Planning, Purpose, and Pleasure in the Book of Esther
By Annie Atura
The Book of Esther attempts to understand and predict others’ actions in the absence of a clear-sighted G-d. That attempt is both a necessary and an impossible strategy: Esther succeeds at it, Haman fails at it, and the pivot of the story, King Ahasuerus, fails to note the irony in his own perpetual realignment of allegiances, which all hinge on an understanding of the individuals that surround him as representatives of their respective ethnic groups and of Good and Evil themselves. Generalization – and perhaps language itself – alienates each of the characters from their capacity to fully choose (Ahasuerus inadvertently allows Haman to kill people he didn’t ultimately want to kill, and Haman inadvertently makes plans to kill the Queen, whom he didn’t mean to offend, much less to betray), but it also affords them the opportunity to correct the error (Ahasuerus, using Esther as a counterexample that invalidates Haman’s anti-Semitism, pardons all Jews). Pleasure drives the story – everyone is trying to understand what will please those around them, and making decisions accordingly – but ultimately the process of projection is too convoluted and self-reflexive to be reliable, even if it happens to work out for the Jews. Only G-d can generalize justly; and yet our leaders – and our authors – are forced to generalize. The Book of Esther exploits the potential for farce in any leader’s claim to be acting on behalf of the people, and the parallel claim of any person to be attempting to please others.
This reliance on generalization has special resonance with the Book of Esther’s depiction of government. But despite the Book of Esther’s preoccupation with the power to control and to generalize, what we learn over the course of the story is that an architect is not pleased to merely set a plan in motion – he is ultimately motivated by its specific and minute results. Yet a plan’s results are unpredictable: physical coercion cannot force emotional concurrence, and legislating outcome instead of method is impossible. Engineers make do with incomplete information, and they necessarily fail. Ultimately, the Book of Esther foregrounds the pitfalls of governance, which hinges on an imperfect reading of human habits and desires. Ahasuerus ineffectually grapples with the problem of dictatorship, revealing various facets of his rational shortcomings: he requires rejoicing; he blindly commits himself to whatever terms Esther lays down; he orders Vashti killed in an attempt to preempt the anarchy he imagines will follow from her example, only to attach himself to an arguably more subversive wife. The impossibility of owning another’s reaction – the necessity of defining oneself by what one can do, instead of the fallout of what one might – is both the glory and the shortcoming of Esther’s world, in which G-d’s presence is never discussed. G-d alone can see into others’ motivations, and determine their best interest.
The structure of the Book of Esther is literary in nature. It opens with an iteration of once-upon-a-time: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus” (1:1). It proceeds to determine what must be understood as a backdrop for the coming story, constructing a milieu before it acknowledges its primary concern for the characters that will come to conflict within it. The Vashti story may be seen in its entirety as a literary device that clarifies the prescience and weight of Esther’s plan, but even before Vashti is introduced, we learn that the feast at which she refused to show herself is preceded with another feast at which she does not, a 180 day feast for “all his officials and servants – the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces” (1:3).
What’s more, we are graced with unusually illustrative detail: “There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble” (1:6). Attention to physical particulars peppers the Bible, but largely in contexts in which it is required to assure the divinity of the sacrament, or in which specifications appear to have been required by the builders. Here, the specifications serve to reinforce the construct in our minds; the resultant divinity is imaginative, not ritualistic. Thus the author points the reader toward his awareness of the writing as a language that works with the general (characters on a page) to affect the actual (the readers who consume the language). The Bible is, itself, a kind of plan that grasps at actualization.
But while the author of the Book of Esther offers no clear determination of G-d’s will and no unimpeachable take-home message, thereby allowing us to create a meaningful understanding of our own, Ahasuerus as author thinks he can legislate his subjects’ reaction to his law as well as the letter of the law itself. He attempts to incorporate the negative space – the unlegislated – into the positive – his law: “In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure” (8). This is a strange detail, given the story that is to come. Ahasuerus has no apparent sympathy for the preferences of his queen, whom it does not please to appear before the king’s guests; and yet the king is so concerned with empathy as to legislate that no man drink against his will. This introduces a recurrent theme in the book: concern for other people’s comfort comes into direct conflict with one’s own desires; it is impossible to insist upon everyone’s happiness. As Ahasuerus’ example demonstrates, a laissez-faire attitude – in which one actively signs away one’s rights – will soon contradict itself and crumble, revealing an underlying conviction regarding what it means to be truly free, truly pleased. A king, if he intends to legislate pleasure, must ultimately decide for himself who deserves it, and how. “Order[ing]” one man’s “pleasure” is a paradox in itself; ordering his pleasure in the midst of other men ordered to undertake the same is downright disingenuous. As the adage goes, one man’s right to swing his fist ends where the other’s nose begins.
