Reading Esther in 2017

jan_victors_the_banquet_of_esther_1640s-1We Jews are about to celebrate Purim – a holiday whose origins lie in the Book of Esther. This masterful political satire focuses on a king. He’s flamboyantly rich, and a lover of beautiful women. They flock to him, of course; he marries only the sexiest, and divorces them on a whim.

In his own eyes, the king is an absolute ruler. He issues royal edicts. He communicates via pitgam, short memos, distributed widely. He is counselled – some would say controlled – by a Persian supremacist minister, a skilled flatterer.

The minister places political power above everything. One day he meets a citizen who esteems God more highly than powerful politicos. Confused and insulted by this citizen of foreign ethnic heritage, he appeals to the king. “These foreigners,” he says, “are lawbreakers. They destabilize the integrity of your realm. Let’s set a date on which to kill them.

“You’ll announce it in a royal edict, and publicize it in a pitgam. We’ll rile up the people; they’ll organize in mobs and wipe the country clean for us. Oh, and I’ll tack on a sweet financial deal for you.”

“Sure!” says the king.

When the ethnic community hears the news, they organize and strategize. They decide to approach their community’s highest placed courtier. That’s the Queen; she’s one of their own. This the king obviously knows, as she is cousin to the troublingly pious citizen. He just never really thought about the connection.

The Queen is a highly skilled courtier, more skilled than the king’s personal Persian supremacist. She flatters the king greatly, then suddenly shows him that his edicts are too broad. They affect important individuals – in fact they affect her! Yes, these falsely accused “lawbreakers” are her closest relatives.

So sexy! So flattering! So precious! The king can’t bear to hurt her. And just like that, the supremacist is out and the Queen is the king’s new counselor.

Did I say this was a masterful satire? I’ve changed my mind. It’s a masterful work of hopeful realism.

Image: Jan Victors, The Banquet of Esther, c. 1640

  1. Really masterful political satire IS political realism. The Megillah stands on the same level of brilliant “realistic satire” as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal & his Gulliver’s Travels. Shalom, Arthur Waskow

  2. Love it! “Did I say this was a masterful satire? I’ve changed my mind. It’s a masterful work of hopeful realism.”

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