The Star of Absence/6 - The Book of Esther reminds us even of the mortal weight of the rings of kings
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenirel 08/01/2023
Nobunaga, a great Japanese warrior, decided to attack the enemy. He stopped and said: I will flip a coin, if it is heads we will win, tails we will lose. We are in the hands of destiny. I was heads, and his soldiers won the battle. 'No one can change fate,' said a squire. 'Not really,' replied Nobunaga, showing him a coin that had heads on both sides.
Extract from 101 Zen Stories, Nyogen Senzaki
The beginning of the conflict between Mordecai and Haman reveals some of the dynamics of the power and resistance of the righteous who, in order not to bow their heads, risk their lives and that of their community.
The Bible is even more of an expert on men and women than being an expert, even a little, on God. Thus, it knows that what appear to be free actions entirely dependent on our free will are conditioned and sometimes determined by our history, by our education, by the wounds and blessings of life. It does not use the concept of destiny (so dear to other forms of humanism), because it loves to present us with a God who writes our history together with while we are living it (and not before), thereby safeguarding our true freedom. However, in some decisive stories, it also tells us that we are deeply attached to our past, although the rope is not strong enough to prevent us from breaking it and thus becoming greater than our destiny. Here lies the root of the moral value of our choices. The truth of this freedom, however, does not deny another important truth: that we are a chapter of a book, which can only be understood if read together with what precedes it (and what follows it). Because biblical humanism opens up to those who are not afraid to inhabit its paradoxes and contradictions, and from there learn about men and women, learn about God.
Chapter two in the Book of Esther ended with a plot against King Ahasuerus foiled by Mordecai: «…two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king». (The Book of Esther 2,21-22). The verse ends (v.23) with the hanging of these two men, a section which I have omitted to honour the memory of Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, the two young men who were recently hanged in the same land as Xerxes.
However, the king did not reward Mordecai's loyalty, and promoted someone else to the post of Prime Minister, Haman. Thus, a new co-protagonist makes his appearance, immediately turning the narrative: «After these events, King Xerxes honoured Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honour higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honour to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him» (Esther 3,1-2). The presentation of Haman is a decisive element. A bit of background is needed here. He was the heir of Agag ("The Agagite"), a character known to the biblical reader. In fact, in the First Book of Samuel, Agag was the leader of the Amalekites, the descendants of that Amalek who opposed Moses who was fleeing from Egypt («The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim» Exodus 17,8). The name of Agag is deeply connected to the sad story of Saul, the first king of Israel. Indeed, Saul received an order from God, from the prophet Samuel, that sounds rather dark to us today: «I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, 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 15,2-3). Saul disobeyed the prophet because he left Agag alive and hence did not exterminate all the people. When Samuel saw that Saul had spared Agag, he said to him: «Why did you not obey the Lord?» (I Samuel 15,19). Hence, his repudiation: «The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbours - to one better than you», that is David (1 Samuel 15,28). And finally «And Samuel put Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal» (1 Samuel 15,33).
A rather extreme story, far from our tastes (religious and civil), but similar to many others in the Bible, which has never been afraid of showing us the various faces of God even those that we might not like. From the previous chapter, then, we know that Mordecai was a Benjaminite (Esther 2,5) and therefore a descendant of Saul. The conflict between the Jews and the Amalekites had been the cause of Saul's downfall. Hence, the appearance on the scene of a descendant of Agag constitutes a concrete threat to Mordecai, as a descendant of Saul. For the biblical reader, the picture is complete: he or she understands that the landscape will now be marked by a new important conflict, inscribed in the name of these two men. The conflict begins with a rebellion by Mordecai: «But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour. Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” (...) but he refused to comply» (Esther 3,2-4). Neither the Greek nor the Hebrew version of the text tells us why Mordecai disobeys the king's order. We only know that he does not kneel, he does not bow when Haman passes before him, and he does not listen to reason. We can imagine various explanations for this non-obedience (Idolatry? Envy…?), but the biblical author is only interested in approving Mordecai's gesture and recording a conflict rooted in the story of two "'sons" whose «teeth are set on edge because their parents ate sour grapes» (Ezekiel 18,2). «Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated… When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. Yet 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» (Esther 3,5-6). Yet another twist, a conflict between two men immediately becomes a conflict between two peoples, one large and powerful, the other small and foreign. Total extermination, herem, as the one Samuel-YHWH ordered Saul to carry out, an act of diachronic negative reciprocity.