The difficulty of entertaining oneself in the shadow of a command to do so is prefigured in line 9: “Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.” Ostensibly, the women who are feasted are meant to enjoy themselves, but there are conditions. The authorial clarification of “which belonged to King Ahasuerus” – which is unnecessary from the reader’s point of view, as we already know that the palace is the king’s – reminds us of the contingence of the queen’s benignity. She entertains, but only because she has been empowered to entertain by Ahasuerus himself; it is his palace. Later, Esther will demonstrate an almost painful awareness of her social station, and she too will feast others in order to demonstrate her power. Unlike Vashti, though, Esther will capitalize on her privilege by entertaining the potentate whence derives that privilege, not by entertaining other women. Ahasuerus fancies himself a man who takes pleasure in others’ pleasure, but until a woman proves herself pleasurable to him, she is superfluous.
The theme also arises in the King’s unexplained addendum to his command that all men “should be master in his own house” – each man is also to “speak in the language of his own people,” and indeed, the text mentions twice that Ahasuerus chooses to send his command “to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language” (22). First, then, Ahasuerus desires that men be the dominant sex, thereby denying women power in the same breath as he grants it to men. He fails to see that empowering one party means disempowering another – and perhaps neglects to realize that one’s practices in “one’s own house” affect one’s public behavior, too, as is the case with Mordecai’s religious protestations. Moreover, the king demands that each follow his own preference in mode of self-expression. Presumably, he does so in order to project a positive image of his compassion and his leadership; leading as many provinces as he does, it would be unreasonable to expect them all to speak the same language. But does that not, after all, point to the inappropriateness of his dominion? Encouraging disunity and sectarianism through linguistic division might poison the kingdom, and, given the racial conflict at play in the rest of the book, we have reason to believe that it does. Ahasuerus, however, wants to be the hub of a wheel of Epicureanism – the one man who can communicate in all the languages, the one diner who can feast all the others, the one merry fellow whose happiness coincides with the blithely personal pleasure of his subjects. Yet the spokes that surround the theoretical hub of the king come into conflict rather than neatly diverging; subjects interact not only with their king but also with one another. The Book of Esther is ultimately the story of Ahasuerus’ hand forced by a network of conflicts amongst his subordinates, and not the story of their quarrels with him.
Yet even in situations of direct interaction between king and countrymen, subjects find that (contrary to what the King might choose to believe) their own pleasure fails to satiate Ahasuerus. He ends up executing Haman, a faithfully servant, when it becomes clear that his objectives differ – perhaps with good reason – from the king’s. In his daily life the king is no less selfish; after all, the author chooses to emphasize “the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus” (10) by listing them all by name. The king’s voracious sexual appetite is sated only by denying sex altogether to the men who serve him. The violence of pleasure is near at hand; the eunuchs, once individuals, are defined by their castration in the service of royalty. The king’s pleasure requires other men’s pain. It is no wonder, then, that the two conspirators are eunuchs who “became furious” (2:21). The author does not explain why these two men were furious, but it may well have to do with repressed anger surrounding their castration. Tellingly, Mordecai, a man similarly subject to the King’s caprice, chooses to turn the conspirators in; power in Shushan is won by manipulation, not by empathy.
