“Was Achashveirosh a Smart King or a Foolish King” A Perhaps Overly Machiavellian Approach By Akiva Weisinger What does Megillat

Esther have to say about the character of the ruling Persian monarchy? This issue would have been of importance to the Diaspora Community in Persia. If the king was perceived as a drunken fool, then the implication is that Jews should be highly cynical about the powers that rule over them in the Diaspora. If, however, the king is, at the very least, considered to be intelligent, if not a moral and good ruler, then Jews should feel no sense of cynicism about their ruling powers, and feel free to contribute politically without any fear.

This issue is explicitly debated in Talmud Bavli Megillah 12a. Rav and Shmuel argue regarding Achashveirosh's decision to hold a party for faraway countries first and for his capital second. Does this prove that Achashveirosh was a smart king, or a stupid king? On one hand, making a party to appease the far flung countries is a wise decision, as he can appeal to people of the capital at any time, which is not true of the countries farther away. On the other hand, the people of the capital need to be appeased more than the faraway countries, as should the populace in the capital decide to rebel, the King would be immediately defeated, whereas if a far away country were to rebel, the King would have the ability to fight back. There are a couple of things to note about this text. First being, that the main issue we are dealing with is political aptitude. Has the King made a wise decision, or a stupid one? The second point it raises is that the matter of Achashveirosh's intelligence is a pre-existing debate. They are past the state of setting forth the main arguments for their respective positions, but rather debating whether a particular point in the story proves one side or the other. What we are dealing with is not a debate over the wisdom of one particular action, but of the interpretation of an entire character, and by extension, the entire book. This tells us that the Megillah itself contains within it two valid and defensible ways of

perceiving Achashveirosh's intelligence. It is as possible to view Achashveirosh as a drunken, impulsive buffoon as it is to view him as a shrewd and intelligent ruler. Let us look at the different ways either side will interpret the first chapter of Megillas Esther as a way of understanding how they would view his character. Moshe Simon, in his article “'Many Thoughts in the Hearts of Man': Irony and Theology in the Book of Esther,” promotes a view of a drunken buffoon of a king, who pretends to be powerful but is realized to be slave to his desires and emotions1. While the law of the king seems to have great importance, the first law we see him enact is that people should drink as much as they want, demonstrating his concern for hedonistic pleasure over law and order (1:8). The first order we see him give is merely a brazen and inappropriate desire for his wife to be paraded before the gathered crowd, and when she refuses, he first demonstrates he is incapable of acting on his own by calling to his advisers to help(1:11-13). He then compounds his mistakes by accepting the most reactionary advice and declaring this domestic dispute into an argument with ramifications for gender relations across the empire, and deposes his queen in callous and foolish fashion (1:16-22)2. The interpretation of the rest of the book will follow in this vein. Achashveirosh initiates a beauty contest for the right to be queen because he is a lecherous hedonist, his main acts seem to be throwing parties and repealing taxes, and his laws are often ignored, rendering them functionally useless. Haman takes advantage of this foolish drunkard to bribe him to condemn the Jews to death, and if not for Esther and Mordechai taking advantage of the idiot king and his impulsive ways to their own ends, the Jewish people likely would not have survived. Yet, there are problems with such a view. Dickson and Bultha, in their article “The Role and Protrayal of the King in Esther”, argue against what they see as the slander of a great and capable ruler, who is not only intelligent, but just and fair as well3. They point to a number of episodes in the book 1 Simon, Moshe. ""Many Thoughts in the Hearts of Man" Irony and Theology In the Book of Esther." Tradition 31.4
(1997): 5-27. ATLAS. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. 2 Simon, 8 3 Dickson, C. R., and P. J. Botha. "The Role and Portrayal of the King in Esther." Old Testament Essays 13.2 (2000): 156-

