Book of Esther
| Light iron-age reading|
|Gabbin' with God|
The book is the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. This is one of the books of the Bible that doesn't mention God (the others being Ruth and Song of Solomon, though it is accepted God is supposed to be working in mysterious ways). The book is part of the "Writings" (Ketuvim), but traditionally it was considered a history written directly by one of the characters, Mordechai. It was likely written in the 4th or 3rd century BCE. Modern scholarship has generally considered it at best a "historical romance" fictionalizing historical characters. Facts about Persia and Persian traditions and laws are inaccurate, leading to that conclusion.
The story opens with the Persian King, Ahasuerus, at the 180-day feast celebrating his power and wealth. He commands his wife, Vashti, to show her face, so all could see her beauty and know how powerful a king he must be. Custom in the day was for women to keep their faces hidden,[note 1] so Queen Vashti refused his order. The king consulted the wise men of the kingdom and they said he should put a stop to wifely disobedience or all women would start disobeying their husbands.
Dumping his first wife for her disobedience, Ahasuerus seeks out the most beautiful woman in his lands, and lays eyes on the Jewish woman Esther, cousin of Mordecai who was an official in the King's court, and takes Esther for his Queen.
Sometime after the marriage of Esther to King Ahasuerus, Mordecai (her cousin) figures out a plot to assassinate the King. He tells Esther, who tells the king, and he becomes favored in the King's eye. However, Haman is even more favored — so favored all in the land are to bow to him. Jewish tradition holds that Haman had an idol embroidered on his robes just so he could make Jews bow to that idol when they bowed to him, making them commit idolatry solely because he is an anti-Semite. Mordecai refuses, ticking off the high noble, who in retribution for this insult demands that all Jews in Persia be killed and tricking the king into signing such an order. Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes and proceeds to wail and tear his clothes in front of the palace gates until a servant of Esther's approaches him. Through the messenger, Mordechai informs Esther of the plan and commands her to plead to her husband, the king, telling her, "Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews." (Esther 4:6) Though frightened, Esther pleads with the court to let her have dinner with the king.[note 2] Esther reads to the King his Chronicles, and carefully reminds him that it was Mordecai who saved his life. The king realizes he hasn't rewarded Mordecai for his actions and feels bad, so he asked Haman what to do for a man he wishes to honour. Haman, thinking he is referring to himself as the one to be honored, gives a big long speech amounting to a glorious parade for himself. The king agrees and tells Haman to do this for Mordecai, elevating Mordecai into Haman's favored place, and of course humiliating Haman, who had to actually be at the front of the parade declaring that Mordecai is the man the king wishes to honor. Irony at its finest.
So, then the great King Ahasuerus decides to have a feast in Mordecai's honor, and at the feast Esther reveals to him Haman's plot to kill all Jews, and states that both she and Mordecai are Jewish. In a fit of rage at Haman Ahasuerus leaves the room, and then returns to find Haman begging in Esther's lap. Ahasuerus determines that Haman is assaulting his queen, so he orders Haman killed on the very gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai and the Jews. Because he can't revoke the decree to kill the Jews because that's how Persian law seems to work here, the king instead makes a new law letting the Jews defend themselves.
What goes around comes around, and sometimes a man in a woman's lap is really just begging for his life.
Seriously though, the Jews hold this story in special regard because of parallels it holds with the Holocaust; that is, it is the story of a narrowly averted attempt to exterminate the Jews. Unfortunately, the Holocaust didn't end in quite the same fashion as the Esther story, but at the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher reportedly shouted out "Purim Fest 1946." Some Jewish people speculate that Streicher was drawing a parallel between the story of Purim, in which Haman's ten sons were executed on a gallows, and the Nuremberg trials, where ten Nazi leaders were ultimately hanged.
- A Grammar of Akkadian by John Huehnergard (2008) Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1575069229.