Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

Esther

Esther and Mordecai

Esther and Mordecai by Aerte de Gelder

ESTHER AND MORDECAI

THE BOOK OF ESTHER: THE  FEAST, FAST, FOOD AND BEAUTY BOOK

INTRODUCTION

The book of Esther is a tale of court intrigue, of lethal danger to the diasporian Jewish community and is a tale of an orphan who becomes a beauty Queen and becomes the most powerful woman in the world. The book has two Jewish heroes. One Esther who hides her Jewish identity as God hides Himself in the Book, the other noted as ‘the Jew’, who endangers the Jewish people by refusal to obey the King’s law. Esther, one the other hand disobeys the King’s law to save the Jewish people. Prior to Mordecai’s disobedience of the law this ancient Jewish community in Persia has good relations with its Persian compatriots. In fact approximately fifty earlier Cyrus had allowed the Jews to return to their land; Mordecai among many others preferred to remain in Persia. When Haman’s edict of destruction is promulgated the people of Sousa were perplexed (3:15). When the edict is reversed they rejoice (8:15). It is an action packed romantic drama and almost a comedy as well as an historical short story. The drama comes with the genocide against the Jews and the comedy with ten drinking feasts, three fasts, the holiday of masquerading and the humorous coincidences that repeatedly occur.

The name of God is conspicuously missing thus perhaps suggesting that all including the saving of the Jewish community and destruction of Haman and his family are fated. 1 Some of the Sages of the Talmud rejected the Book, 2 while Maimonides thought its importance was only preempted by the Pentateuch. 3  From a Jewish perspective, there are various problems;  Esther marries a Gentile to become Queen of Persia, lives the life of a Harem Queen, hosts various feasts – with the glaring omissions of dietary laws (kosher food) as it does not with Daniel (1:8-16) 4  and the book seems to have no interest in Israel or the Temple. 5  It is also a book justifying violence, nationalism and jingoism. For some of these reasons the Qumran community apparently rejected the book; it is the only book of the Bible not included in their library. They also do not list Purim as a holiday. It is a holiday which celebrates a diasporian savior.  

Samuel Sandmel is not the only Jewish commentator to have commented that “I should not be grieved if the Book of Esther were somehow dropped out of the Scripture’. 6 The book is full of feasts and fasts and it is the basis of a Jewish holiday celebrated first by a fast (the fast of Esther) and then by a masquerading feast (the Holiday of Purim) in which one is obligated to get drunk, 7 an almost Mardi Gras type festivity which is followed by a lent-like fast. It has been called the most secular book in the Bible. 8  The author was not writing what he thought would be a sacred book, but a book of history or fiction. The Jews who wrote the Greek translation (Septuagint) of this book could not accept that God would not appear in a holy book and thus inserted long prayers from Mordecai to God, Esther to God, various other uses of the power of God and the text of the edict and counter edict. The Targum (Aramaic translation from the Hebrew) also saw this as a problem and inserted a prayer by Esther. 9 It is a ‘religious book in non-religious language’. 10  

REVIEW OF THE BOOK

The King of Persia, Ahashverous hosts a banquet primarily for the elite and secondarily for the masses in the capital city Shushan. He calls for his wife Vashti (who is hosting  her own banquet for women) expecting her to parade her beauty to his drunken guests . She was to wear her golden diadem and perhaps, as Jewish Midrashim state,  nothing else. She refuses to be his sex object. This is undeniably an act of extraordinary courage  and insubordination. The King’s advisor tells him that all women will disobey their husbands if this act is not punished. The King is enraged and dethrones Vashti.  The King then issues an edict whereby all beautiful virgins are ordered to the harem, learn to enhance their beauty and the ‘one who pleases the King most’ (Est. 2:4) will be declared Queen. Inasmuch as Ahashverous is a King who relishes eating and drinking and women’s beauty it is difficult not to understand this term ‘pleasing’ as being of a sexual nature. Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter is chosen among all the virgins, she presumably pleased him most. She had held her ethnicity secret per instructions from Mordecai. Mordecai is noted as being a descendant of King Saul.

