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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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- CNN Belief Blog contributor

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

soundoff (470 Responses)
  1. UNITED WE FALL DIVIDED WE STAND

    @FlyGuyinSj

    Israel has fough a number of wars in self defense? You call the deliberate and indiscriminate bombing of refugee camps, hospitals and schools defending yourself? You call dropping cluster bombs on kids throwing rocks self defense? You call dropping a two thousand pound bomb on a clearly marked UN compound with peace keepers self dense? You must be insane!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Are you 15 years old? Can't you read about the wars of 1948, 1967, 1973? It's sheer ignorance of yours that does not deserve a response.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • toronto girl

      have to agree with the previous poster. Have you ever picked up a book? I know it's outdated but books have information about things that happened before you were born! Were you around to remember '47 when the Arab States made time leading up to the declaration of the State (in 48) living hell, not to mention what happened when they DID declare it in 48?

      Howabout the SInai? How about 67? How about the Munich Massacre of 72?? How about Yom Kippur War of 73?? I think the Arab States have demonstrated their intentions to the State of Israel sufficiently, that we should not have to justify our right to exist.

      We aren't the ghetto jews anymore. We fight back.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • tomben

      read about history there is enough blood to go around from both sides... neither side is "innocent"

      March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      JEW HATER !

      You have typed the same PLO propaganda before.
      When people try to talk to you, you ignore them,
      and go off on another rant.

      S T F U !!!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Meetra

      "we fight back" no honey, you just fight. The very first strikes in the area were done by your grandfathers! The massacre of deir Yassin, bombings of civilians everywhere. The terrorist organization that is you, as in your government, has engaged in violence since they got there. Maybe you need to stop espousing lies your rabbi told you! Sheeple, all you zionist supporters are nothing but sheep!

      March 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  2. joe

    We're supposed to derive national intentions based on a present from one man to another? Do you have anything better to do than find hidden meaning in gifts?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • toronto girl

      must be a slow news day

      March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  3. FunnyGraham

    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...................
    hhmmmmmmmmmm OK so in that case who the heck plays Esther?
    Common that's bad analogy altogether!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Crystal

      I know! I thought the same thing.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Michelle Obama is Esther. Her cousin Capers Funnye is a rabbi.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jesus

      ~~~The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!~~

      March 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • LivelyObser

      not healthy for ... other living things?
      Ok bible school for potted plants and cows and pigs. let's start there. Chimps and rats next.

      April 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  5. UNITED WE FALL DIVIDED WE STAND

    @Ashari

    No American fought for or has died for Israel? Are you insane? Every time an American dies at the hands of Islamic extremists in this world, its because of our double standard foreign policy that supports and defends Israel at the expense of the Arab/Islamic world! let's face it, Americans are targets in every part of this globe because of our support for Israel's genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine and Lebanon since 1948!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Certainly, when a Muslim kills an American, it's not the Muslims who are to blame, it's the Jews!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • toronto girl

      Somehow it always come back to us, doesn't it??

      March 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      So if somebody hates your brother, you should disown your brother ?
      Glad your not in my family.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • toronto girl

      what about the US support for the Shah of Iran? He was supported by the US for years. He was toppled by the Ayatollahs
      and the US was reviled for supporting him. US gives lots of aid to Egypt, and supported Mubarak, and before that Sadat. All dictators. The Royal family in Saudi Arabia gets $ from the US too; not exactly a democratic country.

      The overriding interest in the region is OIL. Not democracy, and the US will be on whichever side it chooses in order to get oil at a reasonable price. Because they know their citizens get testy and a wee bit out of sorts when oil prices go up.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Indivisible Under God

      The original poster has done a great job of distorting things. From the first letter of his moniker until the last punctuation of his/her/its post. He must be an atheist.

      March 28, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  6. Bill in Florida

    Since there is no God, Heaven, angels, etc., this article is moot. But to suggest that President Obama cannot make up his own mind about US foreign policy is shocking.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Tom

      How can you not believe in God?

      March 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • toronto girl

      Lots of people don't believe in god. I'm jewish but don't particularly believe in an eternal presence hovering up in the clouds. I still feel I can be jewish without being religious.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** Tom

      How can you not believe in God?

      Easy.
      He is not real.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  7. crusader12

    Wake up America, war with Iran is Stalingrad. I know you think you're tough, I know you think you can handle it: that's what Hitler thought too when he waded into Russia. War with Iran is war with China and Russia. End of the world kind of war. You won't win, Israel won't win, Russia and China won't win you will all just eradicate each other.