The Hebrew text adds a detail, Haman «scorns the idea» of killing just one man, and so, to avoid this, he decides to exterminate the entire Jewish people. The particular wisdom of the Bible is often hidden even in details such as this. The Hebrew word used for "small thing" is baza, which refers to despising something. So picking on a single man, even a man of lower rank and a foreigner, would have meant for the Prime Minister to disrespect his own dignity; thus, to avoid this self-humiliation a collective extermination was necessary, as if the increase in human quantity could increase the dignity of his act. These are very sad scenes that we see repeating themselves every day. It is not enough for the powerful to punish a single person; it would simply be too "petty" for their "dignity". It is not enough to hit the entrepreneur who does not bow down, no, they want to destroy the whole company, right up to the closure of the last shed, to the dismissal of the last worker. For them it is not enough to hit a single priest or nun, no, they want to destroy the whole diocese, the whole community, perhaps the whole Church. If you do not bow your head, they will not just eliminate you, no, they are thirsty for the blood of your family and children, one single head is just too little. Because, when it comes down to it, they would like to be like God: omnipotent. This is the tremendous and inhuman aspect of power, the one that scares us the most, because it resembles the brute power of pagan gods. Mordecai did not bow his head. He knew what he was getting into, yet he did not kneel. Many of Mordecai's brothers and sisters continue to walk upright without kneeling before the powerful who would like to be God and end up becoming just ridiculous idols. And the Bible keeps them company – «Even if you do not read it, you are in the Bible» (Elias Canetti).
The beginning of the conflict between Mordecai and Haman reveals some dynamics of the power and resistance of the righteous who, in order not to bow their heads, risk their lives and those of their community
Haman meets King Ahasuerus and tells him about his absurd plan: «Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury”» (Esther 3,8-9). Haman also uses money as a tool to persuade the king, promising him an enormous sum (a Babylonian talent weighed about 30 kg at that time). Xerxes lets himself be convinced, but does not seem interested in that money: «“Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please”» (Esther 3,11). It is not easy to reconstruct the author's original intention and understand if the king really does not accept that money. In the ancient world, including the biblical world, the languages of gifts and contracts were different from ours and much more intertwined between each other - think of Abraham's purchase of land for Sarah's tomb (Genesis 23). There was a certain social modesty around monetary transactions. Today we have kept something of that modesty and therefore an inverse and paradoxical language only for gifts – "it's only a small thing...", "you shouldn't have...", "I'm sorry..." -, while we are very explicit and unambiguous regarding contracts, which are all the more detailed and precise the less we trust each other.
It is interesting to note that a marriage pact is simpler and more "imprecise" than a contract for motor liability insurance, because more than the actual words that are spoken, it is the bodies, the witnesses, the friends, that speak together in that pact. However, by now, the words inherent to a contract are becoming a universal grammar of all relationships, and so we are no longer able to understand gifts, within and outside of a contract. In the ancient world, it was different, in order to be understood words had to be read together with the whole body, with the winks and gaze, essential elements that are lost in a book, and so we no longer understand what actually happens once we read or hear the words. Maybe we should relearn how to read pacts and contracts together with our eyes, hands, tears, and hugs, which seal those written words with the fragile responsibility of our flesh.
In giving his assent to Haman, the king «…the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews» (Esther 3,10). The ring was also the king's seal, impressed on the sealing wax of all his dispatches. A ring from the father of the people who here becomes an instrument of death.
Another father, in another interpersonal conflict, gave his ring to restore the dignity of a son to those returning from the pigsties. The conflict between the rings of death and those of life runs throughout history, growing in humanity each time that the rings of the merciful father outnumber Xerxes's rings – with at least one more.