In a critical vignette Mordecai discovers a plot to kill the King, he informs Esther, who informs the King in Mordecai’s name and the King is saved. Mordecai is the descendant of Kish, the father of King Saul. Haman is noted as an Agagite, a descendant of King Agag of Amalek whom King Saul spared and thus lost his kingdom. As Viceroy he expects all to bow to him; all do except Mordecai who offers no explanation for his refusal. But since he is always Mordecai, the Jews, Haman assumed it is part of his being a Jew. Haman offers the King an enormous bribe to kill a people - the Jews - who defy royal laws.  The King accepts the bribe and signs Haman’s decree. Thus the spared Agag’s descendant is to kill the descendant of King Saul for 10,000 talents of silver. This is only one of many comical ironies; a Viceroy bribing his King to kill an unspecified – to the king - community. Instead of being insulted by the bribe the King said keep your money and do what you want, as if he were too busy to be concerned about such small play.

Mordecai learns of the decree enters into full mourning and informs Queen Esther. Mordecai, through intermediators tells her to pray for the King’s intervention. She Informs him that no one is permitted to the King’s chamber without an express invitation. Mordecai tells her that  the community will survive despite her lack of intervention but she and her family (including him?) will perish. She relents and requests a three day fast at which time she will make her request to the King. Unstated in the text the date she decides and the ensuing fast days begin on the 14th or 15th of Nissan, the holiday of Passover. The holiday and its ritual needs are not mentioned.

When Queen Esther undertakes the dangerous move and goes to the King he says to her ‘I will grant you anything you wish up to one half of my kingdom’ (Est. 5:3). She asks him to attend a banquet  and to bring Haman. The banquet takes place and when the King again offers her half his kingdom she says she requests another banquet. Haman overjoyed that the Queen invites him to a second banquet saw Mordecai as he departed the first banquet. Mordecai refused to bow and Haman became enraged. Haman’s wife and his friends suggest he have Mordecai killed, an idea which he accepts.

That night the King suffers from insomnia and requests a servant to read from his annals and he discovers that Mordecai had never been rewarded for having saved the King’s life. Haman who is waiting to ask permission to kill Mordecai is called in and the king asks what reward the King can grant a very special person. With comic irony Haman, believing himself to be the recipient said dress him like the King, wearing royal garb and riding the King’s horse. The King then tells Him to do so to Mordecai. He, of course is required to follow the King’s orders.

He feels humiliated and goes home and his wife Zerash tells him that if Mordecai is Jewish, they will never overcome him, but be instead destroyed. This is, no doubt the most humorous vignette in the book. The reversal of Mordecai to be killed to being a surrogate King and Haman’s wife telling him that if Mordecai is Jewish they will all die. Of course Haman knew Mordecai was Jewish, that is why he decreed death to all the Jews. Are we to believe his wife who made the suggestion to kill Mordecai did not know what he knew?

Then follows Esther’s second banquet. She said to the King ‘grant me my life’ for I and my people are doomed to die. The King asks ‘who is he and where is he’ (Est. 7:5) and she says Haman. Enraged the King goes into the garden and Haman begging Esther for his life is lying on her couch. The King coming in at that moment said ‘ Is he going to rape the Queen in my own palace?’ Immediately one of the Palace eunuchs said ‘there is a fifty cubit gallows which Haman had built to hang Mordecai’. Hang him on it said the King.

The King awards Haman’s estate to Esther, makes Mordecai the new Viceroy and issues a counter-decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves. When the day comes most Gentiles did not fight Jews, but 75,000 who did were killed, including Haman’s ten sons. The Holiday of Purim is then proclaimed by Mordecai.

