I’ve been slowly, very slowly, reading the Bible, in Spanish, in an attempt to learn some Spanish and learn some Bible. I read about a chapter per day, and read each chapter for three or four days in a row, until I feel I’ve mastered all the Spanish words and grammar being used. For the books in the Bible with which I was already familiar (e.g., Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, etc.), I was able to guess at words and grammar and concepts such that I could sometimes read the Spanish without referring to the English translation (which runs alongside the Spanish in the Bible I’m using).
Not for Esther. I’d never read it before, and from the start, I had no idea where it might lead. As the story unfolded, the problem got worse. Esther was so implausible; it made so little sense, that I as I read, the more incredulous I got. The story has all the elements of great fiction—power, romance, tragedy and triumph—but too much of it is too unbelievable to work as fiction. Fiction has at least to be plausibly true to work. Esther has pretentions of being historical. It uses a real Persian King (though misidentified, according to biblical scholars) as one of its main characters. Yet there is no archaeological evidence of its occurrence (Xerxes and his court, who is thought to actually be Artaxerxes I, a Persian King of the early fifth century BC, is the setting and one of the story’s main characters).
I grew up and live in the South, in Central Alabama, the Buckle of the Bible Belt. It is virtually impossible to find anyone here who tries to understand the Bible in context, let alone tolerates criticizing it. More often, people claim the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, pretending there were no intervening humans who may have erred a bit in the transliteration of God’s words. It is sacrilege to even suggest that maybe some of the Bible’s human transcriptionists allowed their own agendas to guide their pens as much as they did God’s.
Nobody knows for sure who wrote Esther. Some think Mordecai, which would make sense. Because Mordecai comes off looking very, if implausibly, good, while everyone else but Vashti (Xerxes’ first Queen) looks a bit craven. Even Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, doesn’t seem, when reading between the lines, as much a heroine as the titular book makes her out to be.
By the time I was halfway through the book, my bullshit meter was incessantly pinging. I started imagining how the book might look to someone not so credulous as I, something I do when I feel my skepticism reaching a boil. And the people I turn to in my head for testing credulity is old black men in the South. When something smells fishy, I always imagine what old black men in the South might think. Because there’s none wiser in American culture than an old black man from the South; none better at sniffing out a lie. Their wisdom arises from a lifetime of being lied to and marginalized. As they by and large aren’t allowed to participate in mainstream culture, they have nothing to gain from accepting its lies. It makes them bullshit bloodhounds.
In the 2016 film, Fences, about post-WWII urban black culture in Pittsburgh, Troy is a middle-aged black man (old enough to be wise) who has a family and a job for the city collecting garbage. He and his buddy, Jim, meet nearly every day after work in Troy’s back yard to do what friends do—drink, talk about life, gossip, try to figure out the world, etc. I loved the movie, particularly Troy and Jim’s backyard sessions. It reminded me of growing up in Alabama, and later, of my days in the Army, when old black men (older than me, at least) would sit around chewing the fat and dispensing the accumulated wisdom of their years. So, instead of offering a formal review of Esther, I decided to let Troy and Jim review it for me, to see whether the tale would pass the old-black-man smell test. I know the movie wasn’t set in the South, but I felt it captured what I had seen in my upbringing and travels of the wisdom of old black men in generally.
Keep in mind that I’m not black and may get their speech wrong. I have used the movie, and my general experience, as a template for the vernacular. I don’t mean to offend blacks or anyone else with the vernacular I use. I mean instead to celebrate the wisdom that can only arise from a lifetime on the margins, of looking at things with a clear eye because there aint no reason not to.
Their views I don’t apologize for, because I’m making them up. And yes, my idea that two old black men would be discussing the Book of Esther in the backyard over a bottle of gin is utterly implausible. It is even more implausible to imagine they’d spend much time criticizing anything in the Bible, leaving all that biblical stuff to the preacher, like most folks do. But then, so too is the tale told in Esther implausible. By a long shot, more implausible than the suspension of disbelief that my little adaptation requires.
I’ve written it like a screenplay. Hope you enjoy.
The Book of Esther, as Told by Troy to Jim
(The scene opens with Troy sauntering down the back steps of the shotgun house in the lower middle-class black neighborhood in 1950’s Pittsburgh where he lives with his wife and son. He has an unopened pint of cheap gin in his hand. His best buddy, Jim, who lives just down the street, comes by nearly every evening after work to hang out for a while before he goes home to supper with his wife. Jim is waiting on Troy when he gets there. The backyard is tiny, with a half-built fence around it, and some fence-building supplies laying around. An alley runs along its back side. A massive oak tree consumes one of the back corners of the yard. Hanging from a limb of the tree is a baseball tied with a string. Leaning against the fence is a Louisville Slugger.)
