Racism in Esther

Esther is a tale of deliverance, and the influences of other Biblical deliverance narratives, such as Joseph, Moses and the Judges, naturally imprint the organization of Esther’s rhythm as the reader cycles through the threat of danger, cries for help, intercession with a sovereign power, and ultimate victory over Israel’s enemy. The reader may also glimpse resolution for royal and national failure as the author weaves an amusing tale of grand reversal revealing his moral to the story: Israel will always be delivered.

Esther portrays a sinister force at work against the Jews. Threat of annihilation threatens the descendants of Abraham. The modern reader has centuries of hindsight to confirm that this threat is neither exaggerated, nor limited to one time or place. The Jewish people have faced not only discrimination, but genocide, repeatedly in their long history. The original readers might not have been facing the exact threat portrayed in Esther, but there is little doubt they had powerful enemies looming.

Racism

Racism, persecution of people because of their race, instigated the crisis of Esther, as Haman demands the death of all the Jews because of the insult of one Jew. But, racism also motivated Esther’s author to highlight the race of Haman, a comedic resolution to an historic, racial conflict between the Amalekites and the Israelites. Racism is evident throughout Esther’s story.

The ancient world was filled with racism. Reading through the Old Testament can be confusing for the modern reader, because the “good guys” are commanded by the “good God” to wipe out whole people groups, regardless of gender or age or species. The ancient viewed the world not only through a racial lens, but also through an imperialistic lens. It was the Age of Empires. This means that either my racial group wins and takes charge, or my enemies (another racial group) wins and takes the power.  It is hard to set aside our culture’s morality to understand this imperialistic way of thinking. Frankly, I really struggle with this. So, in this article, I am not going to set aside this ancient racial-power tension, but neutrally present it as the way of life for the ancient.

The original reader of Esther would not need elaboration on the ethnicity of its main characters. We do. At least, if we want to understand a major theme of the book, we do.

Mordecai’s Racial Representation

Jew manMordecai and Esther were both Jews. Whereas Esther kept her race secret, Mordecai was vocal with his heritage. Mordecai was used by both the author of Esther and by Haman as a representative for all his people. He exemplified the whole of the Jewish nation.

When Mordecai refused to bend the knee to Haman, even though his reasoning is lost to our modern ken, the ancient reader was invited to contrast him to contemporaries who shared his moral confidence in the face of foreign bullies.

“But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.” Esther 3:2

Consider Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel, other exiled Jews living in a royal setting within 100 years of Mordecai’s time. They refused to bow and worship foreign idols (Dan. 3:12, 6:13). Many contemporary Jews could empathize with the tension of assimilating to their surrounding culture, yet resisting compromise in areas of worship.

Mordecai explained  his refusal to honor Haman in racial terms. It was because he was a Jew (3:4). Haman reacted in a way common to most racial hostility, the whole is sentenced with the one.

“…having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.” Esther 3:6

Because Mordecai defied Haman, all the Jews were condemned. Mordecai’s fate was his people’s fate. In this way, the author personalized the tragedy of all the Jews, and embodied the stakes in the character of Mordecai.

Israel’s Ultimate Enemy: The Amalekites

In Esther, the enemy, named Haman, is introduced as “the Agagite” .

“… King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite…”Esther 3:1

This is an ancient foe. Agag was the king of the Amalekites. God told King Saul, the first king of Israel to…

“…attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” 1 Samuel 15:3

But King Saul disobeyed by taking all the good Amalekite animal stock and King Agag himself (1 Sam.15:9). Agag was eventually  executed by the prophet Samuel (15:33), but I guess some of his kids got away, because Haman is a descendant of this king. Rule #1 of racial vendettas: Don’t let anyone survive to carry a grudge.

“You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deuteronomy 25:19

Balaam, the famed seer of ancient times, even picked up the theme.

“Amalek was first among the nations, but their end will be utter destruction.” Numbers 24:0

ancientbowmanWhy did God demand the death of all the people of Amalek?  Because, the Amalekites intentionally targeted Israel when they were weakest. Israel had not attacked Amalek, nor sought to enter their land. Amalek sought Israel as easy pickings, and in doing so, defied God.

“Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.” Deuteronomy 25:17

By introducing an Amalekite, the author of Esther is utilizing a trope device to shortcut character development of Haman. Rabbi Eckstein explains this common motif.

“Amalek and Haman became seen as the Jewish prototypes of pure, unadulterated evil.” (Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, How Firm a Foundation (Brewster, MS: Paraclete Press, 1997), 117.)

The author didn’t need to convince the audience that this was the bad guy. The Amalekites had always been the enemy.

The Family History Reversed

To accentuate the deliverance of the Jews, the author uses the reversal of circumstances.

“This occurs when the current state of affairs is turned around or when the plot develops in a way that is opposite or contrary to what one would expect.” (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 351.)

Some reversals are obvious to any reader, such as the dramatic reversal in the fortunes of Mordecai and Haman. Haman begins the story ascending to the premier position in the land, contrasted immediately with the refusal of Mordecai to bend the knee (4:1-2). The turn of events lead Haman to honor Mordecai as he wished to be honored (6:10). He was impaled on the gallows he built to kill Mordecai (7:10). And, at the end of the tale, it was Mordecai who ascended to the premier position in the land, governing all Haman’s property (8:2). But like many things in Esther, there is more to this reversal than meets the eye.

On a deeper level, the reversal of Haman’s fortune held national/racial significance. Mordecai, and his cousin Esther, were descendants of Kish, the father of King Saul (1 Sam. 9:1-2, Esther 2:5). Saul had failed to bring justice to the enemy when he spared Agag the Amalekite (1 Sam. 15:8). God had commanded the Israelites to not forget the evil of the Amalekites and to erase their memory (Deut. 25:17-19). Saul disobeyed, and for this, the kingdom was taken from him and given to another (1 Sam 15:28). By mentioning the ancestral house of Kish and labeling Haman the Agagite, the author mirrors the notorious legacy of Saul and Agag in the conflict between Esther and Haman.[1] Even Mordecai’s words to Esther that if she does not speak on behalf of her people, “deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish (NIV 4:14),” reflect the curse on Saul who lost the kingdom and most of his family. Esther’s triumph over Haman reverses the consequences of Saul’s disobedience signaling a dynastic redemption for the Benjamin clan and for the whole of the nation as they obliterate the name of Haman every year in the celebration of Purim.

Racism, persecution because of ethnicity, is the plot motivation for the book of Esther. Haman targeted the Jews because of their race. The author uses Haman’s race to provide historical depth to his characters and imbue the tale with historical destiny. Even the joyful celebration of Purim, which remembers the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, is not complete without the racial implications of Haman.

                [1] Yitzhak Berger, “Esther and Benjamite Royalty:A Study in Inner-Biblical Allusion,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, (2010): 625-644, Old Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2017), 630.

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