BANQUETS

A major theme of the Book is ‘mishta’ Hebrew for feasts or banquets; the word appear twenty times in the book and only twenty four times in the Bible outside the Book of Esther. 11 The story begins with three banquets, one for the elite of all the Empire, lasting 180 days, one for the people of Shushan, the capital city for seven days and one for the women (we are not told the number of days for this women’s banquet) and that drinking was de rigueur. The Book ends with two banquets,  for Purim;  one for the all Jews in the world (the 14th day of the month of Adar) and one for Shushan which in current terminology is Jerusalem and other walled cities in Israel (the 15th of the month of Adar). When Esther is to inform the King of her enemy she holds two banquets. Why she cannot fulfill the requirement of telling the King at the first banquet is unclear? But perhaps it relates to there being two fasts, one by the all Jews when informed of the potential genocide and then for the Jews in Shusan in honor of Esther’s going to the King. Then the first banquet is in honor of the king and the second in honor of the King and Haman. In between these series of banquets the king holds a banquet called ‘Esther’s banquet’ (2:18) for her coronation.

VASHTI

Vashti, the Queen who precedes Esther is a woman of integrity refusing her husband’s demand to display her  beauty before the King’s drunken subordinates.  Concubines and whores appear before drunken feasts, not Queens. The first time we hear of Vashti (1:9) it is after a verse in which an odd Hebrew word is used to describe drinking being according to the law, not compelled; ‘v’hashtiya’ (1:8), which is related to her own name. Does this suggest she was also a drunk?  12  One scholar called her refusal ‘sheer foolhardiness which makes Vashti a suitable companion for the foolish Ahasverous’. 13 Did the author of the Book intend her to appear dignified? Jewish Midrashim find her refusal courageous and consequently proffered explanations for her refusal; she was to appear naked or her skin was blemished due to an illness. It appears plausible that the author’s intention was to make the ‘Queen-ship’ available for Esther.  Chapter 2 tells us that after the king’s anger was lessened ‘he remembered Vashti and what she used to do’ (2:1). What are we to understand from that? Having a Queen had some value - it could not have been sex that she offered - he had plenty of concubines. Was it love he remembered and sought again?

 

AHASHVEROS

The king of the most powerful Empire in the world appears in this Book as an impulsive, fickle fool, who pursues life via eating, drinking and sexually activity. When his Queen Vashti refuses to appear before his drunken compatriots his advisors declare this behavior a precursor of rebellion by all wives in the kingdom. (1:16-18) He obeyed his advisors and orders all wives in the kingdom to ‘honor’ and be ruled by their husbands (1:20,22). This scenario appears humorous even 2,500 years ago, when one realizes how ineffectual and unassertive was this ‘King  of Kings’. He is unable to say no to anyone (to Menuchan 1:21; to Haman 3:8-11; to Esther 5:3, to Mordecai 8:7-12). He does not remember to honor the man (Mordecai) who saved his life the subject of the edict when Esther brought it up.

HAMAN

He is the Agagite, the descendent  of King Agag, who was spared by King Saul many generations earlier. Mordecai is the ‘Jew’ descendant of Kish, Saul’s father. Thus we have a clear replay of Samuel, Saul and Agag with the difference that this time the ‘Jew Mordecai’ is successful. Mordecai is associated with Samuel and is a successful destroyer of the ‘anti-Semite’. Haman is a schemer and deceiver who apparently deceived the King. Haman offered to pay the treasury ‘l’abdam’ (with an ayin) for the Jews who did not bring any profit into the treasury (3:8-9). If ‘l’abdan’ means to enslave (with an ‘ayin’) rather than lose or possible kill, and Haman, in fact intended to kill them.  Esther in her statement to the King says  ‘If we are to be slaves (l’abdadim - with a ayin), I and my people, I would not bother my King, but we are scheduled to be killed (Abad with an aleph) (7:4)14 There is a clear word play (in Hebrew) that suggests that Haman was deceiving the king by paying to enslave the Jews, but he then revised the kings edict to kill them. Does this resemble the ironic statement outside Auschwitz ‘work will make you free”?

