Reading Esther in This Time of War

by David Arnow, Ph.D.

Unlike the Exodus, the Bible’s archetypal redemptive narrative, the theology of Esther puts the responsibility of saving us from our enemies in human rather than divine hands. As a consequence, the story raises challenging questions about how we respond to those who rise up against us, and how we manage the all too human vengeful urges they stimulate within us. As we enter the month of Adar II and approach Purim this year, with the war in Israel and Gaza still ongoing, what might we learn from Esther?

The megillah delivers its theological message in several ways. First, it contains not a single mention of God. As a result, although the story refers to religious rites such as fasting and dressing in sackcloth and ashes, these are not expressly linked to hopes for Divine salvation as they often are in biblical sources such as Daniel 9:3: “And I set my face to the ETERNAL God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.” 

The absence of references to God and prayer are notable in their own right, but they are thrown into sharp relief when comparing the text in the Hebrew Bible with the Greek translation in the Septuagint. Completed before the first century BCE, the Septuagint contains six additions that fill in the expected theological affirmations: These mention the ETERNAL (God’s four-letter name) or God 45 times and include copious prayers beseeching God’s help and acknowledging God’s saving hand.

Theologian Irving Greenberg concludes:

The lesson of Purim is that in an age of “eclipse of God” look for divine redemption in the triumph of the good… If people insist on having extraterrestrial redeemers, they will perceive themselves as living in a world abandoned by God, when in fact God is the Divine redeeming presence encountered in the partial, flawed actions of humans… Purim is the holiday for the post-Holocaust world.3

From this perspective, the leadership of Esther and Mordechai and their ability to save the Jews of Persia shine forth. 

But what might be the “flawed actions of humans”? The answer depends on how far you want to look back for the causes that set the stage for the Purim tale.

A story is told about Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate. One Purim, a guest asked him to explain a seemingly irrelevant biblical verse: “And Lotan’s sister was Timna” (Genesis 36:22). Rav Kook replied, “In fact, the whole story of Purim begins from there!” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) recounts that Timna went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob declaring that she wanted to convert, but they refused her. She married Esau’s son, Eliphaz, and gave birth to Amalek, Israel’s arch enemy (Exodus 8-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Why are the Jewish people afflicted by Amalek? Because they should not have rejected her, says the Talmud. Rejection was the seed from which Amalek’s hatred of Jews grew.4

What does this have to do with Purim? Haman the Agagite was a descendent of Amalek (I Samuel 15:8). Mordechai the Benjaminite came from the same tribe as King Saul who had been commanded by Samuel to exterminate Agag and all his people, including women and children (Samuel 15:3). When Haman dictates the royal decree to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate” the Jews, his language evokes Samuel’s. After Haman’s downfall, Mordechai has the king issue an order that allows the Jews to stand against those who might attack them. Mordechai’s decree mimics Haman’s and also calls for the killing of women and children (Esther 3:13 and 8:11). “The text of the document was … to be publicly displayed … so that the Jews should be ready for the day to avenge themselves on their enemies.” (8:13)5

The violence Jews perpetrate after Haman’s downfall thus emerges as but another round in the age-old cycle of enmity, bloodshed, revenge, and more revenge. In addition to the 800 slain in Shushan, we read that “the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes 75,000” (Esther 9:16).

 The Maharal of Prague (c.1520-1609) read this as revenge, not self-defense:

It was not to “fight for their lives” [paraphrasing Esther 9:16] because this means the Jews were afraid that they would be killed and they needed to save themselves. And this was not so. It was not to save themselves. Only to “avenge themselves on their enemies” [8:13].

