By Yoram Hazony
Shalem Press, 2000, 312 pages
Subtitled “Political Teachings of the Book of Esther,” The Dawn is one of the best commentaries written on the biblical book. Homiletical imaginative midrashic commentaries are legion, including a view that Esther was actually ugly but God caused King Ahashverosh to be fascinated and drawn to her. Another states that she was a religiously observant woman who was married to Mordechai who was forced into the marriage with the king, needed on pain of death to have sex with him, but who faithfully and adoringly snuck out of the palace on occasions after dunking in the cleansing ritual bath, a Mikvah, to have conjugal relations with her husband.
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 ferility goddess Ishtar. Mordecai is also a Hebraic version of the chief idol Marduk. Not only are the names of the main protagonists of this story not Jewish but they are terms used for idols.
It is also significant that the author doesn’t 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.
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 subtle 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 doesn’t indicate divine involvement, but pure chance.
These commentaries attempt to show that this volume teaches that God is involved in human affairs clandestinely and people should rely on God’s help. But Hazony examines what the book actually says and the lessons it actually gives. Readers will enjoy Hazony’s more reasonable interpretation, the very readable manner in which he presents it, and the lessons he reveals. 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.
Hazony 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.