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Old Testament Essays

versão On-line ISSN 2312-3621
versão impressa ISSN 1010-9919

Old testam. essays vol.27 no.3 Pretoria  2014


Esther and African Biblical Hermeneutics: a decolonial inquiry



Gerrie F. Snyman






In this essay the author looks at the decolonial critique on Western epistemology as presented within Western biblical hermeneutics in order to appreciate the focus on the geopolitical and the body political nature of knowledge. To this end, the author revisits an aspect of the book of Esther, namely the issue of Haman as perpetrator, not only to utilise decoloniality as a heuristic key to read the book, but to explore similarities with the current postapartheid context of race trouble. The discussion proceeds as follows: (a) an exploration of aspects of Haman's comportment in the story in terms of a colonial matrix of power and Mordecai in terms of a coloniality of being; (b) a discussion on decoloniality in terms of (i) the decolonial turn, (ii) coloniality, (iii) the three ego's, (iv) the non-ethics of war, (v) the zone of being and the zone of nonbeing and (vi) the objective of decoloniality; (c) a proposition to unthink race by taking seriously (i) race trouble as a direct consequence of the colonial matrix of power, (ii) and to take the geopolitical and body political location of knowledge production seriously.

Key words: Cain, decolonial turn, colonialism, Book of Esther, Haman, Mordecai.




1 Critique of Modernity

In his critique of modernity's narrative of difference created by the colonisation of space and time (that provided, amongst others, an elevated position to the Christian religion), Walter Mignolo alludes to Christianity's complicity with coloniality since the 16th century when he argues,

Christian Theology (theo-politics) and secular philosophy (ego-politics) took over the concept and the rhetoric of modernity. As they became hegemonic, Theology and Secular Philosophy grounded by Christianity formed the Master Voice through which the people, regions of the world and other religions would be classified, described and ranked. Jews, Moors, Chinese Buddhists, Japanese Sintoists, Aymaras and Quechua Pachaists (. . .) were placed in subservient levels in those hierarchies. The reconceptualization of the "barbarians" in the sixteenth century gave to the spatial colonial difference its evil actor. The later translation of the "barbarians" into "primitives" in the eighteenth century would incorporate the temporal dimension in the pre-existing spatial colonial difference. Both underlying ideas continue to work in contemporary discourse. (My italics - GFS).2

Ramón Grosfoguel draws a link between the "God's-eye view" produced by Descartes' cogito ergo sum and the Christian God's universality. Not only does he depict a caricature of Christianity's perception of their deity,3 but he also ascribes several genocides and epistemicides to Christianity in its guise as state religion, which he calls "Christendom."4 He states the following:

The entanglement between the religious Christian-centric global hierarchy and the racial/ethnic Western-Centric hierarchy of the "capitalist/patriarchal Western-centric/Christian-centric modern/colonial world-system" created after 1492, identified the practitioners of a non-Christian spirituality with being racialized as an inferior being below the line of the human.5

Nelson Maldonado-Torres's critique relates to the superior nature the Christian religion ascribed to itself. One of the consequences was the notion of a just war against indigenous people in the Americas because they had no soul.6 He argues as follows:

When the conquerors came to the Americas they did not follow the code of ethics that regulated behaviour among subjects of the crown in their kingdom. . . . What happens in the Americas is a transformation and naturalization of the non-ethics of war, which represented a sort of exception to the ethics that regulate normal conduct in Christian countries, to a more stable and long-standing reality of damnation.7 (italics - Maldonado-Torres)

Cheryl Anderson links up with Grosfoguel's description of entanglement above to argue the basis of Christian theology's complicity in applying what she calls a "mythical norm" to valid readings of the biblical text: a white, Eurocentric, male, heterosexual, wealthy, middle class, and Christian norm, creating in the process an "Other" who is black, African/Asian/Latin, female, homo-/bi-/transsexual, poor, working class, non-Christian.8

