The Book of Esther as a Manual for Jewish Survival

The political vision and theological insight of Esther speak compellingly to the dilemmas and opportunities of the present age.

From Queen Esther by Edwin Long, 1878. Wikimedia.

From Queen Esther by Edwin Long, 1878. Wikimedia.

Observation
March 22 2016
About the author

Jonathan Silver is a senior director of the Tikvah Fund.


Recent years have witnessed a renaissance of interest in the Bible’s political and social teachings, especially those that might have relevance to our own times. Studies have focused on the Bible’s putative articulation of federalism and the separation of powers, on the nation as a unique political form, on the concepts of equality, contract, consent, covenant, and much else. These works are valuable and often insightful. But they elucidate principles of social and political thought that were enacted by the heroes of the Bible in a world inhabited by the immanent presence of God—a world in which God acts in history, speaks to Moses and the prophets, gives laws and metes out justice, remembers the barren woman and the orphan child, and stands with courageous men in battle.

We no longer live in such a world—and have not lived in it, according to rabbinic tradition, for thousands of years. To look to the books of the Torah and the prophets for a biblical politics that can instruct the current age is to search in a world then imbued with God’s presence for guidance in a world in which God hides His face.

As it happens, however, there is precedent in the Hebrew Bible itself for such a world. It is the world of the book of Esther, which comes near the end of the Hebrew Bible and which features neither the laws of Moses nor the orations of the prophets, and offers not a word about God, His presence in history, or the land of Israel that He promised to the Jewish people.

What should we make of Esther? An audacious and original answer to that question was advanced two decades ago in The Dawn, a commentary on the book by the Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony. Now, in God and Politics in Esther, Hazony has revised and updated The Dawn and added to its political argument a startling and counterintuitive new section on the book’s theology. In the end, Hazony plausibly contends, it is not the God-infused books of Mosaic history but Esther whose political vision and theological insight speak most compellingly to today’s dilemmas and opportunities, calling on the Jews of modernity to confront the choice between bowing to the false idols of our own age or taking action to ensure Jewish survival and continuity.

 

The book of Esther is set in ancient Persia in the aftermath of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel. Its familiar plot is full of drama and intrigue, political and sexual alike. As readers will remember, it begins at a state banquet in the palace of the Persian king Xerxes, known in the Hebrew Bible by his Persian name Ahasuerus. In a drunken temper tantrum, the king has banished his queen Vashti and ordered a search for a replacement. A young Jewish orphan changes her name to Esther, enters the royal harem, and eventually wins the king’s heart and hand.

When an attempt on the king’s life is independently uncovered by Esther’s cousin Mordecai, Ahasuerus appoints Haman, a strongman, to act as his enforcer and preserve order throughout the vast kingdom. His vanity pricked by an altercation with Mordecai, Haman then persuades the king that his Jewish subjects are a menace and a threat. Proposing to exterminate the Jewish people, he secures the king’s permission to set a date for the slaughter.

Mordecai goes to his cousin the queen—whose identity as a Jew is still unknown to king or court—and confronts her with the challenge of her life: singlehandedly to get the genocidal decree lifted. Failure to act will result in the wholesale murder of her people and, there is reason to believe, herself. But for Esther to approach the king unbidden and interfere with government policy is a scandalous departure from the code of courtly conduct. Her life is threatened by inaction, and her life is threatened by action.

Accepting the challenge, Esther proceeds to choreograph an elaborate chain of events designed to wrest the king away from his viceroy’s influence. What follows is a seminar in psychological cunning, the upshot of which is that the king comes to suspect Haman of attempting to seduce the queen, Haman’s ambitions and genocidal plans are thwarted and he himself is put to death, Mordecai is named to replace him as the king’s viceroy, the Jews with the help of their Persian neighbors succeed in defending themselves, and the book of Esther concludes with the royally elevated Mordecai working to preserve Jewish comfort and continuity and governing to advance the common good.

 

Hazony reads the Esther narrative as a study in the use and abuse of power—and as a manual for Jewish political operatives in exile. Such a manual is necessary because, robbed of their sovereign state and the capacity to protect themselves, the Jewish people are always one powerful enemy away from persecution and possible extinction. Esther does not solve this problem of vulnerability by returning the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Instead, the book assumes that exile will persist and that some number of Jews will continue to be scattered across the face of the earth; for them, the central question is what they should do to survive and prosper.

