God and Politics in the Book of Esther (REVIEW)
Ever since the inclusion of the Book of Esther in the biblical canon 2,000 years ago, there have been those who have asked what place such a work can have in the Bible at all. Their question must be well-taken, for at first glance Esther appears to be something very different from what we usually consider to be “biblical.”
Having defined such a formidable challenge right at the start of his latest work, God and Politics in Esther, Yoram Hazony, the author of The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul and the founder of the Shalem Center (now Shalem College), proceeds to take the reader on a journey through ancient Persia and beyond in order to clearly demonstrate the unique significance and importance of this relatively short biblical work.
Utilizing comparisons from other biblical narratives involving Joseph, Nehemia and Daniel, Hazony convincingly argues that the key to understanding the Book of Esther is the awareness that Mordechai and Esther are essentially political actors in the court of a foreign king. This being the case they need to wrestle with the fundamental question that is the subject of politics, which Hazony defines as:
How can the individual, weak as he is, move the group of the many to act in accordance with his will?
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Moreover, they need to understand that there is only one bitter answer to this difficult question, which according to Hazony is:
The weak, to the degree they can make themselves seem strong, can attract the support of the strong, thereby becoming strong in reality.
And conversely he adds:
To the degree that they fail in this, they can expect no help from men.
This is the harsh world where the story of Esther takes place, a world, not unlike our own, where the Hebrew prophets are no longer publicly speaking the word of God and where man, seemingly alone and without clear direction from above, is forced to take the initiative to ensure the survival of all that is dear to him.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that they were operating from within such a godless environment, Mordechai and Esther still managed to wage a political campaign that was responsible for saving the Jewish people from destruction. Still further, Hazony stresses that when understood this way the various “coincidences” that dot the story are nothing of the sort but rather the combined outcome of calculated political acts set in motion by Mordechai and Esther.
Proceeding from chapter to chapter, Hazony utilizes his commanding knowledge of both Judaism and political philosophy to expose the reader to ideas that are rarely, if at all, touched upon when discussing the Book of Esther.
For example, after asserting that Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman was connected to his understanding of the threat that idolatry, as embodied in Haman once he assumed sole power for setting policy in the kingdom, posed to the Jews, Hazony then makes an interesting comparison between Mordechai’s rebellious approach in Persia to Joseph’s more obedient one in Egypt.
True, the Jew can and must compromise, obey and bend to gain power that can be used for good. But in the end, salvation can never come from gaining power, (but rather) only by expending the power that has been gained to alter the course of events. If this is true, then the power to bring redemption can come only through rejecting Joseph’s road, as Mordechai does, and traversing the road of Moses and Abraham, which is the road of disobedience and war.
Another unique example is when he discusses the near inability of the modern reader to find anything moral in the Jew’s overwhelming bloody victory against their enemies in the ancient Persian kingdom. This difficulty, according to Hazony, is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts of “purity” and “morality” and the fact that a moral act need not appear “clean” or “holy.” Commenting on this confusion he writes:
The idea that the political and military leader is essential to morality and religion – that he is, in other words, an important moral and religious figure in his own right – sits uneasily with our tendency to believe that politics is “immoral” or amoral, an opinion that has been handed down to us from antiquity.
He then continues:
The last centuries have seen endless confusion on this score, as moral thought, which in the time of the prophets had been inseparable from human exploration of the political realm, has become the preserve of men who have removed themselves from the affairs of the world, the better to pursue “pure reason” and similar projects.
The ideas contained in this chapter, which as Hazony writes are really about man’s relationship to power, are invaluable for understanding the underlying reasons for the divisions within Israeli society regarding the concept of sovereignty and what must be done to preserve or expand that sovereignty in the face of a perceived threat.
Lest one believe that Hazony is trying to deny or downplay the God factor, this is not the case. Rather he understands that the story of Esther takes place within a new reality for the collective Jewish people and therefore it must be analyzed accordingly.
Commenting on this point he writes:
And herein lies the key to Esther. The most remarkable aspect of the book is not God’s absence itself, but the fact that this absence does not induce defeat and despair. Mordechai and Esther prove that even in the grim new universe of the dispersion, the most fearsome evils may yet be challenged and beaten – so long as man himself is willing to take the initiative the beat them. Thus while Esther adheres faithfully to the message of earlier Jewish teachings in terms of the outcome of the story, it heralds a dramatic shift in the burden of responsibility for this outcome.
Moreover, from within this new reality:
Man may still find out what God wishes of him, but he will not be given the answers; he will have to seek them. Man may still participate in the actions of God in history, but he will not be called to them; he will have to initiate them. And man may still see God’s justice and peace brought into being in the world, but it will not be handed to him; he will have to build it.
What this arrangement implies is not that God has vanished, as one might assume when reading Esther, but rather he emerges in the world based upon human physical actions. This in turn refutes the belief that natural events are caused by man while other more miraculous ones are caused by God. There is no such dichotomy, a point that according to Hazony was clear to the earlier biblical prophets and one which the book of Esther comes to teach later generations. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this rather atypical biblical work.
For anyone who is seeking an understanding of an ancient biblical text that is not only exceptionally original and insightful but is also incredibly relevant for today’s world, Hazony’s new book is a must.
Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer with an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. A former New Yorker, he made aliyah in 1996 and currently lives with his wife and four children in Jerusalem. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published by the Times of Israel.