The Tell All Book: From the Bible’s ‘Esther’ to ‘Fire and Fury’

Sarah Bond writes

Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White Househas been flying off shelves since its publication. In addition to bookstore purchases and Kindle downloads, the book is now also the most pirated in recent history. While the characters may be new, the genre is not.

Eyewitness exposés that report palace intrigue, backstabbing and salacious gossip are as old as civilization itself. In the ancient Mediterranean, readers similarly clamored for tell-all books that revealed the juicy details of life among the ruling elite.

The Old Testament contains an early example of writing focused on the inner workings of a palace and imperial court, though (much like Wolff) it is difficult to say if some of the tales are historical fact, fiction or a mix of the two. In the book of Esther within the Jewish Tanakhwe are introduced to a Hebrew woman named Hadassah. She is later known by her Persian name, Esther. The tale takes place during the Achaemenid dynasty of the 5th century BCE although it was likely written about two centuries later. The Achaemenids were the powerful Persian rulers of the Near East depicted rather inaccurately in the movie 300. 

Esther’s story occurs when the court was stationed in Susa, now near the border of modern Iraq and Iran. She is taken into the royal harem and lavished with cosmetics, pampering and sumptuous clothing, all while constantly attending feasts. In ancient literature and even today, how we eat can say a lot about who we are. Thus just as Persian feasting demonstrated moral decay to Jews reading the book of Esther, Wolff’s anecdote about Trump eating McDonald’s in bed for fear of being poisoned is meant by the author to reveal a princely paranoia.

Eventually, Esther’s immersion in the Persian life of luxury pays off: She becomes queen and then saves her people from being killed. Yet the book is a rather odd one within the texts that make up the Old Testament in its lack of religious focus. It does not even employ the word “Yahweh,” and is what many scholars have termed a kind of novella that reports on the differences between the Persian court and the Jewish people. It also allowed Jewish readers an insider’s look into a foreign demimonde that they did not have access to.

Etc.  Fun stuff.  Thanks Sarah!