Hazony finds three categories of political strategy that together form the book’s core political teaching. All three are encapsulated in one of the few lines of direct speech spoken by Mordecai to Esther at a crucial inflection point in the plot, when the fate of the Persian Jews hangs in the balance. At this moment, Mordecai tells his cousin:

If you indeed remain silent, relief and rescue will come to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house will perish. But who knows whether, for just a time like this, you have attained royalty? (4:13-14)

From this admonition and question, Hazony extrapolates three key strategies for surviving and winning out: investment, boldness, and faith. We can take them one by one.

The story as a whole can be understood as a chronicle of investments made and returns earned. In Persia’s authoritarian regime, power emanates from a single ruler. The king’s good graces are the only source of protection, and investing in the king’s grace is the surest hedge against unforeseen peril. But how does one acquire the favor of Ahasuerus? What kind of man is he? What are his desires and interests? The answer, Hazony argues, is in the first chapter of Esther. There we read that the purpose of the king’s lavish drinking party is to “show the wealth of his kingdom’s glory and the worth of the splendor of his greatness” (1:4). It is a spectacle of opulence by a ruler who craves recognition, who wishes to purchase rather than earn honor, and whose preoccupation with the appearance of power highlights his ineptness at using it. Mordecai and Esther’s investment strategy starts from their recognition that the king’s grace can be purchased by reinforcing the image he holds of himself.

Investment in regal favor is not the same as flattery. Ahasuerus is surrounded by countless sycophants, eager to praise and grovel. What the king truly values are not sycophants but subordinates who can make him seem powerful by, Hazony writes, being “independently alert to the king’s interest” and willing to serve that interest “unbeknownst to Ahasuerus himself.” Such is the case with Mordecai’s crucial intervention at the end of the second chapter, in which he uncovers an attempted regicide being plotted within the ranks of the king’s guard. That Mordecai is able to deliver this intelligence without interference, and that the credit due him will be noted in the records of state, are owing to his and Esther’s investment in placing her as queen—before the imminent threat of Haman had arisen. Investment is prospective, not responsive.

Of course, all of this careful investment and laying of groundwork would have come to nothing were it not for Esther and Mordecai’s ability to exercise the second of Hazony’s three categories of political strategy: boldness in action. He singles out five courageous moments in which, at the risk of their own lives, the pair undertake risks for the sake of the Jewish people: Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman (3:2), his decision to protest Haman’s genocidal policy throughout the streets and in the public square (4:1-4), Esther’s uninvited approach to the throne as she activates her plan by inviting Ahasuerus and Haman to an intimate dinner for three (5:1-2), her demand at the second such dinner that the king’s premier be put to death (7:3-6), and her plea that Haman’s policy be repealed (8:3-6).

“If you remain silent at this time,” says Mordecai, “ you and your father’s house will perish” (4:14). Hazony sees in Esther a “grim consistency with which considerations of political interest prevail over every other motive. . . . [This] imparts to the narrative of Esther the dark sense that its action takes place at the edge of an abyss. Men live in such a world unless they make it otherwise, and it is according to the world’s rules that Mordecai must play if he is to win.” In this sense, the book of Esther’s prescription for political action reminds one of the advice given by one of the West’s preeminent strategic thinkers. To meet the demands of crisis, Niccolo Machiavelli counsels, a prince must deploy selectively both the virtues sanctioned by noble tradition and the vices censored by it; or, to put the point somewhat differently, political necessity, for Machiavelli, dictates the instrumental use of human virtue. That, too, is advice for a darker world, a world without moral standards to chasten the pursuit of power.

 

Which brings us to faith, the third strategic category. In The Dawn, Hazony briefly described the function of faith in God as a final strategy for Jewish survival, as expressed in that same key verse: “relief and rescue will come to the Jews from elsewhere” (4:14). For where, after all, is elsewhere? Now, in God and Politics in Esther, he elaborates on this discussion in an effort to demonstrate not only that faith can be found amid Esther’s lowdown and dirty maneuverings, especially in leading her husband to think that Haman has sexual designs on her, but that the book contains a sophisticated and intricate theology. The absence of God’s name, we are being told, does not entail the absence of God; His apparent absence—the fact that He is hiding His face—is not His actual absence. Rather than lacking in theology, Hazony asserts, Esther is instead the most advanced working-out of a theological logic initiated in the Torah itself.

