Power struggle between Jews
Clever Queen Esther takes a chance and manages to create harmony.
Purim is based on the Book of Esther, the most esoteric book in the Hebrew Testament. Accepting a literal interpretation of the book is impossible. It is laden with evident exaggerations and inventions that defy what is known of Persian history and conventions. Its hidden meaning can be uncovered only by combining a knowledge of Persian practices during the Babylonian Captivity, the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, his Edict (sixth century BCE) and Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews which, despite its name, contains a great deal of relevant and credible history.
Using these sources, one can arrive at a plausible interpretation completely in accord with historically valid information. Esther, it turns out, describes an entirely intra-Jewish affair set in the Persian Empire, with the two major antagonists as factional leaders: Mordecai, whose followers advocate rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, and Haman, also a Jew, whose assimilationist adherents oppose the project.
Ginzberg furnishes substantial evidence that Mordecai and Haman were both Jews who knew each other well: they were co-butlers at a royal feast and journeyed together to India to put down a rebellion against Persia. Moreover, Haman's mother had a Hebrew name and his descendants are said to have taught Torah in Akiva's academy.
The multi-ethnic Persian Empire had significant religious freedom and communal authority, as exemplified by the Edict of Cyrus, permitting Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians, and allowing the inclusion of members of various ethnic and religious groups under Persian rule, offering them some representation and influence at the royal court. However, it is untrue that Mordecai or Esther achieved the high positions attributed to them in the book. Queens and chief ministers always had to have impeccably Persian ancestry. More likely, Mordecai was a spokesperson for much of the Jewish community and Esther, a harem consort.
In the Persian Empire the king's harem typically had ethnic "representatives." Vashti, Esther's predecessor, was a member of the Hamanite faction. In a typically irreverent manner, she had forced her Jewish handmaidens to violate the Sabbath. After Vashti's dismissal, widespread rebellion and Jewish inter-factional fighting flared up, calmed only by Mordecai's elevation and the appointment of Esther, who, in a measure of intrigue, initially conceals her ethnic and factional identification. Her original name was Hebrew, viz., Hadassah; Esther is Persian, derived from Astarte or Ishtar.
The book states that Mordecai first discovered a plot to kill Ahasuerus, the king. It is more likely that he was apprised by Esther who, being in the harem, a traditional centre of intrigue and espionage, would have picked up this intelligence. A more plausible explanation is that the incident was a conspiracy arranged by Mordecai, the two allegedly guilty harem eunuchs becoming dupes in a plot designed to be exposed in order to discredit the Hamanite faction and win favor for Mordecai and his followers.
Nevertheless, Haman initially gains the upper hand by convincing Ahasuerus that Mordecai's faction threatens the king's hegemony, an argument given credence by the plan of the pro-Temple faction to construct a wall around the rebuilt Temple, perhaps to defend against Persian armies after the Jews had declared their independence. Haman also probably bribes the king with promises of a share of the plunder expropriated from the wealth of the pro-Temple faction after its members are killed.
After Haman's appointment, when he and the king sat down for a drink, "Susa was perplexed," the text states, indicating that the Jews of Susa, a city with a large Mordecai-supporting faction, were outraged that someone they considered a heretic would henceforth officially advise the king regarding the Jewish community.
As Haman puts his plan in motion, Mordecai warns Esther, and the pro-Temple Jews demonstrate their solidarity with her. During the three days of fasting, while Esther prepares to petition the king, Mordecai is busy collecting a counter-bribe, referred to as "relief and deliverance ... from another quarter," which he had earlier promised Esther while trying to assuage her fears about her own safety following the disclosure of her true allegiance.
The Mordecai faction succeeds and the tolerant but venal king switches his support. Esther gathers information on Haman's collaborators and denounces him. In a staged event in the royal apartment, with the king's co-operation, she frames Haman on an assault charge, providing Ahasuerus with a face-saving device to explain the dismissal and subsequent execution of someone he had so recently elevated.
Ahasuerus, now convinced that the pro-Temple faction does not threaten him with its walled city plans, provides help from forces he had formerly promised to Haman, allowing the Mordecaite Jews to eliminate the Hamanites, but keeping his well-greased hands out of the more violent aspects of the conflict.
The book states repeatedly that the pro-Temple faction members kept no plunder derived from the defeat of their rivals, indicating that this benefit of their triumph went to Ahasuerus. The story goes on to declare that, with the victory of the Mordecai faction, "many people of the country declared themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them." Why would ordinary Persians or Babylonians, now part of the Persian Empire, fear Jews to the point of embracing a minority religion in their own country? It is more reasonable to assume that the now religiously enthusiastic Jews who had become fearful of Mordecai were assimilated Jews who had identified themselves as Persians and who had formerly allied themselves with the Hamanite faction or had previously faltered in their allegiance to the pro-Temple faction.
Purim is at once the least and the most profound of Jewish holidays. The Talmud tells us that even after the Messiah comes and the mandated holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are no longer celebrated, Purim will be retained. Why? Because the story reminds us that, even when obscured by bizarre circumstances, there is a continuous presence of God, often in the guise of "chance," which explains why Purim is known as the Feast of Lots.
The mood in the synagogue celebration of Purim is one of noisy revelry, even inebriation, and self-ridicule as if the participants somehow know that the book's story is a cover up for a series of dramatic and fateful events and they are winking at it and themselves.
Dr. Eugene Kaellis is a retired academic living in New Westminster.
Taken from: http://www.jewishindependent.ca/Archives/Mar05/archives05Mar18-07.html