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Living under the reign of Ahashverosh

Using the Bible to illuminate the current US political extravaganza: when minorities work together, they can triumph

The book of Esther, written nearly 2,500 years ago, is perhaps the most modern of all biblical stories. It is set in a cosmopolitan world, where numerous languages are spoken and various ethnicities mix– sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so. Despite the great diversity, there are seats of power, and whoever has access to the inner chambers can have outsized influence.

The story of Esther is a story about the Jews, but it is really a story about all minorities that care about their distinct identities, and all people who value diversity and minority rights. The Persian empire had swallowed up 127 different peoples, each with a language and a script, but there were still some, maybe especially people whose own sense of identity was uncertain (Agagites, for instance), who resented a people that was at once “scattered” and “distinctive.” An empire has mechanisms to deal with such tensions, but they depend on the leader.

In the story of Esther, the leader was a vacuous, power-hungry man, who loved the trappings of riches — the parties and the lavish buildings — and treated other people, especially the women in his life, as just more trappings. People who stood up to him were quickly brought down, and, in one memorable tale, his own wife was quickly deposed when she refused to submit to his sexualization of her. He needed the adulation of a wife, though, so to replace her, he and his aides ranked women based on their beauty and sexual prowess. There were all sorts of rumors about how this leader had come to power — that it had been through his wife, or through acts of intimidation. But of course it didn’t matter anymore; he was firmly in power.

The danger with this particular leader was that, lacking any real sense of morality or even policies, he could be manipulated by those advisers closest to him. One adviser harbored irrational anti-Semitic feelings, and because of his ready access to the leader, was able to stir up virulent hatred throughout the land. The Jews back in their own land couldn’t help, as their fate was uncertain, as well.

And yet, the Jews throughout the empire were able to survive this near-catastrophe. First, they stuck together and stood up for themselves, not willing to acquiesce to the nationalist rhetoric, even when it threatened to turn violent. Second, crucially, there was support for them from other people of the land, who “joined with the Jews” (mityahedim) in their hour of need.

Finally, they had, through a combination of shrewd planning and luck, someone in place who was even closer to the leader than his trusted adviser: his own (second) wife. Since the real problem was not the leader himself, but those close to him, ensuring that the closest of all was sympathetic to the needs of the Jews proved crucial.

In the book of Esther, no God intervened, and in a sense, none was needed. Through political maneuvering, good fortune, and careful planning, the minority was able to assert its presence and defend its rights. It should be added that the next administration enthusiastically supported minority rights (see Nehemiah 1). Great civilizations can survive these challenges, and even emerge stronger from them, by both planning for short-term successes and working for long-term changes. But without the hard work of the Jews and their allies, Haman would have won.

About the Author
Aaron Koller is an associate professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, where he studies the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. His most recent book is Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.
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