Israel, Torah, Uncategorized

A note on the massacre at the end of the Megillah

People sometimes point to the ending of the book of Esther as a Jewish massacre—the disturbing part of the story that is supposedly suppressed in Sunday school. In Esther 9:16, now with the king on their side, the Judeans kill 75,000 enemies. That has always bugged me, for a simple reason: it’s true that there’s a moral problem in Esther 9, but it’s not that verse.

In verse 16, the 75,000 are understood to be enemy combatants, and the Judeans, who are outside of the capital, Shushan, are fighting for their lives (וְעָמֹ֣ד עַל־נַפְשָׁ֗ם). A committed pacifist might object to this violence, but I don’t think we should, any more than we would object to, say, the Ukrainian army killing Russian soldiers, or the Mapuche Natives killing Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century.

The interesting problem in Esther is actually the 300 extra people that the Judean inhabitants of Shushan kill in the preceding verse (verse 15—confusingly, the following day; chronological and textual sequence are reversed here). There, Esther asked Ahasuerus to prolong the war and prevent a ceasefire, and the immediate goal is not self-defense. That’s a massacre of people, not a war fought in self-defense against one’s immediate assailants.

Massacring three hundred people remains a big, thorny problem. But it’s worth being exact about the text, because, unless one wants to read Esther to make verse 16 morally outrageous, there’s no reason one needs to do so, and the simple reading is that it’s morally OK.

It’s worth being exact because the text is exact; the text distinguished between different types of killing. In the present, there are many people who don’t want to distinguish. Hamas doesn’t distinguish between military and civilian targets. Neither does the Israeli government. Thus, it has insistently reported a single, combined death toll from October 7—blurring together civilian and military targets. And much worse, it doesn’t discriminate between Palestinian militants and civilians, killing, starving, and rendering homeless tens of thousands of the latter.

The text of Esther, however, does distinguish. Whatever its sympathies or moral judgments, in distinguishing, the text places itself on the side of distinction—of recognizing and registering differences between killing in self-defense and massacring. And if we think there is a moral chasm between killing soldiers or militants and killing civilians, so that our job is to reinforce that distinction and insist up on it, against the forces of indiscriminate violence—well, in reading Esther, we ought similarly to distinguish, and to be careful, precise readers.

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