Purim again. Sigh.
10 March 2017, 5:12 PM
I write about Purim pretty much every year, don’t I? As if it were a major holiday. I suppose it is, in a way. Anyway, here we are again, or will be soon. Tomorrow night and Sunday. And Monday, for those who observe the extra day. Purim: that great festival of drunkenness, cross-dressing and the commemoration of horrific violence and murder (and of course the reprieve of our people from being the victims, rather than the perpetrators, thereof).
This year, I’m looking at Esther 3:8-9, where Haman first goes to the king with his plan to kill all the Jews of Persia:
And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.
So, when I look at dialogue, particularly, in Scripture, I try to figure out why the part that is in the text is included, and what was left out. Or, rather, while I will sometimes try to figure out what was left out, mostly I question why certain things were included and nothing else, when one might have expected more. Of course, the Scripture never gives the impression that the entire dialogue is recorded. Much is elided. This is true throughout, not just in dialogue, and when the odd specific detail (a name, an occupation, a motivation) turns up it is often memorable and powerful. In this text, it’s interesting what Haman is using to manipulate the King, and what the Scripture does not say.
And, well, the Scripture includes Haman offering a ridiculous bribe—am I wrong in thinking that a talent of silver is 26kg and thus around $15K in today’s prices? And that ten thousand talents is a hundred and fifty million dollars? I have no sense of how much wealth a talent of silver really represented in the treasury of Persia around 400BCE (or whenever). But I would guess that aseret alafim kikar keshef was meant to be understood as a gazillion dollars rather than as some calculable amount of money. And in addition to the ridiculous bribe, there is the accusation that it is not for the king’s profit to suffer the Jews to have their own laws. Is it about money, then? I think we are, indeed, presented with a Scripture that says that Haman chose money as the lever with which to move the king. Not fear, but profit.
OK, the use of the word profit to translate showveh is not absolutely perfect; one could as easily say that it is not in the King’s interest or not fitting or meet or even just appropriate. So we can question whether the King James translators may have had some idea of Jewishness (or Orientalism, for that matter) in mind as they were deciding on that word, whether consciously or not.
Still, it’s quite a different thing from Exodus 1:10, when the Pharaoh says:
Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.
Nothing of that here.
It’s interesting (well, to me) that in the latter case, it is the monarch speaking to the people, and using fear, while in the Purim case it is the advisor speaking privately to the monarch and using greed. Is the Scripture trying to tell us something?
Remember that when Ahasueros is moved to action, it isn’t out of any sense of justice or fairness or mercy. It’s because Haman has threatened his woman. And the Scripture takes care to ensure that we know Ahasueros feels that he properly owns the women of his household.
I have written about what a great character Ahasueros is, and about what a terrible ruler he is, and I think that’s a big, big part of the Book of Esther. He is easily manipulated, and (as I have said before) in his court, with no guiding hand, the vicious and greedy were bound to crowd out the mere lickspittles and toadies. I hadn’t looked, really, at how that manipulation takes place. Worth thinking about, I think, as we think about what the Book presents to us as a picture of how to live as a minority in a land of misrule.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,