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. Riggan

    There is yet another way to read the story of Purim that can speak to each and every one of us internally.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Mark

    The man who wrote this article doesn't understand the book of Esther ... at all. God is the one who orchestrated all the events .. he was the one who changed the King's mind. And ... there was no war ... the King allowed the Jews to take vengance on the Persians ... God directed it all. Haman was literally caught in his own trap.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Jimmy

      And this is why religion is so dangerous; because people like you will justify slaughter of thousands or even millions as some that god wanted to happen. It is this same mentality which causes people to fly planes into buildings...

      March 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • george in texas

      well, what can we say? you know your god like the back of your hand, right? now take a hike.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Max

      And thus we see the Biblical god for what he is... a violent unspeakable horror. He's so powerful? I could have softened all their hearts and had love flow in the streets, but he likes blood better.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • 23 from texas

      In response to the first comment here... hahahahaha! God did not allow the slaughter of the Persians... He allowed the personal self defense of is people. The Jews were going to be slaughtered without any chance to fight back, like pigs. The King's mind was changed so that he allowed the Jews to resist, and they defeated their foes in self defense. Do your research next time before you hurt yourself with stupidity.

      March 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  3. amphiox

    One should point out that the in the book of Esther, the Persian King actually did NOT simply allow the jews to make war on and slaughter Haman's followers. Haman had previously convinced the King to issue a decree allowing his followers to massacre the Jews. After Haman was exposed and executed, for arcane legal reasons the Persian King could not actually countermand his own previous decree. Instead he issued a second decree allowing the Jews to take up arms and defend themselves IF ATTACKED.

    Despite Haman already having been executed, his followers still attacked the Jews, and the Jews fought back and killed them.

    In other words, the Jews were allowed to use arms to fight back ONLY if they were attacked first by arms. And the Persian King did not actively do anything to support the Jews EXCEPT stand back and allow them to use weapons to defend themselves.

    These subtleties I think are rather important, if one is truly trying make an analogy out of this story.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  4. asche

    I think the gift, and this article, are both attempts at getting Iran to think a bit. Nothing more. CNN is the tool of the CIA.

    March 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      As long as no weapon has been built, even as an American, I am inclined to take up for Iran at this point. I do not support the man they choose to lead them.(I'm also not so sure they really "choose" him either) Obama, China, and Russia are successfully, in my opinion, deterring a fabricated situation conjured up by the same men who convinced so many(and angered so many) that two mid-east nations(Iraq and Afghanistan) without any military defense (or offensive for that matter) were a grave threat to the United States and its allies. Odd how with overwhelmingly more resources Bush couldn't "capture" Bin Laden over a 7 year span, but Obama was able to do it in 2 years. Listen up Americans! If the Iranian people felt the way the media has convinced us they feel about America, Do you think it would be acceptable for them to show up to the voting centers on election day with shirts that say God bless America? (other shirts were seen in pictures with American flags on clothing, American companies on shirts, and American musicians on shirts) Think about that!

      March 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |

    I hope his limousine breaks down in the ghetto part of DC. Good luck sucker!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  6. loki

    President Obama, run from him. He will destroy all of us.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  7. madonfan

    Our safety depends on how cushy we are with our allies. We aren't just responsible for our own country. You have to take your nose out of your Starbucks long enough to be aware of what is going on around you. The fact that we have supported Israel is the only thing keeping this country afloat. You turn your back on Israel, you will see famine, pestilence, and destruction like you have never seen in the United States. Read your bibles folks. It screams off of the pages!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • jparker

      Ok Nostradamas. Not everyone believes in your big book.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • air

      I don't care if it screams, bleets, explodes or vomits off the pages. If it is irrational (and most of the bible is) it will still go in one ear and out the other.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • John

      Good lord, who let this dog out?

