The Book of Esther and “Purim” – Secrecy and Hiding

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Purim, rooted in the Book of Esther, celebrates the exceptional theme of secrecy and hiding. Apart from the fact that God’s name does not occur in Esther[1] – a quality the apocryphal book shares only with the Song of Solomon – “the Purim story is used as a prime example of how God operates in a concealed manner to perform miracles on behalf of the Jewish people.”[2] This “hidden hand” guiding principle supplies an apt metaphor for the manner in which the Torah encryptions interrelate with its overtext. Purim festivities engage this theme of hiddenness via the practice of wearing masks and costumes, and the enfolded construction of foods such as the hamantaschen, a pocket-pastry, and the kreplach, a dumpling. Accordingly, the name Esther, courtesy of Abarim Publications,[3] possesses two hidden facets:

  1. The name Esther is a common off-the-shelf Persian word, meaning Star. The name Esther was probably given to Hadassah when she entered the court of the Persian king (compare Daniel and his friends) and as such she was known by the people. Note that the name Esther is closely related to the name Ishtar (or Ashtoreth in Hebrew), which belonged to Babylon’s primary female deity.
  2. And finally we list the root סתר (satar), hide or conceal, with among its derivatives סתר (seter) and סתרה (sitra) both meaning hiding place, and מסתר (mistar) hiding place. That way the name Esther would have sounded like I Am A Hiding Place or I Am Hidden.”

Esther does not represent just any star; Esther is Venus. The two above associations with the “star” and “hiding” taken together, constitute a reference to the planet Venus, as Venus possesses a counterintuitive path compared to other astral bodies. Venus was associated with Astarte or Ashtoreth, and Inanna. The morning star’s visibility in the east before sunrise and its peek-a-boo from opposite horizons probably contributed to the various narratives detailing Inanna’s descent and ascent from the underworld to save the mortal king Dumuzi. Inanna elopes with mortals and mortality. Her role is that of the interlocutor, the go-between. This interlocutor duty Esther performs by mediating between Jews and Persians. Louis Ginzberg, compiler of Legends of the Jews, offers a different reading of the association between Esther and Venus:

The Book of Esther is the last of the Scriptural writings. The subsequent history of Israel and all his suffering we know only through oral tradition. For this reason the heroine of the last canonical book was named Esther, that is, Venus, the morning-star, which sheds its light after all the other stars have ceased to shine, and while the sun still delays to rise. Thus the deeds of Queen Esther cast a ray of light forward into Israel’s history at its darkest.[4]

Ginzberg imbues Esther with the revelatory nature of Venus which “sheds its light after all the other stars have ceased to shine.”[5] Secrecy resolves with revelation. Esther’s decision to announce her Jewish identity, to reveal herself, Purim underscores during the cantillation of the Megillah: “The centerpiece of the communal celebration is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, in the synagogue. This is a raucous affair, with whoops, hollers, and noise being made every time that Haman’s name is mentioned, so no one can hear the name of this horrible evildoer.”[6] Esther’s correlation to Venus strengthens the possibility that her story was fashioned around some prior or predicted celestial event. An acknowledgment of Esther’s heavenly aspects leads naturally to the prophetic dimensions of the Book of Esther. Notably, the word “Purim” refers to the lots cast by Haman that he used to determine the annihilation of the Jews. A device which introduces the narrative stakes:

Esther 3:7, 9 [KJV]
“In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar.” (verse 7)

“If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.” (verse 9)

The name, the seasonal date [“In the first month, that is, the month Nisan”], and the associated rituals [casting lots] of the Purim festival are references which provide scholars with the sufficient information necessary to ascertain the backdrop of king Ahasuerus’s feast. The Babylonian Zagmuk festival, which was also called puhru,[7] occurred in the month of Nisan and celebrated the new birth and creation of Spring from Winter with a lottery reset – the Chamber of Fate. For more information, refer to Lewis Bayles Paton’s Esther where Paton presents the argument that a Babylonian origin should be attributed to Purim.[8] The Zagmuk Festival is conflated with or, even, interchangeable with the Akitu Festival because both commemorated the New Year, as the New Year occurred either at the end of Winter or at the end of Summer. This festival had two Destiny ceremonies, three days apart: the first consolidated the power of all the gods into Marduk, the second “determine[d] the destiny of society in the ensuing year.”

