You can’t make this stuff up
The book of Esther is a comedy. I don’t mean a “hoo-hoo-ha-ha” laugh it up kind of comedy, although as a story it can certainly be read in that way, for great pleasure and enjoyment.
However on a deeper level it is comedy in the classical sense of the word, a dramatic narrative in which right wins out over wrong and we are able to close the book with a feeling of deep moral satisfaction.
In that sense, the entire Bible might be described as a comedy, ending with the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. True, there are many biblical moments which seem tragic, but they are only interludes within a larger framework, a plot-line which the Divine Author has mapped out with a happy ending in mind.
Esther was one of the last books admitted to the Hebrew cannon, a delay caused by doubts raised due the absence of Divine Names in the text. After all, aren’t authors supposed to sign their works? Well, not always, and even when they don’t textual critics are frequently able to identify the author from the style. Therefore, since the Bible as a whole is comic (i.e., “happy-ending-ish”), can we not see the same trait in the author behind Esther? Laughing at Haman’s fate is pure schadenfreude when it is not pure slapstick. But Mordechai and Esther emerging alive from a dire situation is comedy in the higher sense. As believers we understand that they are saved by God, but there are no obvious miracles in the book of Esther, just a lot of “coincidences” which those who have no spiritual sight are quick to label “blind luck.” Indeed, the festival commemorating Esther is called Purim, from pur, which means a “lot” as in the casting of lots. Hence it can either be dismissed as a ridiculous story with too many serendipitous episodes, or the recorded workings of some “mysterious force” which favors the protagonists in a non-random sequence of events. In the end, the Jewish bride and her uncle wind up with up to half the kingdom while their enemy Haman is hung high on a fifty foot gallows. Luck? Legend? Say what you will, I don’t think you can make this kind of stuff up…but He can.
So…Does this nonsense have any practical application?
For the discerning reader, Esther is a challenge, i.e., “Can you see a pattern under all the craziness?” OK, we get it, that there is an unnamed Someone behind the curtain of this comedy pulling the levers. Indeed, there’s more to Purim than just the pur, and that “more” is Providence. But how, aside from a penchant for anthropomorphism, does Providence differ from luck? Actually, there is quite a difference, all the difference between waiting for your lotto ticket to be called and hitting an unlikely home run. Providence demands a certain degree of cooperation between God and humanity, even if God is willing to do the planning and the heavy lifting. Providence requires getting up to the plate. If you were a young Jewish woman living in the harem of the Persian Emperor and your people were in danger, saving them might involve doing quite a few things which were both risky and ethically, or at least aesthetically, repugnant. Or so the story goes. The moral here is that what most people mistake for “spirituality” is little more than a convenient mental passivity. As illustrated by the rough and rude events in Esther, Providence does not replace human action, rather, it facilitates action whenever the human and Divine wills are in alignment.
Providentially, the Book of Esther teaches us post-moderns quite a bit about the laws of sociology. I hope that I am in good company (i.e., with God and the classical economists) in asserting that these laws are trans-historical. They should apply to us just as well or ill as they applied to Mordechai, Haman, and the other dramatis personne in Esther. Some of these laws, like “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” coined by Lord Acton, would have been tacitly understood even in the era of the Achaemenids twenty four centuries prior to Acton’s time. Others, like the law of marginal utility, were invisible, though like the God of Esther, they might have been discerned through a careful observation of effects. At least we can look back and see the falsity of the converse, since if pyramidal economies, resting on the “proper” distribution of goods possessing objective value, had been viable then, we might even see the Achaemenid Empire alive and kicking today. Fortunately, like all economic pyramids (or perhaps zigurats in this case) the economy collapsed under its own weight, an inner demise symbolized by the outer limit reached at Thermopylae, and the subsequent incursion of Greek mercenaries into the domains of the “great king.” Unfortunately, that collapse came too late to rescue Mordechai and Esther. Only a miracle could save them.
When resistance was futile
Mordechai and Esther lived in a world where freedom was abnormal. It wasn’t a world where the ruling classes had to station a detachment of mounted Median knights in every village among the 125 provinces of the empire. That would have been prohibitively expensive and unnecessary. Already the Middle East was old with the odious legacy of multiple, superimposed, imperial civilizations. Its peoples had become habituated to mind control and moral passivity, to the extent that, by the time the Persians arrived they were greeted with yawns and perfunctory praise as “liberators.” Only among the Jews, if we are to believe the account in Esther, did some flame of resistance still flicker. A Jew could be “outed” by the surly reception he or she granted to the symbols of idolatry. However even among the Jews moral resistance had become spiritual and episodic. Hope in a true Messiah was at an ebb. The best that could be wished for was that a magnanimous ruler would sit on the throne of the Achaemenid dynasty. He would become a kind of substitute Messiah…a pseudo-Messiah if you will.
Yet this total tyranny of the ancients was not totalitarian in our modern sense. It was unaided by electronic technology, or modern techniques of finance and organization. It didn’t need such, but rested on the mutually supporting pillars of mind-control (false religion) and outsourced violence. The crack troops were needed at the margins of empire and had no resources left over for internal police work. In the prevailing atmosphere of mental passivity and fatalism, the stability of the interior could be handled by local gangs and militia. In the absence of a regular constabulary, gang leaders, such as Haman in the Book of Esther, were able to gain clout with the emperor by promising the continuing obedience of the hinterland and a steady flow of revenues into the metropolitan cities. This, in the short run at least, was an efficient way to run an empire, economical both in terms of material and human resources.