Some translations deal with the violence in Esther by simply leaving it out.6 Other commentaries minimize the carnage. In her JPS commentary on Esther, Adele Berlin writes:

But this number [75,000] should be understood as being just as exaggerated as other numbers in the story. The unbelievably large number is an additional sign that this “overkill” is not real killing. There is no way that the relatively small Jewish community in Persia could kill so many people. We are in the realm of carnivalesque fantasy.7 

Calling this violence “carnivalesque fantasy” fails to recognize the human lust for vengeance even in a case in which a genocidal plan was thwarted. The “unbelievably large number” of dead reflects the magnitude of the wish for revenge, apart from the capacity to carry it out. Further, if Haman/Amalek is the incarnation of evil then destroying other members of the clan fulfills Deuteronomy’s injunction to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (25:19). Indeed, Abraham ben Jacob Saba (born c. 1440) wrote that these 75,000 were all from the seed of Amalek (Tzror ha-Mor on Deuteronomy 32:9). 

Rather than curb the thirst for revenge, Esther and Mordechai give it free rein. The book of Esther certainly does not condemn this slaughter, but it offers the following laconic observation: “And many of the people of the land professed8 to be Jews for the fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17). I read this as a warning that the seeds for the next round of vengeful violence have just been planted. Maybe God is absent from the story because God is so tired of seeing humanity repeat this bloody pattern over and over again.  

Which brings us to the Middle East. In our post-October 7 world, here are two takeaways from Esther. In trying to vanquish our foes, our leaders must not allow understandable yearnings for revenge to rule the day lest they guarantee the next round of violence. Furthermore, it takes courage to acknowledge that we too have contributed to the history of conflict that has brought us to where we are today.

How the book of Esther ended we know; how and when this war, and this larger conflict, will end we do not. Will the hostages be freed? How many more people will die? Will the war spread?
One thing we do know is that encountering our sacred texts never feels quite the same from one year to the next. This year we are cursed with circumstances that will make the reading of Megillat Esther feel unlike any I have ever experienced. These are truly days of sorrow and mourning. We are still reeling from the loss of more than 1,200 people brutally murdered on Oct.7, praying for the release of the hostages and for the safety of our siblings in Israel, and yes, praying also for an end to the deaths and suffering of innocent Palestinians.

May we be blessed with the hope, courage, and wisdom to persevere through this darkness and may we, each in our own ways, help transform these times “from sorrow to happiness, and from mourning to celebration” (Esther 9:22). And may we achieve all this in ways we do not live to regret.

  1. It turns out that determining the precise relationship between the dates associated with the Exodos and events recounted in Purim is not as straightforward as it seems. See N. L. Collins “Did Esther Fast on the 15th of Nisan? An extended comment on Esther 3:12,” Revue Biblique, Vol. 100, no. 4 (Oct 1993), pp. 533-561 (in English). ↩︎
  2. Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 90, Kindle Edition.  ↩︎
  3. Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (New York: Summit Books, 1988), p. 251. ↩︎
  4. The 5th century midrash Genesis Rabbah (67:4) makes a related point when it asserts that God punished Jacob for stealing Esau’s blessing by visiting disaster upon the Jews of Persia.  ↩︎
  5. The Maharal of Prague, Ohr Chadash 9:15:4.  For a contemporary analysis that reaches the same conclusion see Masking Revenge as Self-Defense: Domesticating the Book of Esther, by Rabbi David Frankel of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Institute in Israel. ↩︎
  6. See for example The Complete Purim Service (Bridgeport, CT: The Prayer Book Press, 1993 revised edition). ↩︎
  7. Adele Berlin, The JPS Commentary on Esther (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2001), p.87. ↩︎
  8. Thanks to Lev Meirowitz Nelson for raising a question about the translation of “professed” for mityahadim  as per the 1999 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Some  scholars of Esther suggest that the Persians in question actually converted and others claim that they merely pretended to. The Hebrew can support a range of interpretations and thus remains ambiguous. Perhaps that’s intentional: Sometimes it’s hard to know what prompts sudden changes of allegiance.  ↩︎

DAVID ARNOW is the author of Creating Lively Passover Seders and co-editor of My People’s Passover Haggadah. His most recent book is Choosing Hope: The Heritage of Judaism.