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.


Esther 1, God 0

I say fie. Fie on all those commentaries trying so hard to find God in the Book of Esther.

We don’t need to spill more ink or exercise more electrons on insisting that God’s absence is really presence. We don’t need to find God in order to justify the time we spend on this book, or on the hilarious holiday that makes it required reading.

Instead, we could delve into a text that is so cleverly designed, so beautifully comic, and so deeply meaningful (without God’s presence) that there is plenty of reason to love it, no matter where we find ourselves on the continuum we call history.

This book is edgy, funny, and truthful. Read it carefully and you will have to rethink who you are. Jewish or not.

Let us imagine reading Esther as one would read Lysistrata.

If we did, we’d have a very good laugh at all the sex in the story. The king, presumably the royal manifestation of virility, can’t say no to anything. Ahaseurus is everyone’s fool. Or tool.

His own is symbolic, and ribaldly so, a golden scepter that he publicly extends. Esther saves her own life by touching its tip (5:2).

Haman has a bigger one, in a manner of speaking. Consider the stake Haman sets up to peg Mordecai upon, one he erects on the advice of his wife, Zeresh (5:14). It’s a very large stake, some seven stories high. (What was she dreaming of, nights?)

Real power is handed over to Haman, and after Haman’s downfall, Esther. Mordecai wins the jackpot in the final chapter. Of course that chapter is a later addition, probably because some ancient Jewish dudes didn’t like the idea of ending the book with a woman holding all the cards. Too bad, since much of the book is all about women holding all the cards.

Then there’s the drinking and the feasting and the drinking.

The killing, too.

To our shock, it would seem that the Jews go on a killing spree in Chapter 9 (though many commentaries insist that the first episode had to be defensive in nature). Esther, our heroine, asks permission for the killing to continue. From a death toll of 510, the story tells us, we advance to one just under one hundred and fifty times higher; by the end of the second day the Jews have killed 75,810 Persians.

Of course, this text is not a history. Of course, this text is a burlesque. Literary conventions as old as writing itself tell stories of the impotent becoming omnipotent. The comedy is cathartic, obviously over the top, clearly part and parcel with the genre: Exaggeration and hyperbole are integral to carnival. The hyperbole in Esther begins in its first verses – in a revelry that lasts six drunken months.

Still, the audience must feel some discomfort. No wonder we would rather ignore the sex, the drugs (alcohol), and the violence in favor of twisting and turning the text to find God somewhere, anywhere. The text uses the word “king” multitudinous times? It must be referring to the real king, the King Above. The name “Esther” comes from a Hebrew root, or “shoresh” that suggests hiddenness – the very name of the book suggests God’s hidden presence!

What if Esther is simply confronting us with the hard reality? Human beings are capable of anything, no matter who they are.  Jews can become aggressors, while Persians are, for fear, “Jewing” (8:16). Jews are behaving like Persians and Persians are behaving like Jews. We can all know what it is to feel impotent. We can all be dishonorable, drunken, and loutish.

We could all even kill.

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Irony, like comedy, demands that we abandon every category. Everything we think we know about the Other and ourselves must be discarded if we are to learn from our laughter (and our tears).

Maybe the lesson we need in what it means to be human should come from other humans, not God. Maybe God wouldn’t find us so very funny.


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