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I Plead Self-Defense

by Tim O'Hearn

When one has killed another person there are several possible defenses if the matter goes to court. The primary biblical defense is accidental death. The Law of Moses provided for several cities of refuge to which the accidental killer could flee and be safe until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35) Another plea is temporary insanity. That is related to the plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” which some states more properly state as “guilty but insane.” Then there is the plea of mental incapacity, which says that the killer is not insane, but does not have the ability to know right from wrong. This would be used for children and the developmentally disabled, among others. One of the most famous defenses, though, would be that of self-defense. This was a plea of a whole nation at this time of year.

In the book of Esther we read that the evil Haman plotted the genocide of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire, primarily because one Jew, Mordechai, refused to bow down to him. (At least that was the inciting incident, although his racism probably existed long before that encounter.) Haman had the ear of the emperor and finagled a law allowing the Persian citizenry to kill any Jews they encountered on a certain day chosen by lot (pur, from which we get the name of the holiday Purim, which falls on March 21-22 in 2019). The date chosen was almost a year away, so the Persians had plenty of time to prepare, and the Jews had plenty of time to tremble. (Modern similarities may be drawn in the state-sponsored racism in wartime Germany, in Rwanda, or in Kosovo, as well as the anti-Muslim sentiment of some in the United States today.)

The Jews had a long time to fear, but they also had an ace up their sleeve. Unbeknownst to Haman, the emperor, or even most Jews, the favored queen of the land was Jewish. She invited Haman to a private dinner with her husband and herself. The first dinner went well, so she planned a second one the next night. At that dinner she revealed to her husband that people were plotting to kill her and her people. The emperor had recently faced an assassination plot, foiled by Queen Esther’s uncle, so he was probably pretty sensitive about plots against himself or his wives. Just that day he had honored Mordechai for saving his life, an honor which just fueled Haman’s hatred. When he asked who was responsible for the plot against her, she pointed across the table, at Haman. The emperor was in a quandary; his favorite advisor and his favorite wife were at odds with each other. When he left the room to figure this out, Haman begged the queen to save him, but in doing so appeared to attack her. When the emperor came back to the room, he saw Haman in this compromising position and had him arrested and subsequently executed.

Now there was a problem. Persian law said that a royal decree could not be rescinded. The Persian people were still allowed to kill the Jews. The solution was to allow the Jews to defend themselves. But this was done in an interesting way. A decree was promulgated that on the day of the planned pogrom, the Jewish people were allowed “to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish” any Persians they knew or suspected of planning to kill them. This decree was extended to include the following day, and the Jews killed over 75,000 people.

When the Persians knew that their prey could fight back, fear came upon them. And so annually the principle of self-defense is celebrated. It is as biblical as that of accidental manslaughter.