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The political lessons of the Book of Esther

Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman in protest of the government's new megalomaniac idolatry that contradicts both the people's interests and those of God
Part of an Esther scroll of the Collection Braginsky. (Wikipedia Creative Commons License)

The Book of Esther is a story with something for everyone: court intrigue, sexual manipulation, and cunning plots foiled just in the nick of time. Depending on one’s point of view, the book can be read as a critique of monarchy, a mystical statement about the way God works in a secular world, or even a feminist manifesto.

Esther as political critique

But beyond all else, the Book of Esther may be read as political satire of the highest order. Nearly every character in the book is a caricature, from the bumbling King Achashverosh, to the wicked Haman; from the wise Mordechai to the beautiful Esther — all are portrayed in broad strokes. The wicked Haman is irredeemably wicked; the bumbling king is completely at the mercy of his impulses and emotions; Esther is as beautiful and charming as any Disney princess.

But while the story bears all the literary marks of a fairy tale, the underlying themes are far from trivial. At what point does a ruler become unfit to rule? When is civil disobedience not only allowed, but imperative? Why continue to believe in social justice in a seemingly unjust universe?

The opening of the story sets the scene: King Achashverosh has ruled for a scant four years when he faces the first challenge to his authority. This challenge doesn’t come from the populace but from within his own household; his wife refuses to show herself off to the king’s court. We aren’t given the reason for her refusal, but we can understand her resentment at being made into a mere adornment to the king. Perhaps her intimate familiarity with Achashverosh has led to her to feel — long before the rest of the court — that he is not worthy of respect.

In any event, the king does exactly what Persian tradition requires — he turns to his advisors. Realizing that Vashti’s defiance puts their own standing at home on the line, they advise the king to sign an “executive order” commanding all wives to respect and obey their husbands.  One can imagine the sophisticated reader of the time snickering and saying, “Yeah right! Like that’s ever going to happen!”

From this point onward, it’s all downhill for King Achashverosh. Having given a ludicrous command that won’t be followed, he had begun to lose his grip on authority. A coup is only a matter of time. And of course, that is exactly what happens (spoiler alert!): two of the king’s security staff plot to kill the king and usurp the throne.

However, unbeknownst to the plotters, their conversation is overheard. Perhaps the king’s incompetence has led them to act without caution. Or perhaps, in the cultural and ethnic melting pot of the capital, they believe that no one can understand their dialect. But their incaution leads to the discovery of the plot by one Mordechai, a Jewish courtier, who gets word to the king through his niece, Esther, who, through a series of fortuitous “coincidences” has been chosen as Vashti’s replacement.

The revelation of the plot leads to a governmental upset. Achashverosh becomes increasingly paranoid. He determines to do away with court politics and factional intrigue by getting rid of the circle of councilors, courtiers, and advisers that have traditionally made up his cabinet. In their stead, he appoints a single “enforcer” with the authority to lay down the law for the whole kingdom.

That enforcer is Haman, identified in the story as an Amalekite — a member of one of the many nations exiled by the Babylonians at the same time as the Jews. There is no love lost between Amelekites and Judeans, and it doesn’t take long for Haman to find a pretext to use his position to institute the slaughter of the nation’s Jewish population.

The excuse he needs is provided by Mordechai, the same Jewish courtier who had revealed the plot against the king. Mordechai refuses to bow before Haman as required by the new regulations. The astute reader may be wondering whether Haman himself had anything to do with the abortive coup. Is his subsequent attempt to portray the Jews as having “dual loyalty” an attempt to deflect suspicion of his own culpability?

Religious act or civil disobedience?

But why does Mordechai act in such a way as to play into Haman’s hands? After all, there is no halachic restriction on bowing before a human ruler — as opposed to a religious symbol or idol. Not only does his refusal jeopardize his own position at court, it endangers all the Jews of Persia. Was this mere ego, or was something else involved?

The Talmud brings two possible explanations. The second-century Babylonian sage Rav contends that Haman has usurped the rightful power of the king (Megillah 15a). This explanation falls short of explaining why Mordechai would not simply accept the usurpation as the typical machination of the Persian court. Moreover, it is not borne out by events up to this point in the story: so far, Haman appears, at least outwardly, to be carrying out the king’s commands.

Rav’s friend and sparring partner, Shmuel, offers another explanation: “The king below has prevailed over the King above.”

What is the explanation of Shmuel’s enigmatic statement? Does he mean that King Achashverosh has somehow upset the order of the universe, in defiance of God’s will? How could a bumbler like Achashverosh manage to prevail over the will of the Creator? And even if he did manage it, why would Shmuel castigate a gentile king for usurping the authority of Israel’s God? What does this usurpation actually entail?