    Don't let the semite's do this to our economy or our soldiers. The Jews love to whine and cry about the holocaust, they love to tell the world they are so hard done by, anyone been following their holocaust against the Arabs? C'mon now...if the Jews attack Iran unilaterally, that's perfect. The Iranians get hurt and then Russia and China can turn that little god-forsaken beach head into an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. Now the semites are dead, the Iranians are hurt and the world can forget that the Jews attacked us on 9/11. Time is running out, we need to demand our government tell the Israelis we will no longer support their aggressive wars.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • loladog

      You are out of your mind

      March 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      You chose the right name for yourself. You are in fact a Crusader – a Jew hater like the original Crusaders.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Simon Says

      We dont turn our back on our friend.
      Stand tall Israel.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • toronto girl

      How many Arab states are there? Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Algeria,
      Bahrain, Qatar, UAE?/ did i get them all? And the Jews are waging a holocaust against the Arabs?? I think not.

      If we let our guard down, they will try and destroy us. When are they going to get tired of it and leave us alone??

      March 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • toronto girl

      The jews did not attack the US on 9/11. We don't treat our allies and friends like that. However it has been proved over and over again that was a group of Saudis and other Arab nationals who did.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Meetra

      Arabs are semites too. The fascist genocide machine likes to hide this, but it is true. They are committing a genocide against their own brethren. If anyone is anti Semitic, it is a zionist. They hate their own brethren and therefore, themselves. Sorry, guys, you can mix with Europe all you want but those newly adopted phenotypes are not indigenous. You are not different than the Arab Palestinians so stop your discrimination and hate. Those are your brethren and you should embrace and love them, not kill their children! You are both the seed of Abraham, and if you don't like it, take it up with him! So tired of wasted time over your baby daddy drama; get over it, he had a baby with Hagar and there is no escaping it!!!

      March 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  8. sp2011

    The world needs more nukes to deter themselves from the dangerous warmongering states USA and Israel.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Simon Says

      *** The world needs more nukes ....

      Naw, i think there are enough to get the job done.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  9. Apollo

    I understand the delicacy of the situation but I'm so tired of the war rhetoric. Haven't we has enough over the last decade. I don't think Obama will go to war unless there is an attack which can't be ignored. I can't say the same for any of the republican nominees.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • toronto girl

      well Mitt seems to think its the right thing to do!! Always easy to say when you're not in power, a lot harder
      to do if you're a thoughtful leader.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  10. Ben

    As much as I support the Jews state of Isreal to protect themselves, President Obama must weigh his decisions very carefully. He must in the first place, do what is in the best interest of the United States-not Isreal or any one else. He must not let the war mongers push him into war that we will later find out was absolutely unneccessry.
    If Iran tries to attack Isreal, the President must do everything within his power to protect Isreal. However, war is not a game. His decision must not be based on what is good for someone else at the peril of the United States. So far, I am glad that the president is given peace a chance.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Pete

      Well said. I agree completely.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • toronto girl

      Agreed, well said.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  11. Dalia

    The Jewish holiday of Purim is about an historical story that shows God's intervention (often in non-visible ways) when his People take responsibility for their lives and follow God's will.

    The story is certainly about the ultimate downfall of the oppressors of the Jewish People, but it's also essentially about Jewish repentance, their return to belief in the Torah, and a renewed clarity of the need for Jews to live amongst the nations but to maintain a separation of values, to contribute but not to assimilate.

    The confrontation between the Jewish People and the nations of the world is eternal in one form or another. Jews are commanded to remember the greatest of enemies, Amalek (Haman, the antagonist in the Purim story, was a descendent) and to be a "light unto the Nations." They are commanded to survive – both physically and also spiritually. The State of Israel ultimately has the responsibility, as it's able, to insure both of these needs. Even when the civilized world is distracted or blinded by other concerns.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • netanyoho

      I have sometimes thought ill about some Jews, my father was a Jew, and I have learned over the years that Jewish people in the long haul have very good hearts....despite you would like to kick their azzzes some of the time!!!!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Simon Says

      As mentioned in the above story,
      The word "God" is never mentioned In The Purim.

      Nice try.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Nick

    Good analogy but missing one element: that Obama would look past his ideology to see things this clearly. Blinding yourself to friends and enemies alike only makes it easier for your enemy to slap your cheek, and your friends to take advantage of your generosity. No doubt both will happen under Obama.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • netanyoho

      This debacle will cost the anointed one the election this year...He cannot see past the teleprompter in front of him!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Simon Says

      No doubt neither will happen under Obama.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Anne Beal

    Obama is facing his "Esther moment." It's time for him to do the right thing, even if it costs him. For Esther, it meant doing the right thing even if it cost her life. For Obama, it means doing the right thing even if it costs his re-election.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Maybe11

      Yeah. Telling the jews to go bugger off would be the right thing.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • netanyoho

      Agreed! 100% spot on correct!!! Great Post!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  14. China

    Most people don't understand the true. IF Israel want to attack IRan GO AHEAD. NO one will try to stop but as you all know the COWARD NATANYAHu is not going to do so because he's a COWARD. STOP talking, if you're man enough then attack IRAN. I'm so sick of all the fool, IF Israel want to attach any nation then go ahead and do it. THE US have been giving free NUKE to Israel, over $100 BILLION free money to Israel, what else you need COWARD. JUST DO IT.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Lefty

      Hmmm, Natanyahou a coward... My mother always taught me that if I didn't know baout something than to keep my mouth shut so others won't know my ignorance for, if I open my mouth then they will certainly become aware of it. Check your history especially Netanyahou's war record (see 'Yom Kippur War.'

