Who Controls our Fate; What Controls our World?

Idea of ethical reward and punishment almost absent from Purim Megillah, though many traditional commentators strive to expose hidden workings within plot
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

The Megillah is a strange anomaly among the books of the Tanakh. It is a seemingly secular work that purports to tell a particular historical story concerning the Jews in one specific part of the world. It does not mention God directly and it is difficult at first glance to see why it has been seen as having so central a place in the canon.

The major theme that we will examine here concerns perhaps the deepest question that humans in all cultures and religions have attempted to answer: who controls our fate? Are there forces that guide the world in which we live? We will present five possible models, and in certain ways the Megillah suggests them all.

Reward and punishment

Traditional Judaism suggests, through its monotheistic framework, one answer to the question. Its idea of God’s supervision of a divinely created world provides a seemingly comprehensive answer to the question. According to this model, which might be called the “Rosh Hashanah model,” the world runs on a moral axis according to the acts of the individuals inside the world.

Reward and punishment are meted out according to the acts of the individual or according to the acts of the society. The world runs according to justice. People get what they deserve. In such a society the individual must learn God’s will and try and behave accordingly. The character traits encouraged are moral responsibility, weighing our moral decisions seriously and faith that goodness will triumph.

This idea of ethical reward and punishment is almost absent from the Purim Megillah – at least on the face of things – though, as we shall see, many traditional commentators strive to expose its hidden workings within the plot of the Megillah.


On the face of things, the world described in the Megillah seems more to represent a second model. It is a world of unpredictable twists and turns where the forces that control the fates of the various characters seem to be connected to coincidence and chance more than to anything else.

Randomness rather than plan and reason seem to be the dominant factors in deciding the course of events here. People’s fates are decided on a whim, according to the moods of those who exercise power and the chance advice that they happen to be given. The very name of the Chag, Purim, “lots”, emphasizes this. It is like calling a holiday “dice.” There is little that any individual can do in such a randomworld. All one can do is hope for the best. The character traits encouraged are passivity and acceptance of fate.


A third model is based on the idea that things are predestinedto a large extent and that it is possible to divine the nature of this predestination through an examination of signs and portents.

This is the world of astrology and signs. You cannot control fate but you can work according to its dictates and understand the way to behave by penetrating into the secrets of the universe. We see this well in the Megillah.

The king, the source of all power in the Persia of the story, makes his first decision, pertaining to the fate of Vashti, by turning to his advisors, councilors learned in the arts of astrology, and requesting their advice. Haman, in order to find the most auspicious date for disposing of the Jews, casts lots, seemingly in the form of stones, to reveal the predestined nature of each month and day and to decide on the most auspicious day for killing the Jews.

Astrological lore was a central feature of Babylon and Persia in this period, as in many other cultures of the time. Many people would be aided in even the smallest of decisions by reference to astrologers and their practices.

The character traits encouraged are a certain resignation based on the acknowledgement of the limits of human control as well as a cautious pursuit of the secret knowledge of what is predestined.

Law and tradition

Let us bring in a fourth possible source of authority: ordered decision-making, law and tradition- in other words, human action on the part of those who exercise power.

Ahashverosh is an example of a ruler, who would be seen as the clear and central decision-maker in the Persia of this period. In such an absolutist society, where by tradition and customary law, the king has power over life and death, there would be a tradition of rule that had developed over the generations, in which certain codes of behavior would be seen as central in determining personal fate.

We hear for example that when the king turns to his wise men and asks for advice, (1:15), he phrases his request in terms of the customary law of the kingdom. We also hear that no person can go to the king without being summoned (4:11), and that a law cannot be rescinded (8:8).

We hear of laws being proclaimed and sent out across the empire. These details point to an ordered life based on traditional law and royal authority. In this world, an individual who obeys the laws of the land, carrying our civil obligations, expects to do well. The character traits encouraged are obedience to authority and deference to tradition.


There exists a fifth option: that power is wielded in the world according to the machinations of individuals who try to manipulate things all the time to their advantage.

This is a world of “dog eat dog,” where the winner is the person who uses everything that can be used in order that he (or she) controls the situation.

It is at one and the same time, a Machiavellian and a Hobbesian world. It is not a world of morality but rather a world where people can try and bend others to their will both by persuasion and by force in order to gain advantage over those others.

The character traits encouraged are the taking of initiative, ambition, vigilance and suspicion, long-term planning, opportunism, the accumulation of power and a ruthless persistence that recognizes that ends justify the means. Mastering these amoral means may be the only way to survive. Much of Haman’s activity clearly represents this line of thought.

On the face of things, a simple reading of the text would suggest that the least likely of all of these in the mind of the author is the “Rosh Hashanah model.”

All the others are clearly mentioned, and as we have already observed, the name of God and clear reference to a traditional Jewish faith and observance (kashrut, Shabbat, Pesach, prayer) structure are missing. A surface reading would suggest that the author believes in a world governed by one of the other four sets of “rules” or worldviews.

What is your reading of the Megillah and its author’s view? Use the Comments function below to offer your comments to us, and we will post the best of them.

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