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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.

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