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God and Politics in Esther
By Yoram Hazony
Cambridge University Press, 2016, 262 pages + Hebrew of Esther
Hazony offers readers a revised and expanded version of his 1995 book “The Dawn,” which was subtitled “Political Teachings of the Book of Esther,” and gives us one of the best commentaries written on the biblical book Esther, one that speaks to the present generation – a generation that does not see God acting in the world and which is not waiting like children for the divine father to aid them with miracles.
There is no indication, not even a hint, in this biblical book that God helped Esther and Mordecai save the Jews of Persia from the evil machinations of Haman, who planned to kill them. True, the frightened Jews prayed when they heard that Haman received royal acquiescence for his nefarious plan, and prayer is generally thought to be a religious activity. But there is no suggestion that God heard their prayers, or acted because of them, or that the Jews relied on the efficacy of their prayers. In fact, just the opposite. Although forbidden to appear to the king unless summoned, Esther devises a plan, a human plan, visits the king, and saves her people. Jews remember Esther’s deed yearly by celebrating the holiday of Purim, a word that means “lots,” recalling the lots that Haman tossed to determine what day to murder the Jews. This title of the holiday does not indicate divine intervention, but pure chance. Esther is a book about the politics of a disempowered Jewish nation living in exile, struggling against idolatry and assimilation, searching for a way to survive in a place and time without prophets or miracles.
Some commentaries ingeniously suggest that her name Esther is related to the Hebrew word hester, meaning “hidden.” They insist that her name supports their view that God helps people in a hidden way. This is a clever sermon, but isn’t true. Esther is a Persian name, not Jewish. It is a variation of the name of the goddess Astarte. Mordecai is also a Hebraic version of the idol Marduk. Not only are the names of the main protagonists of this story not Jewish but they are terms used for idols. This is a book about Jews who lived in the diaspora, in a society ruled by non-Jews, who adopted many elements of their non-Jewish society, and how they were able to survive.
It is significant that the author does not even hint that Esther observed Jewish practices, such as keeping the kosher laws and the Sabbath. This is not that surprising. It is unreasonable to imagine that she observed Jewish law. The book states she kept her background secret and was watched constantly, so our heroine who slept with a pagan monarch couldn’t observe Jewish practices. The biblical book of Esther contains no theology; indeed, the term “God” appears nowhere.
Hazony examines what the book actually says and the lessons it actually gives. Readers will enjoy Hazony’s reasonable interpretation of events, the very readable manner in which he presents his insights, and the relevant lessons he reveals. He shows that the book is not religious in the way that many people consider religious, a passive reliance on divine help, on being pious and having faith. But it contains important messages about human duty that are relevant today. He describes how the king Ahashverosh is the archetype of the political ruler, the kind of “freedom” the king offered his people, why Mordecai was unable to accept Haman’s rule, how we should understand the pervasion of alcohol and sex in the book, why the king felt the need for virgins and raped them, how Mordecai did not resist the king, or submit to him, but chose instead active support of the despot. Hazony compares Mordecai’s successful behavior to his king with that of the biblical Joseph and Daniel and much much more. It is significant that the rabbis taught that the message of Esther is an eternal teaching, and they asserted that two parts of Scripture would never be abolished, the books of Moses and the book of Esther.