The Megillat Esther Massacre
Skipping Keriat ha-Megillah Altogether
There is some halachic doubt as to whether the Megillah should be read in Zefat (Safed) on Purim (14th of Adar) or Shushan Purim (15th); in theory, one could try to hear Megillah on both days just to make sure. Last year, as my wife and I spent Purim in Zefat, it struck me that the inverse is true as well; perhaps one could also legitimately avoid hearing it altogether.
In fact, an apocryphal story about the late Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz is that he would spend Purim in Yerushalayim, where Shushan Purim is the day for Megillah reading, and then leave the city before nightfall and go to a city where Purim is the day of reading, thereby avoiding Megillah reading altogether. Leibowitz is famous for his anti-militarism, and it is said that he did not want to celebrate a festival that commemorates a massacre of non-Jews by Jews.
Medieval Misgivings about Jewish Actions on Purim
Modern scholars like Leibowitz are not the first ones bothered by this aspect of the Megillah. The possible defenseless slaughter of a large group of men, women, and children bothered many medieval commentators as well. For instance, Abraham Ibn Ezra writes (Esther 8:8):
יש לשאול למה כתב מרדכי להרוג שונאי היהודים ורב לו ולהם שימלטו?
Why did Mordechai write that the Jews should kill their enemies? Would it not be enough for him and for them that they (the Jews) should escape?
A number of medieval commentators bothered by this problem offer answers.
- Copying Haman’s Language – Ibn Ezra’s answer to his own question seems to be that this was the original decree of Ahasuerus, which Haman had maliciously changed; i.e., the wording was not that of Mordechai.
- Self Defense – Joseph ibn Kaspi (ca. 1280-1340, Provence) justifies the Jewish slaughter by redefining the word “להינקם” in 8:13 as self-defense, as opposed to the usual translation as “revenge/avenge” themselves.
- Destroying Amalek – Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344, Provence) identifies the slaughtered population as Amalekites, thus making the massacre more palatable.
The Megillah’s Presentation
The text itself seems less bothered by the killing than the commentators and offers little in the way of mitigation.
In chapter 8, after Haman is killed, Esther, concerned with the existing decree for the Jews’ extermination on the 13th of Adar, pleads with Ahasuerus to countermand the royal order. Ahasuerus responds that he could not countermand the order but allows Mordechai and Esther to write a new order that could contain whatever they wanted – presumably a command countering the undesirable injunctions of the first order.
From Revenge to Extermination
Mordechai in this new order (v. 8:11) starts off by permitting the Jews to gather on the 13th of Adar to defend themselves (לעמוד על נפשם), but he goes on to permit them to destroy, kill, and exterminate all enemy forces including their (presumably non-combatant) women and children.
אסתר ח:יא אֲשֶׁר֩ נָתַ֨ן הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִ֣ים׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּכָל־עִיר וָעִ֗יר לְהִקָּהֵל֘ וְלַעֲמֹ֣ד עַל נַפְשָׁם֒ לְהַשְׁמִיד֩ וְלַהֲרֹ֨ג וּלְאַבֵּ֜ד אֶת כָּל חֵ֨יל עַ֧ם וּמְדִינָ֛ה הַצָּרִ֥ים אֹתָ֖ם טַ֣ף וְנָשִׁ֑ים וּשְׁלָלָ֖ם לָבֽוֹז:
Esther 8:11 That the king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, kill, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions (NJPS with adjustments).
Verse 13 notes that the message went out that the Jews were to be ready to avenge (להנקם) themselves. The chapter ends with many people either adopting Jewish customs or changing their political affiliations to be friendlier to the Jews (מתיהדים), for the fear of the Jews was upon them.
And in the next chapter, we see that the Jews did indeed gather on the 13th of Adar to lay hands (לשלוח יד) – not defend themselves (לעמוד על נפשם) – on those who sought their downfall, but they met with no resistance (ואיש לא עמד לפניהם). And in verse 5, we are told that the Jews did indeed do as they pleased, attacking with the sword and killing and exterminating (ואבדן) their enemies. The phrase “defend themselves” is used only when describing the fighting in the provinces (מדינות 9:16), not the fighting in Shushan, and even there, it is not clear whether they actually encountered any opposition.
On the whole, the verses seem to indicate that the Jews attacked their enemies without immediate provocation. It sounds as if they went out looking to kill, looking to engage. We hear nothing about Jews being attacked at all; we hear nothing of any casualties among the Jews. From this reading, it seems that the Jews engaged in a wholesale slaughter of a portion of the population that was totally cowed and defenseless.
Do the Numbers Shtim?
According to the Megillah, the Jews killed 500 men in the fortress of Shushan (9:6) and 75,000 in the provinces (9:16) on the 13th of Adar. On the next day (the 14th of Adar), in Shushan itself, the Jews killed 300 more individuals (9:15).
