In God’s Absence: Politics in the Purim Story
Most of the Bible is about the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel—or at least traveling there. But the Book of Esther is different. Esther breaks with this tradition to ask a startling question: What happens once Jewish sovereignty ends? When the kingdom of David, Jerusalem and the Temple are no more? Can any good come to the remnant of the Jewish people scattered among the nations?
On the surface, we all feel we know the story of Esther and Mordecai: A Hitler-like figure named Haman the Agagite is appointed prime minister and given absolute rule over the Persian empire—an empire in which the Jews have been scattered, as the Megilla says, “from India to Ethiopia.” When a Jewish courtier named Mordecai protests Haman’s appointment, Haman persuades the king to issue a decree ordering that all Jews be murdered for the insolence.
What follows is a story of palace intrigue out of a Hollywood movie, with Mordecai and his young cousin Esther deploying politics, sex and subterfuge until Haman is deposed, Mordecai is installed as prime minister and an edict is issued permitting the Jews to defend themselves against the coming onslaught. On the day that their children, women and men were all to have died, the Jews emerge victorious.
But looked at more closely, this well-known story poses some difficult questions. Every twist in the intricate plot is described as taking place at the initiative of human beings. So why does the Bible include this utterly political story in which God is never mentioned, and biblical history and traditions like the covenant of Abraham and the laws of Moses are absent? Even the holiday of Purim itself, which Mordecai and Esther established1, is the first Jewish festival that isn’t the result of a divine command. Indeed, in the Book of Esther, everything that God once did for Israel is now portrayed as being done by the Jews themselves.
Where has God gone once the Jews are exiled? This hiding of God’s face is what the rabbis of the Talmud meant when they wrote that in living outside the land, it is as if the Jews have no God. What does this mean?
We can think about it this way: During the first thousand years of Jewish history, the insular nature of the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel and Judah meant that the word of God could hardly be escaped. An individual could keep the laws of Moses or not, but no one could avoid being bombarded by the orations of the prophets and the teachings of the priests. Thus, Jeremiah could tell the people on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem that they had heard God speaking to them ever since their fathers had left Egypt 800 years earlier: “From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them to you from morning until night. But they did not listen” (Jeremiah 7:25-26).
What changed once the Jews had been scattered throughout the Persian empire was not only that prophets had ceased to frequent the marketplaces. The mere dispersion to the ends of 120 Persian provinces would have also meant that most Jews would never have heard a prophet in their lives. When added to the constant pressure of foreign concerns and ideas that were the daily grist of exile, the heightened sense of God’s speaking—commanding, imploring, berating—was dissolved.
In exile in Persia, then, God ceased to appear to the Jewish people. But God’s withdrawal from man was not met with a parallel extinguishing of the voice of evil. Not since Pharaoh had Israel been so helpless before a nemesis as monstrous as Haman, and the task of defeating him remained. But now there was only one force that could bear the responsibility for doing it—man himself.
The most remarkable aspect of the Esther story, however, is not God’s absence, but the fact that this absence does not induce defeat and despair. Quite the contrary, in fact: Mordecai and Esther prove that even in the grim new universe of dispersion, the most fearsome evils may yet be challenged and beaten, as long as man himself—or in this case principally a young woman—is willing to take the initiative. Mankind may still see God’s justice brought into being in the world, but it will not be handed to him—he will have to build it.
As Rav Assi taught in the Talmud: “Why was Esther compared to the dawn? To tell you that just as the dawn is the end of the whole night, so is the story of Esther the end of all miracles” (Yoma 29a).
Yet surely there is something frightening in this message. In accepting it, are humans seeking to usurp the place of God, deciding right and wrong and seeking to chart the course of history for themselves? Are they reconciling to a godless world, to atheism? Don’t the politics of Esther, then, turn out to be something like Machiavelli’s politics—a grim call to self-help in a hard and heartless world?
The answer is partly yes. Some of the sober principles of political survival in the diaspora that we learn from Mordecai and Esther remind us of Machiavelli’s advice to princes. For example, the political maneuvering to gain favor in the Persian court, as practiced by Mordecai and Esther, is straight out of the politician’s playbook. We see such political investment when Mordecai risks his own position to save the king’s life, and in his advice to Esther to hide her Jewish identity so that she can rise more easily among the courtiers.
Mordecai demonstrates a second principle familiar from Machiavelli, that of political boldness, when he initiates a public confrontation with Haman and when he urges Esther to do what she can to become queen.
But there is a third principle of Esther’s politics that does not appear in Machiavelli: the principle of faith. This principle finds dramatic expression in Mordecai’s famous proposition to Esther: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere” (Esther 4:14). We have already seen that God does not appear to the Jews in Persia. What, then, is the “elsewhere” that Mordecai is referring to?
Looking at politics from a modern perspective, in which the world has been demythologized, reality is not supposed to respond to our actions. The world is unconcerned with our fate, and so we wage our battles alone.
But for all that is strange and new in the Book of Esther, Mordecai nevertheless understands reality from a biblical vantage point, in whose worldview reality is warm and alive, a love and a friend. It supports man from both underneath and above, consisting not only of objects to be manipulated, but having direction and tendency of its own.
At times, this tendency of the world crystalizes into a response to one’s own cries. As Mordecai wanders through the streets of the capital in the wake of the king and Haman’s edict of extermination, his cries echo among the city’s arches and balconies and parapets, begging for an answer. His cries are a prayer, and he seeks a response not only from among the Jews, not only from among men, but from anywhere his voice may reach. And when Esther decides she cannot permit this prayer to go unanswered, she answers for all of reality, for God Himself, whose direction and tendency has been to provide answers to the Jews’ cries in every generation.
It is Esther who decides to break her silence and act. In so doing, she becomes God’s answer to Mordecai’s cries—taking the initiative to be second to the true King and to pursue His interest; walking in all His ways that she may grow righteous and strong; piercing the blackness and illuminating the night with her light and power. As Rabbi Eleazar teaches in the Talmud, the moment Esther decides to cloak herself in royalty and go to see the king is the moment in which she also cloaks herself in the spirit of God (Megilla 15a).
Purim thus adds this cosmopolitan message to the Jewish year for Jews who are far from their homeland and their God: If Jews will stand up for themselves and fight for their faith, the diaspora can allow power and life—not only for individual Jews but for the Jewish people as a whole.
It is, thus, no coincidence that Mordecai and Esther required the Jews to make the days of Purim “days of feasting and gladness and for sending foods to one another, and for giving gifts to the poor.” All these holiday provisions inspire a sense of well-being, control and power in faraway lands in which it might have been thought that such things are impossible.
This essay is adapted from Yoram Hazony’s newly published book, God and Politics in Esther (Cambridge University Press).