The eunuchs serve a further purpose in their role as media. The eunuchs are commanded to transmit the King’s message, and the author twice includes that fact in his description of the events that unfold: “Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs” (12); “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?” (15). The intermediary converts the monarch’s wishes into a kind of text; the distance makes Vashti’s refusal plausible. Because it is presented as a relayed demand and not as a personal wish, she can respond to the metaphorical capital in play, and her choice to rebuff the king’s demeaning request prioritizes dignity (and abstraction) over convenience. The eunuch’s messengerhood also makes Vashti’s refusal into a text; and that textuality is capitalized on by the wise men, who read its mimetic power on a literal, not figurative, level. In both cases, the text fails to convey the mood of the subject – only the cold implications of the text itself. Neither Vashti nor Ahasuerus consider the other’s feelings, focusing only on the repercussions thereof. Thus we are exposed to one of the primary perils of authorship in the book of Esther: text acquires or presumes to acquire universal significance, but the level of that significance hinges on interpretation, not on intent. As much as the superficiality may occlude meaning, though, it may also serve to benefit certain individuals. Mordecai later survives his refusal to bow down to the king only because the news was funneled through Haman; had Mordecai’s disobedience been experienced directly by the king, and not as part of a separate dialogue in which Mordecai and Haman were personally at odds, the king would surely not have sympathized with Mordecai’s ethical qualms.
The women’s situation with regard to the king is as abject as the eunuchs’, though different in flavor. “In the evening [the prepared virgin] went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name” (2:14). The woman is one-time use; she is in others’ custody both before and after her moment of glory in the king’s presence, and even that moment of glory is defined by his pleasure. Esther uses the king’s weak compensation for the humiliation to curry actual favor with him. Esther “requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised” (2:15) – unlike the other women, as we might imagine, who would take advantage of the opportunity by requesting precious goods. Thus the king’s preoccupation with beneficent power resurfaces: he wants to rule only over those women that would refuse to take his wealth, so satisfied are they with his gaze. This perverse demand that others find one pleasing resonates with authorship: one insists on writing the relationship between two individuals, but finds oneself unable to control the subtext. In forcing disingenuous flattery, the king creates a situation in which he, an attention-hungry child, is the servant of a prudent and beautiful woman. In eliciting a genuine emotion, one must refrain from demanding it.
Metonym and abstraction serve both to deceive and to illuminate, and in the Book of Esther we witness the battle over the king’s conscience. His opinion is at stake; he must be won over to various players’ interpretations of the narrative itself. Haman’s narrative regards Mordecai as the representative of all Jews: we learn that “Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus – the people of Mordecai” (3:6). Haman, then, wants to literalize his associations, shaping historical events around an intellectual dislike for Mordecai and, by extension, “the people of Mordecai.” He presents the abstract – the law-based – explanation of his activity to Ahasuerus, neglecting the details that would actually define his plan. “There is a certain people,” he begins; “their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws” (3:8). He knows that, speaking in the abstract, he can win the king’s support; but really he is working on a micro level, driven by his hatred of a specific man. The Jews in the audience know that Haman is speaking the truth despite his villainy (Jews’ laws are different, after all), and that, indeed, an autonomously governed sect is not acceptable to the king, regardless of his pretensions to tolerance. Haman doesn’t lie. And yet neither does Esther when she presents a narrative in which she is the representative token of the Jewish people: “Let my life be given me at my petition,” Esther pleas, “and my people at my request” (7:3). If Mordecai equals Jews, they may be in trouble; if Esther represents them, they are saved. Yet Mordecai and Esther operate through and with one another, and the distinction between them as Jews is ill founded; but then taking any one individual as a meter stick for their ethnicity (as Haman does), or consenting to a genocide in abstract (as does the king) is illogical, too.
In the book of Esther, law is presented as a weird intermediary between consciousness and helplessness. Law is the most obvious instance of powerful abstraction: it identifies individuals by criteria instead of as individuals. In order to understand his own will, the king appeals to the “wise men who understood the times” (1:13). Ahasuerus is the sole determinant of the law that shapes “the times,” and yet he appeals to men of learning to understand it, asking, “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law” (1:15). Meanwhile, the men of learning answer with a nod to the contingency of their power: “If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out,” advises Memucan (1:19). It’s therefore eerily ambiguous when the author writes that the wise men “had access to the king’s presence, and ranked highest in the kingdom” (1:14). Did they rank higher than Ahasuerus himself? No, the reader might say, of course not, they are his servants – and yet their appeal to the king’s pleasure is a formality, because Ahasuerus has already made clear that he derives pleasure from the sheen (perhaps not the reality) of justice and wisdom, and has ascribed those virtues to his wise men. His pleasure is theirs to interpret. Ahasuerus also seems to feel compelled to comport himself in a kingly way despite defining kingliness; the author notes, rather awkwardly, that in celebration of the “Feast of Esther” Ahasuerus “gave gifts according to the generosity of a king” (2:18), as though his position were constantly evaluated from the outside. Anything Ahasuerus does will necessarily befit the person he is.
