The Political Economy of the Purim story (according to the Book of Esther)

When reading the Book of Esther on the holiday of Purim, it is Jewish custom to make noise and boo when hearing the name of the evil Haman. I silently boo in one other place. Chapter 10 Verse 1 states, “King Xerxes demanded taxes everywhere…” Upon hearing the word taxes, I commit my silent act of protest.

But why did Achashverosh (many translation and commentaries say this is Xerxes though other disagree) need to raise taxes now? Didn’t Persia already have taxes?

Money is first mentioned in the Book of Esther in Chapter 3 Verses 8 – 9:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain group of people scattered among the other people in all the states of your kingdom. Their customs are different from those of all the other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws. It is not right for you to allow them to continue living in your kingdom. If it pleases the king, let an order be given to destroy those people. Then I will pay seven hundred fifty thousand pounds of silver to those who do the king’s business, and they will put it into the royal treasury.”

With this money, the government could offer new benefits to its people or the king could simply spend the money on himself and his friends. But that money eventually runs out and, with the people accustomed to the public welfare or the king to more extravagant living, the government needs new ways to raise revenue. Thus the new tax.

The Book of Esther demonstrates an even more destructive force within Persia. Chapter 3 Verse 13:

Letters were sent by messengers to all the king’s empire ordering them to destroy, kill, and completely wipe out all the Jewish people. That meant young and old, women and little children, too. It was to happen on a single day—the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which was Adar. And they could take everything the Jewish people owned.

That last phrase, “they could take everything the Jewish people owned,” seems unnecessary. Why would Jews care what happened to their possessions after the Persians were to “destroy, kill, and completely wipe out all the Jewish people?” For the Persians, “taking everything the Jewish people owned” was not just an afterthought, but was one of the causes of their hatred of Jews. Persia was a plunder economy. To maintain the king’s and the court’s extravagance and the benefits distributed to the Persians, the plunder needed to continue. However, Persia was running out of places to loot. According to the Book of Esther, Persia was already a huge empire, stretching from India to Cush (Ethiopia). And according to the dating by most historians, the Persian Empire had already begun to shrink in size by the time of the Purim story after the Greeks defeated King Xerxes at the famous Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Persians, now even more desperate for people to plunder, turned to the local population, most notably the Jews.

Thus, the Book of Esther and the Purim story is more than just a religious tale of God’s hidden intervention in world events to save the Jewish people. It is also the story of a political and economic system that was desperately seeking new ways to maintain itself.

One response to “The Political Economy of the Purim story (according to the Book of Esther)

  1. You don’t suppose there are any modern day parallels, do you. 🙂

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