There is trend in certain quarters to look at the story of Purim as one of Jewish aggression, the murder of innocent Persian non-Jews, antagonism to outsiders for no valid reason—the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are evil. Some Jewish academics have focused on the “brutality” of killing Haman and his sons and of killing men, women, and children. Elliott Horowitz haswritten one entitled Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. But if one looks at the text honestly and objectively, it is as far from the truth as black is from white.
The story, apparently, takes place in Persia some 2500 years ago though the historical facts are unclear. The first part of the story is comic. A drunken King Achashverosh spends a good portion of the year partying. He deludes himself that free orgies for his administrators and subjects will keep them loyal and avoid plots. He has civil laws that are frankly ridiculous, like never being able to retract an order once given.
He loses his temper with his tempestuous Queen Vashti who tries to stand up to him (once again we are not entirely certain why). He fires her, but then the poor fellow gets lonely and misses having a wife. Clearly he has deep relationship issues. He cannot act. He needs the advice of his various sets of seven cronies and is so insecure he has to decree that all wives must obey their husbands. The young men about town suggest he gathers as many virgins as possible from throughout his realm. They are submitted to a twelve-month regime of cosmetics and oils before being allowed to spend the night with the king. He has to pick just one to be his queen. The rest are carted off to incarceration in his harem. But even after selecting Esther he continues to gather virgins for his own pleasure (and probably that of his inner circle, too).
There is an undertone of insecurity and the next part is ominous. Jews are reluctant to admit who they are. The Royal Guardsmen want to assassinate the king. And then this mindless sop is so short of cash he gives his approval to genocide. Kill all the Jews, and confiscate all their property. The bad guy who persuades him, and pays him for the privilege, is Haman—another browbeaten macho who is under the thumb of Zeresh, his wife. Thanks to to Esther (is that the new queen, the evil of Haman’s plot is revealed. Unable to retract his initial command, he issues a second decree that the victims can defend themselves, and everything ends happily for everyone. Except he increases the taxes to enable him to go on feasting. You might call that the Persian dimension. Love of wine, women, and a good time are a feature of Persian life, Jewish and non-Jewish, to this very day. And the bad guys are eliminated.
Now the Jewish dimension to the Megilah. Both Esther and Mordechai carry the names of Assyrian deities. Were they so assimilated? Jews, feeling insecure, keep a low profile, even hide their identity. When Esther is taken into the palace, Mordechai warns her not to reveal her origin. Only Mordechai, thinking he is fighting a lone battle, publicly refuses to bow down to the egomaniac prime minister. Although Mordechai has proved his loyalty by saving the king from a plot hatched by his palace guard, he did not calculate on Haman’s ideological anti-Semitism. Haman doesn’t just try to eliminate Mordechai. The case Haman makes out to the king is that Jews are different. They are all untrustworthy, disloyal, and a danger to society. In other words, as totally wrong and irrational as anti-Semitism is today.
Mordechai tells Esther she must act, otherwise all they can do is pray. It is Esther who risks her life to get to the king. She softens him up with alcohol and then reveals Haman to be the real threat to the king (after he has revealed his designs by asking the king to let him ride the royal horse through the capital). The Jews are saved. Mordechai and Esther are the human tools of salvation. But the unspoken name of God lurks in the background, hidden (Esther’s name means “I hide”.) but pulling the strings. Jews survive both through their own efforts and Divine intervention. Purim means lottery, but there are two—the human one that fails and the Heavenly one that succeeds.
To end the book there is a sad reflection on Jewish life then and now. When Esther and Mordechai try to institute an annual festival of commemoration, they cannot succeed in getting all the Jews to agree. We ARE a stiff necked people aren’t we!
But what of the killing of poor non-Jewish Persians? One could take the apologist’s line and say that thousands of years ago life was brutal, it was like gang warfare today. Or indeed the way the Syrian government or ISIS has been torturing and killing children. Or one might understand the natural sense of pain and anger that parents would feel when their children are threatened with death.
The text simply does not support the theory of wanton cruelty. The first decree was to invite everyone in the Persian empire to join in killing the Jewish men, women, and children, and grab their goods on one specific day that astrology determined to be the best. So much for astrology. But the second decree said the Jews could defend themselves. No Persian HAD to go kill Jews. Those who chose to were animated in their clear disregard of the second decree only by irrational hatred or hopes of gain. And when a section of a population is so full of irrational hatred and greed it affects their children too. Children can still be taught to hate and wield knives! What always struck me was that only a minority was infected by the virus. In a population of millions, those who actually were killed because they attacked the Jews amounted to no more than 800 in the capital and 75,000 throughout the Empire who died for their evil cause. This is not a story of Jewish cruelty, but of regrettably necessary self-defense. And the Jews did not take any loot!
It is such a modern twenty-first century story of government and personal corruption, using violence for irrational hatred and gain. Haman is called “Haman the descendent of Agag”. Agag was the Amalekite king that Samuel killed (Samuel Chapter 15). The Amalekites first attacked the Israelites coming out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:27) by killing women, children, the tired, and the weak bringing up the rear of the people. Cowards that anti-Semites are. That is why the Bible focused on their cruelty and the need to remember and protect ourselves from endemic hatred.
But those who suggest that violence is an essential part of the story are ignoring the real message of Purim in Jewish law and lore—to celebrate the occasion Mordechai and Esther instituted three law: to give to the poor, to send presents to one’s friends, and to read the Megilah. No violence there, only the importance of history, charity, and friendship. Later came the tradition of dressing up in disguise, to remind us that much in life is hidden, many people do not reveal themselves, and what appears one way at one moment can turn into something or someone quite different the next.
What the Megilah in all its confusing and contradictory richness tells is that his world is a topsy-turvy one. It is complex, fun, dangerous, and made up of many layers. And nothing could be more topsy-turvy than suggesting that we delight in violence. What we do delight in is survival, physical and spiritual.