Esther is a strange book, to say the least. Of all of the books within the Hebrew Bible, Esther is the only one not to be represented at all in Qumran. Or, at least, it is the only one that is believed to have not been represented at all in Qumran. There are several hundred unidentified fragments, many of which might have been Esther, but most scholars hold the possibility to have been unlikely. While other Biblical texts are represented substantially (either in the number of manuscripts or in the size of the available text), Esther appears to have been ignored. Traditionally, this is assumed to have been because of the absence of God’s name in the text, although one would also do well to remember the absence of God’s name in Song of Songs as well. Besides, while Song of Songs is a purely secular text (ignoring for the moment the reams of religious commentary that were imposed upon it), God might be argued to be operating ‘in the background’ within the book of Esther.
At the end of the day, Esther is all about concealment. Esther hides her identity from the King, Mordekai hides his good deed (the saving of the King’s life) from the King, Haman hides the full scope of his intentions (the penalty that he accords to Mordekai and the glory that he has in store for himself) from the King, and God (perhaps the true King, behind the scenes) hides his presence from everybody. The very word, Esther, is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for concealment, and Jews have traditionally celebrated Purim by concealing their own identities for the evening in a masquerade. The purpose of this masquerade, some might say, has been (deliberately or by chance) to dress up as Gentiles, and that this blurring of the division between Jew and ‘other’ serves as the carnivalesque backdrop to the entire narrative. A quick look at the ‘opposing’ nature of Jews and Gentiles within the text may prove informative.
Most of the Gentiles in the Book of Esther are stupid. We are introduced to the king in the first chapter as he is embarking on a six-month feast (1:4). It is the third year of his reign (1:3) and there is presumably little that he is yet done which may be worthy of so illustrious a celebration. The style of the text is comic in that the author seems prone to listing illustrious items and recording grandiose declarations. A rule is passed that there must be no restrictions on the quantity drunk (1:8) and, although the first law within the text, the others are no more sensible than this one. When the queen refuses to obey the king’s whimsical command, he petulantly passes a law throughout the empire that all women must be subservient to their husbands (1:20). Like the apocryphal Judith, Esther is clearly something of a comedy.
The king’s advisor, Haman, is also prone to making spontaneous decisions and, after having been snubbed by Mordekai, decides to obliterate every Jew within the empire. The notion that such a deed was to be performed in a single day (3:13), made greater by the assertion in 1:1 that the Persian empire spanned some 127 provinces, is clearly preposterous. The ready manner with which the king agrees to this plan, coupled with the fact that he is by this stage married to a Jew whom he appears to favour (2:17), is a further indication of the way in which the non-Jewish characters are being mocked.
How about Vashti? Oft hailed by feminist scholars as the empowered woman, Vashti is asked to display her beauty to all of the men attending the king’s six-month feast. The Talmudic understanding that she was told to come out in only her crown mirrors the sexually-charged nature of the request. As an act of modesty and in the interests of preserving her own personal autonomy (so say the feminists), Vashti refuses to answer the king’s summons and, for this, she loses her position of chief wife – perhaps wife altogether, for she is not heard of again. Whether one chooses to accept the feminist critique (which, in this instance, is probably not likely) or whether one chooses to reject it, can her actions be regarded as folly? They are certainly not on a level with the stupidity of the king and his advisor!
On the contrary, Vashti seems designed to parallel Esther. The former refuses to come when she is called, and the latter comes when she is not bidden. The former, belonging to the minority of women, found her people threatened by an edict that sought to marginalise them all; the latter, a member of the minority of Jews, found her people threatened by an edict that sought to have them destroyed. In many respects, this is true Biblical parallelism. As Kugel explains, parallelism of clauses in Hebrew poetry takes the format “A, and what’s more, B”. Vashti is a marginalised woman (in its true, and not politically-charged, sense) and Esther is a marginalised Jew(ish woman). Vashti loses her job while her ‘people’ are marginalised; Esther stands to curry the king’s favour while her people are annihilated. They are enough alike to indicate the fact that they are parallel clauses while, in true Biblical fashion, the second predicament surpasses the first.
Haman also has a parallel: Mordekai. In this instance, the parallel is more noticeable for Mordekai actually usurps Haman’s position at the end of the text. As if to make the relationship between them more obvious, Haman receives the punishment devised for Mordekai (the Hebrew is unclear as to whether this constitutes hanging, impaling or crucifixion), and Mordekai receives the accolades intended for Haman. Just as Haman is a thoroughly irrational person… well, so is Mordekai. In some respects he may seem sensible: he foils a plot to save the king’s life (2:21-23), but apparantly asks for no reward. When the edict is made known, he fasts and mourns outside the palace gates, but importunes Esther to utilise her influence rather than attempt to step beyond his sphere. The area within which he appears to be incomprehensible is in his continued refusal to bow to Haman, despite the dire consequences. Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud likewise had a problem with this, and they resolved it by suggesting that Haman considered himself to be a god (bMeg 13a, 19a). This is a strange assertion were one to take it literally for, despite his demands of obeisance and the gratuitous spending of money with which he hopes to achieve his ridiculous aims (3:9), Haman is not the King. The King, who demands ‘worship’ of his chief advisor, would hardly have done so were this advisor to be proposing his own divinity.
Esther, the parallel of Vashti, is not an entirely admirable character either. Whatever ambiguity may exist in regards to Vashti’s honour, Esther is portrayed as a dithering and ineffective queen. She hesitates before approaching the king (4:11) and, when she does approach him, it is only to forestall the act of actually making a decision (5:4, 8). This process of procrastination comes in the form of another feast, and it is hardly out of character for the king that he agrees so readily. At both feasts that Esther offers him he makes the same ridiculous avowal that he should be prepared to grant her up to half of his entire kingdom (5:3, 7:2). When Esther does inform the king of Haman’s plot, it is actually the illusion of appearances (7:8), coupled with the innocent deed of Mordekai (7:9), that tips the balance of favour away from the advisor and has him condemned to death instead.
Lest their should be any confusion regarding the extent of this parallelism, the Persians are also contrasted with the Jews. As the reader, we are encouraged to be shocked (perhaps) by the readiness with which the authorities plan to implement the large-scale eradication of Persian Judaism, and yet we might laugh at the truly comic fashion in which the Jews escape by murdering all of their would-be antagonists (9:16). Mordekai takes over the esteemed role of advisor to the king (8:2, 15); the holiday of Purim is established for all time (9:19, 21-23, 28); and the king declares another feast (8:17). There is little within the narrative that can truly be accounted sensibile and balanced, and this goes for the Jewish characters as well as the non-Jewish ones.
What, then, is the point of the story? If we cannot appreciate Esther as the hero-queen and Mordekai as the wise Jew; if we cannot see Haman and the other officials as bad where the Jewish citizens are good; how do we rail against the one and identify with the other? According to Slivniak, the author of “The Book of Esther: The Making and Unmaking of Jewish Identity”¹, we don’t. In reality, there is little difference between the Jews and the Persians and, while later commentators might have wanted to find a more striking contrast than exists within the text, Slivniak is undoubtedly correct in stressing that it does not. This is a fitting moral for the festival on which we are expected both to disguise ourselves as non-Jews, and become completely insensible with wine.
For all the Jews amongst my readership (and, indeed, for all of you in general): have a happy and safe Purim! Remember, if you can still remember the difference between “Blessed is Mordekai” and “Cursed is Haman”, you need another drink…
¹ Derrida’s Bible (Reading a Page of Scripture with a Little Help from Derrida) (ed. Y. Sherwood; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 135-148.