An Atheist Reads The Book of Esther: Treat Others As They Would Treat You

The book of Esther is a short book and a quick read (which is a big plus when reading the Bible). Interestingly, it is one of the few books not set in Israel and one of the only that doesn’t mention God. In contrast to almost every other story in the Bible, God doesn’t actually do anything in Esther, instead the approach is very humanist, the people must solve their own problems. In fact, God isn’t even mentioned in the book!

The book begins with the king of Persia throwing a massive feast. He invites his wife to display herself before the crowd but she refuses. I feel we are only getting part of the picture here, because this seems reasonable unless she had to display herself in a demeaning way. Either way the king flies into a rage at her refusal and banishes her, lest women everywhere think it is acceptable to defy their husbands.

So the king searches for a new mistresses and assembles virgins from all over the Empire. (Side note, the virgins have to go through a year of preparation before they even meet the king.) Top of the list is Esther, a beautiful Jewish woman who the book is named after. The king loves her more than anyone else and makes her his queen (although she doesn’t tell him that she’s Jewish). From a historical point of view there is no record of a Jewish queen of Persia. Had one existed, it would have really changed the history of the Jews. Esther has no parents so she is looked after by her cousin Mordecai. He proves his loyalty by uncovering a plot against the king and the two conspirators are executed.

However, all good stories need an antagonist and in the book of Esther it’s provided by Haman, one of the king’s advisors. One day, Mordecai refuses to bow before the king like everyone else, so Haman decides to kill all the Jews. Now this seems like quite a jump to make and I’m not sure why he couldn’t have just punished Mordecai. People in the Bible act very strangely and tend to overreact to the slightest thing. Either way, Haman convinces the king that the Jews are untrustworthy because they keep apart from the rest of society and follow their own laws. Their loyalty is to their God, not their king.

So proclamations are issues across the Empire that all the Jews are to be killed on one day. This is very strange because normally if you are going to attack someone, you don’t want them to know in advance. Setting a date for their execution gives them ample warning to prepare to defend themselves. They have more than enough time to flee or hide or get weapons, because if they are going to die, they have nothing to lose. Inexplicably, the Jews do none of these things, but instead meekly accept their fate like lambs to the slaughter.

I want to take a moment to mention how the Book of Esther would be relevant for future generations of Jews. Unlike the other books of the Bible, the Jews are not united in Israel, but dispersed throughout the cities of the Empire. They hold no power and are at the mercy of other people. This strongly resembles the Jews in Medieval Europe, how they were dispersed among many cities, shunned by other people and often attacked.

Back to the story, Haman is preparing for the massacre and pays particular attention to how he will kill Mordecai, even building a gallows outside the palace specifically for him. In an almost comedic subplot, the king remembers how Mordecai foiled a conspiracy against him, so he asks Haman how he should reward a loyal servant. Haman thinks the royal servant is himself, so he tells the king that servant should receive all manner of wealth and fine clothing. To his horror, Mordecai is rewarded thusly.

After an appropriate amount of suspense, Esther finally reveals to the king that she is Jewish. The king loves her so much that he tells her he will grant her anything she asks, even if it was half the kingdom. Now we reach the core of the story, the moral that the Bible wants to teach us. This is where we learn not only about how to be victorious over our adversaries, but also what to do with them afterwards? So what message does God have about how we should treat those who oppose us?

Well to begin with, Esther takes revenge on Haman and instead of showing him mercy, she has him hung upon his own gallows. The, instead of repealing the decree, Esther convinces the king to reverse it, so the Jews are given permission to massacre all their enemies, including women and children. This came as a complete surprise to me, as I was expecting something about forgiveness and mercy. What happened to rising about grudges and winning people over with kindness? Considering the Jews were probably a tiny minority, the number of people who opposed them would probably be huge. Why is the king ok with open mob violence and massacres? Why is he comfortable with ethnic groups slaughtering each other under his rule?

Either way, the purge goes ahead and the Jews slaughter all their “enemies”, although it is never said how these are defined or what makes someone an enemy. The king’s officials help in the massacre and give royal sanction to the slaughter. People were so afraid that many converted to Judaism, which would be interesting if it were true, but these new Jews are never mentioned again, so they probably never existed. In fact there is no evidence of any empire-wide massacres or race war, so it is comforting to know that this is only a fictional story.

In Susa alone 500 men are massacred, including the 10 sons of Haman, who might just have been punished for the sins of their father. When she hears about this, is Esther shocked about the bloodshed and feel regret about how her thirst for revenge spiralled out of control? Not at all. Not only does she not regret the killing, she asks the king to allow it to happen again the next day and the corpses of the 10 sons of Haman be hanged. So the king allows it and the next day, 300 more men are murdered. According to the Bible, a total of 75,000 people are massacred and the festival of Purim commemorates the events.

All in all, this is a pretty unbelievable story. Instead of tolerance, forgiveness or justice, we get prejudice and tribal hatred. Even innocent children are murdered without reproach. It is impossible to link the bloodthirsty and vengeful Old Testament God with the forgiving and “treat others as you would treat them” of New Testament Jesus. They are separate religions, not a continuation of one. The moral of Esther is to be as vicious as possible to your enemies and screw them over before they can do the same to you. If they hate you, hate them back.

See here for the other posts in An Atheist Reads The Bible

5 thoughts on “An Atheist Reads The Book of Esther: Treat Others As They Would Treat You”

  1. Yeah, and “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” no? So, Esther is just acting as an agent for Yahweh, no? So, marry outside the faith? Death! Have a leg up on your enemies? Kill them! The messages are simple and understandable and at the core of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: communicate directly with your audience’s emotions, the negative ones being the most powerful.

  2. Have you stopped this series? I am one of those people who devoutly took the bible in my hands in hopes that the world is going to make sense and was shocked reading what it contained.

    I was even hoping to write about everything in a diary. But it was too much for me. So it is a pleasure reading someone who thought what I was thinking at the time I read it. I even plan to print this out and bind it into a book.

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