that prove Achashveirosh is quite the capable king. When Mordechai informs him of an assassination plot against him, he deals with it decisively, having the matter investigated and putting the conspirators to death summarily (2:23)4. His actions dealing with the threat to the Jews are also exemplary in their swiftness and decisiveness. Most tellingly, Achashveirosh's dialogue with Haman in 6:6-10 seems to be have Achashveirosh ingeniously set up Haman to think he is talking about him, when he is really referring to Mordechai, Haman's sworn enemy. The question seems too well-crafted to have been the workings of a fool who is unaware of the workings of his own empire. Even if we were to say that Achashveirosh is actually unaware of the relationship between Haman and Mordechai, and is innocently asking Haman for his opinion, it is still a well-worded question. As Dickson and Botha point out, if Achashveirosh had named the person deserving of honor, the recommended reward would be less significant as the reward recommended by someone who believes it is him who is receiving that honor5. It seems hard to peg Achashveirosh as a fool when he acts so smart so much of the time. With that in mind, our reading of Chapter One will be quite different. Dickson and Bultha read the king as a tolerant and sensitive ruler, who allows all to drink as much as they want, (perhaps even out of respect for Jewish custom) as opposed to viewing such an allowance as the actions of Simon's hedonistic fool. His dispute with Vashti is not a mere domestic disagreement. As king, his domestic disputes have political significance, in this case, his wife disrespecting the king, and his calling in of advisers represents the kings attempt to discuss the issues involved in a serious manner. And when the decision is made that such an action by Vashti does endanger the kingdom, Achashveirosh selflessly dethrones the woman he loves for the sake of the populace. The King is not just intelligent, but imbued with selflessness and moral sensitivity, and I suppose it should not surprise us that Mordechai wanted him as a shidduch for Esther6. There are, however, problems with this view. For one, it cannot be ignored that Achashveirosh
73. 4 Dickson and Botha, 168 5 Dickson and Botha, 169 6 Dickson and Botha, 167

does drink a lot, and that alcohol and emotions seems to play a role in his decisions. Further, the fact that he dealt with the issue of Vashti's refusal to appear before him in a serious and considerate fashion does not negate the fact that he made such a frivolous and brazen request. And finally, it seems strange for such a supposedly intelligent and moral man as Achashveirosh to accept Haman's offer to kill off an entire nation without even so much as a thought. We are presented with the absurd picture of a man who takes the dethroning of a queen seriously enough to consult his advisers, but not the wholesale slaughter of a whole nation, which obviously presents a problem if you wish to believe the king to be both intelligent and of great moral fiber. Either the King has been fooled by his adviser, or he is a far from a gracious ruler. Once again, it seems hard to claim that Achashveirosh is intelligent when he keeps acting so stupid. The more we investigate Achashveirosh, the more it becomes clear that he will defy any attempt at categorization into “intelligent” or “foolish”. The answer lies somewhere between those two extremes. To present a solution, I argue that Achashveirosh is actually a shrewd and intelligent ruler, and the most effective way of accomplishing his goals is to ambiguate his own intelligence and pretend to be stupider than he actually is. As we see from the Gemara that discusses this issue, the fact that Achashveirosh was an absolute ruler did not mean he had no threats to his kingdom. On the contrary, should any of his 127 kingdoms decide they are being short-changed by the king, it appears likely they would rebel, seeking to put their own representative on the throne in his stead. Achashveirosh's job is to maintain his power by maneuvering and manipulating his way into mollifying all the provinces in question. It appears that Achashveirosh came to the conclusion that the most effective way to accomplish this was to play the role of a drunken buffoon with self control issues. Acting in such a way would have two distinct advantages. The first advantage is that a person who has portrayed himself to be an intellectual lightweight is less likely to be taken seriously, and thus given more latitude to make political gains under the noses of his enemies. We see Biblical precedent for such a strategy, when David, to disguise his identity from Achish King Of Gat, pretends to be a

madman, prompting Achish to proclaim, “Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?'” (Shmuel I, 21, 16). This was not out of place in the ancient world. Machiavelli in Chapter Two of Book Three of his Discourses On Livy, entitled “How at Times it is Very Wise to Feign Madness,” approvingly cites the example of Junius Brutus, who pretended to be slow-witted so that his uncle would not suspect he planned on rebelling against him7. In either case, a person of power is afforded additional freedom of movement by virtue of his pretending to be stupid. We see Achashveirosh use this to his advantage by fostering an image of a drunken buffoon who only knows how to throw massive parties and repeal taxes. Many people throughout the book seem to underestimate Achashveirosh's intelligence. From Bightan and Teresh underestimating the king's ability to respond to their plot, to Haman not believing Achashveirosh capable of wording a question so deviously, Achashveirosh is often given the benefit of the doubt, due to his willingly cultivated image of a hedonistic lecher. One of Achashveirosh's greatest political victory may have been his method of picking a new queen. We know from elsewhere in Tanach that a marriage was seen as an opportunity to make political allies8. It would have made sense had Achashveirosh used the fact his queen had just been deposed as an opportunity to ally himself with one of his 127 provinces. However, by doing so, he allies himself with one province over 126, and makes himself beholden to someone else's whims. Instead of doing that, he makes a contest, having all 127 provinces vying for his approval. And he just so happens to pick the one contestant without a nationality, which now practically means he is the sole power in this monarchy and beholden to no one. It is doubtful he would be able to get away with such a shrewd political move without willingly cultivating an image of a hedonistic and

