Esther’s Mirror

1 03 2007

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.

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10 responses

6 03 2007
Daniel

I recently learnt a new Hebrew word – “Adloyada” (pluralised: “Adloyadot”). It is used to describe the fancy dress parades that the kids put on, and as you may have guessed from the transcription, it comes from עד דלא ידע.

7 03 2007
Joel Nothman

“The very word, Esther, is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for concealment”… what???

The word Esther is midrashically related to the Hebrew word for concealment. But considering that Mordecai and Esther are not Hebrew names (Esther’s Hebrew name is given in the text as הדסה). With Persian as an Indo-European language, her name more likely relates to “star”, or to “astra” the Median word for myrtle (= הדסה) or to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.

Your argument on the theme of concealment peters off. This idea does not seem to me to be as prominent as you suggest, although it becomes the main feature of Hasidic readings of the text (and anything related to purim) derived from Zoharic concepts of comparison between the revealed and hidden God.

There are many important contrasts and parallels in Esther, as you have highlighted, but there are in any good story. It is particularly prevalent here, and there is the concept of “נהפוך הוא”, of overturning, that is a textual theme.

At the same time, as you have also expressed, the characters thus become ironically equated, and their unremarkableness is prominent. The text thus reflects, somewhat a senselessness, arbitrary and fatalistic. Mordecai expresses that while it is clear that the Jews will meet deliverance one way or another, Esther’s only advantage is that she has been given the opportunity to do something (4:14). Raph Dascalu is quoted at length here noting that the true hiddenness in the text is the lack of middah keneged middah. While Haman at least was a “צרר היהודים” , an opressor (3:10; 8:1; 9:10,24), the other hundreds massacred by the Jews (purportedly at first in self defense), in the end (9:5), we get: “ויכו היהודים בכל-אויביהם, מכת-חרב והרג ואבדן; ויעשו בשונאיהם, כרצונם.” There is a lot of recklessness in the text, and this is a concealment quite apart from Esther’s hidden identity.

7 03 2007
Simon Holloway

When I think of a midrashic connection between names, I think of things like the relationship between Haman and המן העץ הזה אכלת (“Did you eat from this tree?”), or the relationship between Akhashuerosh and a curious construction meaning ‘headache’. For an inner-Biblical example, I might go with something like the description of Noah’s name in Gen 5 which, if we posit an uncorrupted text, suits the bill perfectly. You are correct in stressing the fact that Esther is non-Hebraic (non-Semitic altogether), and I should not have used the word ‘etymological’. Still, I think it is a deeper connection than the midrashic, and I should probably have described it as ‘linguistic’ instead. A reader of the story could hardly miss noticing the root √סתר in her name, just as they might hardly miss spotting the connection to Ishtar as well. Besides, while Persian and Babylonian themes do run strong within the story, the theme of concealment seems to me to be the most pervasive theme of all.

Raph’s essay was well-written, and it does provide a lot of food for thought (as does Raph, himself, most frequently). Do you not feel that this ambiguity (described by him and by you as the absence of middah k’neged middah) counts as a type of concealment? The Biblical authors did not shy away from using this word in a metaphorical sense, to which the existential example so often chosen by the midrashists would testify. Of all the themes within this story, is the one of the absent god’s absence not strongest of all?

8 03 2007
Joel Nothman

I think that “linguistic” is inappropriate too. The relationship between הסתר and אסתר is primarily one of assonance- and as such is literary, not linguistic. It is not apparrent to me that this assonance was intended by the text’s author; there is not enough play on it in the text to justify that. The relationship between the name and the Hebrew word is arguably as much a Midrashic Name Derivation as the others you cite.

If God’s absence is one of the strongest themes in the text, and I’m happy to agree to that, I’m not sure that it is necessarily associated with Esther’s hidden identity. And certainly not with her name.

8 03 2007
Simon Holloway

I agree with you insofar as there is no connection between אסתר and הסתר beyond the fact that they look and sound the same (very much the same: אסתר, if vocalised differently, means “I will conceal”). In my mind the connection is stronger than the connection between Haman and “From where?”, but it may be of a sort with נוח and נחם. That is, אסתר and הסתר are of two different ‘roots’, but I do not think that an ancient reader of Hebrew would have missed the √סתר within the name – not least because of the fact that she concealed her identity (לא הגידה אסתר, v2:10).

