Bring Back the Magic: The Book of Esther

Prim costume 2Esther is the Bible’s book of bawdy. God plays no part in outrageous proceedings: A 180-day party is followed by another…. party. Haman is hanged on a gallows considerably higher than Solomon’s own Temple. Jews manage to kill 75,810 Persians without themselves taking a scratch in the battle, much less a single death.

Still, the rabbis acknowledge it: The Book of Esther is pure magic.

Esther is permeated by wondrous reversals, calendrical and astrological associations, and references to divination. It describes a well-attested magical ritual of the Ancient Near East – the casting of lots. In the ancient world, such knowledge was essential. At the behest of kings, prophets and priests threw (literally) fate into the air, foretold auspicious days and dangerous ones, and regulated the calendar by consulting the skies.

The Book of Esther is obsessed with chronology and dates. The text is a literary treasure trove for depicting the magical regulation of time. Haman casts lots for the exact day Jews are to be destroyed; Esther uses her own calendrical methods to avert doom and save her people. An unlucky day becomes the lucky one. Magic and astrology were partners for the rabbis; medieval rabbinic texts explore the Book of Esther in just such astrological terms, from Ibn Ezra to Bahya ben Asher.

King Ahasueras’ wise men were astrologers, according to the former, who also asserted that Adar was chosen for exterminating the Jews because the stars were in the correct conjunction for enacting Israel’s downfall. Esther herself – so the rabbis – was named after the planet Venus (Istahar) and was served by seven maids (Megilla 13a). Can anyone miss the reference to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the “seven sisters”?  For the rabbis, Esther is star stuff.

You find that when the moon is not visible in the sky at night, the darkness in the world is such that a man cannot [see to] walk about even in the city. But once the moon appears in the sky, all rejoice and are able to walk about. So, too, in the days of Ahasuerus, when it was decreed that Israel should be destroyed, slain, and exterminated. But then Esther appeared and gave light to Israel, as is said, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Exod. R. 15:6.).

The rabbis say that all the miracles of scripture end with Esther (Yoma 29a). They read between the lines to add to the textual list: Mordecai wanders about Shushan looking for a wet nurse to suckle Esther (Gen. R. 30:8). Unable to find one among the Jews of the city, he simply, magically begins to breastfeed the infant himself. Hey, presto!

The book is a treasure trove of enchanted events. God is not present, but sorcery is. The story is composed of a series of abracadabras, uttered on the thresholds of earthly existence. Words, like characters, mirror their opposites and conjure power over them. The fourfold depiction of joy with abstract terms (light, gladness, joy, and honor) in 8: 16 reverses the four nouns that signal gloom in 4:3 (mourning, fasting, weeping, and lamenting). Kings become buffoons and nobodies become royalty. Haman, the insider and best buddy to the king, is actually an Amelkite outsider. Mordecai, who sits at the threshold outside the palace will not bow to the king – but he will, eventually, rule over him. Transformation is par for the course.

How to bring back the magic of metamorphosis back?

We could read the book, and take it seriously. It is a roadmap for navigating liminal spaces and dangerous places. We could read the book, and laugh at the absurdity. The hen-pecked king issues an edict to secure male privilege? Virgins are dipped in oil for half a year and perfume for yet another six months? Oy.

And then, try this: Read the book and find yourself. Anyone can become as self-absorbed as Ahasuerus. One day, you might find yourself calling on the kind of calm courage that Mordecai models. Like Esther, we all will – at some moment during our lives – face our most primal fears just as we are being called to tasks that will transform us.

The Book of Esther lends itself to reinscription, rediscovery, to an abracadabra of the soul. That is its power.

Look for yourself in it. You will bring that magic back back.

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