After Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting at the White House with Barack Obama on Monday, Haaretz reported:
The Iran issue was the focus of the talks. It permeated everything from the agenda of the one-on-one meeting to Netanyahu’s gift to Obama: a decorated copy of the Book of Esther, which will be read tomorrow night and Thursday morning at Purim services around the world. It recounts the story of the evil Persian King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, Haman, who tried but failed to annihilate the Jewish people.
“Then, too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Netanyahu told the president.
Robert Wright points out that not every Biblical reference to the Persians is negative.
Netanyahu could choose to emphasize a part of the Hebrew Bible that depicts Persians in a more flattering light. For example, the part that calls Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, the “messiah” because he delivered the exiled Israelites back to their home. (Yes, the only non-Hebrew called messiah in the entire Hebrew Bible is a Persian!)
To be sure, Esther is a book of special significance for Jews this week and so was in that sense an appropriate gift. But it’s not as if diplomatic protocol demands that you give the President a religious text when visiting him. Had Netanyahu not been inclined to cast Persians in a bad light, he could have just given Obama, say, a paperweight or a nice fountain pen.
Of course, those things wouldn’t have had quite the same emotional impact on conservative American Jews and conservative American evangelicals as a Bible story that, by Netanyahu’s reading, depicts Iranians as eternal enemies.
This idea that the Bible can shed light on contemporary Israeli-Iranian relations seems to figure prominently in Netanyahu’s thinking.
In May, 2009, Daniel Lubin wrote:
I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”
“Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.
If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.
Strangely, Goldberg does not mention what is perhaps the most striking and well-known fact about the Amalekites: they were the targets of divinely sanctioned genocide. As related in 1 Samuel 15, God instructed the Israelite king Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Saul “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword,” but spared their king Agag and the best of Amalek’s livestock, for which he was punished by God. When Saul’s successor David attacked the Amalekites (along with the Geshurites and Gezrites), he “smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive.” (1 Samuel 27:9).
Unsurprisingly, these passages have been the subject of a great deal of commentary in the millenia since, and a number of rabbis have offered interpretations that seek (with varying degrees of success) to mitigate the apparent brutality of God’s command. But as Christopher Hitchens noted a few months ago, Amalek has also in recent decades become a rhetorical touchstone on the right-wing fringes of Israeli society, as rabbis such as Schmuel Derlich and Israel Hess have promoted the idea that the Palestinians are the new Amalekites and must be dealt with accordingly. Apparently Netanyahu has altered this line of thinking to identify the Amalekites with the Iranians rather than the Palestinians.
Goldberg clearly does not wish to rattle his right-thinking liberal New York Times audience, so he conveniently omits all this from his account of Amalek. However, if Netanyahu’s advisors are right to say that Bibi sees Iran as the new Amalek, this is a fact with profoundly disturbing implications. After all, the biblically ordained way to deal with the Amalekites is not through “smart but tough” diplomacy, “crippling” sanctions, or even precise and targeted military strikes. Rather, it is through root-and-branch extermination — that is, wiping Iran off the map.
Update — Marsha Cohen provides some scholarly analysis which shows why the Book of Ester (like the rest of the Bible) should not be viewed as a record of history:
Although many apologists for the Book of Esther have claimed its author was familiar with the intimate details of life at the Persian court, such claims don’t hold up in light of what we now know of Persian history (559-331 BC), apart from the copious Greek propaganda produced during the Greco-Persian Wars (492-449 BC).
A Persian king sleeping with a virgin every night? This sounds remarkably like premise of the tale of Sharazad in Hezar Afsaneh, a collection of ancient Persian folk tales. According to Elias Bickerman, a highly respected scholar on Jewish literature of the Achaemenid Persian period, “We have here a typical tale of palace intrigue that could as well find a place in the Persian histories of Herodotus and Ctesias, or in the Arabian Nights. The only Jewish element of the tale is that, according to the author, Mordecai is a Jew.” “Mordecai” was not a Jewish name in ancient times (it is now); nor was “Esther.” In fact, it has been noted numerous times that the two names bear a remarkably close resemblance to those of the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar.
A Persian king marrying a mysterious Jewess who kept her origins secret for five years (especially with her known to be Jewish cousin/uncle lurking around outside, exchanging messages with her through courtiers)? No way! A Persian king’s marriages, as Maria Brosius explains, were alliances with the daughters of foreign potentates and the leading families of the Persian empire for reasons of statecraft. The Achaemenid Persian tradition seems to have been postponing the designation of any of the king’s wives as what might best be translated as “queen” until after she had given birth to his designated heir. Neither Esther nor Vashti is mentioned as having been the mother of Ahasuerus’ children. Furthermore, a Persian monarch’s mother and his wife were entitled to see him whenever they wished.
Finally, there is no historical record of any King Ahasuerus or a Queen Vashti, and, most significantly, no record of a plot to ethnically cleanse the Achaemenid Persian Empire of its Jews. Nor is there any account by any ancient historian of vengeful Jewish mobs slaughtering nearly 76,000 residents of the Persian Empire.