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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.

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