The biblical book of Esther tells the story of a beautiful Jewish girl who marries the king of Persia and is able to save all the Jews from the evil plot cooked up by Haman, the king’s chief advisor. The story is full of deception and intrigue: Esther, whose Hebrew name is Hadassah, doesn’t let on that she’s a Jew until the climactic moment when she reveals Haman for the scoundrel he is; palace guards plot to kill the king, only to be thwarted by Mordechai, Esther’s uncle and guardian; Haman, a deeply anti-Semitic man (if such a word even applies to biblical-era Persia), has to parade Mordechai through the streets, proclaiming the king’s gratitude. There is no extra-biblical proof for the events recorded in the book of Esther: no decree for the extermination of the Jews, nor any evidence of the killing spree that the Jews supposedly indulged in once Haman is found out and hanged.
zBut none of that matters. The story exists for reasons other than verisimilitude. And it is a wonderful and altogether unusual story to be included in the Hebrew Bible. For one thing, a woman plays the central role. True, Esther is all but Mordechai’s puppet in the palace, but she shows courage in the face of danger, and she saves an entire people from certain death. For another, God is never mentioned in the entire book. It is the only book in the biblical canon that is overtly political, in which God’s role is inferred rather than explicit. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths—that it displays the workings of the world as it could be: no prophetic guidance, no sense of what God wants, just human being muddling through as best they can. Neither Esther nor Mordechai speaks to God, but the good guys are rewarded (even if the reward of massacring those who would have killed them seems barbaric to contemporary readers), the villain is found out and punished and life continues, better than it had been before.
Tommy Tenney, a revivalist preacher in the charismatic tradition, has written a fictional version of the book of Esther in Hadassah: One Night with the King. Set in ancient Susa, Hadassah is the necessarily beautiful young Jewish girl whose parents’ brutal murder has haunted her life. She is kept hidden away by Mordecai, the only other surviving member of her extended family, who has been so scarred by the earlier experience that he will not publicly admit to his own Jewishness and insists that his “daughter” hide her identity too. (This detail actually highlights a consistent weakness in the novel—the reader knows that the family is killed because of its ethnicity, but nowhere are Mordecai and Esther told that—somehow, they know it, too.) As in the Bible, Hadassah is chosen as a “queen candidate” after the king’s former wife displeases him and is killed. Unlike the other girls, Hadassah—who calls herself Star, so as not to give herself away—is smart enough to listen to the Head Eunuch and prepare for the king’s pleasure rather than pamper her own vanity. She and Xerxes, the king, fall in love; he chooses her; she becomes queen of the largest empire in the world. All this follows the basic plot of the biblical tale, but Tenney’s purpose here is far different than that of the original.
This is an awful book. It is poorly written—the prose is flat and often ungrammatical; the characters are entirely one-dimensional; and the small details of the narrative often contradict themselves. But as with Tolstoy’s famous line about unhappy families, it is awful in its own way.
Most of the story is written as if by Esther, using language and attitudes about issues such as psychology and the physical body that make it clear that Tenney has little grasp of the differences that time and culture play in how people actually speak. His grasp of Hebrew is also incomplete. “Esther” comes from the Persian, and does indeed mean “star.” “Hadassah” does not; it means “myrtle,” from the Hebrew “hadas.” But much of the book focuses on the fact that Hadassah’s name means star. That’s why she calls herself that when she gets to the palace. In effect, Tenney has worked backwards. He needed Esther to be a star—both symbolically and of the novel—and so he applied the meaning of the Persian to the Hebrew.
The same is true of his grasp of Jewish social customs. Much is made of the dangers of marrying outside the race, as indeed is a huge concern among Jews today. But the idea that Jews should only marry other Jews dates to the time of Ezra the Scribe, who rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem under the relatively peaceful Persian rule. That the story in the novel predates Ezra doesn’t stop Tenney from making his concerns paramount.
These, however, are small defects, distracting though they may be. The truth is, Tenney is not a writer—although this is not his first book—he is a preacher, and his goals for this novel are as blatant as they are problematic. His point, as in his preaching, is to turn people into “God chasers,” those who actively seek personal contact with God (irritatingly spelled ”G-d” throughout, as if “god” were a proper name rather than a noun, like “table” or “gorilla”), which is precisely what Esther must learn to do. Along the way, she also gives some advice on being a good wife, advice that looks suspiciously like that given by fundamentalist Christian leaders to their followers. While it is true that Esther captivates Xerxes by using her mind rather than a racy striptease of the body, she is successful because she feeds his self-absorption, declaring him the center of her existence.
That Xerxes is portrayed as cruel, intemperate and impulsive doesn’t seem to influence her. She sees a different side of him, the sensitive side. No matter that he plows through the entire treasury, or that he chooses his new bride by cycling through all the beautiful virgins in the land, one night at a time. Naturally, he and Esther only talk that night; they consummate after the wedding. So the subtitle “One Night with the King” turns out to be a bit of subterfuge. Sure, they “fall in love” that night, bonding over their respective problems, but Tenney makes it clear that for him the crux of this story is her ability to catch her man.
And there is yet another problem. The harem was a fact of life in ancient Persia, but there is no sense that this Esther responds to it with an authentic attitude.
But no character has an authentic attitude in the book. Everyone is reduced to one or two defining characteristics, with no depth or subtlety. Within the first thirty pages, in fact, Haman is literally turned into a Nazi, the earliest adopter of the swastika for murderous purposes. The problem is not just the simplification of all of history into one narrative—anyone who has ever hated Jews is, was and will be a crazed Nazi whose eye “gleams” (one of the author’s favorite words) with hatred—but that it conveniently sidesteps the very real causes and attributes of bigotry. In this book, all racial hatred becomes a legacy passed from mother to child, stemming from biblical times.
But racism is far more complex than that. Yes, people inherit biases, even murderous ones, but those hatreds are stoked through various means. To put it crudely, bigotry has to serve a purpose to survive. It has to be expedient: for example, European aristocrats forbade Jews from working in almost all fields except usury, ensuring that the native population would come to hate the Jews. This had the convenient effect of deflecting attention from their own excesses.
There was, in other words, a long history that led up to Hitler’s emergence and use of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century. Hadassah strips that history of any of its real-world details and so renders it diabolical, primal. Which is, to be perfectly honest, of no use whatsoever. More importantly, it’s boring. Haman, evil as he is in the biblical book of Esther, is a fascinating character: urbane and powerful, driven by ambition and jealousy and a good deal of implied self-doubt. Tenney’s Haman is a barbarian, a rapist and plunderer who does not even object to having his life described in just those terms. But people aren’t like that. They tend to find justifications for all their actions, even the ones driven by hatred. Unlike ninety-nine percent of convicted criminals in the world, even Haman seems to view himself as a dyed-in-the-wool villain. Sure, he gets what’s coming to him, but by that point the reader doesn’t care, since there is nothing at stake within himself to make his violent death mean anything.
This novel is like a bad made-for-television action-adventure. Its plot is predictable, its characters lacking any substance, its goals written baldly on the surface. And yet, you still want to see it through to the end, because the hero is handsome, the heroine beautiful and the danger bigger than either of them could have imagined. Hadassah does have a certain momentum to it, but how much of that can be attributed to Tenney and how much to his original source material is hard to say. In the spirit of his book, I will give you my own advise: if you want to know the story of Mordechai, Haman, Esther and the rest, go to the original. It has stood the test of time and is worth a read.