      March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |


      March 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  8. Peace TV

    Whether Israeli attack on Iran will eliminate the nuclear program or not is uncertain according to to top US Army commanders. But according to top US/world economists one thing is certain that a war with Iran will drive gas prices through the roof (good for war profiteers and oil corps) and US economy through the floor. I wish some day we will have a president who has time to read the stories of suffering Americans than the stories of what happened between Jewish people and the fire worshiping Persians who existed 200 years before the birth of Islam.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • One World

      We have one planet.
      What happens to one of us, happens to all of us.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  9. Bart

    We should make it clear that we would remove any more aid to Israel if they attempt a unilateral strike!

    They could destroy everything the President has gained in the last three years as well as turning the Middle East upside-down...

    There is No peace with the Palestinians because they can not be trusted to stop building in the West Bank like they said they would. They are hard to believe when they disregard everyone else.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  10. DavidJeves

    Israel is being threated with extermination; shall they just sit idly by until Iran strikes first with nuclear missles ?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Dustin

      Ah... I see someone hasn't done their research. Stop using the media as a credible source of information.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon! They don't even have the capability yet! If America had none and two of the most aggressive nuclear world powers of the time attacked the United States, what would be your first order to the military? If you cared about the preservation of your people you would demand the weapon with the ability to make the stop the attack. We still have time to try and stop this without mass loss of life. The people of Iran, (recent intelligence has shown) do not want a nuclear weapon or war. Obama and other world leaders are doing the right thing.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  11. dmeredith

    JUST FYI....the books in the Bible are not Fairy tales....tired of Atheist making claims against something they have NO CLUE about!!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I read it before you were born, I will read it again after you are dead.

      I have studied in detail for half a century, and read it in its entirety at least 18 times.

      I have written about it, studied its linguistic basis and compared and contrasted the various version and translations.

      I also see it as the fraud and nonsense it is.

      It is a tool to manipulate fools, and it seems it works quite well

      March 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • crusader12

      u are an idiot

      March 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • asche

      that's a joke, right?

      March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Same difference.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      I'm one of those people who aren't very spiritual because of my love for fact and science but I completely agree with you! I might not have the same faith in it as yourself but nobody has the right to talk down on your religion or the text that drives it. Honestly I find myself confused that I don't have your kind of faith because I can't imagine a world without you and yours christian influence and examples. A lot of these people spew their anti-christian rhetoric because of what powerful members of your faith have done with it in the past. It's important to remember that people like you represent your religious community and ideology, not those who tarnished the christian image through unethical practice. It's the same as this conflict...The people of our countries are being chastised for decisions we have not control of. Those who agree are only doing so because of they are seeing in their country's media release and spin tactics. I'm not on the same page but stand strong, never let your beliefs sway, and always take the side of what your bible's savior would have. I have to believe through my three sisters religious beliefs, like your own, that God and Jesus would stand for the people of all nations and peace.(not those of powerful men)

      March 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • John

      You are defended here by people who write that "nobody has the right to talk down on your religion or the text that drives it." They are wrooong, I do have that right. But I would turn it around. Who has the right to put ink to paper and say that God did it, not them? Who? How about King James of England, many years after the 'facts' of which he writes-is HE qualified to say what is the word of god? Well, the same goes for every single version of bible or Talmud or Koran, the authors are all people and not god. How DARE they presume to put words in god's mouth, when god itself can talk directly to the heart?

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

      John..you're right! my wording suggested that people didn't have the right to disagree. I don't believe in the religions in the world either. That being said...Does our right to disagree somehow justify always chastising those who do? We're not in holy war era Europe anymore. Other than minor impositions in influencing abortion and gay rights (in which they no longer enjoy any success) the christian community does far more good for the world than harm. That is why it is of MY OPINION that attacking it is wrong. To allow ourselves (as 'non-believers") to take part in attacking them makes us no better than the practices that sought to control in the writing of these religious books. In our day and age, the christian community mostly helps the world and its people. For that reason, regardless of what I believe (or think) I'm glad religion is here and I can't imagine a world without it.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  12. Daniel

