What follows is the entirety of my essay on Jordan Peterson and the Book of Esther. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it’s likely that you’ve already read this in the three prior posts here that spit this thing out in pieces. I’ve put the whole thing together here for anyone who wants to read it all at once. Ed.
Although his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is full of citations to the Bible and lengthy excursions on the meanings of the stories there, Jordan Peterson never mentions the Book of Esther. I think he missed some thunder. This little book affords much support to many of his arguments.
We’ve been talking here in the last few weeks about truth telling. It’s one of Peterson’s themes; one of the book’s 12 rules is “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.” He also writes a great deal about the idea of sacrifice, taking us back to the first books of the Bible and the complex system of ritual sacrifice outlined there. Peterson tells us that the fundamental dynamic in sacrifice is the foregoing of some immediate good – some pleasure or peace or gain – in the hope of greater good sometime in the future.
Look at the story of Esther. Look at the truth telling there, almost all of which involves some measure of sacrifice. First, there is Queen Vashti. She refuses her husband’s – King Xerxes’ – command to show herself before his drunken friends and, consequently, is banished from the presence of the king.
How does this involve truth telling? Well, Jordan Peterson says that one of the most insidious forms of lying – in fact the kind of lying that allowed the murderous tyrannies of the 20th century to continue for generations – is the lie of omission. What that boils down to is this: a lie of omission is a kind of lie or type of dishonesty involving remaining silent when one knows that something ought to be said. Vashti knew that her husband’s demand on her was not right. It wasn’t moral. It did not recognize her as a person, but treated her as an object; a thing to be ogled. She could have committed a lie of omission here and just showed up and played along, thereby saying in effect that everything was okay, when in fact it was not. Her refusal to come to the king’s party was a statement. It was telling the truth: What you have asked me to do is not okay.
Now let’s look at Mordecai. He finds out about a conspiracy among court insiders to murder the king. And he tells the truth about it. Rats out the conspirators. But that ain’t all. Sometime later he makes another statement, this one non-verbal. You see, there is a law in place that demands that everyone bow down before one of the king’s men, some cat named Haman. Mordecai rightly interprets this bowing down as an act of worship and he refuses to lie about it. The lie of omission would have been simply to do as he was told –to go through the motions and let old Haman have his kicks. But he told the truth. By refusing to bow down he makes a truthful statement that what Haman and the law have demanded of him is not right; it’s not okay.
Of course, this act of civil disobedience gets Mordecai in a heap of trouble as he must have, from the outset, known that it would.
When I read about Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman, my first impulse is to think that Mordecai has in mind the second commandment; that he is refusing to give to any man what ought to be reserved for God alone. Some commentators think otherwise. They argue that the Jews would in fact bow down before kings (1 Sam. 24:8; 2Sam. 14:4; 1Kings 1: 16) and other persons (Ge. 23:7; 33:3; 44:14) The issue between Haman and Mordecai, they say, goes way back to the time of the Exodus when the Jews on their way out of Egypt were attacked by the Amalekites. (Haman, they say, was an Amalekite.) In any event, Mordecai’s refusal to bow lands him in hot water. Haman decides that the only remedy for this intolerable situation is the killing of all of Mordecai’s people. The killing of all of the Jews.
Mordecai pitches the idea of genocide to King Xerxes, telling the king that the Jews are actually a social and cultural threat to him and to the kingdom. Without much deliberation, the king agrees and gives Haman the authority to put the plan into action.
Haman (to the king): 8 All the provinces in your kingdom are overrun with one insignificant group of foreigners, people who haven’t adopted our customs. Their laws differ from all other peoples’, and they do not keep your laws. Therefore it’s not a good idea for you to tolerate them or their actions any longer. 9 If it is your wish, sign an order that these people be destroyed, and I will bear all the costs. I’ll pay 375 tons of silver directly to those who carry out the king’s business in order to relieve the royal treasury of the expense.
Mordecai finds out about the impending apocalypse and runs to tell Esther about it. Esther is his niece who was an orphan and whom Mordecai raised. Esther, because of her stunning beauty and charm, has found favor with King Xerxes who has made her his queen. But Esther has kept her nationality – her Jewish linage – from the King. Xerxes does not know that the killing of all of the Jews would result in the death of his beloved Queen Esther.
Mordecai tells Esther that she has to petition the King on behalf of all her people:
Tell Esther, “Don’t be fooled. Just because you are living inside the king’s palace doesn’t mean that you out of all of the Jews will escape the carnage. You must go before your king. 14 If you stay silent during this time, deliverance for the Jews will come from somewhere, but you, my child, and all of your father’s family will die. And who knows? Perhaps you have been made queen for such a time as this.”
So, Esther is faced with the proposition that she must go to the king and tell him the truth. She must tell him that she is a Jew, thereby revealing that she has not been forthcoming about this from the outset. She knows that the stakes are high. Making such a petition before Xerxes was no simple matter, not even for a queen. She explains to Mordecai:
11 How am I supposed to see the king? It’s known throughout the land, from the greatest of the king’s officials to the common folk who live in the provinces, that any person who approaches the king in the inner chamber without being invited is sentenced to death. That’s the law! There’s only one exception, and that’s if the king were to hold out the gold scepter to that person and spare his or her life. It’s been 30 days since the king last summoned me!
So, here we are, Mr. Peterson, faced with the dilemma of sacrifice, the dilemma of truth telling. And Esther does tell the truth. She approaches the chamber of the king and he does extend his scepter and allow her admittance. She sacrifices her immediate safety and security for a hoped-for future benefit.
It pays off. Because Esther was brave enough to speak the truth, disaster – the killing of all of the Jews – was averted. Moreover, the scoundrel Haman is brought to justice (hanged)and the good works of uncle Mordecai are richly rewarded by the king. Here Peterson’s argument is made plain in this high drama. Peterson’s case is that it is only the willingness to speak truth to power that will prevent tyranny. He points to the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work camp-dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the [ir]rational, ideology-possessed communist system.
Solzhenitsyn (and a few other brave writers) is a modern Esther!