It’s easy to miss. The Book of Esther is such a feel-good story! Such a great political thriller! So great, it may even be fiction. A fast-moving, 10-chapter historical novella of royal intrigue. The Jewish empress saves her people. Then, she and her uncle rise to great political power. Together, they govern well.
But plenty of feel-bad threads weave their way in, too. Chapter 2 initiates the sexual slavery of a generation of women. Chapter 3 reports on Haman’s genocidal plot. To block a personal rival, he arranges to murder Jewish men, women, and children. Chapters 8 and 9 describe the Jews’ pre-emptive strike against their enemies. In just three days, mobs kill 75,811 foes.
What does the book’s violence teach? That a good political thriller agitates and upsets us? Draws us in with a sexual exploitation motif? Creates tension with a life-threatening plot? Comes to a satisfying end as violence saves the day?
Why is violence front and centre in the Book of Esther?
Even as a child, I asked this question. And my teachers had ready answers. The book of Esther isn’t realistic, they said. Instead, everything is exaggerated. The king’s feast, the procession of prospective queens, the scale of the violence. The book is a political satire. It describes a kingdom led by a disengaged ruler, staffed by greedy courtiers, structured by a constitution that prohibits the repeal of a bad law. Here, violence becomes the only way to solve problems. Esther is a cautionary fable of extravagant violence.
Is it exaggerated? A fable? A satire? Extravagant? Or do its troubling elements reflect real life?
Never underestimate the truth in a cultural myth, says Native American writer Vine DeLoria. Oral cultures — and literate cultures where publishing is expensive — preserve history through storytelling. Sure, good storytellers embellish information. They highlight patterns, consolidate details, even change up a setting or two. But events reflect history. Don’t dismiss what may be real.
DeLoria’s words point me towards other biblical stories of extravagant violence. For example, the story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19-21). A Levite man travels with his common-law wife into Benjaminite tribal territory. An angry mob bangs on their host’s door. To distract the mob, the Levite pushes his wife outside. The mob rapes and tortures her for hours, leaving her barely alive. The man hacks his wife’s bruised body into 12 pieces. He sends a piece to each of the non-Benjaminite tribes of Israel, asking for help avenging the mob.
The Levite’s grisly message kicks off a three-day war. Ninety thousand soldiers and un-numbered Benjaminite civilians are killed. So many young women die that the surviving Benjaminite soldiers cannot find wives. As part of the peace treaty, Israelite leaders authorize the kidnapping of hundreds of women. Benjaminite men take the women as “wives.”
It’s clear that the Biblical narrator does not approve of any of this. The man is horrible, the mob is brutal, the soldiers are impulse-driven idiots. The narrator even says: this is what happens without good government. The story looks like a fable of extravagant violence, invented to make a point. It looks like fiction.
But, I cannot read it as fiction anymore. Because I know that such things happen. For example, Canadian serial murder Robert Pickton really did rape and dismember women. Perhaps as many as 49 women, many of them Indigenous, between the years 1983 and 2002. In 2014, ISIS fighters really did murder 3,000 Yazidi men. They really did kidnap 6,000 Yazidi women and children. Many of them were taken as “wives,” passed from rapist to rapist.
Extravagant violence is real.
The Book of Esther may be fiction. But you could not infer that from the scale of its violence. Nor from its portrait of the royal court. Rulers like Ahasuerus really do exist. Ahasuerus is a self-absorbed, wealthy, show-off womanizer. In gaudy halls, he throws big parties for the best people. He has many women in his harem, but he prizes his beautiful trophy wife. When she disappoints him, he replaces her. He simply orders women be brought to him. Because he’s king and they let him do it. He pays little attention to governance. He promotes those who flatter him. Officials undermine each another with lies, leaked information, and bribes.
How do people operate in this environment? They pay off the king. Overplay threats. Create-in groups. Set them against out-groups. Use extreme rhetoric. Inspire fear. Whip up a mob. And who wins? The one with the angrier mob.
Do you approve of these rules? Probably not. But if you survive them? You may find yourself celebrating.
But, if the celebration upsets you? Then you got the narrator’s point. We have to do better.
Want to read a more uplifting post about the Book of Esther? Try Kabbalistic Secrets of the Book of Esther.