We are told when Haman is angry and impetuous towards Mordecai (3:5-6), happy and angry and then happy again (5:9,14), impetuous in dealing with the King (6:6), dejected after honoring Mordecai (6:12) and in terror (7:6). When his wife and friends suggest hanging Mordecai he is delighted (5:14). He is insecure needing to control events. He

thrives on instant gratification. Compare this to Mordecai ‘the Jew’ dignified, quiet, a man of few words (speaks only thirty three words in the entire book - 4:13-14)) whose thoughts and emotions are totally unknown to us. Haman is a devious schemer whose emotions rule him. As a result of his personal honor being aggrieved he seeks revenge against the whole Jewish people. He is transparently evil and the author wanted to construct a metaphor of good and evil.  But Haman is much too flat and underdeveloped; a caricature of an anti-Semite.   

Triumph of Mordecai
Triumph of Mordecai by Jean Francois de Troy

MORDECAI

Mordecai hears of the King’s rule for all beautiful virgins to come to the harem of the King. Why does Mordecai allow his cousin Esther to be brought to the harem. Assuming he could not claim she was not a virgin, why not marry her off?

The immediate precipitating event of the potential genocide of the Jews is Mordecai’s outright refusal to bow to Viceroy Haman. One needs to question what motive might have precipitated such behavior ultimately endangering his own people. We are simply informed that he is a Jew. That itself is a Diaspora designation as opposed to ‘Mordecai ben’ or ‘Mordecai the Israelite’ or the ‘Hebrew’. Nehemiah, another Persian court official is never called the ‘Jew’.  Daniel is never called a Jew and yet when he prays he faces Jerusalem. Mordecai in the Masoretic text does not pray. (In the Septuagint text both he and Esther pray. It would seem those writers did not think it likely that a Jew like Mordecai or Esther would not pray.)

It is the statement that Mordecai is a Jew that endangers the Jewish people. From various Biblical texts one can easily glean that in fact Jewish law does not forbid bowing to a monarch or Viceroy. In the Book of Genesis Joseph’s brothers bowed to him when he was unknown to them, but was Viceroy of Egypt. The question is posed by the Talmud. The Sages answers that Haman had an idol on his neck, thus making the bowing idolatry.  However given the inherent danger to the people this response is quite weak and there is nothing in the text to justify it. (Esther in the Targum tells Mordecai not to create ‘stir up strife with Haman’ 15) When Esther raises the edict to her husband, the King bows to him (8:3).

A more plausible explanation appears to be Mordecai attempt to finish unfinished family business. The text is very specific that he is a descendent of Kish, the father of the tragic King Saul. His ancient ancestor Saul lost his kingdom by not killing King Agag. Haman is specifically noted as a descendent of Agag. Mordecai appears to reverse the family shame by refusing to bow to Haman regardless of the consequences.

Zerash, Haman’s wife seems to know that God will intervene. She says to him that if Mordecai is Jewish ‘you[r] fall is certain’ (6:13). The oddity is that everyone knows that Mordecai is a Jew since Haman’s proclamation is what endangered the Jews.

Mordecai is depicted as a diasporian ‘court Jew’, similar in status to Joseph and Daniel.  He is depicted as wise, proud, courageous and loyal to the King he served and the Jewish people. His leadership is not based on his being a descendant of David, a priest or a prophet; he is not depicted as a Rabbi but as a wise leader.

ESTHER

Esther, the heroine, is the most fully developed character in the Book. She emerges  from being a compliant maiden to being Mordecai’s  partner and an authoritative leader. Esther originally appears as a compliant young girl and respectful to her adoptive father Mordecai. She is equally compliant in the hands of Hegai, the custodian of the harem. She graciously accepts his beautifying lessons for herself (2:9). The women spend six months being purified with oil of myrrh and six additional months being purified with sweet perfumes (2:12).   Do they learn the role of the women in that society? Do she learn the king’s sexual preferences? Esther went to the king for her one night. The norm was a night with the King and then back into the harem as a concubine. There is no mention in this very gourmet food and drink oriented environment she asked for kosher food.  In fact we are told that ‘she did not ask for anything beyond what had been assigned her by Hegai’ (2:15). This is stark contrast to Daniel in Babylon where the book clearly informs of his need for kosher food (1:8).

