The key concept underlying the Purim story – highlighted by the critical word in Megillat Esther – is “contrariwise”. Everything turns out to be the opposite of what it had seemed or had been intended. That much is clear from the narrative of the megillah but, beyond the principle, little of the detail and almost nothing of the forces at work is spelled out. Probably because it was written and distributed within the Persian Empire, the megillah’s authors self-censored and made sure that numerous sensitive topics were only hinted at.
The rabbis – obsessed, as usual, with theology — note that the Almighty himself is glaringly absent from the Book of Esther, almost uniquely among the scriptural canon. However – and for obvious reasons – they make much less fuss about the fact that His great rival, Mammon, is given prominence and, apparently, was treated with great respect and deference.
Indeed, a careful reading of the text leads to the conclusion that money was a central consideration, at what would nowadays be termed the micro and the macro level. True, this is hardly surprising, since so large and rambling an empire would be very costly to run and, by its very nature, would attract corrupt and self-seeking individuals to its administrative apparatus. Nevertheless, the emphasis given to this theme throughout the megillah suggests that, beyond boozing and womanizing, the main preoccupation of the ruling elite was self-enrichment. Ideology is nowhere to be find in Ahasuerus’ court, but avarice is overt everywhere. How refreshingly contemporary!
Haman is obviously a masterful player of this game. He understands that to make really big money, you have to spend heavily – or at least be prepared to do so. Not just a common, or garden, anti-Semite, he is ready to put his money where his mouth is. To persuade the king of the desirability of eliminating an unnamed nation of misfits, he offers a huge bribe. In the event, this turns out to be unnecessary – the king waves the suggestion away – but the profit motive is made clear in the edict that Haman drafts. This not only sets 13th Adar as death-day for the Jews, it also grants their assets to their aggressors. In other words, the murderers will also be the inheritors, so that the more Jews any private individual or gang kills, the fatter their spoils.
There is no reference to any direct official involvement, either in the killing or the plundering. Haman clearly intended his supporters to be in the vanguard of both the killing and the looting, apparently having calculated that even a bribe of ten thousand silver bars would prove a worthwhile investment. Best of all, there was no tax, either income or capital gains, on the booty.
That’s the other big clue to understanding the whole story: tax. The few allusions made in the Megillah to fiscal policy – a classic ‘macro’ concern — stand in sharp contrast to the frequent references to booty and spoils, a ‘micro’ issue and one which the Jews deliberately steered clear of. The opening chapter of the Megillah presents Ahasuerus as profligate as well as dissolute. Then, after crowning Esther and throwing more parties, he announces a program of “reductions” across the empire. These “reductions” are not end-of-season sales (he kept all the women he had rejected for the post of queen) but are clearly tax cuts.
A few years later, Haman – by now chief honcho in the empire – offers the king a huge sum of money which, intriguingly, is not for him personally, but rather payable directly into the royal treasury. It does not require a PhD from Princeton (the primary condition to becoming a central banker in today’s world) to connect the dots and realize that the Persian Empire was running a massive budget deficit and desperately needed new sources of finance. Nevertheless, the wastrel king spurned Haman’s generous offer, thereby confirming to Haman and everyone else that he had lost touch with reality. Esther, the responsible adult in the palatial asylum, correctly concluded that any attempt to talk rationally to Ahasuerus was hopeless and chose instead the seemingly riskier path of manipulating his emotions.
The rest of the story is well-known – but when the dust had settled, the bad guys were dead and the good guys in control, that pesky deficit was still there. Indeed, it was probably much bigger by then, but this time the Jews were calling the shots. The spoils and booty that the Jews spurned surely wound up in the royal kitty. That must have helped, but a total reversal of economic policy was nevertheless essential. “Reductions”, aka stimulus, was out and a tough policy of economic retrenchment was in, obliging His Majesty to raise taxes across the board.
That much is explicit — in chapter ten, verse one – and, given everything we know from chapters one through nine, there is no doubt whatsoever that this was Mordechai’s doing. Of course, he and the king blamed it all on the corruption and incompetence of the previous, Haman-led, government. Amazingly, this ploy worked – the closing verse notes that Mordechai’s approval rating remained high – so that, under Jewish management, the Persian Empire pulled through. That’s also a miracle, but tell it not in Teheran, nor proclaim it in the streets of Isfahan…