The gods assemble once more in the Chamber of Destinies to determine the destiny of society in the ensuing year. This was the last act of deities, bringing auguries and omens for the prosperity of the land. It is extremely meaningful that the Second determination of Destiny is now concerned with the microcosmic scale, and so the gods meet again on the 12th of Nisan in the Chamber of Destinies. Also, remember that in Mesopotamia, by the bond of Heaven and Earth, or Duranki, humankind had been created as a result of the gods´ wish to humanity to continue the workings of existence for Them. Thus, humankind´s destiny and happiness was possible only if man and women lived out their destinies carrying out the deeds of existence for the gods. Basically, the auguries for the coming year were aimed at attuning to the future and once again reaffirm that the gods´ designs were of relevance to humankind who lived to celebrate the gods and Their creation in everyday life.[9]

Furthermore, the Zagmuk/Akitu Festival also concerned itself with the alignment of their king with Venus, by way of Inanna/Ishtar, as its itinerary followed the sequences of events laid out in the “Descent of Inanna/Ishtar” and “the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi” narratives. “The Descent of Inanna” is an etymological story that attempts to clarify the morning/evening star Venus’s appearance, vanishing, and reappearance in heaven. The judgement of the kingdom’s destiny could only occur after the hieros gamos reenactment of sacred marriage [“the Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”] between king and goddess, as in, after Heaven and Earth have undergone recalibration – via the interlocutor Venus’s grace. Though the tone and weight of the Book of Esther and the Song of Solomon could not be more different, it is fitting that they are united in their absence of God, as they are united in origin. If the Book of Esther and the rituals the Purim festival conveys provide us with any indication at all, then the text itself is not simply concerned with fate as it pertains to characters entangled in plot, but rather – the promise that each new year brings and the possibility of the exchange of fates:

Esther 9:13 [KJV]
“Then said Esther, If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews which are in Shushan to do to morrow also according unto this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.”

The Hebrew meaning of “morrow” remains ambiguous. According to Rashi’s commentary, the word tomorrow “sometimes means ‘now’ and sometimes means ‘at a later time’.”[10] In this way the prophecy of The Book of Esther attempts to engage with a future that is both immediate and distant. Therefore Esther perpetuates an interaction with God established by the Sumerians and Babylonians, “attuning” the present to the future and the future to the present. A “reaffirmation” of, not mortal design, but rather of immortal design – the vision of gods not of humankind. This reality of recurrence is supported by the formatting of the Book of Esther against the calendar, for the plot concludes in chapters 9-10, with Adar, the twelve month, the end of the year, with fate having been “turned to the contrary,” and with the New Year festivities presumably just around the corner.

God’s “hidden hand” operates through timing, repetition, and perhaps equidistance. It is the inference of God that is accessed by casting lots, by Pur. Purim is no less than a festival of mourning and joy that celebrates the secret of life within death.

[1] And yet through the numbers 17 and 26 respectively, the “Name” and “Glory” of God are woven into the numeric structuring of the text in order “to signify YHWH’s presence” and “seal a composition,” according to the logotechnical analysis of Casper Labuschagne.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/27/purim-judaism-religion

[3] http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Esther.html#.Wa1DGZOGM_M

[4] http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/loj/loj413.htm

[5] Louis Ginzberg was an ancestor of Vilna Gaon who said this: “All that ever was, is and will be is in the Torah. And not just the general things but rather even every detail of each specific person, everything that happened to him from his birth till his end, and all of his gilgulim, and all the details and the details of his details, and likewise for every animal, every plant, every inanimate object and all its details and details of details…”

[6] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/purim-101/

[7] puhru was the Akkadian word for “popular assembly,” Late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylon by T. Boiy, p 202

[8] Esther by Lewis Bayles Paton, p 91

[9] http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/religion/akitu.htm

[10] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9874#showrashi=true

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