    Obama should worry about what's happening in his own country. Who is he to tell Netanyahu what to do about Iran?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Obama is worried about the planet.
      You are worried about your own azz.
      I liked what the other poster said,
      you got "ONE" planet.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Obama is trying to do just that! He knows the cost of military action. He knows that to allow Iran to victimize themselves in the situation when all the world powers (because of Obama's calm and grounded guidance) are lining up together for a peaceful resolution would turn us into "invaders." If you were in charge of a non-nuclear America and two of the most aggressive nuclear world powers of our time carried out airstrikes against you, Would it not be your first order to attain the only weapon that would get them to stop as soon as possible. ( keep in mine..this conflict is to stop the capability to produce not capabilities already acquired or in play) We have time to stop this without adding more damage to our once humanitarian image or adding numbers to our military dead and numbers to Arab loss of life that is at such a level over the last decade that it turns ones stomach to read it. We should all commend Obama and the leaders of the world for protecting us! The 'grave danger" of this conflict (with the powers to be stacked as they are) far out weighs the current danger posed by Iran's POSSIBILITY to acquire this capability to produce. That being said..If Israel chooses to take action against our leaders wishes, they should do so alone and if and when Obama should intervene afterwards, it should be for the preservation of his people and their way of life...not yet again for that of another nation or that of those with bank accounts that have built on the death and destruction of others. And another thing America...don't be fooled by IPAC! Historians place most of the bible taking place in Iraq...not Israel, so the 'defense of the holy land" rhetoric doesn't add up. I have to believe (though I have no religious affiliation) that the bible I've read parts of suggests that God and Jesus would choose the life of thousands over a piece of land.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  13. medic

    Yes you are right IS real leader is not a dicator and Israel has the right to defend itself liev every other nation. And of course Isreal has proven to have doen so before through many Wars. I aslo do not like to see Iran with NBomb.

    But this is a completely different war and has huge implication with no guarnatee that Israel will achieve irs goals by doing what Netenyahu is prposing. Listen Israel have never asked US permission ebfore to go to any War inclduing the last fight in Lebanon with Hezbolla which did not achieve much. The only reason why Isreal is asking Obama's OK is as a cover becuase of the major risk involved otherwise you would alraedy have seen Iran facilities being bombed.

    The idea that if OBama or US does not jump immediately to bomb Iram beuase Netenyahoo said means that they are not supporting Isreal is very stupid. War should be the last resort, build consensus, isoltae Iran get rid of thier influence, try peace with ultimatium and then if that does not work you can use militray action.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • jparker

      Praying didn't work out to well last week for the people caught up in that twister. Don't you know that praying only helps people trying to score a touchdown?

      March 8, 2012 at 2:00 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 |

    Perhaps if a war breaks out with Iran, Israel would expect Iran to comply with the Geneva Convention accord to protect and treat humanly any and all Israeli prisoners of war! Well Iran, just remember no beheading allowed!

    March 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  16. toronto girl

    perhaps it was just a timely gift as we celebrate Purim now. You know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar??

    March 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • anaconda

      At least someone said, 'The emperor is naked'.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  17. Obama to address nation at 8 pm EST!

    Good evening fellow Americans and audiences around the world... I would like to start my speech by saying that I've read the book of Esther that my friend Bibi Netanyahu gave me recently. After carefully perusing this book and applying the lessons learned and the analogues, I've decided to role play as Persian king Ahasuerus.
    With this book as my guidance, I've decided to preemptively strike out at Iran. At this very moment as I am speaking live to you right now, intercontinental ballistic missles with 10000 kiloton MIRVs are approximately 3 minutes away from downtown Tehran and other cities in Iran.
    May God Bless America and Israel. My friend Bibi would like to thank the US for being such a staunch ally all these years.
    Now I'm going to head on straight to the Lincoln bedroom and play doctor with a nice Jewish girl name Esther............
    .........Ayatollah's I suggest you pray to Allah because (looking at watch) you have about 37 seconds left.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |

