempts to serve them the full measure of justice, and their pesky escapes and reappearances. She requests permission to finish the job. The king turns over his signet ring to Mordecai, who drafts a law similar to Haman's edict. The story recounts the successful Jewish effort to annhilate their enemies and the establishment of holiday "A" to celebrate the final solution against the Amalekites.

Why didn't this story get told? 1.) No drama, no ironies, no dramatic reversals of fortune. 2.) In this version, the Jews have no reason to carry out the massacres except for the ancient command of Deuteronomy 25. The author apparently either did not regard the command of Deuteronomy 25 as sufficient to justify the deed, or he did not believe the story would be attractive to his target audience unless a further provocation were provided. 3.) This version provokes no sympathy for the Jews. If anything, it does the reverse.

We will concentrate on the second point. The author did not want to tell a story in which the Jews annhilate the Amalekites merely because an opportunity to obey Deuteronomy 25:17-19 presented itself to them. Possibly it offended his conscience. In support of this supposition we have the following:

  • If we adopt the translation of 8:11 found in many versions (NIV, ASV) Mordecai's edict sought the deaths only of "armed bands" or "authorities" seeking to destroy the Jews, not entire ethnic groups including women and children. Haman's sons would have died because they had all joined one of the "armed bands." The author never explicitly claims that the entire populations of "enemies of the Jews" were wiped out, men, women, and children.
  • Furthermore, he never explicitly identifies the "enemies of the Jews" as Amalekites. Rather than using an ethnic designation, he classifies the individuals killed based on their active hostility to the Jews. This could be taken as an attempt to modify the fulfillment of the Deuteronomic legislation based on Ezekiel's arguments against corporate punishment in Ezekiel 18 and 33. In this modified version, any individual who rejects the evil committed by ancestors is not liable to judgment pronounced against them. So then, any "repentant" Amalekite, assuming there were any, would not have been executed. Compare the treatment of Rahab in Joshua 5.
  • His description of the execution of Mordecai's edict is exceedingly vague. It leaves room for someone so inclined to imagine the Jews carrying out a precise, targeted act of retribution, leaving plenty of "Amalekites" alive due to exceptional circumstances such as those mentioned above.
  • At the extreme, one could deny that the Jews were targeting Amalekites at all. Haman's "Agagite" ancestry has nothing to do with King Agag of the Amalekites. It is a designation for an ethnic group indigenous to Iran. (So, for example, the ISBE contributor for Haman, who says that tracing Haman's ancestry to the Amalekites is "ridiculous." You can read this article here and judge for yourself how seriously to take it.) Hence, all the hints of genocide disappear, and the Jewish action is simply self-defense against hostile military forces.

This evidence does not amount to much. For each point, a better explanation can be found. Regardless of whether there actually was a group called "Agagites" in Achaemenid Persia, the literary allusions in Esther make it highly probable that "Agagite" is a reference to Agag the Amalekite. In addition, this supposition explains so much else that the author does it is extremely difficult to resist (See my May 30 post for details). Mordecai's edict in Esther 8:11 makes much more sense in the context of the book as a whole if it specifies the execution of whole people groups, women and children included (Again, see my May 30 post for details). The narrative is quite vague about the execution of Mordecai's edict, but we need the other evidence to stand up before we can ascribe it to the author's tender conscience.

It is more likely that the author did not want to tell a story that showed the Jews annhilating Amalekites merely to fulfill Deuteronomy 25:17-19 because it would not be attractive to his target audience. Consider the following:

  • Post-exilic Judaism shows signs of a tension between exclusivist and inclusivist tendencies regarding the Gentiles. Among the evidences of this tension are

    • the book of Jonah
    • the foreign setting of the book of Job
    • the stories of Daniel 1-6
    • the strong stand taken against intermarriage with neighboring peoples in Ezra and Nehemiah

    The author may have been aware that some fellow Jews would not take kindly to a naked assertion of Jewish right to carry out a genocidal decree in the Pentateuch. Hence, to mitigate the offense, he presents the Amalekites through the character of Haman, who clearly deserves a bad end. Haman also becomes an argument in favor of genocidal action. The Amalekites are so bad that if you leave any alive they can come back to threaten you, even hundreds of years later.
  • Some recent commentators have speculated that the book was written in part as a reaction to events in the Hellenistic period, in which Jews were targeted for reasons similar to those Haman gave to Xerxes for annhilating them. I don't take a stand on this dating; I would simply point out that the stories in Daniel 1-6 provide an analogue. These stories would not have been told unless Jews felt endangered. Their beliefs and practices exposed them to hostile action. Haman serves to embody this danger. It makes the story come alive for Jews under threat.
  • Given this context, the author's intentional vagueness about the ethical identity of the targets of Jewish retribution probably has a more sinister intent. He is trying to extend the application of the decree against the Amalekites to anyone who threatens the Jews. I have already argued that Mordecai's decree is intended to fulfill the command to absolutely obliterate the Amalekites from history in Deuteronomy 25:17-19. By refusing to explicitly identify the "enemies of the Jews" as Amalekites, the author is implying that the Jews did not just annhilate the Amalekites, but any other group that had planned to join with them. In fact, then, Haman's plot provides him with an event in which the participation of other, non-Amalekite Jewish enemies appears plausible. By implication, the author provides justification from the Law of God that the Jews have the right -- no, the obligation -- to utterly annhilate any group of people from whom enemies arise.

In short, the author rejected this story not only because it makes Jews look bad, but because it portrays the end of the Amalekite saga. This author does not believe that saga has ended. And he has plenty of followers. There is no shortage of internet resources, not to mention books, articles, sermons, etc., making the same point. The Amalekites are still with us under other names. Most of these resources do not follow the author to the point of advocating genocide; they tend to adopt one or more of the qualifying arguments mentioned above (or some others mentioned in my May 30 post).

Do you see how bad this is? The author is trying to detach a ruthless piece of genocidal mania (Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 25) from its "historical" moorings and set it free-floating through Jewish history. The irony, the irony, the irony.

In my next post, I will examine alternate stories that could have put the genie of genocide back in its bottle.