Jim: Niggah, what took you so long? I been done and waiting on your sorry ass for near abouts an hour.
(Note: the characters used the ‘n-word’ in the film, repeatedly, and so will I, in mimicking the dialogue.)
Troy: Niggah, you don’t want to know what took me so long.
(Troy breaks the seal on the pint and pours a splash of gin on the ground—to appease Death–before turning up the bottle and handing it to Jim, who takes a swig, then hands it back.)
Troy: You know that big ol’ Jew-boy Joseph who throws garbage on my truck? He ‘as so hung over he had to ride in the cab all day. I throwed his trash for him and drove while he’s slumped against the door looking green. He tol’ me his people had a festival yesterday, Purim, he said it was.
Jim: ‘Dem Jews…they have a festival for everything. What’s this un for? To celebrate having festivals?
Troy: Niggah, that’s what you don’ wanna know. W’iles ol’ Joe was up there riding in the cab with me, he tol’ me ‘bout Purim, or tried to, but he ‘as still so drunk it came out like the garbage I’s a throwing for him. Said Purim’s from the Book of Esther. Said they read the whole book out loud yesterday. I reckon that’s befo’ he got drunk.
Jim: I done heard of Esther. Preacher done preached all about her in the pulpit last month. Esther’s a Jewish princess or something. Saved her people. Womenfolk liked the sermon. It didn’t much move me, but then I don’t think it was meant to. I ain’t never heard of Purim, though. Give me some of that (pointing to the bottle).
Troy: You wouldn’t believe the tale if I tol’ you.
Jim: Try me.
Troy: Now ol’ Joe, he weren’t much help. All’s I got from him was a few mumbles about some dudes named Xerxes and Mordecai and Haman, and about how him and all his Jewish buddies read Esther last night, then he sorta drifted off. So I fished my Bible out of the glove box…
Jim: Hold it right there, niggah…you telling me you keep a Bible in the glove box…of the garbage truck?
Troy: Sho’ I do. What, you think can’t nobody but some crackerjack preacher looking for a dime in the plate read the scriptures? I read it all the time. Just never Esther. I’m a Old Testament niggah, no doubt, but I don’t get much past Exodus. If you a black man in America, you gotta be reading Exodus.
Jim: (enunciated slowly and clearly) Troy Maxson, The Garbage Truck Preacher Man! Who’d ‘ve thunk it?
Troy: Just shut up for a minute, niggah, and listen.
Jim: Go on, Mr. Garbage Truck Preacher Man.
(Troy takes up the bat leaning against the half-finished fence and starts swinging at the ball dangling from the tree branch, imitating in slow motion the wind-up of a home run hitter.)
Troy: Ok. So here’s how it goes. There’s this King of Persia, Xerxes. Dude gives a party in Susa, the capital city of his kingdom, for all the kingdom’s big wigs. It lasts 180 days. Half a fucking year, niggah! And at the end of it all, he gives a seven-day banquet for all the people, big wigs and everybody else, who live there. Everybody drinks what they want and as much as they want. It was a seven-day drunk to get over the 180-day hangover.
Jim: Better than the hangovers from this cheap gin, I bet.
Troy: No doubt. Now his Queen, Vashti, holds her own dinner party for all the women. But the King gets drunk and decides he wants to show her off to his friends, so orders her to appear at his party.
Now, let’s stop there for a minute—you think Rose’d come to me like a lap dog just ‘cause I got drunk and wanted to parade her around like a piece of meat?
Jim: Hell, no! Rose might come, but she’d be carrying a frying pan.
Troy: Exactly. Vashti didn’t like the idea any more than Rose would. She said no. And nobody tells the King no, not even the Queen.
Jim: What the King do then?
Troy: Xerxes got together with his lawyers and judges and asked them what to do.
Jim: Nah, you shitting me? He’s got to call his lawyers to figure out how to handle his wife?
Troy: Yep, and they told him that if he don’t punish Vashti the women of the kingdom would think they could get away with anything. So they told him to banish her from his presence, and to find a new queen.
Jim: Damn! Just like that. I tell you what, niggah, ain’t none of our wives woulda put up with that. They wouldn’t allow it. They’d make that king, and every man in the kingdom, so miserable until he’d beg to take his queen back. He’d give her half his kingdom if he had to.