It becomes even clearer that Ahasuerus’ power isn’t fully his own when the author points out that the decree to kill the Jews wasn’t technically written by the king at all. Ahasuerus’ power is totally dependent on a vast network of kingly laborers and enforcers, to say nothing of the culture that props him up and enables the language that is his medium. “The king’s scribes were called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and a decree was written according to all that Haman commanded – to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, to the officials of all people, to every province according to its script, and to every people in their language” (3:12). And yet, the King, unconscious not only of the words that have been written – how is he to verify the translation? – but also of the method in which “law” will eventually be interpreted, eagerly puts his weight behind it: “In the name of King Ahasuerus it was written, and sealed with the king’s signet ring” (3:12). This is a king who constantly enacts laws whose ramifications he cannot understand in more ways than one.
Even the king’s ring itself – an obvious metaphor for his agency – isn’t fully his own. He gives his stamp of approval with the same signet ring that we have learned is no longer in the king’s possession. “The king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedath the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews” (3:10). The giving of the ring has important resonance in the context of Ahasuerus’ history of marriage: we know that he has just crowned Esther, but her position is precarious – where he can give a crown and remove it once, he can do so again. This scene with Haman feels like its own kind of a betrothal and, as such, a betrayal of his wife. How are we to take Ahasuerus seriously when he offers Esther half the kingdom knowing that he would entrust the seat of his authority to a man whom, the author coyly insinuates, he hardly knows? The author identifies Haman with his lineage and his hatred for the Jews, but we know that Ahasuerus fails to identify him by those characteristics, or by any other, save his loyalty. In any case, his empowerment of Esther by marriage seems no different in kind than his aborted unions with Vashti and Haman. Intellectual thralldom is not forever, and a law is no true law when its interpretation evolves – just as a wife is more like a concubine when she can be dismissed at will.
Power in subtle manipulation is repeated in the description of the king’s election of a new bride. The author shies away from a clear description of Ahasuerus’ intimate emotions, but seems to imply that he mourns Vashti. “After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s servants who attended him said: ‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king’” (2:1-2). The progression indicates that the king’s servants are looking for virgins for the king – without his command – in order to allay his regret. The author’s bashfulness in making the situation explicit is another bow to the strange respect for power at play throughout the book: because we respect power, we choose not to present the powerful in a position of weakness; and yet, our choice to skirt description of their weakness amplifies the reteller’s position of power. It is only because the author recognizes his superior vantage in this case that he knows not to recount the precise cause of the king’s malaise, and the author implicates us in that patronization when he bonds with us over an understanding of the king’s true condition. The servants reiterate this upending of power in their search for a remedy: the king must be taught pleasure again, against his will; his current pleasure is not what they deem to be his true pleasure. This is the authorial game: knowing one reader’s desires better than the reader can know them himself, the author attains absolute power, but only in the position of servant.
Servitude certainly bestows unique powers. In order to preside over the women, one must be castrated: “all the beautiful young virgins” are to be placed “under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women” (2:3). It’s hard not to feel for Hegai. The author notices him, too; in addition to the previous instance, he is mentioned thrice, even after the author shifts his attention to Mordecai and Esther (2:8, 2:15). The author makes a heady suggestion by immediately following this distinct naming of Hegai with a description of Mordecai, the caretaker of his “uncle’s daughter,” who was “lovely and beautiful” (2:7). Esther is an enigma herself, an orphan whose name is, as the author informs us, “Hadassah, that is, Esther” (2:7). She is an authorless creature, without a clear origin, who seems to metamorphose effortlessly. The author writes that “Mordecai took her as his own daughter” (2:7), and yet they’re cousins, and therefore of the same generation (though their age remains unknown). Mordecai’s ability to form and utilize her makes it impossible for him to enjoy her sexually.
