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From Bible to Babylon

By Kam Zarrabi

Spring is marked by many great festivals, such as Purim, Passover, and Easter, as well as the New Year for the Iranian people and some other nations. While the rationale for the Iranian New Year is purely astronomical, these other festivals are rooted in religious or metaphysical fables. Today, Purim and Passover are celebrated by Jews and many Christians throughout the world as events that symbolize human aspirations for freedom and divine redemption. Although the Biblical legends surrounding these events are casually glossed over as folklore, their narratives deserve closer analysis signifying important markers in cultural anthropology.

The Biblical Passover is not about an actual historical event as depicted in Hollywood production of "The Ten Commandments." According to the legend, Moses had a very hard time convincing the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses, to free his people and allow them to leave Egypt. With Yahweh's help, Moses inflicted many catastrophes, draught, famine, disease, etc., upon Egypt to convince Ramses of God's powers, but to no avail. Angered, Ramses gives orders to have all the first-born of the Hebrew tribe killed. Discovering the plot, Yahweh decrees that all the first-born of Egypt should die instead, arranging for the curse of death to "pass over" the Hebrew households and spare their first-born.

Naturally, we are not supposed to wonder why the Almighty could not, or would not, convince Ramses to let Moses' tribe leave Egypt, or to kill Ramses by a bolt of lightning, for insubordination. To punish Ramses, Yahweh chooses to take the lives of innocent first-born of Egypt; Why?

The festival of Purim is from the Book of Esther, actually regarded as an "Apocryphal" addition to the Hebrew Bible. In this story, the Persian emperor, Ahasueres, chooses a Jewish girl, Esther, as his alternate queen. Esther's uncle, Mordakhai, enrages the evil general, Haman, by refusing to bow to him, since a Jew would never bow to mere mortals, no matter how high-ranking. Haman reports this intransigence to the king, and convinces Ahasueres to, using his personal seal, order all the Jews in the kingdom killed in a particular day. Fortunately, Mordakhai finds out about the plan and informs Esther. In a suspenseful scenario, Esther gives a party at the palace and invites Haman as the guest of honor. There, she tricks Haman into a highly compromising position that angers the king beyond measure. She then tells her husband about Haman's treacherous designs against her kinfolk in the kingdom.

Haman is immediately executed and his wealth given to Mordakhai. Esther, then, convinces the king to reverse his previous orders and, instead, have the Persian army help the Jews in the empire kill all their ill-wishers on the same day that the Jews were supposed to be massacred. This is done, and the killings begin. Esther requests an extra day to finish the job and, at the end of the second day of the carnage, after seventy-five thousand were killed, she tells the king that she is satisfied. She then asks Ahasueres to designate that day as a day for Jews to celebrate throughout the empire.

Of course, there never was a Persian emperor named Ahasueres. This name is something between the historical Xerxes (Khshayarsha) and Artaxerxes (Artakhshathra, later Ardeshir), and, there is absolutely no historical reference to a queen Esther (today's Hadassah, but more probably a name derived from Astarte or Ishtar). That notwithstanding, the story found its way into the latter chapters of the Hebrew Bible sometime around the second century A. D., during the roman occupation of the region. Inaccuracies and anachronisms are understandable, since the oral legend refers to a period some six centuries before it received its final draft.

Looking back at the social conditions in the Roman Empire of the period, we can see the plight of the scattered and persecuted Jewish minorities, and their struggle for identity, valor and self-respect, as reflected in the narratives of their heritage. In the legend of Esther we see several markers of special significance: Esther, a Jewish girl, is selected as the most beautiful and accomplished woman in a vast empire. Symbolizing Jewish pride, we see how Mordakhai the Jew refuses to bow to the great general, Haman. We also see how Mordakhai deservedly inherits all of Haman's wealth and possessions. Even though Esther's deceitful scheme to entrap Haman sounds less than honorable or queenly, she is still admired for her shrewdness and ingenuity to this day.

Last but not least, this historical fiction depicts the very first case for a pre-emptive strike against suspected foes. To make sure that the pre-emptive actions were justified and not based on mere suspicions, Haman's orders for the massacre bear king's personal seal. It matters little, realistically speaking, that in an empire stretching from Libya to China, orders carrying king's seal could not reach all Satrapies in less than three years time; after all, it's just a story. The very scale of the carnage, seventy-five thousand dead, is itself quite significant, especially considering that not even one member of Esther and Mordakhai's tribe had been harmed as yet. Ahasueres himself is clearly depicted in the story as a powerful buffoon; he is swayed back and forth like a puppet, with puppeteers in the backstage pulling the strings.