Yet the system had a flaw, one which was in evidence long before the “barbarians” (a.k.a. free people) counterattacked from across the Aegean. This flaw was the middle men themselves, the state contractors, as those who greased the wheels of the imperial economy were apt to grease their own palms with even greater zeal. Even dropping our usual pretense of moral indignation, it is clear that this “corruption” whether or not it was viewed as such, reflected monopoly contracts which inevitably would have led to a misallocation of capital, in turn causing an insidious decline within the oekumen or ancient world-economy. Still, this consuming greed was only an incremental stage in the progress of empire towards total tyranny.
Enter Haman. Whether or not you are a believer or a skeptic, anyone who takes the time to read the book of Esther will recognize him for what he is, an archetype of the narcissistic personality disorder. We can enjoy the story for pleasure, and laugh at him as a caricature of evil. However anyone who knows much about narcissism will understand that this is no caricature, but the real thing. As I warned from the beginning, you can’t make this stuff up. Furthermore, Haman is more than a ghost from the ancient past, easily exorcised with bells and rattles, and his ubiquity (as a type to be sure) is guaranteed by the insidious working out of Acton’s Law.
Haman’s problems went beyond bad business and worse politics. His god was social recognition, and when this was denied he transmuted his self-love into a hatred for those who barred his aspirations. His family and tribal faction had gone about as far as they could go in accumulating wealth, and this triggered a morbid obsession with what they deemed a higher emotion than mere greed, namely hatred bred of injured pride, the satisfaction of which could only be gained at the expense of their feuding enemies of times gone by, who happened to be the Jews. With Haman’s climb into the elite of the Persian metropolis, the path to revenge seemed smooth and easy, since the imperial legal system had become corrupted and now served the interests of whatever faction could establish its hegemony within the palace. We are given to understand that, perhaps, the Persians once had just laws, which were very difficult to tamper with. However by the time of Esther the state has been consolidated under a monarch, and this very immutability of the laws had been reinterpreted to mean that the imperial edicts could never be challenged or altered.
The miracle of self-defense
As a consequence anyone who managed to control the reins of state, whether that be the monarch or the leader of a dominant court faction, was empowered to make decrees with god-like impunity. Whether or not any given leader was likely to abuse these god-like powers, it was a virtual guarantee that at some point a narcissist would arise who would push the flaws of the system to maximum advantage. Yet the most surprising thing about the whole narrative is not that a narcissist would wish to become a god, or that he got to the verge of making his dream come true. The surprising thing is that he was able to accumulate police state powers in a world where there were no police.
How did that work? Well according to our sources, it was very simple, the emperor wrote out an edict condemning a person to death…and they died. Or the emperor wrote out an edict proclaiming that an entire population was to be wiped out…and they were wiped out. How easy! None of our modern notions about the difficulty of enforcing sanctions. Did the victims of such “justice” enjoy their fate? No, their urge for survival was as strong as ours. Did they accept it none the less? Yes, because they knew that resistance was futile. How did they know that? They knew it because a thousand years of brainwashing had told them so.
The Jews were the canary in the mine shaft. If there was any people in the entire empire that might have resisted, it would have been the Jews. Yet, sadly, they weren’t quite up to it, at least initially. They might not have gone as meekly as some other population. They might have gone out in dignity, singing hymns to the Creator rather than pleading for mercy to the gods of the Earth. But for whatever reason, they were part of the system, and they knew the system always won. But they didn’t go, because a miracle occurred.
It wasn’t that the emperor changed his mind. The emperor, a victim of his own immutable constitution, wasn’t allowed to change his mind. The edict for the murder of the Jews still stood, and I suppose that in Achaemenid legal theory (assuming that wretched thing has some ideal immortality) it is still in effect today. However it never was carried out, because the Jews were granted something infinitely greater than any fickle emperor’s repentance. They were granted the right of self-defence against Haman and all his gang. More importantly, they used it to full advantage. How did they defend themselves? Which odious restrictions, laid on the general population, were lifted? Was it rock-control, or club-control, or knife-control, or did the Jews suddenly have access to the most sophisticated tools of warfare, like the segmented bow of the Sarmatians? It doesn’t matter really…what mattered was the intangible will-control wielded by the system. That was what had been lifted…and to great effect. . The Jews used this release, a newly revealed right, to full advantage. Whether or not they have made good use of that right since, it is none the less one which they retain in perpetuity.
As to the fate of Haman, his family and associates, the less said the better. We know that, as in all good stories, Mordechai and Esther lived happily ever after. None the less, for me the most enigmatic character is the emperor himself, a kind of playboy, reluctantly compelled by Providence to exercise a unique office, as Messiah-for-a-day, during which he was allowed to alter the course of all humanity. For indeed, the Jews are the canary in the world’s mine shaft. Once they secured the right of self-defense, all the other nations of the world were bound to follow suit. The process of imitation began at Thermopylae and continued to march through the world, or at least much of the West, finding its clearest expression in the sentiments expressed in the halls of Philadelphia Pennsylvania during and shortly after the war for American independence. It is a right which has always been challenged, and no more so than today, when powerful forces have lined up to abrogate it. Yet it bears the stamp of Divine authority, and the promise of Providence in its exercise.
Have a happy Purim!
Mark Sunwall, who taught at universities abroad, blogs regularly at Pico Ultraorientalis.