Esther: Stupid Decisions

March 19, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Purim, a Jewish holiday on the 14th of Adar (March 20-21 this year), revolves around the book of Esther, an imaginative farce set in Shushan, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (553-333 BCE).

The real kings of this empire were smarter than the average dictator.  The founder, Cyrus I, encouraged the fealty of the many ethnic groups in his lands by granting them local autonomy and helping them rebuild their old temples.  Darius I recruited administrators and soldiers from many ethnic groups.  His son Xerxes I (reign 486-465 BCE), called Achashveirosh in the book of Esther, continued these astute policies of cultural and religious tolerance, making it easier to rule the world’s biggest empire to date.

Persian Empire ca. 500 BCE

The real King Achashveirosh/Xerxes also successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon.  He built gigantic palaces in two of his five capital cities, Persepolis and Susa/Shushan.  He kept a large harem but had only one queen, a Persian noblewoman named Amestris.  Xerxes seems to have been a competent political leader with a taste for the standard royal luxuries.

But in the book of Esther, King Achashveirosh is, above all, stupid.  His stupid decisions drive a plot of near-catastrophes and amazing reversals.

On the evening of Purim we read and perform the book of Esther, enjoying every comic moment.  Late the next afternoon there is a traditional seudah shlishit, a “third meal” which is supposed to be second in importance only to the seder meal on Passover.  Unlike the Passover seder, the Purim seudah has no ritual text.  But maybe this year it could be a time to discuss some of the stupid rulings the fictionalized king makes—and how easy it is to make similar errors today.

Persian gold drinking horn, 5th century BCE

The book of Esther opens with King Achashveirosh spending lavishly on a 180-day drinking feast for his administrators and noblemen, followed by a seven-day drinking feast for the entire male population of Shushan.

And the drinking was according to the dat: There is no constraint!  (Esther 1:8)

dat (דָּת) = (plural datim, דָּתִים) rule, law, regulation, edict, decree.  (From the Persian word data.)

The word dat is used only in biblical passages written after the Persian Empire took over the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its formerly Israelite territory circa 539 BCE.  Dat appears 20 times in the book of Esther.  During the course of the story, King Achashveirosh (who likes to drink) issues six new datim on impulse, without constraints such as getting information or thinking things over.

Dat 1

Persian Queen Atossa, crowned 522 BCE

On the seventh day, as the king was feeling good with wine, he said … to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king in her royal crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, since she was good-looking.  (Esther 1:11)

Vashti refuses.1  Achashveirosh is furious.

But the king spoke to the wise men … because this was the king’s practice, [to come] before all experts on dat and judgement.  (Esther 1:13)

Consulting legal advisors on what to do about this perceived insult from the queen seems like a wise and sensible move—as long as one has competent advisors.  King Achashveirosh has seven, but only one speaks: Memukhan, who declares that in order to prevent noblewomen throughout the empire from getting uppity, Vashti must be severely punished.  Memukhan proposes a new dat declaring that Vashti is dethroned, divorced, deprived of her land, and banned from the king’s presence.  Achashveirosh agrees with no further thought.

*

Today, when do we (or our rulers) act on impulse, following the lead of the first person to speak, without pausing to solicit other opinions?  Do we fail to express our own viewpoints when we are given the opportunity to speak?

Dat 2

After a while Achashveirosh misses Vashti.  The real Achaemenid kings chose all their queens from seven noble Persian families, but in the book of Esther the king’s servants suggest holding a beauty contest to pick the next queen.  Each of the many finalists would spend a night with the king.  Achashveirosh jumps on this idea without consulting his legal advisors, and issues a new dat declaring the contest and its procedures.   Eventually he chooses Esther, the adopted daughter of her uncle Mordecai, a Jew who “sits in the gate” of Shushan as a judge.

*

Today, when do we pick our romantic partners, business associates, or even presidents based on their looks and charm, without considering any possible consequences?

Dat 3

For no apparent reason, the king picks a self-centered man named Haman as his new viceroy, and orders everyone in the king’s gate to kneel and bow down with their faces touching the ground when Haman passes through.  In the Torah this is the position of humility before God—which might explain why Mordecai refuses to do it.

When the king’s other servants tell Haman that Mordecai is ignoring the dat about bowing because he is a Jew, Haman decides to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire.

Then Haman said to King Achashveirosh: “There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their datim are different from all [other] peoples’, and the datim of the king they do not follow.  So it is not suitable for the king to leave them in peace.”  (Esther 3:8)

Achashveirosh does not ask which group Haman is talking about.  He does not ask which of the king’s datim its members are violating, or why.  And as usual, he does not talk to anyone else to get another side of the story.  For someone unaccustomed to thinking, it is enough that these people are different.  Unlike the real kings of the Persian Empire, the Achashveirosh character is easily frightened by diversity.

