God and Pol­i­tics in Esther

Yoram Hazony
  • Review
By – March 1, 2016

The Book of Esther is a myth­i­cal sto­ry for a Dias­po­ra peo­ple. It may also be his­tor­i­cal fic­tion in the vein of the writ­ings of the day (approx­i­mate­ly 400200 CE), though it has found its way into the canon as the ori­gin sto­ry for Purim in the plain sense of the text. Each close read­ing adds greater depth in the sto­ry and more ques­tions to ask. 

As a myth­i­cal sto­ry, the Book of Esther boils down to out­landish char­ac­ters that live large and improb­a­ble sto­ry lines. But as the real­i­ty of our lives find mean­ing in the myth, what lessons can be drawn from the sto­ry? Yoram Hazony, Pres­i­dent of the Her­zl Insti­tute in Jerusalem, pro­vides anoth­er view through the inter­pre­tive prism: Esther as a study in polit­i­cal pow­er, observed in how the story’s main char­ac­ters — Ahashverosh, Mordechai, Esther, and Haman — manip­u­late, maneu­ver, plot, and plan polit­i­cal moves to either influ­ence or pro­tect power.

Those he trusts eas­i­ly manip­u­late Ahashverosh, but he is an unsta­ble and unpre­dictable leader, more inter­est­ed in the trap­pings of state rather than the art of gov­er­nance. This vac­u­um sets the stage for the bat­tle for pow­er as a human strug­gle between Mordechai and Haman, entire­ly dif­fer­ent from epic strug­gle between God and man as we wit­nessed in the sto­ry of Moses. Mordechai engages in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, even in the face of over­whelm­ing odds. He push­es the con­fronta­tion rather than sub­mit to the rule of the evil tyrant Haman. 

But the absence of God in the Esther sto­ry is a per­plex­ing one, and Hazony makes a con­vinc­ing argu­ment that while God may exist and work in the world, man is often left to deter­mine his own fate. Polit­i­cal rather than mil­i­tary action is what turns the wheel of the Book of Esther’s plot. God is not present to deliv­er, so how will a Jew survive? 

The tri­umph of Mordechai’s cal­cu­lat­ed polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing of Esther — and her, in turn, of Ahashverosh — becomes espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing at the Book of Esther’s denou­ment, a part of the sto­ry often over­looked and rarely dis­cussed. Once Mordechai claims vic­to­ry over his foe, he not only exacts his revenge on Haman but maneu­vers a whole­sale slaugh­ter of the Jew’s ene­mies through­out the empire. How are we to under­stand this moral­ly chal­leng­ing move in polit­i­cal terms? 

Yoram Hazony presents a new, inter­est­ing view of Esther in the tra­di­tion of the rab­bis, pos­ing inter­est­ing ques­tions in a dif­fer­ent light in revis­it­ing this intrigu­ing ancient sto­ry and its pur­pose in the canon.

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions