We often think that the book of Esther has one heroine, the queen herself, or perhaps two if we include her relative Mordechai who pushed her to act. But the difficult truth—the one we don’t like to admit—is that if we examine the book more closely we learn that it is the Jews of Persia themselves who went out rioting in the streets, with the permission of the king. The Jews massacred 75,000 individuals the Biblical text tells us (Esther 9:16), while not stealing any plunder.
This is an oddity of Jewish history, that Jews, with full permission and ratification of the ruling power, were able to go out and defeat their enemies, a rarity in Jewish history, yet one that has taken hold (see Bar Ilan University historian Elliot Horowitz’ book Reckless Rites for more on this).
Trying to get behind the difficult and profoundly uncomfortable morality of this aspect of the story undoes many of our assumptions of understanding ourselves as that Jews who are commanded and understood to be “rachmanim benei rachmanim” merciful people children of merciful people. This account of the Jews of Persia out on a killing spree is a text— along with the Levites’ killing of three thousand men after the Golden Calf was erected (Exodus 32: 28), or the deaths of many Egyptian first born in the plagues, or of the men of Shechem at the hands of Shimon and Levi (Genesis 34), or the story of Pinchas, killing others in his zealotry for the Lord (Numbers 25:7-10)—that is hard to understand. How could a merciful or fair God allow so many, some of whom are presumably innocent and were not afforded any kind of due process in a trial, to die?