Mordecai instructed Esther not to reveal her Jewish parentage (2:10). She is once referred to as Hadassah (2:7), her Hebrew name, otherwise she is addressed as Esther, her Persian name. It is unclear why Mordecai insists that she is to withhold her religion. Other than Haman there does not appear in the book a general feeling of gentile anti-Semitism., and even Haman’s anger may be based on Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. There is no suggestion that her being Jewish disqualified her for being in the contest for Queen. In fact the suggestion is that all virgins needed to be available to the Court.  Intermarriage was opposed by Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem, but was not considered a tragedy in Persia.

When the edict is proclaimed we begun to see Esther, the compliant maid, take a leadership role. When informed by Mordecai of the danger to the Jewish people and his request that she intervene, she noted to him the danger to herself, that anyone coming into the Court not called for by the King is liable to death. Given that the King did not kill Vashti when she disobeyed a direct order it is somewhat unlikely that he would kill his Queen simply for coming into his room. Mordecai responds that she herself would be in danger as a Jew.  ‘If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish  . .  Perhaps you have come to the throne for just such a time’ (4:13,14). This is the only direct statement by Mordecai in the entire book. Why does Mordecai state that the Jews will be saved but Esther and her family will die? To whom is he referring? Who is her family - her father and mother are dead  - and presumably she has no siblings. Was Mordecai threatening Esther, the Queen? 16 It was Mordecai who told Esther to hide her Judaism.  Mordecai  created the problem for the Jewish people and for Esther. Whatever the reason Esther accepts the responsibility for the Jewish people saying ‘If I perish I perish’ (4:16).

Mordecai recognizing that his surrogate daughter had matured no longer treats her as a compliant maid but as a partner. She responds ‘Go and assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for me . . .  Mordecai went away and carried out Esther’s command’ (4:16). She had established her position as the leader.

She then developed a strategy of how to deal with her husband King. Haman had plotted against the Jews; Esther far more clever and cunning, plots against him. She enters into the King’s presence despite the danger to her. He responds by ‘tell me what you want, even if it half of my kingdom, I will grant it to you’ (5:3). In lieu of raising the issue of the dangers of her people she invites the King and Haman to a feast. At the feast the King reiterates his response and she responds ‘If I have found favor in the King’s  eyes . . .come to tomorrow’s feast’ (5:8). The first part of that verse means in colloquial English ‘if you love me I will tell you tomorrow’. Given the King’s impetuous ‘yes’ response to everything asked of him, the logic would have been for Esther to respond immediately. But the author needs to insert the vignette about Mordecai being rewarded. Haman’s misjudgment and his wife’s knowledge about Jewish survival are guaranteed (6:13) as also noted by Mordecai (4:14).  

By the second feast with the King she has become the leader in destroying Haman. She has a strategy that executed to perfection. Her words terrorize Haman so that he falls on her couch and is executed on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. 17  Why does he touch her since it is publicly known that anyone touching the Queen will be executed? Did Esther entice him to fall on her fully knowing that in his terror he would obey.  She is immediately given Haman’s wealth and presumably his powerful position. Esther develops further becoming authoritative, when she introduces Mordecai to the King and he is appointed Viceroy replacing of Haman. Esther then turns over Haman’s wealth to Mordecai. Esther then approaches the King regarding the edict of destruction and Mordecai dictates the counter edict. Esther establishes the holiday of Purim (9:29).

The edict promulgated by Haman was not to outrightly kill the Jews, but to make them outlaws, i.e. killing them and taking their property is not a crime. They are no longer protected by the government and by its laws. Thus the counter-edict allows them to protect themselves with equal right; those that attack them are also unprotected by the law. In city of Shushan Jews killed 500 men presumably in self defense as well as the ten children of Haman. When Esther returns to the King for a second day to kill their enemies it has been viewed by some as vindictiveness and anti-Gentile. The Jews killed 300 men that second day ‘But took no plunder’ (9:15). On the second day the edict no longer applied and the law itself would have applied. The ‘taking of no plunder’, not stated for the first day seems like an addition to make the vindictiveness less blemishing. It is particularly disturbing because Gentiles are not seen in the book as being anti-Semites. The Gentiles of Shushan are outraged by the edict (3:15) and rejoice at the counter edict (8:17).  The body and death count themselves seem like a blemish to an otherwise an historical event favorable to Jewish history.