But if we might wonder whether it is worthwhile for men to assume positions of control over women only if they are emasculated, we might also pity the women who are controlled. Certainly, Esther enters the stage as a puppet. Her gift upon selection by Ahasuerus is “beauty preparations, besides her allowance” (2:9) – hardly a clear affirmation of her abiding worth in his eyes. What’s more, “Esther had not revealed her people or family, for Mordecai had charged her not to reveal it” (2:10). She is not in control of this game; indeed, she is being watched like a runner on base by Mordecai, who “paced in front of the court of the women’s quarters, to learn of Esther’s welfare and what was happening to her” (2:11). The author reiterates Esther’s obedience: “Esther obeyed the command of Mordecai as when she was brought up by him” (2:20). In other words, she is still a child. The attitude of deference transfers easily: she takes Hegai’s advice too, passing between literal and figurative eunuchs in pursuit of the favor of a man with real power. The game revolves around the assumption that there can only be one true fountainhead of power; all other players’ power consists of their ability to manipulate that font. Yet each player has a certain kind of manipulation at their disposal, and an accompanying weakness. The Book of Esther is a network of rocks, papers, and scissors.
It’s unclear where Esther’s identity is to be found in this mess. When Esther discovers that the Jews are to be systematically murdered, she “was deeply distressed” (4:4). But that statement isn’t as simple as it appears – immediately after, we learn, “Then she sent garments to clothe Mordecai and take his sackcloth away from him, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Esther was not, then, distressed to learn the news that her people were to be killed, per se; she was distressed that Mordecai was distressed. What’s more, she fails to understand the motivations behind his behavior; any self-respecting head of the Jewish community would not consent to be robbed of his mourning ritual, especially by a fellow Jew who would presumably understand the rite as an actively forward-looking act of penance and supplication. The act of mourning isn’t merely a way to suffer; it is a way to assuage suffering. Yet Esther, a Jewish insider, reads the situation as though she were an outsider, imposing a simplistic reading of suffering. We might also notice that Esther sends “raiment to clothe Mordecai” (4:4) exclusively, though “many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (4:3). She seems to understand this catastrophe as limited, indeed; it is not genocide, to her, but murder.
The ambiguity of Esther’s evolution from ingénue to savior constitutes perhaps the central question of the book. Is Esther essentially forced into her role as heroine, or is she conscious of the position she has assumed? Esther’s unique method of supplication ostensibly springs from her unique experience as a perpetual subordinate – she herself devises the ploy to invite the king and Haman to successive dinners, not Mordecai, and she plays to the king’s pride rather than attempting to strong-arm him. Esther’s particular gift plays on others’ power rather than creating it anew; it is the traditional woman’s power, directing a man instead of creating a new position of authority.
Is such a power less valid than its male counterpart? The text might ask the same question of itself, in reaching out to an audience rather than performing any good on its own: is a transparent author more or less at home in his own writing than he would be in the world? Is Esther, a master of disguise and manipulation, more or less autonomous for her ability to navigate all words instead of keeping within the bounds of her alleged home? It is no coincidence that she seems disconnected from the Jews she ultimately saves. The Book of Esther ends on a discordant note as the Jews seem to take up the mantle of menacing potentate: “And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them” (8:17). Is it possible to ever feel at home, surrounded by ethnic groups, relatives, and rulers that all lay claim to the individual? Is belonging much more empowering than persecution?
At any rate, the book makes clear that it is impossible to feed entirely off of others’ pleasures. When Haman comes to Ahasuerus with the plan we know to be evil, he poses it as a proposition to please the king. “If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who do the work, to bring it into the king’s treasuries” (3:9). The king, in turn, answers by identifying his own pleasure with Haman’s: “the money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you” (3:11). Both of these transactions prove dishonest. Haman does not seek to please the king; he is displeased in carrying out the order that is soon to follow that he lead Mordecai through the streets, to say nothing of Haman’s own execution. Ahasuerus, in turn, rescinds his trust in Haman.