The early logic can be seen at work when, at the end of Genesis, Joseph reveals his identity to the same brothers who years before sold him into slavery and are now seeking salvation from the great Egyptian empire, governed, unbeknownst to them, by the brother they thought long dead. Standing before his brothers, Joseph declares that “God sent me before you to preserve life . . . to preserve a remnant in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it is not you that sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:5-7). It is God who sets in motion a sequence of events through which the family of Israel will grow into the nation of Israel. In the narrow confines of Egyptian bondage, the Israelites begin to learn the value of freedom, and slowly, painfully develop the capacity to receive the law. When, at long last, God remembers his people, He redeems them through signs and wonders. This is the divine drama that forms the basis of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

But even here, at each step of this divine drama, human action advances the story. As narrated in the Torah, it is Joseph and his brothers, followed eventually by Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, who act in history to save the Jewish people. Joseph’s cunning and administrative acumen lands him at the top of the Egypt’s regime. The formative education of Moses in the palace, and his further education in the tribe of Midian, are presented to us as the exclusive results of human action. It is God’s will that this should happen, just as Joseph told his brothers, but God looks to them, to Moses and Miriam, to Samuel and David, to Mordecai and Esther, to act on His behalf.

Hazony is describing a theology he calls “emergence,” a theology in which God’s will comes into the world through human action. It is tempting to see this gradual shift—from a world in which God acts directly in history all the way to one in which He relies completely on mankind to execute His will—as a pageant of progress with mankind ineluctably becoming more moral, more pure, more like the Creator. But Esther and Mordecai do not represent a new norm; they represent an outstanding example of an older one. As Hazony convincingly puts it, although God is nowhere named in Esther, His presence is powerfully felt by the two principal actors—and by the Jews of Persia who fast and pray and plead for His salvation and whose supplications are answered by God Himself through the deeds of those selfsame actors.

 

Esther lived, and we live, not in a world without God but, Hazony writes, in “a world without prophets, without men and women who know how to recognize God’s voice and see His hand in the course of events. But,” he continues, “the world is the same world, whether or not there are any prophets in it to give God’s name to things.” In this sense, even more than a manual for the political operative of Jewish exile, God and Politics in Esther is also a book designed to train the eye to discern God’s will where it had not been seen before.

A hopelessly retrograde idea, this idea of faith, and wholly irrelevant to the hard world of politics? Not so retrograde, or so irrelevant, as that. “There is almost no human action,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.” God’s grace is not to be offered to those waiting in passivity, in the quiescent contemplation of God’s essence, but is instead achieved by men and women in and through their own deeds. That being so, politics—the arena of human action par excellence—becomes the portal through which God presence comes into our world.

Mordecai and Esther lived in a disenchanted world like our own. They did not hear God’s unmediated prophecy or see His signs and wonders with their own eyes. But unbidden, through their own initiative, they brought God’s presence to the Persian court and thereby effectuated Jewish survival; emerging from their autonomous initiative, God’s will was done on earth. There is a lesson here for those who may see Jewish politics as a departure from or a derogation of their piety. Esther portrays it instead as a chance to express that piety.

And that is hardly the only lesson. Consider Esther herself, the great heroine of Jewish continuity and the executor of God’s will. Has Esther gained an esoteric knowledge of God’s purposes through a life of intense devotion and punctilious observance of His commandments? Hardly. An assimilated Jew, not bearing a Hebrew name, she joins the royal harem and inclines toward religious observance only at the final moment of supreme crisis. We know the potential Esthers of our own time and generation, belonging to no denomination, worshiping in no synagogue, observing no Sabbath, with a kitchen full of treyf, maybe a Christmas tree in the den: the unlikeliest of profiles in Jewish courage. So, too, was the first Esther, a woman of child-bearing years with no husband and no children, and with seemingly no qualms about intermarriage. But she did have Mordecai, who counseled and inspired her and guided her on her path to greatness.

And here lies a final lesson, one for Jewish leadership in the American Diaspora and elsewhere. If it was the politics of Esther that disclosed God’s presence in the court of Ahasuerus, it will be the politics of Jewish men and women today in Washington and New York and Los Angeles, in London and Paris, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that will determine God’s presence in our time. Some of them will look like Mordecai, others just like Esther.

More about: Esther, Hebrew Bible, Jewish political tradition, Purim