Archive for February 24th, 2013

Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Crucifixion,Cycle of Violence,Disfavored Minorities,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Infamous,Iran,Jews,Mass Executions,Myths,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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