Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Jewish holiday of Purim, the Book of Esther, King Xerxes - and the mysteries of synchronicity

"So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai."

I was reading Cambridge classicist Nigel Spivey's brilliant book, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain and Fortitude, at around one o'clock this morning (as you do), when I came across a reference to a Michelangelo Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco on the subject of the death of Haman, CEO of the Persian empire under King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, as the Greeks called him). I'd never heard of Haman, who, according to the Old Testament Book of Esther, was evidently a nasty piece of work. Although I've tried to work my way systematically through the OT, I'd never read Esther (which is just before Job), so I dropped Spivey's magisterial tome (a Christmas gift from my son) and magicked up The Bible on my Kindle.

Cut a long story short, Xerxes and his wife Vashti were hosting enormous and lengthy parallel "His & Hers" feasts, when hubby asked her indoors to put in appearance at his party, so all his male chums could feast their eyes on her and congratulate the King on having chosen such an absolute corker. She (for reasons which are unexplained - maybe she was tired and emotional) refused to do his bidding. Furious, Xerxes ordered a search for a new Queen, who turned out to be the comely Jewish maid, Esther. Only Esther's cousin Mordecai, who had been acting in loco parentis to the girl since the death of her parents, tells her to keep schtum about her racial origins.

Meanwhile, the wily, ambitious Haman, one of Xerxes' courtiers, becomes Persia's biggest non-royal cheese - but Mordecai (who is generally sort of hanging around the Palace gates) refuses to show any deference to Haman, who, being a prickly sort of cove, decides to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman tells the King that the Jews are the enemies of the empire (now, where have we heard that before?), covinces  Xerxes to sign a proclamation ordering their extirpation, and chooses a day for the act of genocide to take place by drawing lots (pur). Mordecai, after going down the sackcloth, ashes, wailing and gnashing of teeth route, gets word to Esther to speak to Xerxes and try to save her people. Just as Haman has had a gibbet constructed in his garden on which to hang Mordecai, Esther reveals her Jewishness to her husband, who promptly rescinds his order to kill all the Jews, orders Haman to be hanged (see the painting above), and makes Mordecai his top man.

Jews commemorate this great deliverance by celebrating Purim once a year. When I logged into Twitter this morning, I discovered that today is Purim (it started last night and ends this evening), and that Jews around the world are doing what they were told to do in the Book of Esther, i.e. "eat, drink, and be merry." It was a tweet from Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan that alerted me: "In Antwerp, some irrepressibly cheerful Jews thrust a drink into my hand to mark #Purim. L'chaim!"

How very odd that I should end up finally reading the Book of Esther today of all days. After all, that's a 365-to-one shot. You can call it coincidence if you like - I prefer to see it as Jungian synchronicity in action.

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