The Greeks used pity and terror to provide catharsis – the cleansing of the spirit by means of complex emotional states. We Jews use laughter and tears. Take Fiddler On the Roof, so strange to some. It I’m laughing, why these tears? If I am weeping, why through laughter?
The story – we all know it’s a pure story because the names Esther, Mordecai, Haman Vashiti etc. are Persian. Ahauureas is a Hebrew attempt to pronounce Khshayatsha. The Greeks call him Xerexes. Esther is a coining of Ishtar, goddess of love, Mordecai is Marduk LIves. Marduk is a Babylonian god, called Bel and familiar to Jeremiah. In the book of Esther, the name of God is absent.
There’s also history. We know from Greek and other sources that Xerxes’ court didn’t sober up from one month to the next, and the text takes place at many drinking feasts.Queen Vashti refuses to show up at one of these and is dethroned. Esther, a Jewish girl is taken into the palace, to the harem of the kings. She pleases him. Mordecai, her uncle, saves the king’s life by foiling a plot against him. The plotters are hanged.
Here comes Haman, an Agagite. Who were they? None other that Amelekites, Israel’s traditional enemy. Haman filly Ahasuarus’ sodden ears with slander against the Jews and tells the king that if he kills them all, Haman will pay him 10,000 talents of silver, literally, nine million dollar, but in those days, equal to the annual revenue of the whole Persian empire. The King can’t resist. The decree goes out that the Jews are all to die on the 13th of Adar, a year ahead of the order. Then the King and Haman get blotto.
Mordecai, dressed in mourning tells Esther of the decree. Esther breaks precedent and goes to the King. He receives her. She offers to make another ‘wine-fest’ for the already grape-loaded ruled. There, tanked to the eyes, he offers her anything she wants, “even unto half my kingdom.” What she wants, she says, is to give him another go at the wine-tap. Meanwhile, the king, unable to sleep, reads the record of Mordecai’s earlier loyalty and asks Haman what should be done with the man “whom the king delights to honor.” Haman thinks it’s himself. Who else? And piles on the prizes. No one lets Mordecai know.
Back at the old banquet hall, Esther, the king, who by now, probably can’t pronounce his own name, Mordecai and Haman are all sitting out a lull. It’s the banquet’s second day. Haman falls on the couch, which the king misinterprets as a pass at Esther. Haman may have been crawling to Mordecai, sensing that his number is up. The king reverses his order and writes a bull that allows the jew to go through his kingdom and kill with impunity, exacting whatever vengeance they wish.
Haman’s 10 sons are slaughtered, plus 500 men, plus 300 in Sushan, plus 75,000 assorted. The Jews have been fasting in fear of their own deaths and now everybody gets blotto.
Think of the improbability of this scenario. Think about Haman’s fortune, the king’s decree, the murders, groups of Jews, a tiny minority in the kingdom, free to run amok. 8,310 people slain. Drunk as Ahasueros was, I don’t think this deal would have passed even his sanity scope.
Obviously, we are looking at a bouquet of paradoxes and things not as they seem. It’s no coincidence that drinking to excess is a big part of Purim, and that people are encouraged to actions forbidden at all other times: to get drunk as Ahasueras, to dress up and act stupid, to make disgusting noises in the synagogue. God has disappeared: have another drink. What we are celebrating is human misrule-catharsis: fast then feast, murders and singing, masks and fakery and all the stops pulled. Happy Purim.