*

When do we react with fear (or fear disguised as resentment) because certain people look  different, or speak a different first language, or adhere to a different religion?

Dat 4

Given the king’s usual blank state of mind, Haman’s simple scare tactic might be enough.  But the viceroy adds a bribe, promising to pay 10,000 silver disks into the royal treasury if the king commands the extermination of this unnamed people.  Without asking a single question, without thinking about justice or remembering his family’s tradition of religious tolerance, King Achashveirosh hands over his signet ring to Haman.

And scrolls were sent out by the hand of the runners to every single province of the king [with the order] to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews … on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder them.  A copy of the writing was to be given as a dat in every single province and shown to all the peoples, to be prepared for this day. (Esther 3:13-14)

*

When do we abandon our identities, giving the equivalent of our signet rings to others, for financial reasons?  For other reasons that would not hold up to scrutiny?  Do we ever wonder if we are violating our own principles?

Dat 5

Mordecai begs Esther to intercede with the king.  Much drama ensues, with two intertwining plot lines.  Haman has just erected a stake for impaling Mordecai when he is forced to publicly honor the Jew for saving the king’s life.  Meanwhile Esther uses courage and cleverness to get Achashveirosh and Haman where she wants them.2

At her second private drinking feast for the king and his viceroy, Esther asks King Achashveirosh for her life and the lives of her people.

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand

“Because we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, to be exterminated!”  (Esther 7:4)

Still oblivious, the king asks her who ordered such a thing.

And Esther said: “The man, the oppressor and enemy, is this evil Haman!”  (Esther 7:6)

Achashveirosh believes her at once and, as usual, asks no follow-up questions.  He has Haman impaled on his own stake.  It is sheer good fortune that Esther is correct and Haman is indeed the malefactor.

When Esther asks the king to revoke the dat about killing Jews on the 13th of Adar, we learn about another standing rule:

… a writing that was written in the name of the king and sealed with the signet ring of the king, there is no way to reverse.  (Esther 8:8)

This dat would be ridiculous in a real government.  But it does express the truth that some actions have irrevocable consequences.  We insult someone, and the person never forgets it.  We make a mistake or pass a law that results in someone’s death, and nothing can bring the person back to life.

King Achashveirosh gives Mordecai his signet ring and invites him and Esther to write any new dat they like to compensate for the dat about exterminating Jews on the 13th of Adar.  A dat goes out giving Jews permission to kill anyone who tries to attack them on that day.

And in every province and in every city where the word and the dat of the king reached, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a drinking feast and a holiday.  And many of the peoples of the land pretended to be Jews, because terror of the Jews had fallen upon them.  (Esther 8:17)

Jews all over the empire attack and kill their enemies on the 13th of Adar.  There is no due process, no trials to establish guilt or innocence, no follow-up on anyone the Jews accuse who manages to escape.  Mob violence rules the day.  The king’s fifth new dat is an arguably stupid way to prevent a one-day genocide.

*

When do we, like Achashveirosh, make excuses for violence perpetrated by people who have suffered from discrimination and persecution?  When do we, like Esther and Mordecai, use positions of power to improve the welfare of our own people without seeking justice for all people?

Dat 6

Achashveirosh tells Esther that the Jews of Shushan alone have killed 500 men in addition to Haman’s ten sons, and asks her if she has any other requests.

And Esther said: “If it please the king, may it be granted to the Jews in Shushan to do tomorrow as well the same as the dat of today, and may the ten sons of Haman be impaled on the stake.”  And the king said to have it done thus, and the dat was given out in Shushan …  (Esther 9:13-14)

The Jews of Shushan take this opportunity to kill another 300 men.

*

Today, when do we agree to do something merely to please a person who dazzles us, without considering whether it is ethical?

The six new datim King Achashveirosh issues in the book of Esther illustrate that stupid decisions come from:

  • acting on impulse in moments of anger or fear,
  • taking one person’s word for something without checking,
  • not collecting enough information, and
  • failing to consider our own ethical principles.

Someday may we all learn to be smarter than King Achashveirosh.

  1. Midrash Rabbah Esther (commentary from the 6th to 11th centuries CE) said that Vashti’s refusal was justified because the king was ordering her to display herself wearing her crown and nothing else.
  2. Before Esther can speak to Achashveirosh, she must risk her life; there is already a dat that anyone who enters the king’s inner court without being summoned is put to death unless the king extends his golden scepter. Never mind if there is an imperial emergency; Achashveirosh does not want to be bothered by inconvenient news.  When do we disable ourselves by going into denial?  When do we make life more difficult by trusting someone who ignores facts to be in charge?

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