In scholarly circles, battles rage on over (of all things) the Book of Esther. In this boxing match, we see Liberals and Conservatives slugging it out. The Liberals deny the historicity of the Book of Esther, while the Conservatives defend it. The Liberals point out, for example, that the Queen whom Esther replaces was not Vashti (as the Biblical text says), but was Amestris (as secular history like that of Herodotus says). Similarly the name Mordecai does not appear in any secular history at all, which is a little odd if he replaced such a high official as Haman. And the empire wide attempted genocide of the Jews and their empire wide slaughter of their would-be assailants also find no mention in the secular histories. Moreover, such xenophobic genocide sounds a little odd coming from the Persians, who were known from the days of Cyrus to be exceptionally tolerant of their conquered peoples. After all, they let the Jews return to Jerusalem and even funded the Temple building for them (see Ezra 6:8), as they did with temples in Uruk, Ur, and Babylon. So it is that Liberals deny the historicity of the text and Conservatives rush to defend it, each one brandishing historical parallels, real or imagined, like broad-swords.
Both sides, it seems to me, are in danger of missing the point of the Book of Esther. Especially if the text is read in a holy stained-glass voice like the kind you find in church, one misses its fundamental characteristic, which is satire. That is, the author of the Book of Esther is making fun of the big and powerful Gentile rulers of the world, and laughing them to scorn—and inviting us to do the same. The Book’s two main theological points are: 1) the high and mighty movers and shakers of this godless world are all idiots; and 2) God’s people know this and should not be overly-impressed by the world’s pomp and power. Let’s look a little closer at the actual story of the Book of Esther.
It opens with a tremendous banquet, at which the high and mighty King of Persia, being heartily drunk, decides to bring out his Queen to show off how hot she is. Not surprisingly in this story, the Queen responds by telling him in effect to get bent, and she refuses to come. The King is royally ticked. He quickly gathers a royal study commission of experts to determine what to do next. The learned gentlemen he calls solemnly decide that the authority of every husband in the empire is in jeopardy and so they solemnly pass a royal edict that each husband must be the king of his own castle. Letters are sent out across the Empire to tell everyone of this edict.
This is, of course, one’s first clue that one is reading satire. Other clues come quickly enough. The old Queen is out, so another Queen must be found. The King decides to pick one on the basis of a beauty pageant. He picks Esther, without apparently doing any other investigation, so that he does not even know that she is a foreigner and a Jew, or that her relative “uncle Mordecai” was the one who thwarted an assassination attempt on his life and whose name was written in the official royal records. Anyway, Esther is in as the new Queen.
Haman has it in for Mordecai because Mordecai has offended him. Rather than just quietly getting rid of him, he engineers a plot to kill every Jew in the Persian empire. He does this by suggesting to the King that this genocide would be a good idea, and the King (who before could not even pass a law that each husband should be head of his own house without help from a royal commission) now decides johnny-on-the-spot to authorize the genocide. No problem. Haman seals the deal by bribing the King with ten thousand talents of silver, the ancient equivalent of about $15,000,000. None of this sounds remotely plausible, but the point is not the plausibility. The point is the King’s asinine stupidity. Though the King is all-powerful, he is still pathetic.
The plot continues. When word is spread that a genocide of the Jews is in the works, Esther reveals to the King that, alas! she too is Jewish. This is news to him. He asks who is responsible for this terrible genocide. “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” she cries, pointing to the terrified and stricken Haman. The King was furious at Haman and abruptly leaves the room.
What? The King doesn’t know what he himself decreed? Or that Haman was the one who suggested it to him? And gave him ten thousand talents for it? Like I said: asinine stupidity. Anyway, the King has Haman strung up on the gallows meant for Mordecai. But he can’t simply annul the law. (Again: what?) So, he passes another law, saying that Jews are legally allowed to defend themselves—as if they wouldn’t do the same anyway, with or without such a law. The Jews do attack their would-be assailants, to the point where Persian blood is spilled throughout the empire, to the tune of 75,000 dead. When the King is informed that 500 of his subjects have been slaughtered by the Jews in the capital of Susa alone, all he can say in effect is, “Wow. Imagine then what it’s like outside the capital! So, Queen Esther, is there anything else that I can do for you?” She says, why yes, there is. Please authorize an extra day of slaughter and also kill Haman’s ten sons. The King’s response: sure, no problemo.
Reading the text with an eye to the central plot reveals how idiotic the King is. And that is the point. The Jews of the exile were comparatively powerless, having then no land, no king, no army. All they had was God. It was easy enough for them to be awed by the seemingly invincible power of the Persians, and to imagine that the gods of the Persians were superior to their own God. The Book of Esther, being a polemical satire on pagan power, holds up the Gentile world to ridicule. No reason, it says, to be that impressed with pagans and their gods. At the end of the day, they are rather pathetic. Assimilation is not the answer, however tempting it may appear. Stick with your ancestral ways. Our God has not abandoned us. Like the story says, He works behind the scenes, and He will bring us through.
That lesson remains a valuable one for us Christians today, as we also face secular godlessness that appears to have all the power. It is as our Matins liturgy for Lenten weekdays says: “Bring more evils upon them, O Lord; bring more evils on the glorious ones of the earth!” (from Isaiah 26:15 LXX). When Christians are persecuted (as they are today in many parts of the world), we may be tempted to despair, or throw away our faith and try to fit in. The glorious ones of the earth seem all but invincible. The Book of Esther reveals that behind their powerful façade lies the weakness of folly. God has not abandoned His people, and He will overthrow our foes, whether our foes be ancient Persia, or pagan Rome, or Islamic Iraq. The Book of Esther calls us to perseverance and courage.