Like any literary work, the Bible demands close attention to human psychology, politics and language.
This isn’t a topic I ever imagined myself writing about. But the unusual volume of mail I received questioning my interpretation of the Book of Esther shows that many readers, religious and secular alike, are keenly interested in traditional Jewish texts. And since my readers’ questions bear on two issues I care about – Israel and Biblical interpretation – I’d like to expand on last week’s cursory analysis by addressing them at greater length.
Readers raised three main objections to my claim that Esther culminates not in a massacre by Jews, but in a Jewish war of self-defense: The text doesn’t mention any fighting or Jewish casualties; war would have been unnecessary, because once Haman’s edict ordering the Jews’ annihilation had been balanced by Mordecai’s edict authorizing the Jews to kill their enemies, mutual deterrence was created; and Mordecai’s edict explicitly ordered the Jews to kill women and children.
Regarding the first issue, remember that the Jew-haters (as the text calls them) were prepared to execute Haman’s edict; these are people willing to kill. Moreover, Haman’s edict predated Mordecai’s by two months, during which they’d at least have started arming and training. And since Haman’s edict remained valid, killing Jews would entail no legal repercussions. Under these circumstances, it beggars belief to think they would let themselves be slaughtered without even raising a sword in self-defense. Even if the Jews attacked unprovoked, their enemies would have fought back.
So why no mention of battles or Jewish casualties? For the same reason you never hear about Israeli casualties in the Six-Day War or American casualties in World War II: After winning a sweeping victory in a war perceived as just, it’s human nature to celebrate the triumph and downplay the casualties. And like any great work of literature – which, until very recently, the Bible was widely acknowledged to be – Biblical texts usually strive for psychological realism.
American deaths were seven times higher in World War II than in the Vietnam War. Similarly, the 1967 Six-Day War killed more Israelis than the 1982 Lebanon War. Yet while remembrances of Vietnam and Lebanon usually highlight the casualties, remembrances of World War II and 1967 generally focus on the victories. Why? Because the first two were perceived as both unsuccessful and unjust, while the latter two were both successful and just: America defeated the genocidal Nazis; Israel vanquished three Arab armies that openly sought its eradication.
Purim, too, was a decisive victory over enemies who had threatened the Jews with annihilation. And therefore, what the text recalls is the victory – not the inevitable casualties of war.
Yet why was any fighting even necessary? After all, as the text tells us, the new edict allowing Jews to defend themselves, coupled with Mordecai’s appointment as vizier, made the Jews rejoice and other Persians fear them. In that situation, wouldn’t deterrence have sufficed?
Perhaps. But as Israel’s experience amply shows, deterrence doesn’t always work. If it did, two Arab armies wouldn’t have attacked Israel in 1973, just six years after it decisively demonstrated its military superiority. Nor would low-intensity conflict have persisted for decades.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian casualties from Israeli retaliatory strikes far outnumber Israeli casualties from rocket launches – inevitably, given the parties’ relative firepower. And every Palestinian knows it. Yet this hasn’t deterred Palestinian terrorists from launching almost daily rocket attacks for most of the last decade.
Esther doesn’t tell us exactly what happened 2,500 years ago. Perhaps the Jews simply attacked unprovoked. Perhaps they feared a devastating attack by the Jew-haters (rightly or wrongly) and attacked preemptively, as Israel did when Arab armies massed on its borders in 1967. Perhaps the Jew-haters attacked, because, like the Arabs in 1967 and 1973, they mistakenly thought they could win. Or perhaps, like the Palestinian rocket-launchers, they knew they would lose, and didn’t care. Based on the text, any of these is possible.
But based on 65 years of Israeli history, I find the first the least plausible. Human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,500 years, and neither has the nature of Jew-hatred. Thus there’s no reason to think Persia’s Jew-haters behaved much differently from those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Finally, there’s Mordecai’s edict explicitly ordering the Jews to kill not only armed men, but also “children and women.” The language of this edict was copied word for word from Haman’s edict against the Jews – possibly in order to sow fear among the Jew-haters, or possibly (as the commentator Ibn Ezra argues) because the parallelism was legally necessary to counter Haman’s edict. But today, threatening to kill women and children for any reason is unacceptable; so in this, Esther indeed violates modern moral standards.
Nevertheless, it’s far from clear that the Jews actually slaughtered women and children. The text doesn’t identify the casualties, but it does give some clues.
First, Mordecai’s edict definitely wasn’t followed to the letter: The edict also told the Jews to plunder their enemies’ property, yet the text explicitly tells us they didn’t. This also implies that the slain had families left alive to inherit.
Moreover, the word the text repeatedly uses to describe the casualties is ish. In Shushan, the capital, for instance, Jews killed 500 ish, plus another 300 ish the next day. Ish is ambiguous; it can mean either “men” or “people.” But usually, the Bible uses ish to describe conflicts between armies, while broader terms are employed to describe massacres of noncombatants. Thus when God orders King Saul to kill every Amalekite man, woman and child, the text reports that Saul’s army killed “kol ha’am” – “all the people” (I Samuel 15:8) Similarly, when Jews massacre the entire household of the (Jewish) Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, the text says they killed Gedaliah and “all the Jews that were with him” (Jeremiah 41:1-3).
Readers can disagree with my specific interpretations, but the larger point remains valid: Divinely authored or not, the Bible resembles any other great work of literature in that reading it requires close attention to the nuances of human psychology, history, politics and language. Otherwise, you’ll miss half of what it says.