To be honest, all of this "leaves a moral remainder that threatens to crush anyone who finds himself or herself personally connected."9 Katharina von Kellenbach utilises these words with reference to the Holocaust and the hidden damage it caused to the perpetrators.10 She speaks of the enormous scale of the Holocaust in terms of the harm done - its magnitude "makes memory unbearable for both survivors and perpetrators as well as their families."11 Whereas the survivors are committed to bear witness, the perpetrators are committed to "forgetting, erasing, and burying the guilt of the past."12 Traumatic events decades and centuries ago hold societies captive with the events reverberating in cultures:

Turkey, for instance, is still held hostage by its undigested history of genocide of the Armenians; white U.S. Americans continue to be in the grip of unresolved feelings over slavery and racism; and several European countries are paralyzed by conflicted emotions over the Holocaust and antisemitism.13

Neither forgiveness nor punishment in terms of Christian soteriology is able to remove the burden of guilt. In her own geopolitical context, Germany, she finds solace in the figure of Cain:

In my reading, the mark of Cain encapsulates the task incumbent upon perpetrators. Cain's success as a human being is measured by his ability to resist the impulse to bury, forget, and cut off the past. Cain's crime does not end his life. He lives on and gets a second chance, but only because he does not erase the guilt of his past. His life as city builder and father of toolmakers, artists, and musicians depends on his ability to respect the memory of his brother and to accept his responsibility.14

It is a process of a lifetime with no quick solutions. Cain's processing of his fratricide proceeds through many stages while being confronted with various peoples, places, and philosophies.15 Moreover, his repentance is not an internal affair but a very public one in terms of behaviour, interaction, discourse and comportment. Von Kellenbach describes the mark of Cain as "a path of moral repair based on openness and transparency."16 Von Kellenbach herself came to a consciousness about the Holocaust by looking into the eyes of its survivors and their children, or in the words of James Perkinson, "not denying the reflection."17 Similarly, the task at hand in this essay is to hear and internalise the decolonial critique on the position from which I inevitable approaches the biblical text, and in the process being confronted "with the embarrassment of having already been 'found out' by one's (in this case) most frightening other."18

In this article I look at a decolonial critique on Western epistemology as presented within Western biblical hermeneutics in order to appreciate the focus on the geopolitical and the body political nature of knowledge. To this end, I will be revisiting19 an aspect of the book of Esther, namely the issue of Haman as perpetrator, not only to utilise decoloniality as a heuristic key to understand the character, but to explore similarities with the current postapartheid context of race trouble.20 The discussion will proceed as follows: (a) an exploration of aspects of Mordecai in terms of a coloniality of being and of Haman's comportment in the story in terms of a colonial matrix of power; (b) a discussion on decoloniality in terms of (i) the decolonial turn, (ii) coloniality, (iii) the three ego's, (iv) the non-ethics of war, (v) the zone of being and the zone of non-being and (vi) the objective of decoloniality. Decoloniality implicates race. Its critique suggests then (c) a proposition to unthink race by taking seriously (i) race trouble as a direct consequence of the colonial matrix of power, (ii) and to take the geopolitical and body political location of knowledge production seriously. One can safely assume this essay is the result of being interpellated by African Biblical Hermeneutics.21



Cain's conduct stands in huge contrast to Hainan's in the book of Esther. Haman is acted upon differently. When Haman is unmasked by Esther in ch. 7, and he begs for his life, the king thinks he is assaulting the queen. As the king speaks, Haman's face is covered and he is taken out of the queen's quarters directly to the gallows he erected for Mordecai. Subsequently, his ten sons are also killed (Esth 9:7-10). More often than not in the OT / HB, the perpetrator gets tied up in his or her own knots and succumbs to their fate of imminent execution.22

There is a problematic and troubling aspect in the book, namely the retaliatory violence of not only Haman but also of Esther and Mordecai. The planning of the genocide took place from a particular powerful position with all its ideological implications that was already present before Mordecai's disobedience. His actions raised the ire of his masters. The decree to have officials bow before Haman in Esth 3:2 was an apolitical command that had as its goal the showing of respect that Mordecai refused to heed - a royal decree "of a purely civic nature and devoid of all religious significance," argues Russell Edwards.23 Mordecai's refusal was quite public. The gate is a place of public interest and Mordecai's action would have received the best possible publicity.24 Moreover, he did not move his seat to a less conspicuous place where he would not have been spotted and he did not hide his identity. He divulged his name and ethnicity in Esth 3:4. Haman, in turn, reacted with so much anger that he started to conspire to destroy Mordecai as well as his people.25

