Netanyahu, Persia, Purim and Esther
March 4-5 of this year marks the annual Feast of Purim, celebrated by Jews all over the world and commemorating their deliverance from genocide long ago.
ALAN EASON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have startled a few in the US Congress Tuesday when he basically told a Bible story. It was not just any Bible story, but rather one about the Jews, their national survival, Persia (the ancient empire centered in what is now Iran), and a beautiful Jewess named Esther. It is the story of how, through Esther’s courage, the Jews received the right to defend themselves after the Persian high official Haman had conceived a plot to have them wiped out.
Netanyahu specifically mentioned Esther, Persia, Haman and the Feast of Purim. Here is what happened in the story. Haman, a wealthy high official, had tricked the king of Persia, Ahasuerus (many scholars think this was Artaxerxes II) into issuing a special order. According to Persian law, once such an order was issued, it could not be rescinded. The order required that all the scattered Jews throughout the empire (including Canaan, the location of modern Israel) be attacked and wiped out on a certain day.
Beautiful Esther risked her life by complaining to the king about the edict. A wife was not supposed to voice her opinion in political matters to her husband in those days, especially if he was the king. She might even be put to death for it. The king had just exiled a former wife for disobeying him and was not in the best of moods to hear more complaints. Esther told him about the danger to her people anyway.
There is a fascinating subplot. Through divine intervention (implied but never explicitly underscored in the story) the emperor was sleepless one night as this was all developing, and it just so happened he asked a scribe to read him some boring court records to try to put him to sleep.
Interestingly, the scribe read of how a Jew named Mordecai had exposed a plot against the king some time previously and was never rewarded for it. Mordecai happened to be Esther’s uncle and coincidentally was the guy the high official Haman hated the most, because Mordecai would not bow to him. This was a major reason Haman wanted the Jewish people throughout the empire wiped out.
Something amazing then takes place. Esther reveals to the king that she herself is a Jew (very risky) and points out that Haman has been plotting the destruction of her people. Haman responds in the stupidest way possible and ends up executed on the very gallows he had just had built for Mordecai. After that, Mordecai was promoted to be a chief advisor to the king.
How does the story end? Esther persuades the king that something must be done. He cannot rescind the executive order that the Jews in every province of the empire be attacked by their enemies. But he issues a new order that allows the Jews to arm themselves. Throughout the Persian Empire the Jews take up weapons, even though they are officially captives. In essence, the king gives them what we would call Second Amendment rights, and they take full advantage of it.
What happens next? In many places, they are not even attacked, because people are afraid of them now that they are armed and the Jew Mordecai elevated to such a high position. Where they are attacked, they win. The Jewish people defend themselves and are spared from destruction.
To this day, the Jewish people annually celebrate their deliverance from Haman’s wicked scheme. The celebration is called Purim.
This year Purim falls on March 4 and 5. In other words, it falls one day after Benjamin Netanyahu gave a historic speech about the threat by Iran, the modern Persia, to destroy the Jewish people; and one day after he told the world that Israel would defend itself.
Prime Minister Netanyahu did not miss the symbolic import of the conjunction and neither did many others.
God is not mentioned by name in the Book of Esther, but his hand is on everything that unfolds. He is the God of history. It is said that there are no coincidences with God. Things don’t “just happen.” The dramatic irony of Esther is there to teach us.