March 8th, 2012
09:12 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
Being president is stressful. Even the presents you receive can turn your hair gray.
Take the gift Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bestowed upon President Obama on Monday: a copy of the Book of Esther. This book, which appears both in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament tells a tale that Jews commemorate on Thursday with the holiday of Purim.
In this tale, set in the Persian Empire in the 5th century BCE, Persians plot to destroy the Jews. The villain of the story is Haman, whom Netanyahu described in his AIPAC speech on Monday as “a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people.” The hero is Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who urges Esther, the queen to Persian king Ahasuerus, to prevail upon her husband on behalf of the Jews.
In the end, Ahasuerus, who initially supported the evildoers, flip-flops, allowing the Jews to go to war against their Persian enemies. The Jews are victorious and 75,000 Persians are killed in an orgy of “slaughter and destruction.”
It’s not hard to imagine how Netanyahu wants Obama to read this ancient story. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Haman, threatening Israel with destruction by a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu is Mordecai. And Obama is King Ahasuerus who needs to decide whose side he is really on.
But this isn’t the only way to read the story.
I was in Jerusalem on the eve of Purim a couple years ago. It's a raucous celebration that commemorates the events of the Book of Esther. I say raucous because it is actually a commandment during this joyous holiday to drink to excess. Jews are supposed to drink until they cannot distinguish between the evil Haman and the virtuous Mordecai.
In a Purim sermon I heard at the Wailing Wall, an Orthodox rabbi spoke of driving into the city every day through an Arab section, and greeting the Muslims he saw there not with fear and anxiety but with love and joy. He then urged his listeners to drink of wine and God until they could not tell the difference enemies and friends, Arabs and Israelis, the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai.
So perhaps the Book of Esther is telling Obama to play the king, to give the Jews a green light to destroy their Iranian enemies, and lay waste to 75,000 Iranians in the process.
But perhaps this Bible story is telling the president to see beyond the virtues of the Israelis and the vices of the Iranians to the common humanity in all of us — to drink until he cannot tell the difference between our enemies and our friends.
It is up to the president to decide how to read this story, and how to read the mixture of intelligence and nonsense that is emerging out of Iran and the Middle East in recent days. Will he listen to Republican presidential candidates who are beating the drums of war? To Netanyahu, who seems to be doing the same? To the Israeli public, which is wary of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities?
In times like these, prior presidents have turned to God in prayer. But one curiosity of the Book of Esther is that it does not mention God. In extreme times, the story seems to be telling us, we cannot wait for God to act. We must act ourselves, or refuse to act. And in either case we and we alone bear the intended (and unintended) consequences.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.