Troy: Yeah, funny you say that. ‘Cause that’s what the King promised his next queen, just for her to tell him what she wanted.
Jim: Who was the next queen…hold on…was that Esther?
Troy: You musta been listening in church. Esther was the adopted daughter of a guy in the King’s court, a fella named Mordecai the Jew, who was actually her cousin.
Jim: Mordecai the Jew?
Troy: That’s what they called him. Maybe I should start calling Joe, “Joseph the Jew”.
Jim: Maybe not. You just got that driving job. You don’t want to risk nothing. I bet Joe’s got more friends in high places than you got.
Troy: One’s more than zero, right? If he’s got that many, he’s got me beat. Anyway, when Esther was picked to join the King’s harem, Mordecai the Jew told her to not let on she was Jewish.
Jim: How could they not know? You just said Mordecai worked for the King and Esther was Mordecai’s daughter, right?
Troy: Yep. I didn’t buy it either. The Lord works in mysterious ways. ‘Specially when he put this book in the Bible.
Jim: Well, what happened next?
Troy: Mordecai heard of a plot against the King by a couple of the King’s eunuchs.
Jim: Slow down. What the hell is a eunuch?
Troy: A guy who works for the King who ain’t packing a punch no more. They did ‘em like bulls back then—the King didn’t want no other bulls messing in his pasture so before he’d let ‘em work for him, he’d make ‘em into steers.
Jim: Whoa! I think I don’t want to be anyone’s eunuch. Where in the hell did you learn all this mess, Troy?
Troy: Niggah, there’s mo than just baseball and driving a garbage truck that I’s good at. So, Mordecai told Esther what was going down. And Esther told the King, giving Mordecai the credit. They hanged those two eunuchs from the rafters. But then it gets interesting.
Jim: Alright…go ahead.
Troy: Then this niggah, Haman, who was an Agagite, a group the Jews hate going way back, got hisself named second-in-command to the King. Haman gets the King to order all his officials to kneel down and honor him. But Mordecai won’t do it. Told them he was a Jew and wouldn’t kneel for anyone.
Jim: So, I guess the cat’s fo’ sure out of the bag now. And that niggah’s going down.
Troy: Yep. Haman’s pissed. He decides he’ll get the King to order all the Jews in the kingdom killed. He ain’t happy with just having Mordecai killed. He wants them all dead. That’s where Purim comes in. Haman sets the date for the killing by purim, or casting lots, what we niggahs call shooting craps. And then gets the King to sign the order. He promised the King 10,000 talents of silver for the privilege, kind a like if some rich Nazi offered Hitler a battleship for the Holocaust.
Jim: And Mordecai, what’d he do?
Troy: What you’d do, and your daughter’s the Queen?
Jim: Get my daughter to speak to the King?
Troy: That’s right. And that’s what he did. But she didn’t want to, not at first. She was scared. The King hadn’t called for her, if you know what I mean, for over thirty days. And he had a rule that anyone who just showed up, without the King calling for them, was due to die, unless he pardoned them. She eventually agreed to it, but first had all the Jews in the Kingdom go three days without eating and drinking to support her.
Jim: What the hell good does that do?
Troy: Niggah, I don’t know. Jews fast as much as they festival. I reckon it’s just what they do. After the three days of fasting, she went to the King.
Jim: Maybe she put on some weight since making Queen.
Troy: Yeah, don’t they all? (Troy grins, and they both chuckle.)
Jim: So, did the King kill her?
Troy: Nah, that niggah not only didn’t kill her, he offered her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom, like you said before. That dude was crazy. But she wouldn’t tell him what she wanted right off. She invited him and Haman to dinner that night.
Jim: So, the wife invites the husband to dinner after not getting killed for going to see him, but skips on taking up his offer for half the kingdom? Niggah, it ain’t just the King who’s crazy. That whole family’s crazy. It’s crazier than yours.
Troy: Watch out now. I’m the one with the bat.
Anyway, at the end of the dinner, while they drinking wine, she still won’t tell him what she wants, even after he offers her half the kingdom again. She invites him and Haman to come back the next evening for another dinner. But the King can’t sleep that night, so he pulls out the records of his kingdom, and happens to read about Mordecai saving his life when those two steers were gonna kill him. By the next day, he’d made up his mind to honor Mordecai, and asked Haman what he should do to honor someone. Haman thinks the King is talking about him, and tells the King he ought give him a royal robe and horse and crest and have him paraded around the city by the highest official. And you ain’t gonna believe this shit–the King orders Haman to do it for Mordecai.