If this scenario has a ring of familiarity to it, it should!

Again, we are not to ask why Yahweh, in His omniscience and omnipotence, did not intervene in these affairs and spare the lives of so many people. The reason, of course, is that these stories reflect mankind's genetic heritage; the pursuit of selfish ambitions, vindictiveness, self-glorification, and all that with a sense of righteousness. Humans by their vary nature strive in pursuit of their interests, and insist on looking good doing so. So, what else is new?

If the slaughter of seventy-five thousand seems a bit excessive and disproportionate, let us look at some other Biblical precedents.

When Adam's son, Cain, was banished from Eden for killing his brother, Abel, Yahweh put a seal on his forehead so that anyone who'd harm him would suffer seven-fold, even though he was guilty of fratricide. Seven generations later, Lamech, Noah's ancestor, danced in front of his wives, bragging that if Cain's revenge was to be seven-fold, his would be seventy and seven!

Cain or Lamech are Biblical characters, obviously with no historical counterparts. But, how many times have we seen history duplicate similar scenarios, over and over again? Is there any doubt as to the parallels between these fairytales and the current world affairs? These fictional narratives symbolize humankind's deepest and most primitive survival instincts of dominance and control, while maintaining a righteous self-image.

How far has humanity progressed in the course of its cultural evolution? We continue to celebrate our victories, worship our heroes, and honor our dead. Our conquests are always viewed as fair and just victories, our heroes are champions of righteous causes, and our fallen fly on the wings of the Valkyries to the heavenly Valhalla of the brave.

It should not come as a surprise that our forebears, the warlords of old Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome also saw it that way. This is how the triumphant armies of the Viking, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, and Ottoman empires saw it. The Austro-Hungarian, the Spanish, German, Russian, French and English; they all saw it that way. And now, it is the American Century and our turn to also celebrate our glory.

This is the eternal struggle of good against evil, order against chaos. Recall the legend of the Zoroastrians of ancient Iran. Ahura-Mazda, the god of wisdom and light, promised the faithful an eternal life of peace and prosperity once the demon of all Evil, Angra-Mainyu, was defeated in a final cosmic battle at the "End-Time", the precursor of the Biblical Armageddon. Zarathushtra's promise had such an appeal in the minds of the downtrodden and the dispossessed that, centuries later, the wise Isaiah adopted it, foreseeing an Armageddon followed by the appearance of a messiah who would transform the world into a living paradise.

As the faithful await the coming of this messiah, messiah-hopefuls from the East and the West engage in great battles that each hopes to be the last, when Evil, as defined by each, is finally eradicated, and when the victor may declare himself the true Messiah.

Does this also ring a familiar bell? It should!

Now, let's pretend we are playwrights trying to recreate the modern parallel of the story of Esther, and are looking for the best candidates to act the various parts. Naturally, there are many suitable actors that can play the roles, and all should at least be considered.

For the role of Haman, the evil general, we can choose Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, or any other Islamic leader from the Middle East.

For the role of Esther we might have to cross-dress Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, the King's closest confidants.

For Mordakhai, the real "brain" behind the schemes, we have a number of candidates to choose from; Ariel Sharon, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and many more.

As for Ahasueres, the Great King, George W. Bush is clearly the only choice.

In the modern version of the story, the scenario unfolds as it is reported that the Evil One has created weapons of mass destruction, is harboring international terrorists, and is planning to strike at us at the first opportunity. Here, as in the original story, it matter little that evidence for such allegations is weak or nonexistent; we cannot take a chance when it comes to defending our lives. If necessary, we will see to it that we do find the necessary evidence later, after the fact, just as did the older storytellers who used the king's personal seal to remove any doubts. The rest is now history!

Now, the modern Mordakhais, the truly ambitious and motivated beneficiaries of the unfolding events, have their eyes set on other candidates for future scenarios. They are pointing their fingers to the left and to the right, "uncovering" other Evil Ones who are allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction and harboring and supporting terrorists who plan to hurt Isra....;Ooops, I mean, us!

The Great King now has several other targets of "liberation" in his cross-hairs, and he really likes that. The Real Messiah may have just arrived. Heaven help us all.

About the author:
Kam Zarrabi is Writer-Lecturer; Former president, World Affairs Council of San Diego, North County;

... Payvand News - 4/30/03 ... --

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