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God versus Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, Comparison and Contrast

Dvar Torah

From Diana Lipton Longing for Egypt and other unexpected biblical tales 2008 Sheffield Phoenix Press P72-76

This story of Israel in exile and their relationship with a foreign king is famous for the numerous occasions when the normal order of the world is reversed.  Whilst G-d is not mentioned in the book (apart from a very oblique reference – 4.14

 כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת--רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.

For if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arises to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish; and who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this.  There are subtle indications.  A Megilla scroll is often written with each column starting with the word המלך and whilst in the context of the narrative this refers to King Ahasuerus the scribe has God in his mind. 

Throughout the book of Esther there are numerous occurrences which remind the reader is of other Torah incidents.  Sometimes these references are comparisons and sometimes contrasts.  By a study of the relationship between Ahasuerus and Israel there can be an implied examination of the relationship between God and Israel.  The reader can perceive what God is by what Ahasuerus is not and what God is not by what Ahasuerus is.

  1. Exile.  Vashti is exiled because she disobeyed the king and Israel has been exiled because of disobedience and transgression of God’s commands.  However whereas Ahasuerus is unable to rescind his decision but God can and He will redeem Israel as He has shown that He is open to argument in the past, e.g. the golden calf.
  2. Ahasuerus commanded Vashti to display her beauty, which has been taken to mean her nakedness.  Israel’s sin was idolatry which has been likened to displaying nakedness.  Just as the Torah has strict rules against displaying nakedness of family members the contrast is that foreign kings beg their wives to display themselves.
  3. The contest to find a replacement for Vashti mentions beauty and adornment of the contestants and also their use of clothes, cosmetics and perfumes.  This recalls the instructions for Aaron and his sons in Exodus 28.  The perfumes may also allude to the incense burnt in the מִּשְׁכָּן.

 וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי-קֹדֶשׁ, לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, לְכָבוֹד, וּלְתִפְאָרֶת.

2 And thou shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, for splendour and for beauty.

מ  וְלִבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן תַּעֲשֶׂה כֻתֳּנֹת, וְעָשִׂיתָ לָהֶם אַבְנֵטִים; וּמִגְבָּעוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם, לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת.

40 And for Aaron's sons thou shall make tunics, and thou shall make for them girdles, and head-tires shall thou make for them, for splendour and for beauty.

 
  1. Life was precarious in Ahasuerus’s court.  Approaching the king’s inner chamber unbidden was courting death which accounts for Esther’s reluctance to enter Esther 4.11 (and also Haman’s). 

יא  כָּל-עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְעַם-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ יֹדְעִים, אֲשֶׁר כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא-אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקָּרֵא אַחַת דָּתוֹ לְהָמִית, לְבַד מֵאֲשֶׁר יוֹשִׁיט-לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-שַׁרְבִיט הַזָּהָב, וְחָיָה; וַאֲנִי, לֹא נִקְרֵאתִי לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ--זֶה, שְׁלוֹשִׁים יוֹם.

11 All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.

 Bigtham and Teresh had been previously summarily executed and this recalls the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu who also died for an unauthorised approach to the centre of power. Leviticus 10

א  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְקוָק, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יקוק וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵייקוק.

2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 The high priest was similarly fearful of entering the Holy of Holies even on Yom Kippur.

  1. The mention of Yom Kippur also brings to mind the lots that were cast for the scapegoat on that day – Leviticus 16  

ח  וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל-שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם, גֹּרָלוֹת--גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַיקוק, וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל.

8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel.

Thus the lots that Haman cast to determine the day for attacking the Jews are a direct allusion to Yom Kippur.  Esther 3.  

ז  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ נִיסָן, בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ:  הִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לִפְנֵי הָמָן, מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר--הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר. 

7 In the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, which is the month Adar.

 

Jewish tradition attributes authorship to Mordechai but Ezra and Nehemiah have also been suggested.  The likely date of composition is between 430 and 350 BCE.  As a point of faith we accept the story as a true history of events, as we do with many other biblical narratives.  The book should not be seen as just a good, jolly story and an excuse for eating, drinking and general frivolity.  The number of comparisons/contrasts I have highlighted is too high for them to be coincidental and the wealth of detail in the book suggests that the author intended a deeper, subtler message.  There is at least two ways that these comparisons/contrasts may be interpreted.  They may be a polemic against the Diaspora ridiculing Ahasuerus, his court, his palace and his character when compared with the majesty of the Temple, its ceremonies and the morality of the Jews.  The alternative radical suggestion is that the book, by emphasising the similarities between Ahasuerus and God, is a harsh criticism of God, concealed by comedy, in the hope that God will be galvanised into action and redeem the Jews.  As we await that redemption let us all enjoy the festival because on the morrow we start preparing for Pesach.

 

Anthony Nicholls

3/2/13

 

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