I am disproportionally excited about the book of Esther.

For my first post, I thought I’d deal with a topic I love and get excited about but which probably won’t be part of my eventual focus of scholarship (so all the more reason to talk about it here): namely, the book of Esther and why it is fantastic.

[Edit: This turned out to be waaaay longer than I anticipated. Don’t expect this to be the normal length of my posts.]

I’ll refresh you briefly on the storyline, since a) it’s really complicated, and b) it’s not a book that Christians tend to read very often. [As it turns out, the plot is complicated enough that I can’t come up with a brief summary. Feel free to skip the following.] The setting is Susa, one of the Persian capitals, during the time in which Israel was a Persian vassal state. King Ahasuerus divorces his queen, Vashti, then chooses a new one by rounding up all the pretty women in the kingdom and having what most commentators euphemistically refer to as a “beauty contest.” Esther, the niece [cousin? One of the Greek texts seems to refer to her as his wife, if I’m not remembering completely wrong, which is quite possible] and ward of Mordecai, wins this contest and becomes queen. Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate the king, which he reports to Ahasuerus through Esther.

Haman, Ahasuerus’ second-in-command, takes a dislike to Mordecai, who refuses to bow down to him as requested. [Apparently prostration/supplication of the king or other high official was a Persian custom of long standing which signified respect for rather than worship of royalty. Mordecai was not the only person to take it amiss—Alexander the Great had huge problems with his Macedonian generals when he tried to institute the custom after conquering Persia. Anyway.] Haman decides to destroy not just Mordecai but the whole Jewish race, and convinces Ahasuerus to appoint the 13th of Adar (a day which he chooses by lot) as an institutionally-sanctioned pogrom. Esther, urged on by Mordecai, invites Ahasuerus and Haman to a feast. Instead of asking anything at this feast, she invites them to another feast the next day.

Haman, who apparently has not had enough revenge, builds a gallows for Mordecai. That night, though, the king has insomnia, and has the book of records read to him (presumably as a soporific). He is reminded that, though Mordecai saved his life, nothing has been done to reward him. When Haman comes to see him, he asks what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman—thinking that the king must be talking about himself—suggests all manner of public acclaim, which Ahasuerus then commands that he carry out for Mordecai. [Oh SNAP. In other words, reversal of fortune is one of the key themes in Esther.]

At the feast the next day, Esther drops a couple of bombshells: she is Jewish, she and her people are about to be slaughtered, and Haman is the perpetrator of this wicked deed. Ahasuerus, furious, leaves the room to pace about his garden, and Haman falls on her couch to beg for mercy. Re-entering, the king accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and has him hanged on the gallows erected for Mordecai. He gives all of Haman’s property and honors to Esther, who passes them along to Mordecai. Due to an idiotic flaw in the Persian legal system [which, as far as I know, was made up by this author and didn’t actually exist], no decree or law given by the king can never be revoked. So instead of telling his people not to kill all the Jews, all Ahasuerus can do is decree that all the Jews are allowed to fight back. Two days of enormous slaughter follow, at the end of which the Jews have defeated all their enemies. Esther institutes the holiday of Purim to celebrate this victory, while Mordecai takes Haman’s place as Ahasuerus’ right hand/Jewish doppelgänger.

Whew. If you’re still reading, here are a few of the things I love (most of which come from other people, notably Fox’s Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. I’m putting the citation at the end of the article,* because I borrowed from it so heavily, and because it is really terrific.)

-The writing is amazing. The entire book is structured chiastically to emphasize the dramatic reversal of fortune between Haman and Mordecai (see Jon Levenson’s or Michael Fox’s Esther commentaries for more detail. The former is said to be very very good, and I can definitely affirm that the latter is wonderful.). There is enough wordplay to keep you busy for years. The characters—Esther’s sly strength, Ahasuerus’ weak-willed braggadocio, Haman’s anxious grasping for power, Mordecai’s quiet righteousness—are developed richly but concisely. For someone like me, who’s still something of an English major at heart, it’s pure fun.