Towards the end of the story, it is as if justice is served when Haman is killed with his ten sons and a few Persians for good measure. It seems justice was delivered smoothly with an appropriate reversal of roles.26 But Moore questions the nature of the justice here: he weighs whether Esther is vindictive and vengeful or simply realistic and pragmatic.27

In the book of Esther, the characters act their roles that have been preset by the structure of the story and the wisdom perspective of the author. Mordecai and Haman are typical stereotypes for wisdom literature. According to wisdom, there is an order of justice with a creator God who judges the wicked and saves the wise, but it is not an inflexible order of retributive justice in which each word or deed produced an inevitable result:

There was the expectation that good works and wise thoughts led to well-being (understood in a variety of ways, from concrete rewards to less tangible blessings), and there was the expectation that evil and foolishness led to destruction (understood in specific as well as more general terms).28

Mordecai and Esther thus become an example of wisdom by being portrayed as religious people adhering to the order of God. Haman, in contrast, is portrayed as a foolish man creating chaos in the ordered world of God. He ends up with his demise, falls from grace and life. As stereotypes they are set in their ways and for Haman there is no redemption. Moreover, the conflict between Haman and Mordecai in Esther is rooted in an ancient tribal conflict, the Benjaminites versus the Amalekites. The reader gets the impression that it is tribal animosity that lies behind Mordecai's rebellion and that spurs Haman into action to incorporate all the Jews in his genocidal plans.29 In other words, race trouble was brewing-a situation not that dissimilar from the debate between African Biblical Hermeneutics and Western Biblical Hermeneutics. In this debate, the hegemonic power of the latter is being questioned and critiqued from the position of the former. In particular, Western epistemology's role in genocides as well as epistemicides are put on the table. Bearing in mind the eventual fate of Haman, the question is whether there is redemption for Western hermeneutics in the face of the decolonial turn, or, put differently, is there redemption for the Western reader within an African context? Is the Western reader not doomed to follow the Eurocentric path, risking marginalisation within this particular African context and eventual extermination? To add to the confusion, when Athalya Brenner reminds one that in Esther nobody is wholly evil or good,30 one realises that Mordecai and Esther ended up doing what Haman and the Persians intended to do to them. Are they examples of a particular coloniality of being, that is, when the after effects of imperialism lingers on once the colonisers left? Only in their case they would live in the midst of the colonisers and not the colonised, being in Susa, the stronghold of the Persians.

Mordecai's refusal drew out Haman's fury and put in motion the machinations of imperial power in order to sustain that power at all costs, even if it meant genocide. Haman's position of power provided him with a position of superiority. In the exercise of that power he then revealed himself as a supremacist. His encounter with the king in order to solicit a decree for genocide in ch. 3 is here quite revealing. In order to get the confirmation of the king for this devious plan, Haman needed to other his adversary without really revealing their identity. He subsequently kept them masked. In contrast, Mordecai acted quite openly in his refusal to bow before Haman-he never masked his identity.

How did Haman achieve this? He started out by selectively feeding the king with facts in order to induce the desired conclusion.

Haman started out to soften him: "There are a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom." (3:8a). And indeed, the Jews were strangers in the land and part of those groups that were sent into exile by the Babylonians earlier on. The reference to "separate" indicates their exclusiveness with which they have tried to preserve their traditions.31 The king might have thought that this is not a problem.

But then Haman came with his next salvo: "Their laws are different from those of every other people." (3:8b). Haman accurately described the Jews. Like any minority in the Persian Empire they were allowed to follow their own customs. Some of these were quite different from other groups, but there seems to have been laws quite similar to Persian laws.32 It is not reason enough to suggest impropriety.

