Esther, Haman, Mordechai, and all the rest
Everything you didn't know you needed about the Purim story
I've spent my life more or less cloistered among religious Jews, which messes with my sense of what counts as common knowledge. Today, for instance, is Purim, and on Purim the Jewish people read Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. Apparently, most people don’t know the story.
Now, frankly, I don't really give a shit what people do or don’t know. People know the things they need to, I figure, and other people’s cultural “deficits” don’t make me the least bit upset.
But here's the thing: Esther is one of the few stories of the Hebrew Bible that you might call “riveting” without indulging in a large dose of irony. It’s a great story, and you’ll be happier knowing it.
In the name of happiness, here is the story. In the spirit of kindness, I'll tell it as briefly as I can.
• • •
We open in Persia, a long time ago. King Achashverosh—let’s call him “Ach” for short—is at the height of his power, ruling over 127 lesser states. For reasons unknown, he's decided to have a huge party. Everyone’s there, and everyone is very, very, drunk.
Somehow through layers of alcohol, King Ach realizes that his queen is not present. “Hey, someone bring Vashti,” he commands, probably immediately before vomiting into his own lap.
Anyway, Vashti is hiding in her room and is refusing to come out. Likely the old perv wants her to trot out nude so all his drunk pals can leer at her. Some satrap will pinch her, she just knows it. Who can say if Vashti’s been planning this for a while or if she’s simply had enough, but she finally says it: NO.
Someone relays this message to the king. “What,” he says, “what the FUCK did she say?” They explain that she’s refusing to descend into his bacchanalia. This whole situation, it goes without saying, is really messing with his buzz.
One thing about this story is you've got to get used to advisors. There are a lot of advisors. And here we have the first, and he advises the king: if Vashti won't come, then you know what? We should probably kill her.
“That's a great idea, get on it,” King Ach says, and the deed is done as the party continues.
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The next day, in the cold daylight, before the party begins again, the King realizes that he's fucked up. He's killed his beautiful queen. He is distraught, or at the very least genuinely bummed. What to do?
Then who shows up but…more advisors. And these advisors have a new idea: a beauty pageant! Let every single girl of sexable age show up at the palace and trot in front of the king. The king will pick his favorite, bada bing, bada boom, instant queen. The king is totally on board with this plan, and Vashti is quickly forgotten.
(By the way, were these girls asked to do certain things with the king as part of this little tryout? That's not in the Bible, it's just something I'm wondering about. Probably, right?)
Soon enough, the king has made his choice. It's a beautiful young girl of mysterious ancestry. Who her parents are is not clear but one thing is clear: the king is immediately struck by a vicious desire to bone her.
Her name is Esther. She is an orphan, raised by her uncle Mordechai, but King Ach does not know this. And Mordechai has made Esther swear to never reveal to the king that she is actually, secretly, Jewish.
Now, a word about Mordechai. He isn’t just any Jew—he is a famous Jew.
What was Mordechai famous for? For chutzpah.
Here's the deal: the king's right-hand advisor is a hunger-crazy egomaniac named Haman. Haman demands that everyone bow down to him, fully prostrated, face in the dirt. Like every petty despot he gets a little rush when people obey his arbitrary commands. Each time a crowd of flunkies falls to the floor, our big boy Haman gets a tiny little boner. (The boner's not in the Bible, but c'mon, you know it’s true.)
Guess who doesn't want to bow down to Haman? Guess who is the ONE guy in the entire palace that refuses to bow, on some sort of quasi-religious grounds?
It's that FUCKING JEW MORDECHAI. And Haman is pissed.
Haman goes to King Ach and says, hey your highness, do you know who is the worst?
No, tell me. Who is the worst?
It's the Jews.
Oh boy, says the king. Do you have a plan?
Haman grins. You bet I have a plan.
Reader: the plan is genocide.
Man, woman, children, everybody. And starting with that asshole Mordechai and that stupid grin on his face. Yeah, that's the fucking plan.
And the Jews were very sad, because they absolutely did NOT want to get genocided. NO WAY. Not today.
