The weekend after next is the Jewish festival of Purim. I don’t plan to celebrate. Purim is not one of my favorite holidays. The text on which it’s founded, the Book of Esther, is not my favorite book of the Bible.
At the heart of the Purim story is a quarrel over prestige that turns into massacre. A Jewish courtier in the palace of the Persian king Ahasuerus (known to the Greeks as Xerxes) refuses to show the powerful Haman the deference that Haman thinks is his due. Haman turns his wounded narcissism into a vendetta, directed not just at Mordecai the Jew but at all Mordecai’s people. He works on his amiable, pliable, rather dumb monarch–not the way history remembers Xerxes; the king’s name is practically the only historical datum in this work of fiction–and manages to obtain a royal decree, “to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day … and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” In other words–Holocaust.
This accomplished, “the king and Haman sat down to drink” (Esther 3:15).
So far, so bad. But Mordecai has an advantage Haman hasn’t dreamt of, which is that Ahasuerus’s queen Esther is not only Jewish–unbeknownst to everyone in the palace–but also Mordecai’s cousin. She has her own way of working on the king, with the result that the royal favor switches and Mordecai is exalted, Haman and his sons done to death. There’s a indeed a pogrom on the day appointed. Only, the Jews are the ones wielding the knives.
A happy ending, I guess. But one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Christian theologians and Bible scholars, from Martin Luther onward, have fallen over themselves to denounce the “spirit of hatred and revenge” pervading the Book of Esther–sometimes suggesting it’s pretty creepy of the Jews to like this book so much. Naturally. It’s a lot easier to tut-tut over Esther’s “vindictiveness” when you don’t come from a history littered with Hamans and Haman wannabes, some of them extremely successful. (Consult the years 1933-45 for an example.) And yet the criticism is legitimate. The story behind the Purim festival is mean and squalid, a tale of manipulation and murder, redeemed here and there by a few humane spots. (Like the suggestions in 3:15 and 8:15 that all the people of Persia’s capital city are dismayed by Haman’s anti-Semitic decree, relieved at its reversal.)
The squalor isn’t exactly relieved by the manner through which Esther obtained her influential position. She becomes queen of Persia by joining, with Mordecai’s approval and support, in an erotic circus involving Ahasuerus and a multitude of good-looking young women, each of whom spends a trial night with the king. (This is turned into a “beauty contest” in children’s versions of the story.) Esther is the one invited back for more.
Nowhere is the question raised whether a Jewish girl ought to do this sort of thing. Esther indeed, at Mordecai’s suggestion, doesn’t let on she’s Jewish (2:10). Not for her to make a fuss over kosher food, like the Judean exiles in Nebuchadnezzar’s court (Daniel 1:8-16); Esther doesn’t seem to care what she eats, who she sleeps with. The Jewish God appears nowhere in her book, at least by name. As if He’d whispered into the author’s ear: you can write whatever you want; it’s a free country. But leave Me out of it.
Yet there are gods in the Book of Esther–just not Jewish ones. Both its heroes seem to have the names of Babylonian deities. Esther is Ishtar. Mordecai is Marduk.
How odd. And it’s surely significant–no one else in the book has names like these. It points toward some mythological subtext of the story, the shape of which we can only guess.
Who were Ishtar and Marduk? Marduk was a Johnny-come-lately sort of god, originally the celestial protector of the city of Babylon. As Babylon rose in importance so did Marduk, until he’d become head of the pantheon. (The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, explains how and why the gods submitted themselves to Marduk’s authority.) Ishtar, by contrast, was a goddess of venerable antiquity, from the remote past of the Sumerian civilization. Ancient yet perpetually young, almost but not quite irresistable to males, she was goddess of love and sex. War also. (Think of the violence into which the Book of Esther explodes.) Originally named Inanna, she was forerunner to the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus. The raunchiest divinity of the ancient Near East.
“Plow my vulva, man of my heart! Plow my vulva!” she cries out to her lover Dumuzi (later called Tammuz), to whom she was to turn monumentally nasty once the romance had soured. Dumuzi may have been her first. He was far from her last. In this respect she’s an inversion of Esther–or, it’s probably more accurate to say, Esther is an inversion of her. Both are notable for sex appeal. But Esther’s only the most successful of Ahasuerus’s long string of bed partners. Ishtar has her own extended chain of fools, who’ve loved her and whom she’s loved–for the time being. When she’s through with them, she does things like turn them into animals.
The hero Gilgamesh, upon whom Ishtar’s wandering eye has alighted, knows better than to get tangled up with her.
“Your lovers have found you like a brazier which smoulders in the cold, a backdoor which keeps out neither squall of wind nor storm … a water-skin that chafes the carrier … a sandal that trips the wearer. Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever? What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?” (From N.K. Sandars’ translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Not that his prudence keeps Gilgamesh from getting burned. Ishtar, who could have taught her Jewish namesake a thing or two about vindictiveness, knows how to hit back where it hurts. At Gilgamesh–and hundreds of innocent people along with him.
One more thing about Ishtar. Like her Roman successor Venus, she was associated with the second planet of the solar system, which the ancients knew as Morning and Evening Star. The brilliant pearly light that sometimes precedes the sunrise, at other times appears in the west after the sun has set.
In this guise, perhaps, Ishtar penetrates the Bible once more–under the lovely, evocative title of “Doe of the Dawn.”
I’ll talk about this “Doe of the Dawn” in my next post.
by David Halperin
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