This direct interaction featuring a disingenuous identification of self with other is neatly inverted in the relationship between Esther and Mordecai that is to follow. These two are physically separate (unlike Haman and Ahasuerus, who feel uncomfortably near), and the author takes pains to describe each messenger going in and out of the palace, where nobody clothed as Mordecai is (i.e. poorly) may be admitted. Esther learns of the situation via her “maids and her chamberlains” (4:4); she sends her cousin the clothes through some third party (4:4); she asks for an explanation of Mordecai’s behavior through Hatach (4:5); Mordecai gives Hatach an explanation and a further messenger of sorts: a “copy of the writing of the decree that was given at Shushan to destroy them, to show it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her, and to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people” (4:8); and “again Esther spake unto Hatach, and gave him commandment unto Mordecai” (4:10); and “then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther” (4:13); and “then Esther bade them return Mordecai” a response (4:14); and only then did “Mordecai [go] his way, and [do] according to all that Esther had commanded him” (4:17). The interaction concludes with the two conspirators agreeing to a precise course of action for themselves, to be undertaken in private – even while the Ahasuerus-Haman interaction has concluded in the most ambiguous terms, without either party having firmly enumerated their practical game plan. Mordecai and Esther start out at odds, and must reconcile themselves by reasoning and mutual sacrifice – Mordecai will fast for Esther; Esther will intrude on her lord. Haman and Ahasuerus, alternatively, come to a shallow agreement without any bargaining or acknowledgement of self-interest. And while Haman convinces Ahasuerus by using abstractions – he speaks of the people who violate his laws, not of the Jews – Mordecai convinces Esther by eliminating the abstraction: “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews” (4:13). The polite denial of self-interest coincides with a dangerous inattention to literal meaning; a crude kind of bargaining, even undertaken through a medium that renders the interaction particularly adversarial, nevertheless results in genuinely harmonious activity.
Perhaps the world is possible because of conscious beings’ failure to totally predict matter; if so, the Book of Esther revolves around the recognition of the recalcitrance of pleasure, which is similarly unpredictable and inevitable. Pleasure is the one thing that each individual is meant to own; the pursuit of pleasure is meant to be some kind of self-actualization. And yet the book urges us instead to identify self-actualization with the denial of pleasure; we are most successful when we take directions and work around our understanding of other people’s motivations. Pleasure (or, more generally, intention) serves as a poor descriptor of self because it eludes even its subject. What is true in abstraction is often not true in principle; Ahasuerus believes that the people who abide by their own laws and resist his deserve to die; he also believes that each man should be given leave to practice his own customs; and he balks at the notion that he would ever endorse eliminating his Queen’s people. We might ask whether he is properly the author or the reader of his laws; and whether, analogously, pleasure makes us the author or the reader of our own destiny. The potential for an intrinsic set of characteristics makes us properly the readers of the book of our desires, and yet we become authors precisely because of our ability to shape other people. The creation of identity is here deeply mired in dialogue. We are incapable of actually transferring agency to our peer – Ahasuerus demonstrates the implausibility of the paradox by telling Haman that “the money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you” (3:11) only to renege on that promise when the terms were elucidated.
Ultimately Ahasuerus fails both at ensuring individuals’ pleasure in the face of mutual self-interest and at ensuring his own in giving them unprecedented freedoms. By the end of the book, he proves incapable of pleasing everyone, but the eagerness with which he ultimately pleases himself reveals the principle that drove the story all along. Ahasuerus imagines that his pleasure hinges on others’ pleasure – first his guest’s, then his kingdom’s, then Haman’s, then Esther’s. Yet he fails to understand their actual desires; he must, we remember, ask Esther repeatedly what it is that she would like, and her report is inaccurate; she must hide her actual pleasure because she understands that Ahasuerus doesn’t understand his own, and would quickly balk if he came to feel violated by he gift he had freely proffered. It’s telling, indeed, that “the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed” (3:15): pleasure is never universalizable, and the evidence of coercion is everywhere. The king needs eunuchs to guard his women and Vashti must disappear to make way for Esther. Neither rewards nor punishments are ever unilateral, and in this way we might understand why G-d does not appear in Esther: it is too jam-packed with dependent humans to make room for a G-d with full agency, who could predict and fulfill true needs.