Fiction in a Time of Persecution (Esther) by Donald C. Polaski

The book of Esther is the Hebrew Bible’s very own melodrama. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, takes the beautiful Jewish maiden, Esther, as his wife. But Haman, his chief minister, hates the Jew Mordecai and plans genocide. What will become of the Jews? What will Esther do to help her people?

We cannot be certain of the time and place of the book’s authorship. In addition, the author is not simply recounting events. Rather, the writer of Esther chooses to emphasize potential anti-Jewish violence and the reactions to it in order to help Jews live under the sometimes-dangerous rule of the empire.

The writer of Esther roots anti-Jewish violence in an ancient ethnic conflict with the Amalekites. Haman, the “enemy of the Jews” (Esth 3:10), is an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag, whom Saul famously failed to kill (Esth 3:1; 1Sam 15:8-9). Mordecai, a descendent of Kish, Saul’s father, thus has a natural enmity toward Haman. This may explain Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman (Esth 3:2), which sets off Haman’s attempted genocide.

Why would the author make this conflict the starting point?

Claiming ethnic origins for this anti-Jewish violence frees the Persian Empire from blame. Haman does not tell the king which people he intends to destroy, simply describing them as dangerously different (Esth 3:8-11). The book differs from other early Jewish texts in which emperors themselves design anti-Jewish violence (1Macc 1:44-64; 2Macc 6-7; 3Macc 3:27-30).

For the writer, the Persian Empire is no opponent of the Jews. Esther marries Ahasuerus (despite common Jewish opposition to intermarriage; Ezra 9:1-15; Neh 13:23-27; Deut 7:3-4). Together Esther and Mordecai save Ahasuerus’s life (Esth 2:19-23). Persian court officials assist Esther (Esth 2:8-9, Esth 2:15; Esth 4:5-17). Persian residents of Susa are “thrown into confusion” when Haman’s plan is announced (Esth 3:14-15) but rejoice and even seek to join the Jews when Mordecai issues an edict allowing Jewish resistance to the planned pogrom (Esth 8:15-17).

Yet the empire is a dangerous place for Jews. The king is an unstable autocrat. While powerful enough to throw fine parties (Esth 1:1-9) and to kill those he wishes to kill (Esth 2:23; Esth 7:10), he cannot ensure his wife’s presence at a banquet (Esth 1:12), is often inebriated and/or angry (Esth 1:8-12; Esth 2:1; Esth 3:15; Esth 5:6; Esth 7:2, Esth 7:7, Esth 7:10), and even executes Haman for the wrong reason (Esth 7:8). In this kind of empire, Mordecai initially feels it prudent for Esther to hide her Jewish identity at court (Esth 2:10). The empire is also apparently full of “enemies of the Jews” (Esth 9:1) ready to attack the Jews on the given day.

In this imagined empire, the writer gives a threatened community relief by imagining a complete reversal, with the would-be victims of violence—the Jews—visiting suffering and death on their enemies. This change of status becomes part of the celebration of Purim (Esth 9:20-32). But this reversal only occurs within the bounds of imperial permission, permission secured more by beauty and cleverness than by direct divine action, which is absent. Like the characters in the book, the audience may find such a strategy leads to a successful life under the empire.

Donald C. Polaski, "Fiction in a Time of Persecution (Esther)", n.p. [cited 4 Aug 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/fiction-in-a-time-of-persecution

Contributors

polaski-donald

Donald C. Polaski
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Randolph-Macon College

Donald C. Polaski is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Virginia. He is coauthor of Introducing the Hebrew Bible: A Thematic Approach (Westminster John Knox Press) and is currently writing Envisioning Writing: Texts and Power in Early Judaism (Bloomsbury).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

an official command

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group

A Jewish holiday celebrating the saving of the Jews of Persia from annihilation, as recounted in the biblical book of Esther.

Esth 3:10

10So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.

Esth 3:1

Haman Undertakes to Destroy the Jews
1After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above al ... View more

1Sam 15:8-9

8 He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. 9 Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of ... View more

Esth 3:2

2 And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did ... View more

Esth 3:8-11

8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are d ... View more

1Macc 1:44-64

44 And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45 to forbid burnt offer ... View more

2Macc 6-7

The Suppression of Judaism
1Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to li ... View more

3Macc 3:27-30

27 But those who shelter any of the Jews, whether old people or children or even infants, will be tortured to death with the most hateful torments, together wit ... View more

Ezra 9:1-15

Denunciation of Mixed Marriages
9 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites ha ... View more

Neh 13:23-27

23 In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; 24 and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could n ... View more

Deut 7:3-4

3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from follow ... View more

Esth 2:19-23

Mordecai Discovers a Plot
19When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate.20Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or ... View more

Esth 2:8-9

8So when the king's order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was tak ... View more

Esth 2:15

15When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing ... View more

Esth 4:5-17

5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening ... View more

Esth 3:14-15

14 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. 15 The couriers w ... View more

Esth 8:15-17

15 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king, wearing royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, ... View more

Esth 1:1-9

King Ahasuerus Deposes Queen Vashti
1This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to ... View more

Esth 2:23

23When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the ... View more

Esth 7:10

10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Esth 1:12

12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.

Esth 1:8-12

8 Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. 9 Furthermore, Queen V ... View more

Esth 2:1

2 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.

Esth 3:15

15 The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa ... View more

Esth 5:6

6 While they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my king ... View more

Esth 7:2

2On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your r ... View more

Esth 7:7

7 The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determ ... View more

Esth 7:10

10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Esth 7:8

8When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will h ... View more

Esth 2:10

10Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell.

Esth 9:1

9 Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when ... View more

Esth 9:20-32

20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that t ... View more

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