7 Machiavelli, Niccolo. "Discourses on Livy: Book 3." Discourses on Livy: Book 3. Trans. Henry Neville. N.p., n.d. Web.
15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.constitution.org/mac/disclivy3.htm>. The fact that Machiavelli advocates such behavior was probably the least surprising thing I learned over the course of researching this paper. 8 See for example, Divrei Hayamim II 18:1 where it is stated explicitly that Yehoshafat had entered into a marriage alliance with Ahab (through the marriage of Yehoshafat's son Yehoram to Atalyahu, who was either Ahab's daughter or sister, see Melachim II 8:26)

unintelligent buffoon, and fitting said move into that image9. The other advantage of such adopting such a guise is that your threats become taken more seriously, as it is known that they will not be constricted by any bounds of rationality. If a rational and intelligent person threatens me, I can count on his threat being constricted by his sanity, ie, he will not cause me harm if it causes himself more harm in the process. However, if I am threatened by a man who has shown himself to be insane, I will live in terror knowing that I may come to grievous harm regardless of how little sense it makes for him to carry out his threat. Cultivating an image of that kind of insane man may be more productive than any threat. The television show Boardwalk Empire, eloquently illustrates the concept through the words of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein: “There was a man once—I don’t recall his name—frequented the billiard parlors downtown. He made a comfortable living wagering whether he could swallow certain objects, billiard balls being his specialty. He’d pick a ball then take it down his gullet to here, and regurgitate it back up. And one evening, I decided to challenge this man to a wager: ten thousand in cash for him to do the trick with the billiard ball of my choosing. Now, he knew I’d seen him do this a dozen times, so I can only surmise that he thought I was stupid. We laid down the cash, and I handed him the cue ball. He swallowed it down, it lodged in his throat, and he choked to death on the spot. What I knew and he didn’t was the cue ball was one sixteenth of an inch larger than the other balls—just too large to swallow. Do you know what the moral of this tale is, Mr. Yale?" "The moral of the story is that if I cause a stranger to choke to death for my own amusement, what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t tell me who ordered you to kill Colosimo?10” In modern times, Richard Nixon foreign policy revolved around deliberately cultivating an image as an out-of-control maniac with an itchy “big red button” finger, primed to use nuclear weapons
9 This also may be why the rules enacted by the king, such as “the queen cannot come to the king without his permission”, and “The Jews have to be killed” seem to carry so little weight. Achashveirosh can have a law passed for the benefit of a specific situation, and when a situation comes up when said law is no longer convenient, can pretend to have forgotten about it. No one really seems to expect him to be a legal expert, and thus, the only rule that always seems to be in effect is “The King does whatever he wants” 10 It must be pointed out that Rothstein, as a former Orthodox Jew, clearly knows how to use a kal v'chomer.

at a moment's notice. The goal of this, which Nixon called “Madman Theory”, was to discourage any of America's enemies of making any trouble, knowing that the slightest provocation may mean the use of weapons no sane man would ever use11. Nixon went so far as to order planes armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons to fly over Russia, just to show them he meant business12. With this, we can understand what motivates Achashveirosh to accept Haman's offer. Haman presents him with a situation of a people without a land, spread out throughout the provinces, who do not keep the king's laws, and it is not worth the king's trouble to deal with them (3:8). What Haman is proposing seems insane, which is why he backs it up with lots of money, ten thousand talents of silver (3:9). To Achashveirosh, however, insane is exactly what he would go for. In terms of keeping his 127 provinces in line, a wholesale slaughter of an entire ethnic group for no apparent reason other than the whim of the king would really send a nice message. Which is why he goes for it, being as there seem to be no other downsides; no one likes them anyway, and there is no reason for him to put up with them otherwise. In order for this tactic to achieve its full effect, however, it needs to be totally irrational. If the king is motivated by money, then everyone will merely approach the king with their list of ethnic entities they would like to genocide. Which is why Achashveirosh responds by refusing the money(3:11). He wants it to be totally random and unexplainable, so as to be as terrifying as possible. The reaction of Shushan is illustrative. They are not sad, nor angry, nor fearful. Their dominant emotion is first and foremost, confusion (3:15), lacking any explanation for why the king would order such a slaughter13. Such confusion is infinitely more effective for sending a message than fear alone. Let us now return to the first chapter for an explanation of Achashveirosh's behavior there. Assuming that Achashveirosh's seemingly impulsive and foolish actions are usually motivated by 11 Kimball, Jeffery. "Did Thomas C. Schelling Invent the Madman Theory?" History News Network. N.p., 24 Oct. 2005.
Web. 15 Nov. 2005. http://hnn.us/articles/17183.html 12 Suri, Jeremi. "The Nukes of October: Richard Nixon's Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 25 Feb. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/16-03/ff_nuclearwar? currentPage=all>. 13 In the end, however, he is persuaded not to carry it out, not by moral concerns, but by the simple fact his mysterious wife has a nationality after all. Though true to form, he reacts to that news by playing dumb.