It’s a very fine line between reading a text and reading into a text, made all the finer when dealing with ancient literature in no-longer-spoken languages. I believe you if you tell me that you simply don’t see this same connection, and I am even prepared to accept that it may not have been an intended one. I see it, but I can’t speak for the intended audience.

9 03 2007
Joel Nothman

I’m still not sure you can assume that. I don’t necessarily think about the names of characters in stories I read. Certainly if they are not entirely recognisable as familiar languages.

Yes, of course once the text was studied enough, the connection between the two words became apparrent, but that doesn’t mean that there was authorial intention, or even that early readers of the story as Mordecai sent it out to the people of Persia would have.

9 03 2007
Simon Holloway

Many of the names in Tanakh have some sort of meaning relative to that individual’s character, but I would agree that none of the others within the Book of Esther seem to. Mind you, that could equally be the result of our unfamiliarity with the dialect.

Your point is a good one: the more you read a text within a particular tradition, the harder it is to look at it afresh. Borg wrote a book that was entitled, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. It might make a great title, but I don’t think that it’s actually possible!

12 03 2007
lonelymanofcake

I discovered your blog earlier today and realized that I had to comment on this post. Why is Esther not attested among any of the thousands of fragments at Qumran? Someone did the math and realized that Purim, if celebrated at Qumran, would by virtue of the set solar calendar, fall out on Shabbat every year. Knowing the Sabbath strictures observed by the sect, it would be hard to believe that there would be any reason for them to preserve a scroll which instructed the already monastic sect to celebrate (let alone give gifts!) on Shabbat!

Those (=Rachel Elior) who believe that there was more widespread acceptance of the solar calendar, even by the Pharisees (!), during the Second Temple period, would need to figure out how/why the Book of Esther was preserved during that period (assuming, of course, that it had already been written!).

12 03 2007
Simon Holloway

There are different theories regarding a date for the composition of Esther, but Carey Moore (Anchor Bible Dictionary) suggests some stage between 165 and 140 BCE. Your statements regarding the calendar are interesting, but I am forced to take your word for it (I have not the brain for calendrical calculations). Still, even if we were to know that Purim always fell out on a Shabbat in the Qumran calendar, how would we know that it did in any other solar calendar? The fact that a calendar is ordered about the sun is no guarantee that it is the same as every other calendar that is so ordered.

I must look at Elior’s work: that’s a curious (and provocative!) suggestion…

17 03 2007
Minna Lonnqvist

Dear Bloggers, I

t is interesting to read about your discussions about Esther and Qumran. This has been a problem which has interested us since we started archaeological research at Qumran at the beginning of the 1990s. In my view the reasons, why the Book of Esther is missing at Qumran, and only the protoEsther exists, are both religious and archaeological.

The period, when Eshter became a very important book for the Jews, the Qumran-Essenes had already taken distance to Judaism building a splinter group comparable to the Jewish Therapeutae. The Damascus covenanters who apparently were related to the Qumran-Essenes thought that all the rest of Israel had gone astray and they only were holding the truth as the hidden things concerning also the calendaric periods had been revealed to them. This was also the opinion expressed in the Community Rule of Qumran.

As Qumran was occupied first around 150 B.C. in the Hellensitic period the book of Esther could not have belonged to the Qumran canon as the group had already taken distance to Judaism. L. Schiffman thinks that the Qumran-Essenes followed the Alexandrian canon, and our theory holds that the roots of the Qumran-Essenes are connected to Alexandrian Jews as the closest group is the Jewish Therapeutae living in Egypt and the only parallel texts to the Qumran library have been found at the Cairo Geniza of a Karaite synagogue in Egypt. The schoalrly community is projecting its modern views of present borders of Israel to Qumran, even the settlement emerged in the period when the region was under the Ptolemies and Seleucids. The solar calendar of Qumran is also another link that the Qumran-Essenes were Jews who had exilic roots in Egypt. The closest parallel “Scroll jars” come from Deir el-Medina in Egypt dated to c. 160 B.C. and the custom to preserve manuscript in jars was especially prominent in Egypt.

Anyway, for Jews the book of Esther is very precious Megillah like the Torah: it has in rabbinic literature meaning of “a shining star” (cf. Eshter) which shines in the end of the days when Jews are persecuted.

Dr. Minna Lonnqvist

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