My Take: Does Netanyahu's Bible gift to Obama mean war?
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week.
March 8th, 2012
09:12 AM ET

My Take: Does Netanyahu's Bible gift to Obama mean war?

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.”

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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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Filed under: Barack Obama • Bible • Iran • Israel • Middle East • Obama • Politics • United States

soundoff (470 Responses)
  1. padawandreamer

    Yes, that's the way I saw it.

    May 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  2. ahuvastore

    I believe Bibi bought his bible gift from here

    July 8, 2012 at 5:47 am |
  3. Karias88

    Just a thought, but shouldn't have sent the book to Michelle to make the story more parallel?

    June 18, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  4. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    Perhaps your fairy tale is just that, a fairy tale

    June 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  5. WDinDallas

    I wish he would have given him a book on Macro Economics.

    June 2, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  6. woof211

    a billion dollar weapon package for a book. i would threw that book in the trash and tell him "where is my money"? they come begging for weapons which for some reason they can't afford. end foreign military aid. change our MIC into a true outer space nation.

    May 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  7. Everett Wallace

    Telling barac that no matter that he supports and worships the iranians, they have already lost

    May 20, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  8. jewish

    This guy misunderstands the Purim story. The story is not telling us that in extreme times we cannot wait for God to act but must act ourselves. It's actually the opposite. When Jewish survival was in jeoprady, we were to fast and turn to God in prayer and that is when we received our salvation. Contrastingly, in the Chanukah story our Jewish practices were in jeoprady and that is when it was up to us to take up arms and liberate ourselves from the Greeks.

    May 7, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • EmRo


      May 12, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  9. rk

    GOD said the following: Whoever blesses Israel will be blessed and whoever curses Israel will be cursed. Time to make the right decision and do the right thing and be blessed at the same time.

    April 24, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      What an incredibly perverse basis for foreign policy.

      May 4, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  10. To Sum it up

    I must say, that most comments here are utter trash.
    Very few actually look at the big picture. Kwesoe and a few other, kudos.
    If politics could only be played in black and white, we'd have it all solved, one way or other.
    Fact: politics is complex and complicated, like it or not. It takes more than nonsense reasoning and spouting aggressive slogans.

    April 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. Pravda

    Ooh, Obama gets a Bible! He probably didn't know what it was. Pretty sure it will get stuffed into his nightstand. You know the nightstand that has his Koran on.

    April 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • LivelyObser

      hey P, only the dullest spit manure like you do. I realize that civility has gone on leave until after November elections, but your kind of non-remark is particularly amusing. You seem to subscribe to the 20 or 30 % of unBrained repuk votes.
      Correction: civility just informed me that it will remain on leave even after Obama wins in November, She'll give you neanderthals a bit more time to come to terms with your fate.

      April 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  12. AlienShark

    I require proofs and logic to believe in anything. I grew up reading the Bible and listening to priests and I became an atheist pretty much when I reached the age of reason. I always loved science as well. I also have to admit that I made horrible mistakes in my teens and twenties.
    I was stunned when I found that the Quran reconciles a balance between creation and evolution. I was beyond excited to find out that the Quran is in agreement with the big bang theory to the point that it describes the big bang and it even agrees with scientists to what the universe looked like after the bang. More importantly, it describes what was happening before the bang. I found out the Quran describes the male as determining the gender of the baby and that it describes the seven layers of earth as well as the seven layers of the atmosphere, even saying what their functions are in protecting life on Earth. It was amazing to read that EVERY thing in creation was created in pairs, which is something that as scientists look at smaller particles and into the quantum universe, they find to be ever true. Reading the simplistic brilliance that the Quran explains the relativity of time to uneducated desert dwellers 1300 years before Einstein was the last thing I needed to realize that this was not the work of a human being. The next thing was seeing how The Quran highly recommends the freeing of slaves and for those who are unwilling or unable, it demands they feed, clothe and house their slaves EXACTLY how they feed, clothe and house themselves and forbids the beating of slaves. How it demands fair treatment of women and gives them equal status in society, and goes a step further and asserts that women should be protected from birth to death. The way it demands the feeding of the poor and the orphans and demands fairness and respecting the rights of everyone around you (Muslim and non-Muslim) in every situation and business transaction. How it asserts that creatures like ants have audible languages long before we had microphones to hear them, I have to say that not only is this book definitely not the work of a human, but it HAS TO BE the work of the Creator of the universe, the only one that existed before the big bang.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      Very funny... I wish we could dispense with this holiday for the stupid... this April 1st foolishness. Why do people still do this? It's like that "Waz up?" garbage... it stopped being funny before it even started.

      April 6, 2012 at 6:05 am |
    • John

      Funny how the story gets twisted... Isnt Israel the one who is threatning to destroy Iran? Isnt it Israel that is threatening to wipe Iran off the map? I like how jews twist stories around to act like the victim

      April 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Frank

      everything is not created in pairs. Even the atom is not made up of pairs, it's made up of electrons, neutrons and protons, which themselves are made up of smaller particles quarks with interesting names like up, bottom, charm , strange, down, and top. Nor is the atmosphere made up of 7 layers, and the earths interior isn't either. So, while you may love to see science in the Quran, cool, I have a Quran as well you should open up more science books if you want to study science.

      April 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

      How revealing, the Quran the definitive source regarding science. Maybe you should quit your day job and become a comedian.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  13. c

    Oh my gosh, I read the headline Netanyahu's gift to Obama and I mumbled to myself " What a Bible?" Then I clicked on the story, hahaha. Yes, President Obama could use a refresher on Scripture. He doesnt know it, he doesnt quote it accurately and he doesnt live it.

    March 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Honey

      I would love for you to explain how he doesn't" live the scripture" exactly? You must be very close to him to be able to have such knowledge....and I anxiously await this "inside information"!

      April 4, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • LivelyObser

      Only barely literate dinosaurs 'live the bible'. Most of the rest of us has moved on to the 21st century. You know, cars, women in office, science, internet, logic, reason.
      I apologize to the dinosaurs for having mentioned them in your context

      April 18, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  14. joe d

    message to israel and AIPAC terrorists...blow meeeeeeee

    March 28, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  15. Meetra

    It is truly an evil thing to abuse a holy text to push our nation into an unprovoked war on another country. The terrorist element to the zionist regime is palpable and it tastes like crap!

    March 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  16. TheRussian

    First off personal feelings aside, Iran will not attack Israel first it is not in Iran's interests. Here is why they are a religious government kept in power based on threats of violence and common enemy's to keep the populace under control. The same thing happens in America they bicker and fight and disagree until attacked or a common enemy shows up. Russia same thing. The ignorant masses are kept under control by hollow threats,among other means. It is a war of words. All of the nations involved need the enemy at the gates. It distracts the masses from the problems in their own countries....

    March 20, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  17. The Obama Christian Church Worldwide

    When president Obama becomes of divine order on October 21st of this year, things will be put in perspective. We need to read the good gospels of Obama because he is a good christian family man and will be God on October 21st of this year.

    March 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • c

      If Obama is God, then I'm becoming an atheist

      March 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • LivelyObser

      If you make any sense, then I voluntarily go back to highschool and re-learn what they say about logic. (however since I am a firebrand liberal and proud of it, and working at a university... well, how about you go back to school? smirk)

      April 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
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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.