Earlier, I proposed reading Bible stories as fiction, and talking about how terrible they are (or not, as the case may be). A reader suggested the book of Esther. I had never read it before, and was not familiar with the story. If it matters, I used the NRSV Bible.
Esther begins with King Ahasuerus and his queen. At the end of a six-month-long party, the king requests that the queen present herself, but she refuses. Why does she refuse? The book doesn’t say. Gosh, let’s not waste time with motivations or characterization, get on with the story. The important thing, as far as the book is concerned, is that if she goes unpunished, then women everywhere will know that they can defy their husbands’ whims, and we can’t have that. So the king strips her of her title. (Is she cast into poverty, exiled, or executed? It doesn’t say.)
Here is the one advantage of having an ancient story which follows ancient moral values: suspense. Is the introduction meant to paint the king as extraordinarily unsympathetic? Or maybe the story just has terrible values? I’m not a scholar of ancient Jews, so I don’t know! I guess we’ll have to read to the end of the story to find out.
Spoiler: it turns out the introduction is not meant to reflect on the king’s character at all. No, the king is wise and popular. Rather, the introduction is a pretext for the king to make a call for virgins to join his harem so he can make one of them his new queen. And that’s how Esther, secretly a Jew, becomes queen.
The rest of the story could be summarized in a few sentences. The prime minister Haman gets angry at Esther’s cousin, and persuades the king to order the destruction of the Jews. Esther is upset, so she asks the king not to do that. But the king can’t take back a royal decree (why?), and instead decrees that Jews can defend themselves. The happy ending is that the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies, and Esther’s cousin becomes prime minister. And that’s how the holiday of Purim was founded.
Wow, isn’t that brutal! By my reckoning, that places Purim somewhere between Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.
Since I’m analyzing this as fiction, it’s up to me to ask, why? What is the message here? The trouble is, Esther is hardly given any characterization at all. I guess she’s beautiful enough to have been selected as queen? She’s brave to stand up to a king who already has precedent for banishing queens? If this is a story of the triumph of some value, I can’t tell what that value is, except maybe the value of being Jewish.
As for the villain, prime minister Haman, his main flaw seems to be wrath and disproportionate punishment. But if that’s his mark of villainy, it’s rather odd that it’s a trait that the heroes King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther both share.
I mean, let’s compare this to Man of Steel, which was a godawful Superman movie. In that movie, the villains are bad because they want to destroy everything. The thing is, Superman himself is plenty destructive. Wasn’t it sure convenient that all those dozens of skyscrapers were empty? If people died or were traumatized at Superman’s hands, it must have happened off-screen so we don’t have to think about it. But if you think about it for even a second, you realize how shit Superman is.
Esther is like that except that it doesn’t even have the decency to hide the deaths “off-screen”. The number of people they killed is listed right there in the boring didactic section. For shame!
I am willing to take other suggestions, including from other religions.