      March 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Blow your nose, tuck in your shirt,
      here is a drink of water.
      Feel aw bedder ?

      March 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  15. Maybe11

    We need more wars. Hey, heard about what's happening in Uganda? Let's go there too. I also think we should get involved in the Falklands. Why not? We have unlimited money and resources.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Funny you should mention Uganda. Maybe you should google Yoni Netanyahu – Ben's brother – and learn about how heroic both brothers were. Uganda is where Yoni was killed when leading the Israeli commando operation to free Israeli hostages hijacked by the PLO and flown to Uganda.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Is your playstation broke ?

      March 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  16. kbob

    The GOP war hawks are insane. This is the party that's blathering on about the costs of education and social security, and yet wants to commit the US to a war that will likely cost 9 TRILLION dollars, or 3 times the cost of Bush's Iraq war. (No matter what the Bush math says - he failed math, like every other subject.) They want to cut health care, and yet are ignoring the fact that the Iraq war has killed 5,000 soldiers and wounded 25,000 more, and a war with Iran (a much bigger country) would likely create 100,000 casualties. Bluster leads to blunders. And friends don't let friends vote GOP.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Doledart

      So all the supporters of our backing Israel are GOP? That may surprise a few people.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Simon Says

      **** So all the supporters of our backing Israel are GOP? That may surprise a few people.

      Have made speeches in support of attacking Iran :
      Romney
      Gingrich
      Santorum
      Palin
      Bachman
      Perry
      McCain.

      Tells me all i need to know.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  17. dieshard

    THE koroon preaches HATRED of all non-muzzies. especially CHRISTIANS !!!! BAN izzslumm it is nothing but hatred !!! STOP them from building any mooseques , these buildings are occupied by TERRORISTS !!!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Jacob L

      Sigh.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • KA,

      You are such an idiot. Mosques are full of terrorist... I see group of hatretes live in land like USA. You are such an uneducated!!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Pull your finger out of your nose,
      put down the crack pipe,
      and try to act like a human being.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  18. Kwesoe

    Here is how I view the current American-Israeli relationship. If I were to approach my best friend about a threat I feel from an enemy, and if that friend asked me to be patient and let him handle the matter on my behalf, I would trust that my friend is reliable and has my best interest at heart. I would grant him the time to resolve the matter amicably. But if I chose to bypass my friend and attack my enemy on the basis that I know my best friend will intervene on my behalf, then I have put my best friend in an awkward position, making it difficult for them to come to my rescue. Israel is an independent country and its government may choose to defend their country from their enemies. But if ythey want American support, they need to play the American card. Right now, that card calls for diplomacy. Patience is a virtue.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • UNITED WE FALL DIVIDED WE STAND

      Well stated!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Iton

      Kwesoe
      has responded well and with wisdom. Well written, truthful and wise.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Simon Says

      If only more people could think like this.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. Natasha

    Peace be still

    March 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  20. UNITED WE FALL DIVIDED WE STAND

    President Obama is no fool! He knows clearly that a small dog that barks loud is eventually going to tuck his tale and run and hide. Let's fece it, all that Israeli war rhetoric is nothing more than an attempt to scare Iran and subsequently force the US to strike Iran instead of Israel having to bare the loud should Iran not comply. The reality is that if or when the time comes for Israel to strike, it would pee its panths out of fear of what an attack on Iran would mean for Israel and the entire resgion as a whole. Netenyahu reminds me of an old western I saw a few years ago called"the shakiest gun in the west." All talk but nothing to back his talk! Just like another dictator and bully Moammar Ghadaffi. Hopefully Netenyahu ends up in a drainage like Gadaffi and I hope there are rats in the sewage when he runs and hide!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • FlyGuyinSJ

      You do realize that Israel's leaders are all democratically elected, right? Don't know where you're getting this dictator stuff from. Or to put it another way, if he's a dictator, then you must believe the same about our own president, in order to remain consistent.

      WRT Israel and war, are you the slightest bit acquainted with history? Israel has fought a number of wars in self-defense, and has decisively won every one of them. When they say they will defend themselves, they mean it and they will not fail.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Simon Says

      ** The reality is that if or when the time comes for Israel to strike, it would pee its panths out of fear .....

      You mean pants ?
      This country has been atacked over and over since before 1947.
      I doubt very much that they are going to pee thier pants.

      You sound 12 years old, and you type like 6.
      Go back to the kiddie table.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:46 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.