I read a YA novel based on this story back in grade school (High school? Middle school?), but let this be a friendly reminder that the Bible is not a book intended for young adults with modern sensibilities, and those YA books are to this as Disney fairytales are to Grimms’ fairytales.
In the story, as I originally learned it, the king’s advisor Hamann slandered the Jewish people to King Ahasuerus, who agreed that they should all be killed. Meanwhile the beautiful Jewish maiden Esther married the king, begged for her people to be spared, and revealed Hamann for a slanderer at the same time. The Jewish people were spared, Hamann was cast from favor, and King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther lived happily ever after.
So, you know, aside from King Ahasuerus’ genocidal tendencies (a rather big aside, in my opinion), a relatively benign YA plot.
Of course, then we get to the source material here, and wow were there some details that were left out.
So, first of all, King Ahasuerus had cast off his original queen, Queen Vashti, because she refused to obey him when he was drunk and wanted her to strip in a public gathering so he could show off how beautiful she was. In response to her refusal, she was cast off and he had all the beautiful young virgin girls* in the land to be brought to him so that he could sleep with one each night and then keep them isolated in his house of wives ever after and never see them again.** There were a lot of girls in the running, though, because it took more than a year for the king to get to Esther.
During that year, Esther courted the favor of the king’s chamberlain who gave her preferential treatment and told her how to seduce the king in turn, such that her night with him pleased him so much that he declared her queen in Vashti’s stead.***
Meanwhile, Hamann is the king’s advisor who’s way too full of himself and decided that Esther’s uncle Mordecai**** hadn’t bowed low enough to him when they passed on the street, and thus Mordecai and all of his people should be killed. The king is apparently too taken with his stream of wives to care about things like statescraft or genocide, so essentially tells Hamann to do whatever he wants. Hamann immediately creates a proclamation that all the Jews are to be killed and their possessions stolen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.+
Now, there’s a whole complicated subplot going on between Mordecai and Hamann, but honestly it fits in pretty well in a YA book because it is just that type of juvenile dispute about showing the proper deference and refusing to bow down, etc, except with threats of death and genocide.
But meanwhile, Esther risks being killed for interrupting the king in order to invite the king and Hamann to a fancy dinner. She survives and the king is delighted.++ The first dinner party goes so well, that the king asks Esther what she would like as a boon? She says a second dinner party and the king is once more delighted. The second dinner party is also wonderful and the king again asks what boon he can grant her and this time she’s like, you can save my life and the lives of my people.
The king is horrified that anyone has threatened to kill Esther, his favorite wife, and her people. She directs him to Hamann as the threat.+++ Hamann begs Esther for mercy, but the king sees Hamann near Esther and thinks he’s trying to rape her and has him immediately executed on the gallows Hamann himself had prepared for executing Mordecai. It’s all very dramatic.
However, while all of these events took place in the third month, Hamann’s proclamation about the genocide scheduled for the twelfth month have already gone out. But rather than rescind that proclamation++++, King Ahasuerus was apparently the type who would have enjoyed watching The Purge movies because he makes a second proclamation saying that on the same day that the people were supposed to kill the Jewish people, the Jewish people are granted the right to gather together and kill any of their enemies and take all of their possessions. So, essentially a free-for-all of death and theft on the thirteenth of the twelfth month.
The king asked if Esther wanted anything else and she asked for a second day for the Jews to kill their enemies, plus could all of Hamann’s ten sons also be killed specifically? The king was like, okay.
So the fourteenth of the twelfth month was also a bloodbath, while the fifteenth was feasting and celebration.
And thus the annual celebration of Purim, for surviving Hamann’s plot. And Mordecai goes on to take Hamann’s place as a high counselor and everyone is all very happy.
Summary: Hamann manipulates the king into ordering the genocide of the Jewish people, but Esther manipulates the king right back into killing Hamann and allowing the Jewish people to kill their enemies.
Moral: Kings can be super easy to manipulate but you’d better be on your guard against someone else manipulating your same king?
* I can only assume that a lot of beautiful young girls heard this proclamation and had an sudden interest in having sex, pronto, with someone in their home villages.
** It’s kind of super similar to Sheherazade’s story, except without the actual death threat to the new brides. Just a single rape-night and then eternal isolation and captivity. So, there’s that.
*** This is a triumph, in case your wondering if it’s actually a good thing or a bad thing.
**** Not that anyone knows that Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, because who would care about keeping track of the relatives of that many wives.
+ I feel like there are practical problems with making a public proclamation that whole communities of people are to be slaughtered on a specific day in the future. Like, I realize it’s important for the death squads to have time to prepare, but I feel like it’s a bit much to expect the intended victims to just accept that their fate is sealed because the king said so.
++ Maybe none of his other wives invite him to spend extra time with them just because he keeps on threatening to kill them? So he’s very flattered that this beautiful woman is interested in him.
+++ Very politically stated, in my opinion, since it was the king himself who gave Hamann the right to threaten them.
++++ I’m actually not sure if it was possible for a proclamation to be rescinded. It might have been that once it was made permanent record, that was it, to avoid confusion with knowing if an official document was valid or not. It might always be valid.
Next up: Psalms
Wow. I mean, I went to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and was confirmed and the whole thing but . . . I feel like the Episcopalians really skimmed over this part of the story. I remember way less rape and genocide and way more craft projects.
Yeah, somehow the stories that got told in my first-day school really skimmed past some of these fairly important details. Probably all to the good to avoid terrible childhood trauma, and yet, it does change the interpretation of the story a lot.
I’m also wondering: how many famous “romance” stories are there of women being forced to marry men planning to kill them, but then seducing their husbands into letting them live? Because that’s, uh, not a great trope.