      I just wonder how Wolf Blitzer would rate the President's speeach!!!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Your rhetoric downplaying the seriousness of such an action only works against Israels desperate appeal to the world that they have the right to start yet another mid-east conflict. Not all the American people support every reckless decision Israel and the richest Americans make. Thank the top 1%...not America. There are many of us who seek to let the world know,( and yes the mid-east is a part of this world and their lives are just as valuable) that we stand on the side of peace not war for profit. If and when Iran shows to be a real threat to the world, it can be dealt with. To make myself clear, I do not support the antagonistic policies of the United States, Israel, or Iran. I do however support the people not jaded by propaganda from all of those nations as my fellow citizens of the real working class world.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  18. Whammybar

    You never once mentioned at the end of your article of the wishes or desires of the citizens of this country! You mention our Republican war mongers, you mention the Israeli publc and you mention Netanyahu. What about the American public?
    When is the last time you we asked about going to war or giving away billions in payroll taxes as foriegn aid?
    What about us?

    March 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  19. paganguy

    Israel is like a spoiled child. No matter what it does, Uncle will rush in to save it.
    Old and new testaments are just that, old stories.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • lindy556

      The last US wars were all to save Arabs/Muslims. Clinton went in to save the Muslims in Bosnia. Bush 1 went to save Kuwait. Bush 2 went in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Obama put us in Libya, Pakistan and now Africa. We have spent trillions in blood and treasure to help Muslims/arabs who still hate us and blame Israel for everything.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • billy

      They held their own pretty good for 4 wars without our direct help.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • stan

      lindy556 – bwahahaha... you think we went to war to help arabs! ha! how cute!

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

      Bush 1 didn't go to war to defend Kuwaitis, he went to war to defend Saudi oil. If Iraq took over more oil fields their influence on oil prices increases. Bush 2 went into Iraq because he grew up on daddy's lap who was porbably regretting not using Gulf War 1 to take down Saddam and open up Iraq for oil and construction contracts and outright theft of their oil. Hindsight is always 20/20 so Bush 2 went in to do just that by using 9/11 as an excuse. Afghanistan was a right war to have since they attacked the US. But the US should have got out of there as soon as they destroyed AlQaeda and the Taliban.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Israel has been defending herself from destruction since 1947.
      Doesnt sound like a spoiled child to me.

      You Jew haters need a new line.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Yes lindy all those things happened, but if you still believe the last two wars were about anything other than money and a display of power I suggest you do more than read and watch news broadcasts all coming from the same faction of men who started this mess in the middle east.

      March 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  20. Raza Syed

    No more war.
    Economy just started getting better and here come Israel wanted us to go war with Iran.
    No to War.

    March 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Yes Israel is the one who wants to drag us into this but the Israeli people are not at fault. They are left in the dark as to the real motives behind this war as much as the American and Iranian people are. This is the work of big money men trying to double their already out of control revenues.

      March 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • toronto girl

      So if the US decides to help the citizens of Syria and all the other Arab countries that are in revolt or uprising, the US won't get involved either?? Just trying to determine what the cut point is. I mean, these countries have lots of people who scream how much they hate the West + the US included.

      Israel is your ally, and yes they do receive financial aid, but the US has also come out very well in the bargain. Huge amounts of technical research and industry, and staunch ally and support in any area where loyalty shifts!!

      March 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      I remember very well the first Iraq war.
      Saddam was lobbing scud misiles at Israel
      and we had live American reporters on the ground.
      Pictures of crying children as bombs fell into thier neighborhoods.

      Iran already has misiles that can reach Israel.
      Even without a nuke.

      Nody should have to live like that, in constant fear
      from someone who wants you dead, just because you are different.

      I am an American, and i am behind Israel 100 %.

      Mark – Rochester New York.

      March 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • jhuesntdirniTX

      Toronto, I use to believe the same thing! I'm condescending to your opinion but if Israel was such a great ally then they would not meet with our president and down-play his position in front of the entire world. Then after a shameful and false press conference portraying themselves as "cooperating" go and deliver a contradicting speech to what at best be considered a right-wing lobbyist group. Guess who else gave speeches to that same group? The GOP candidates! So is Israel Americas ally or just those who guarantee to keep writing the checks?

      March 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
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About this blog

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.