Jim: Don’t the King know he had just told Haman to go ahead and kill all the Jews and Mordecai with them?
Troy: What’d we say? That niggah ain’t just crazy. He be a fool, too. He don’t know what he’s a doing. So then, they go to dinner at the Queen’s again. And the Queen finally tells the King what she wants…not the half of the kingdom he offered, but for him to spare her people, the Jews, from his order to kill them all. The King gets mad, acting like it was the first he’d heard of it. When he finds out it’s Haman who’s behind it, he storms out to the garden to cool off. Then comes back in to find Haman all over the Queen. Haman’s begging the Queen for his life, but you know how it looks—like Haman was calling for Esther. He orders Haman executed, and hangs him from the same tower that Haman had built for hanging Mordecai. And gives all Haman’s stuff to Esther because he’d been an enemy to the Jews.
Jim: He did what? He gave Haman’s stuff to Esther? But she’s the queen. Aint that like giving the stuff to himself?
Troy: Man, I don’t know. But I know from my time in the slammer that even murderer’s stuff, if they have any, goes to their kids. And Haman had a passel of ‘em. The King is really messing with things to give Aman’s stuff to Esther.
Jim: Why didn’t she just take half the kingdom? She coulda saved all the Jews and had half the kingdom, to boot?
Troy: That’s another on I can’t figure. Like I said, the Lord’s work is really mysterious here. Even though the Lord’s name ain’t mentioned one single time in the whole book.
Jim: So, is Purim because of this Haman niggah hanging and his stuff going to Esther?
Troy: No, no, no. Not yet. It gets even weirder. After giving all Haman’s stuff to Esther, the King tells her he can’t withdraw his order to kill all the Jews. Said that it had already been sealed and delivered.
Jim: Say what? The purim day ain’t come yet, has it? When can’t a King change his mind? ‘Specially this niggah. ‘Specially afore the order’s been executed?
Troy: Niggah, your guess is as good as mine. Instead of withdrawing his order, the King issues a new one that lets the Jews defend themselves from the earlier order.
Jim: Say what? you mean they couldn’t have before?
Troy: Man, you’d think they would have, no matter whether they had permission. But then, they let Hitler march them off to the gas chambers, so I don’t know.
Jim: Say the King really can’t withdraw his own order. Why not just issue another order saying whoever tries to follow the first order will be killed?
Troy: That’s sort of what happens. When the purim day comes, the Jews are ready, and have the King and his nobles behind them. Ain’t no Jews got killed. No. Not at all. They were the ones doing the killing—in two days, starting with the purim day, they killed over 75,000 in the kingdom, including all the ten sons of Haman. They killed those dudes, and then hanged them. I reckon so as to make sure they’s really dead.
Jim: So that explains Purim?
Troy: That’s right. When Mordecai won the showdown with Haman, he became the Kingdom bigshot, second only to the King. He ordered the Jews celebrate the days…it was the thirteenth and fourteenth of some month on the Hebrew calendar…with feasting and gift-giving…and from ol’ Joe’s look today, plenty of drinking.
Jim: Gimme that bottle. (Takes a swig). You know what, niggah? I don’t buy this bullshit at all. This thing smells like a cover up. I bet Haman never even asked the King to order the Jews killed. The King acted like he’d never heard of it when Esther told him. How do we know the whole story aint just a cover for Mordecai wanting Haman’s job?
Troy: You better not let the preacher hear you talk like that.
Jim: That niggah aint never done nuthin’ fo’ me.
Troy: Not fo’ this niggah neither. Hand back that bottle. (Jim hands it back to him). You ain’t hardly left me a drop.
But you right. Esther weren’t like anything else I ever read in the Bible. I think the only part that don’t stink is when the King’s first Queen…what’s her name…Vashti…tells the King to kiss off. I could see Rose telling me that. The rest of it? Sounds like some fairy tale one of them mob lawyer’s ‘d tell to a jury when his guy kills a rival mob boss.
Troy: And that’s why I’s late running the truck today.
(Troy takes a full cut at the baseball, sending it swinging around the tree limb like the winning whack in a game of tetherball.)
Troy: I smell Rose cooking up something good. Your ol’ lady cooking tonight or you want to eat here?
Jim: Nah, I better head home.
Troy: Next time you come to hear the Garbage Truck Preacher Man, you bring the gin.