The book of Esther has a very interesting history. It was probably composed in the late fourth century BCE by a Jew living in the Persian Diaspora. As a Jew in exile, the author seems to be vying for his or her ability to live a full Jewish life in Persia. Uniquely, the original text of Esther makes no mention of God at all and most protestant versions of the Bible emulate this version, thanks to our ad fontis forefathers. However, later in the Hellenistic period, the translators of the Septuagint (translation of the Bible for Greek-speaking Jews, c. 245 BCE) included 107 verses and extra phrases not in the original to make it more religious. The KJV Bible includes these additions and most editions of the NRSV have them as an appendix. Esther had a difficult time getting into the canon, only fully being canonized by the late third century CE. Its canonization has often been criticized, perhaps most notably by Martin Luther, who wished it had never been written. Nonetheless, Esther persists to be a part of our beloved scriptures.
There are many wonderful things about the book of Esther. Historically, it serves as a Jewish legitimation of the festival of Purim, originally a Babylonian or Persian holiday adopted by Jews living in Persia as part of the Diaspora community. The festival of Purim is characterized by celebratory feasting and the dramatization of the Esther tale, usually done by children. This tale is primarily concerned with the splitting of the world into good and evil. The protagonists are Esther and her uncle Mordecai with the antagonist being Haman, an official of the King of Persia. A fuller treatment of the background and plot of Esther can be found over at John Holbert’s blog. However, we shall hit a few highlights:
After King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, probably) deposes his queen for refusing to parade her naked body around for his drunken friends at a party, he is convinced to hold a beauty pageant of sorts across the Persian Empire. The winner would be his new wife and queen. As the story goes, Esther, a Jewish girl living in Persia being raised by her uncle Mordecai, wins the contest and becomes queen of Persia. The king, who seems to be drunk throughout the entire narrative, promotes the pernicious Haman to a very distinguished position in his cabinet. Haman arrogantly demands all who cross his path bow down before him, except our hero Mordecai refuses. Hamas takes this very personal and decides that genocide of all the proximity Jews is a worthy punishment (sound familiar?). Haman easily persuades the blissfully unaware King Ahasuerus to issue an edict allowing Haman to carry out his genocidal plot. Esther, who is encouraged by her uncle’s famous words, “If you keep silence at such a time as this…,” takes matters into her own hands. In a dramatic scene, Esther exposes Haman’s plan to her husband. In a blind rage, the indecisive king splits the scene to go and think in the garden. Ironically, Haman, who is now alone with Queen Esther, begs for his life. He bows down at her feet, just like Mordecai refused to do for him. As the king returns to the scene, his eyes fall on the perpetrator, Haman, attempting physical contact with Esther, which is a cultural no-no that seals Haman’s fate.
Haman is hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordecai.
Justice is served. The Jews triumph over their enemies. All is right with the world. In this way it’s very easy to note the festive influence of Purim on the book of Esther.
But what happens when the narrative and the reality are shown to be radically different?
Esther is a historical novella; it is not history. Now, we can debate what history means but it is hardly deniable that Esther is a fictional story with fictional characters in an imagined historical narrative with little historical correspondence. The story is truly wonderful and I, unlike Luther, am thoroughly glad to have it as a part of the Christian canon.
In a very real way, the drama of Esther was played out for all the world to see in the 20th century. Jews dispersed all over the continent of Europe were evicted from their lives, over six million quite literally. We have eyewitness accounts from Shoah survivors and even former Nazi soldiers from concentration camps, who are still facing indictments, that testify to the horrors of the 1940s. (I know, I know, Godwin’s Law…)
How in the hell did God allow this? Some have asserted that the holocaust demonstrates bygone Israelite exceptionalism…(ew, barf). For those of us who have had to take an extensive amount of Ancient Near Eastern history, we know that struggle has rarely been foreign to the Jewish people and their ancestors. In this way, Israel is a very appropriate name as it means “struggles with God.”
Elie Wiesel, a famous writer, holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, wrote about gallows once. In Night, Wiesel recounts his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz during WWII. It’s filled with the dark, shocking recollections of a boy who lost his father in a concentration camp. His father was sickly, making Elie his caretaker until the night a German soldier beat Elie’s father to death in his bunk. Wiesel was in the bunk above his father holding his breath; hoping to avoid being beaten like his father.
In what is surely the sharpest scene in Wiesel’s work, he narrates the execution of a young Jewish boy. The prisoners are forced to watch. He recalls the intensity of his hunger and the concave shape of his starving torso. He notes that the greatest joy he and his fellow prisoners have is when the Americans bomb the camp.
The boy is hung on the gallows in front of the entire camp. Usually, death by hanging is a quick process, however the starved, emaciated boy’s weight wasn’t enough to break his own neck. So his was a slow, excruciating death met only by the preposterous inquiries of a man in the crowd: where is God?
Wiesel is forced to walk briskly by the boy’s body and notes his pink tongue and clear eyes.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him: … here he is; He is hanging here on these gallows
In Esther, the Jews are delivered from genocide. In WWII, they were not. There is a grave discrepancy between the narrative and the reality. The Shoah robbed Wiesel and countless others of the ability to believe in the God of Israel. Can you imagine?
Like Wiesel, I believe in a God who hangs on the gallows. And I believe that is the only answer to the age old question of suffering. We cannot say that suffering is for God’s greater plan. We cannot say that suffering is punishment. We cannot even say that suffering is meaningful.
What we can say is that God knows pain, suffering and even death.
Perhaps that is better.