However, when Haman suggested in 3:8c that they do not keep the king's laws, he seems to be pushing the truth.33 It is true Mordecai did not keep the king's decree regarding the show of respect towards Haman. In this regard Haman is correct, but his totalising of this aspect to a group and to comprise "all" the laws of the king is not truthful. Haman was setting up a trap for the king, who has just expelled his queen for disobeying him. He is driven into a corner with his majesty and power seriously questioned. He accedes to Haman's devices and gives him a free hand, without knowing the identity of the group.

The Book of Esther confronts the reader with issues that are quite contemporary in a global order of an imperial control and marginalised powerless communities. In this context, Esther can be regarded as a model for empowerment, but not as a model to change structures that can stop the process of marginalisation. Despite Esther's success, the system remains the same. The book shows the harm done by, as Cheryl Anderson puts it, "volatile mixtures of colonialism and racial/ethnic/religious differences."34 Wong Wai Ching Angela in her reading of Esther in the Global Bible Commentary argues as follows:

Esther reminds modern readers of the ties between colonialism and violence and of how tension and hostility, when built up among different peoples brought together by imperialist powers, results in cycles of reciprocal revenge and persecution.35

Is it then possible, in the light of coloniality of being to attribute the danger of genocide to Mordecai's own intransigence and thereby risk making the victim responsible for his own calamity?36 The book may be read as an anti-model for what happens when colonisation takes place, when race takes precedence, and racial qualities are allowed to define exclusivity and inclusivity. I would suggest that, in a way, the socio-political locations of the protagonist and the antagonist in the story correspond to the socio-political locations of the protagonists and antagonists within the hermeneutical debate, if it is portrayed along continental and cultural lines: Western hermeneutics and African hermeneutics. And one of the issues is masking: Haman masked before the king the true identity of the group he wants to destroy, yet Mordecai reveals himself and masks nothing. He continues to act publicly by staying either at the palace gates or at the harem's quarters. Mordecai's staring down of Haman and the latter's subsequent othering of Mordecai's ethnic group illustrates what I would call "race trouble." His self-revelation and Haman's masking procedure reminds me of African Biblical Hermeneutics's programme of self-disclosure in terms of decoloniality's foregrounding of the geopolitical and body political context over against the masking of power within Western hermeneutics because of its zero point epistemology.



Whereas Mordecai and the Jews constituted the subject of Haman's interpretation, they had no say over what was said about them. Through the decree that would destroy them they remain confronted by a view about them that was strange to them-a situation not dissimilar to colonial attitudes towards the colonised in Africa. It is from a similar context that African Biblical Hermeneutics arose, positioning itself in the aftermath of colonialism reading the text with what Musa Dube, Andrew Mbuvi, and Dora Mbuwayesango refer to as a postcolonial lens.37 It is a reading of the biblical texts related to colonial history of Western powers' exploitation of Africa for their own purposes in order to construct a reading that reflects the needs of the African context. When juxtaposed with a Western hermeneutic, it interpellates the latter to unthink its own socio-political location.

1 The Decolonial "Turn"

I would like to introduce the notion of decoloniality. It is a notion that intends to change discourse and not merely the content, which have been changed already by liberalism, Marxism and Christianity-all constituting Western categories of thought that have been made universal through the logic of coloniality. For example, one of its main proponents, Walter Mignolo, suggests a change in terms and conversation, a de-naturalisation of concepts and conceptual fields that purport to totalise a single reality.38 He specifically employs the word "delinking" which entails a fracturing with the "Eurocentered project of post-modernity and a project of post-coloniality dependent on post-structuralism."39 Thus, decoloniality also constitutes a break from postcoloniality, liberation theology and Marxism. For this reason Mignolo refrains from using words such as "liberation" and "emancipation." They are regarded as products of modernity/coloniality. Delinking is the reverse of assimilation40 and suggestive of a different epistemic grounding in terms of geo- and body politics of knowledge and understanding.41 In short, decoloniality suggests a radical difference in the genealogy of thought.42

Ramón Grosfoguel argues that the term "postcolonial" is very much wrapped up in what he calls the "Western epistemic canon" that gives epistemic privilege to the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci and Guha.43 The issue for