What do these numbers mean? Taking these numbers at face value, is 75,000 plus 800 in the capital a large number of fatalities, if we’re talking about a group on the rampage during this period of history? Or could it be that this is a small proportion of the population of Shushan and simply represents the outcome of skirmishes between the Jews and their enemies?
The story of Esther is set in the early 5th century BCE and was written either in the late Persian or early Greek period. We don’t really know for sure what the population of Persia was in this period, but we can get an idea of the population of cities in this period from research on the size of the Graeco-Roman world. From the Roman census, it seems that the total number of Roman citizens in the third century BCE may have been on the order of 242,000 to 337,000. Using the Roman population estimates as roughly comparative approximation, even if the real number were double, the number 75,000 is staggering. It is hard to believe this is meant as a reference to fighting men only. Although we are not told about the killing of women and children during the actual recounting of the fighting, presumably that was because that was an unimportant detail and we can rely on the explicit permission given by Mordechai to kill women and children (8:11) as sufficient to communicate to the reader that they should be a presumed part of the body count.
A good comparison to the kind of slaughter presented here would be the historical episode known as the Asiatic Vespers. In 88 BCE, Mithridates VI Eupator (known as Mithridates the Great), king of Pontus and Armenia Minor, had his people round up and kill “every Roman man, woman, and child in their territories.” The action was set for one month after his officials received the letter ordering it, and it was carried out, leading to the first Mithridatic war between Mithridates’ kingdom and Rome. Around 80,000 Roman and Italian residents of Anatolia and Aegean islands were massacred on that day. This number is very close to the number in the Megillah, especially if we consider that both killings targeted subsets of the population.
These comparisons suggest that if we accept the Megillah’s count of enemy fatalities, there must indeed have been a large-scale slaughter.
Jewish Attitudes Toward Killing Women and Children
While the Torah enjoins us to be compassionate and solicitous of widows and orphans, it never prohibits killing foreign non-Israelite women and children in war, as the following cases illustrate:
- Seven Nations – The Torah commands the Israelites – after defeating the seven Canaanite nations – to destroy them totally, presumably including women and children (Deut 7:1-5, 20:16-18).
- Amalekites – The Torah commands that all Amalekites be slaughtered, (Deut 25:19), and this is reported to have happened when eventually Saul kills every Amalekite other than their king, Agag, including women and children (1 Sam 15). The prophet reports the words of God to the people: “put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (v. 2).
- Midianites – Moses castigates the Israelites for not killing the Midianite women and children, and tells them they must do so (Num 31:14-18).
- Bashan and Sihon’s Kingdom – The Israelites are recorded as having utterly destroyed the men, women, and children, of every city in Bashan and of Sihon: we “utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain” (Deut 3:3-6).
- Yavesh-Gilad – Even the people of Yavesh-Gilad, who may well have been Israelites (or at least associated with Israelites) meet a similar fate when the council of Israelite tribes sends out its armies with the command:“Go and strike the inhabitants of Yabesh-Gilad with the edge of the sword, including the women and the children” (Judg 21:10)
- Menahem’s Revenge – King Menahem of Israel invaded a region that did not support him, and “he punished them even to ripping open all the pregnant women” (2 Kings 15:16).
The story in the Megillah is, admittedly, set much later than these stories. Nevertheless, it is not far-fetched to say that conditions probably had not changed much.
Accepting the Description of the Peshat
Considering our modern sensibilities and the (theoretical) rules of war that most of us accept as ethical baselines, reading biblical accounts of slaughtering women and children is difficult to accept. We jump to the rationale for the war itself, self-defense against a massive preplanned anti-Jewish pogrom. After all, the people they were seeking to kill were enemies of the Jews and, but for the change in the king’s mind, would have been themselves killing Jews indiscriminately. So now that they had the opportunity, they killed them.
Notwithstanding this point, the stark reality is that the Megillah portrays an offensive war against the enemies of the Jews in which the Jews indiscriminately kill their enemies, including the women and children. We should not be afraid today to read ancient texts as they are. There is no reason to whitewash the past.
Conclusion: War was War
Judaism and the Torah is strong enough to withstand the truth. In fact, it is unfair to judge ancient Jewish texts by today’s standards. Judaism is a religion that promotes moral development in its adherents, but like all things, Judaism does not exist—and never has existed—in a vacuum. In a world in which invading armies destroyed cities, slaughtering and/or enslaving enemies, man, woman, and child, the Jews did the same. Even if the war was justified, war was war, and the conventions of war for Jews were more or less the same as they were for other cultures: total defeat and total destruction.
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March 21, 2016
January 25, 2021
Prof. Meylekh (PV) Viswanath teaches finance at Pace University, New York, NY. He has a Ph.D. in Finance and Economics from the University of Chicago and is interested in how ancient economies intersected with religion. One recent publications is, “Could What You Don’t Know Hurt You? Information Asymmetry in Land Markets in Late Antiquity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics.
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