-It’s a brilliant satire on imperial politics. The entire Persian political and legal structure seems to be based around presenting an image of overwhelming power and authority over an enormous mishmash of people. Everything is about dat, the unbreakable law and irreversible decree of the king. We see this panoply of administration: couriers, satraps, royal councillors, viziers, guards, eunuchs, and low-level bean-counters. But it’s all utterly ridiculous when you look at it closely. The councillors– “the wise men, the ones who know the times”– convince the king that his wife’s refusal of his drunken whim will bring down destruction over the whole empire! All women everywhere will disobey their husbands! The massive social upheaval will plunge them all into chaos! And so the king sends out the obviously silly edict that “every man should be master in his own house,” while the enormous resources of the largest empire ever to exist up to that time are devoted to rounding up all the pretty girls so that the king can have sex with them all and choose the one he likes best.

Then, at the other end of the story, we get the decree to destroy all the Jews. Esther reveals to Ahasuerus that there is a plot to destroy her people, the Jews. Ahasuerus is shocked and appalled, even though he himself just a couple of days ago signed off on the decree to do it. But wait! A decree from the mouth of the king and signed by his seal cannot ever be revoked, no matter how ill-considered. And so the only alternative is to send out another decree, authorizing the Jews to resist being slaughtered wholesale. You end up with, essentially, a massively destructive civil war decreed by the king because the oh-so-righteous legal system can’t let him admit he’s wrong. (In another clever move by the author, any doubts one might have about the morality of the bloodthirsty ending are effectively sidestepped: the responsibility lies with the idiotic political system, not with the Jews.)

-Esther herself is a huge badass. Feminist interpreters tend to be divided on her—some see her as an early model of feminine strength, others see her as a weak-willed tool of the system/bimbo. I lean toward the former interpretation. Esther is powerful precisely because she knows the system and her place in it, and uses her knowledge to best advantage. She wins the queenship, it is implied, because she listens and learns and is clever. She makes friends with Hegai, the eunuch who runs the harem (the first one, the one for all the women who haven’t had their chance with the king yet. There is a whole other harem for those deflowered but disappointed.). The women going to spend the night with the king can take anything they request from the harem to the palace (there’s titillation for you), and Esther only takes what Hegai tells her to.

Then you get her persuasion of Ahasuerus. She doesn’t just run up and ask him for favors; she picks her time. She approaches him without leave (punishable by death if the king so chooses), and he, pleased to see her, offers her whatever she wants. Instead of making her demand, she asks him to a banquet. At the banquet, he reiterates his offer–”What is your wish? It shall be given to you. What is your desire? As much as half of my kingdom, it will be done.” Even then, she doesn’t blurt it out—instead, she asks them both to come back to another banquet the next day, and then she will make her request. (This is sort of necessary to keep up the chiastic structure of the book, but it works out brilliantly for her character as well.) Only at this banquet—after Ahasuerus has practically begged for her to ask him for something—does she spit it out. She asks, not for revenge, but for her life and the lives of her people. She keeps it on the personal rather than the ideological level, as suits this selfish and muddleheaded king: not “don’t do this, because it is wrong,” but “don’t do this, because I am of value to you.” (This idea presented courtesy of (I believe) Fox’s commentary.)

The way Esther is positioned in the story makes her the quintessential Jew successful in a foreign court (a character type that you see in characters like Joseph, Daniel, and Zerubbabel as well). She is the arbiter between the childish decadence and intrigues of the Persian court, on the one hand, and the righteous but powerless and, it seems to me, somewhat naive Jews, on the other. This is a role somewhat shared by Mordecai, and there’s a lot of arguing back and forth about which one is the “real” hero, but Esther is the one able to adapt to and succeed in these new circumstances—the symbol of the Jewish people’s ability to adapt and succeed under foreign rule.

*Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

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8 thoughts on “I am disproportionally excited about the book of Esther.

  1. A lovely post, thanks!

    Are there any reasonable arguments for Esther as tool of the system/bimbo? Even if the men (Hegai, Mordecai) are always directing, mustn’t she at least get credit for being a brilliant actress? The part she’s required to play–even leaving out the intimate implications–seems complex enough to get the Oscar nomination, and the audience certainly found her performance compelling.

    The Esther story has for a long time reminded me of the Arabian Nights back-story, with fewer men, more nights, and feasts instead of stories. Do you see the resemblance? Is this type of story a natural outgrowth of the “beauty contest” style of sex oppression?

  2. I think some of the arguments for Esther as an anti-feminist character (that I have heard of, anyway) have to do with her agency. Does she act on her own accord, or is she a passive character? (i.e. she has to be really pressured by Mordecai into trying to protect the Jewish people; she just goes from the protection of one man to another; her value lies not in her wits but in her beauty). They tend to pay more attention to her social position and the actions she takes than to the rhetoric she uses. Maybe it’s more about the system/book being anti-feminist than about Esther herself? It sucks that she’s in a position where the only way she can achieve her ends is indirectly and through trickery.

    To be honest, it’s so clear in my head that Esther’s this great strong character that I don’t really understand those who think differently, so I might be attacking a straw man (woman?) here. I just haven’t paid much attention to the other side’s case.

    The Arabian NIghts parallel is a great one. I think you might be right? I don’t know much about the AN’s origins–wasn’t it a product of 18th century exoticisation of the East? But it does also seem to have some traditions stretching way back–there’s a part in “Aladdin” where Aladdin goes down to an underground garden in which there are fruit trees with fruit made of precious gems. The image is the same as somewhere in Gilgamesh (I think?). So maybe even if there’s no direct link between Esther and the AN’s backstory, they’re both part of a similar storytelling tradition?

  3. Mary, this post is awesome, mostly because I know nothing about the book of Esther and your summary fixes that. It’s a situation I fear is widespread for Catholics–texts like Esther get no play in the Lectionary, so how will the average Catholic ever know anything about it?

    But the deeper issue here is something I’ve thought about a lot as a witness to your career. What intimidates me most about the Old Testament is that it seems like you have to know *a lot* of history in order to understand its meaning properly (or even at all). (I would definitely say that’s true of the NT, but it’s simply more familiar to Christians, so learning the history seems less insurmountable). And even though I’ve attempted, my knowledge of OT history is woeful. I simply can’t learn everything you learn, so I remain intimidated by and ignorant of the OT–this is not a viable option, so how do I do a book like Esther justice?

  4. This is a really, really tough question for me. I believe two things pretty strongly: 1) Meaning depends on context. So you have to take the contexts of the biblical texts into account when you’re trying to figure out their meaning. 2) Everyone should be “allowed” to approach/deal with biblical texts. But I don’t quite know how to reconcile those.

    • It seems like the amount of history needed to have enough context for each book of the OT is only a couple of pages of history (when we think it was written, by whom, and why; comments on the historical period described and any cultural information needed). Obviously expertise is much more complicated, but enough information to get to quite a good understanding of the text in context ought to be easily digestible. Does any reference work exist that provides such a history? Could someone write one?

      • There are tons of them. There are short histories of the biblical period, short commentaries on Biblical books, annotated editions of the Bible (I like the JPS version, both because I like the translation and because I like the commentary; but my adviser has some problems with it (even though he wrote one of the commentaries) and prefers the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed., edited by Michael Coogan), etc. As you said, a little learning goes a long way (no matter what Alexander Pope thinks).

        • Also, one thing that intimidates me when dealing with the OT is feeling as though I have to treat it in chronological/written order. I find that it’s a lot easier and more fun to just start with whatever you want and fill in the gaps as you go.

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