They cry, they fast, they don sackcloth, they pray. Meanwhile, Mordechai sneaks off to the palace and has a word with Esther. A pep talk, if you will. Esther, he says, perhaps, you…can have a word with the king? About this? Perhaps if he knew...?
Esther, probably remembering what happened to Vashti, is reluctant to tangle with the king's affairs.
Mordechai puts it like this: SOMEONE is going to save us. Why not you?
This seems to have an effect. Esther invites Haman and his trusty servant Haman over for dinner.
Esther is the only book of the Bible to have a B-story, and it goes like this.
Mordechai overhears two people talking about going all stab-stab on the king. Well! Mordechai reports them and for his troubles is given a gold star in the king's book of Royal Debts.
One night, months (years?) later, the king is having trouble sleeping. He calls a vizier: someone find the most boring thing possible and read it to me. Go fetch the book of royal debts, that should do the trick. And someone starts reading to him and, lo and behold, they land on the story of Mordechai.
Haman, loving how things have been going lately, is walking around the palace looking for people to bow down to him and thinking of ways to kill Mordechai. He hears that the king is awake. Wonderful! There's something he's been meaning to ask.
The king sees Haman. Oh good, he says. You're here. Listen, there's a certain person that I'm looking to do something nice for. A person who has been absolutely loyal to the king. A hero, really.
Recall that Haman is an egomaniac of the first degree. He couldn't be more sure of who it is the king is looking to honor.
Haman advises the king to go all out. Put this guy in royal clothing. Assign him the royal horse. March him all around the city. Schedule a parade, in fact!
Perfect, says the king. Haman, I want you to do this for Mordechai.
Legend has it that while Haman was marching Mordechai around in this royal parade, Haman’s own daughter dumped a bed pan out the window (perhaps aiming for Mordechai) and it landed squarely on Haman’s stupid face.
But in the weird logic of this kingdom, all of this happens while the Official Genocide of the Jews is still on the books. Haman, humiliated though he may have been, knew that his revenge was yet to come. And besides, the king still trusted him entirely, and it seemed that now the queen too was interested in seeking his advice—after all, she had just invited him and the king to dinner.
• • •
Here we get very close to the end, and things speed up and slow down. Esther runs the tempo masterfully. She invites the kind and Haman to a party, and who knows what they thought she was going to propose. Something sexual between the three of them? Haman would like that, and King Ach seems game for anything involving the human body.
But when it comes time for the big announcement, Queen Esther simply invites them to another dinner.
OK, and now we’re back for Party Number 2. And the king, though he loves his queen intensely, is not known for delaying his own gratification. So, there’s a bit of an edge this his voice now: WHAT do you WANT, Esther?
And Esther says: someone is threatening to destroy my people; to kill man, woman, child; it all stems from a single individual.
King Ach says: That’s awful! Who is it?
Esther says: Haman, enemy of the Jews.
King Ach is shocked. (He would have sworn Esther was Italian.) He needs to take a walk. Haman approaches Esther, now he’s on his knees, groveling. She slinks away. He approaches, begging, grabbing her as she tries to avoid him—Esther is playing with her food at this point. Just then King Ach walks back in.
“Would somebody care to tell me precisely WHAT the FUCK I am looking at?”
Needless to say, Haman is hanged. All his sons are killed, all his property transferred to Esther. But—remarkably—the genocide edict is still in place. And there’s no way to take it back—King Ach shrugs, that’s just how his kingdom works.
No worries, though, because he can grant the Jewish people every right to protect themselves.
Just to end the story on an absolutely uncomfortable note of moral relativity, the Jews end up killing tens of thousands of non-Jews in a merciless bloodbath in the name of self-defense. And then the Jews have a party to celebrate the victory. It’s called Purim, and everybody more or less ignores all the dead people the Jews just killed. And while there is perhaps a great deal more to say about this ending, along with everything else, you are now equipped with the basics of this tale, and so we will declare this…
Hardcore exegesis, bro. Hardcore.
Thanks for the history of Purim. I told my wife, the nice Jewish lady, that today was Purim and I asked her what we were supposed to do. She said, "We should put on costumes. It's like Jewish Halloween!"
I have since forwarded this post to her attention. Oy gavolt, that girl.