Today and tomorrow are Purim. I re-read the book of Esther today in honour of that fact, and was actually a little disappointed by how horrible it is. Not just bloody—it’s the Old Testament so of course it’s bloody—but it’s also remarkably misogynistic for a book with a female heroine, and full of inappropriate revenge. The first chapter consists of King Ahashverosh throwing a tantrum because his wife Vashti didn’t feel like being trotted out in front of a group of guests to show off her beauty, in retaliation for which he decrees “that every man should bear rule in his own house” and sends of messengers to every corner of his empire to make this clear. This isn’t an aside either—it’s the Queen’s fall from grace for having a mind of her own that gives Esther an opportunity to gain the King’s ear. Then Haman decides to have the Jews exterminated because he didn’t like one of them (Mordecai). There’s a bit of somewhat clever scheming to get Haman hoisted by his own petard, but the Jews’ revenge is not only to kill Haman, but also his 10 sons and at least 75,000 nameless people around the empire who had nothing to do with him. Oh, but they didn’t plunder their victims’ wealth, so it was all OK.
I’m happier with my simpler interpretation of the holiday: today is the day we celebrate that someone who tried to wipe out my ancestors failed, by drinking a lot and symbolically eating his hat. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Jewish festivals map pretty well onto seasonal celebrations. This one’s not as obviously agricultural as Passover (lambing season) or the other major holidays (various harvests), but I like to think of it as the festival of having survived the winter. The days are getting longer, the cold has lost its edge, and this is on my balcony right now:
We made it through the winter, nothing’s managed to knock us down yet, and spring is on its way. There’s more to celebrate than blood-soaked revenge, eh?