In his book, God and Politics in Esther, Yoram Hazony points out that Jewish tradition has a very strong aversion to rulers who act against the greater good of their people. Such rulers are seen as going against the will of God. This applies even to gentile rulers! Contrary to the usual near eastern divine-human relationship, the God of Israel is interested in justice not as it pertains to keeping this or that king on the throne, but as it relates to the welfare of the lowest strata of society — the widows and orphans who have no institutions to protect them, no material power or authority to look after their interests.

This stance is built into Jewish peoplehood from the very beginning. Avraham is told of what God intends in the case of Sodom because “I have known him. He will instruct his house after him to do justice…” The idea that God is interested in moral dealings is a significant departure from religious beliefs up until that time. It is revolutionary even today. Why should a transcendent God be interested in the moral doings of human beings? Is not morality a purely human creation?

The answer, according to Jewish tradition, is “no.” Morality has an absolute foundation. In the poetic words of Avraham Yehoshua Heschel:

Seen from God, the good is identical with life and organic to the world; wickedness is a disease, and evil identical with death. For evil is divergence, confusion, that which alienates man from man, man from God, while good is convergence, togetherness, union. Good and evil are not qualities of the mind but relations within reality. Evil is division, contest, lack of unity, and as the unity of all beings is prior to the plurality of things, so is the good prior to evil. (Heschel,  Man is not Alone. p. 120)

Morality is essentially life-affirming.  This applies in particular to moral leadership, which impacts the lives of countless individuals. We see the practical implications of bad governance in the state of the Middle East today: bad leadership threatens the extinction of whole societies and the erasure of all their history. The Tanakh’s emphasis on moral leadership is not just lip service or moral preaching; it is a statement of cause and effect.

It is this transition from just government into megalomaniac idolatry that Mordechai is protesting in refusing to bow to Haman. A ruler who acts against the interests of his people is, according to the worldview of Israel’s prophets, acting against the will of God as well:

As Jeremiah said of Josiah, king of Judah: “Did he not…do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and the needy. Then it was well. Is this not to know me? says the Eternal.” (Jeremiah 22: 13-16)  Thus all nations should be ruled for their well-being: The ruler who strives for this serves God himself, even if he is an idolater such as Darius. The ruler who does not rebels against God, raising his arbitrary desires above those of the King above.(Hazony, p. 35)

In the face of injustice, civil disobedience becomes a religious obligations. In his book Halakhah and Politics: The Jewish Idea of a State, Sol Roth emphasizes that Jewish law is based on covenental obligation, rather than contractual rights:

An important consequence of the distinction between covenental and contractual dissent is that the former is an obligatory response to social evil, no matter what its quantity or extent; while the latter would not be expressed unless the conclusion is reached that the evil in question is large enough to make dissent worthwhile by some utilitarian criterion. This view is unacceptable to Judaism, according to which, evil is not measured; it is merely opposed wherever and in whatever degree it may appear. The covenental Jew cannot understand an obligation to accept injustice under any circumstances. (Roth, 85-86)

But why is Haman’s appointment necessarily equivalent to the sort of bad leadership which will doom Persian society? Hazony argues that by silencing the voices of dissent, the king had short-circuited the Persians’ traditional consensus-based decision-making process. He had thus destroyed any chance of reaching decisions that were truly of benefit to his people — for dissent is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for good policy-making.

Esther … speaks to its time by bringing the search for structural explanations to the classic Jewish problem of the difference between good and evil rulership. It suggests that the state, never too highly regarded in the biblical tradition, remains tolerable to the extent that it remains open to the competition of views, as represented by the eighteen advisers surrounding Ahashverosh at the beginning of the story. What brutalizes the state is the inclination of the powerful to shut out the competing voices that must be heard if one is to reach a judgement that is at all reasonable.(Hazony, p. 36)

Absolute truth is unreachable by any single human mind; only in combination can these fragmented truths approach the greater divine truth. But the corollary is that anyone who relies on one opinion only — his own or someone else’s — and believes that he has the whole truth in his hands, is arrogating to himself a position of divine knowledge. This is why the Persian king’s appointment of Haman as his sole adviser constitutes not just bad government, but idolatry. Reliance on a false truth is one thing; believing that the false truth is absolute is far worse.

Among the messages of the Book of Esther is that even a hidden God takes offense at injustice, and works to put things right. But, unlike Achashverosh, God works through the channels of competing ideas: all of us are members of His Inner Cabinet.

Bibliography

  • God and Politics in Esther. Yoram Hazony, Cambridge University Press. 2016.
  • Man is not Alone. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition. 1976.
  • Halakhah and Politics: The Jewish Idea of a State. Sol Roth. Ktav Publishing House. 1988.
About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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