sound political maneuvering, what reason would Achashveirosh have for the two stupid things he does here, namely, ordering Vashti to appear before him, and then deposing her. We know nothing about Vashti except for the fact she too, makes a party (1:9). We found, however, that when Esther is appointed Queen, she does not make her own party to complement Achashveirosh's. Rather, we are told that the king takes charge of Esther's feast (2:18). Taking into account what we have said about Achashveirosh's motivations for the method of picking a new queen, and specifically his reasons for picking Esther, we may surmise that Vashti did not become queen through a similar fashion, but rather was married for political convenience, and has some power of her own, evidenced by the fact she makes her own parties while Achashveirosh makes his. Achashveirosh's main desire is the ability to rule with absolute power, and Vashti and her power stand in his way. His first course of action is to demand that she appear before him and parade herself before the gathered crowd. The message is clear. Vashti is my queen, my possession, and I am the absolute ruler who does what he wishes with her, and whatever power she has is only by virtue of that fact. True to his general plan, however, his command is not perceived as a political power play, but rather as the impulsive desires of a drunken buffoon. Of course, Vashti refuses, and now Achashveirosh must deal with the situation in an intelligent enough way that the power threat represented by Vashti is defused, but in a way that does not show the gathered crowd the real reason for his request. Were he to depose her then and there, it would become clear that he is reacting to a political threat to his throne, and it would also be clear he may not be quite as drunk as he is making himself out to be. Instead, he calls his advisers together to help him make this decision, which he does not do to hear things he has not thought of, but to remove responsibility for decisions from himself. The advisers come before him, and we can surmise that each advances their arguments, and none of them seem to convince the King, who is looking for something in particular, until one Memuchan gets up and gives advice that Achashveirosh must have found compellingly idiotic. Memuchan does not realize that this is a political issue at all. To him, it is simply a domestic

matter, of a wife disobeying her husband, and proposes that an example be made of her, to show that all men should be the ruler over their own homes, and that letters should go forth declaring that. This fits Achashveirosh's agenda perfectly. First of all, this removes the political angle entirely, and portrays him as a mere drunk fool having an argument with his wife that he completely overreacted to. The less attention paid to Achasveirosh's political aims, the better, and this does a pretty decent job at drawing the attention of the crowds away from the political aspect of getting rid of Vashti14. Second of all, by portraying his dispute with Vashti as a mere domestic dispute that he has clearly overreacted to, he has sent a clear message to the various representatives of his empire that are so conveniently present, and will soon be sent letters detailing the events. If this is what the king does to his own wife when she disobeys a relatively minor directive, it may be wise to refrain from provoking his wrath in the future. From this characterization of Achashveirosh, we can emerge with a complex picture of how the Jews of the time viewed their status in the Persian Empire and their government. King Achashveirosh is neither a “good guy” or a “bad guy”, neither a moral force for good defending the Jews or an immoral force for evil oppressing the Jews. Achashveirosh is merely a self-interested, amoral figure, whose motives are constantly murky. He has nothing against the Jews, but at the same time, will hand them over to be slaughtered should that course of action provide utility. The Jews then, lacking a nationality and homeland, without a reason for the king to be concerned about them, are placed in a precarious position as powerless outsiders, forever at the whims of an amoral and self-interested ruler. One one hand, the Megillah seems to be pointing this out to be part of the perils of Diaspora life and one of the numerous advantages to being in one's homeland. However, at the same time, the Megillah does not believe things to be hopeless. The government is not immoral and anti-semitic, it is amoral. An evil decree can be swiftly turned upside down if Jews play the political game and demonstrate to the powers that be by whatever means at their disposal that it is indeed in their self-interest to be good to the Jews.
14 In other words, Dickson and Botha are right, and Simon is falling for Achashveirosh's plan perfectly.

Achashveirosh hands the Jews over to be slaughtered for purely political considerations, and they are rescued by political maneuvering, outsmarting Achashveirosh by planting a representative of the Jews in his bedroom, forcing him to take action against the threat posed to the Jews. It is tough to stay alive in the Diaspora, but with the right mix of foresight and intelligence, it can be accomplished.