Haman and Esther
Haman Begging Esther for Mercy by Rembrandt

Notes

1 According to Sandra B. Berg in her book The Book of Esther: Motifs, Themes and Structure, (Scholars Press, Missoula, Minn., 1979) pg.1, there is a Kabalistic maxim that says ‘all depends upon fate, even the scriptures’.  Robert Gordis suggests that God operates anonymously by using human agents and not always miraculously. Gordis, R.  Megillat Esther (Rabbinical Assembly, N.Y., 1972)  pg. 12.  David Clines notes that the events that take place: the vacancy of a Queen, the accession of Esther, Mordecai’s discovery of the plot to kill the King, the Kings insomnia, Haman’s early arrival and his recklessness in regard to the Queen cumulatively suggest the guidance of the Great Unnamed’. Clines, David, The Esther Scroll, (JSOT 30, Sheffield, 1984) pg. 155.

2 BT Meg. 7a and Sanhed. 100a.

3 A comparison has been made between the Book of Exodus and Esther. Moses and Esther are adopted and both hide their Jewish identities in a foreign court. Esther is Mordecai’s spokesman as Aaron is of Moses. The Midrash Rabba makes that clear by telling us that the three days of fasting proclaimed by Esther including the first day of Passover - 15th day of Nissan. (Midrash Esther Rabbah, Soncino Press, London, 1961, Pg. 106.The villain Haman is a descendant of the archenemy of the Jews in Exodus, the Amalakites. Esther like Moses appears repeatedly before the monarch to intervene for her people and the enemies are dramatically destroyed, from Gillis Gerleman quoted in Berg, pg. 6. The major difference is that the Jews are freed from Egypt and in the Book of Esther, no one is concerned about leaving from Persia to Israel, just for peace in the land of the Diaspora.

4 The non-canonized Book of Judith also emphasizes the problem of Kashrut (10:5; 12:1-4, 18-19).

The Talmud states that she kept the rules of kashrut, but that is only to be expected.

5 The Targum states that Esther’s had a son with Ahashverous, he was Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to rebuilt the Temple. This may also explain why the Book was canonized. Grossfeld, B. The  First Targum To Esther, (Sepher-Hermon Press, N.Y., 1983) pg. 161.

6 Quoted in Berg, Pg. 12. The twentieth century  Jewish philosopher Yeshahayu Leibowitz, an observant Jew refused to celebrate the holiday of Purim. Since the holiday is celebrated in Jerusalem the day before it is celebrated in other cities, he went outside of Jerusalem on that day and returned when it was celebrated elsewhere

7 'Drink  wine until you are no longer able to distinguish between ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ and ‘Curse be Haman’. BT Meg. 7b.

8 For Jews at the time there were no secular books. We are using a post-enlightenment concept. Secular in this sense means it is not God-centered - God is hidden.

9 Grossfeld, Targum,  pg. 142.

10 Meinhold, quoted in Fox, Michael, V., Character And Ideology In The Book Of Esther, University of South Carolina, Durham, 1991) pg. 237.

11 Berg, pg. 31.

12 The Talmudic Sages and the Targum (which is a Midrash) called her the ‘wicked Queen’. Grossfeld,  Targum, pg. 40-42.

13 S. Talmon, Wisdom in the Book of Esther, VT 13, 1963, pg. 441.

14 Berg, Esther, pg. 102-103).

15 Grossfeld, Targum, pg. 56-57.

16 Price, Ronald, W., The Politics of Esther and Mordecai, (Bulletin for Biblical Research 2 (1992) pg. 87.

17 The Midrashim suggest that the angel Gabriel or Michael pushed Haman.