Rejoicing on Purim with a Jewish Novel
The Book of Esther and the
Holiday of Purim: What came first?
Festivals of revelry and release such as Purim are common cross-culturally. Yet, each such festival contains unique elements—in the case of Purim, this includes reading the Book of Esther.
Megillat Esther is both a book in its own right as well as the pretext for the raucous Purim festival. But what is the origin and genre of the text? Was it composed as a reading for the festival, or did it originate separately as a pleasant story, influenced by international literary developments, and only later adapted for the holiday? It is difficult to say. Even if it was composed for the festival, it should be understood within the background of the Jewish and non-Jewish novellas of the Persian and Greek periods.
Hellenistic Period Novellas
The date of the Book of Esther is uncertain, but in Greece and in the ancient Near East there were examples of “novelistic history,” accounts that focused on love and sex in the courts of aristocrats and kings. Herodotus and other Greek historians included “harem intrigues” of the eastern monarchs, and the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39) is also similar. They focus on the relations of men and women in high estates, as does Esther, and included fanciful and idealized settings, adventurous tone, happy endings, and more dialogue than previous narratives, usually between men and women.
Among Jews, the books of Judith, Tobit, and Joseph and Aseneth followed Esther, and at about this same time the Greeks and Romans wrote novels of adventure and romance. Some Greek texts also contained stories of the eastern monarchs, sometimes viewing them positively, but often ridiculing the wealth and decadence of that court. The Persian court was taken to be the appropriate setting for such “harem intrigues,” a sort of ancient “dangerous liaisons.”
Narratives very similar to Esther were written at this time by Jews, but only fragments remain, and the apparently international Story of Ahikar was discovered among the remains of a Jewish military colony in Egypt.Esther is not alone, then, as a text, but was part of a vibrant genre of adventurous stories, what we might call the popular literature of the ancient world.
A Literary Masterpiece: A Look at Technique
The Book of Esther likely has a complex composition history, resulting from the interweaving of two narrative strands. The Book of Esther also existed in various forms with two different Greek versions and two different Aramaic versions. Nevertheless, the Hebrew Masoretic Book of Esther as we have it today is a small dramatic masterpiece of its popular ancient genre. The characters of Esther and Mordecai are interrelated in fascinating ways.
Mordecai begins as Esther’s protector, but he must allow her to function on her own in the Persian harem. He is identified publicly as a Jew, but she keeps her Jewish identity hidden.
Character Development: A Groundbreaking Technique
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their relationship is how Estherchanges—and character change is an aspect of novels that has been viewed as thoroughly modern, unknown in pre-modern literature! For the first three and a half chapters, Mordecai speaks and Esther does not; she remains verbally passive. But from chap. 4 on Esther finds her voice and speaks forcefully, even commanding Mordecai and others. From this point, Mordecai is never depicted as speaking, even though he does retain the important role of the king’s counselor.
There are many strong women in biblical literature, and the other Jewish novellas of the ancient period also featured women protagonists (Judith, Susanna, Sarah and Edna in Tobit). But the character development of Esther renders her practically unique in pre-modern literature.
Use of Historical Setting and Personalities
Other aspects of this novella commend themselves as well. The book creates a fanciful historical context. To be sure, part of the story would have rung true in the ancient setting. A real king, Ahasuerosh (Xerxes) is king over Persia, and Mordecai and Haman are both associated with figures who were assumed to have really existed—Mordecai with Saul and Haman with Agag the Amalekite. Thus Mordecai and Haman are understood to be fighting out ancient animosities.
Use of Hyperbole
Yet, despite the historical setting, the entire story is told in a series of wild and unbelievable exaggerations—the numbers and the duration of the drinking banquets, empire-wide political intrigues, caricatured and outrageous characters and events. And there was no known Jewish queen of Persia named either Esther or Hadassah! These literary effects indicate that the story was to be taken as a broad farce, appropriate for the Festival of Purim. (This should be borne in mind when reading at the end about the mass revenge against the 75,000 who wished the Jews harm.)
Drinking Bouts as Setting
There are many structuring elements to mark the developments of plot. (When the audience begins to feel the wine and the party atmosphere, one can imagine that the structuring elements would prove helpful!)
First, there are not just one or two, but nine drinking banquets in the story. What better way to involve the Purim revelers than to “read in” their own party!
The rabbis determined that participants should drink so much wine that they could not distinguish between “Cursed be Haman!” and “Blessed be Mordecai!” (b. Meg. 7b). It is of course also very ironic that high-stakes issues are being played out while the characters move from drinking bout to drinking bout. The threat to all the Jews of Persia is treated with humor and satire, an artistic lesson that Mel Brooks learned very well.
The Megillah narrates a number of instances of doubling, including a double threat (the edict against all Jews and the verdict to hang Mordecai) and a double release from danger (as noted above: Mordecai’s vindication and elevation in chap. 6 and the reversal of the edict against all Jews beginning in chap. 8).
Sudden Changes of Status
The Megillah narrates several sudden changes of status, both positive and negative, as the fortunes of many of the characters are altered: Vashti is lowered and Esther is raised within the harem, Haman is raised and Mordecai is threatened, Mordecai is raised while Haman realizes he is doomed, and so on.
This is, indeed, the theme of this whole comic tale, as is intimated to the audience when the narrator pauses to sum up the denouement: “When the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put into effect, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have power over them, the reverse occurred” (nahapok hu, 9:1).
The Centrality of Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
This genre of the book of Esther is international, with much evidence of borrowing across languages and cultures, and it is written in a humorous style. But in all of this humor and chaos, there is yet a strong message of Jewish identity in the story. More than eight hundred years ago, Maimonides already recognized this point (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:18). The word “Jew” and related terms are used often. The text as a whole is unusual in affirming the Diaspora identity of Jews without subordinating that to Israel: not only is God never mentioned—as is well-known, but also no mention is made of Judah or the temple. (The absence of any reference to the deity in Esther or to prayer—even though there is fasting!—perhaps results from the fact that this text was performed in the party atmosphere of Purim.) Although Esther herself hides her identity at first, Mordecai is quite public about his Jewishness, and Esther comes to be more public about her identity as the story line heats up.
The audience can perceive Mordecai as the conscience of the community, but can also identify more emotionally with the woman Esther who must look within herself to pluck up the courage to act publicly for her people. Esther even comes to speak over Mordecai. This genre was very international, with much evidence of borrowing across languages and cultures, but what was noticed by Maimonides is still very true: Esther takes as its theme, and drives home with great verve, the centrality ofJewish identity, even in the Diaspora situation of the Persian empire.
In short, Megillat Esther places Jewish identity front and center. Mordecai’s open Jewish identity is contrasted with Esther’s shyness about her Jewish identity, but the audience experiences both, and can identify when Esther discovers her own courage and becomes a Jewish leader. Esther embodies, even in her period of weakness, the challenges of being Jewish in a land ruled by others.
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February 25, 2015
April 5, 2020
Prof. Lawrence M. Wills is the Ethelbert Talbot Professor of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. He received an M.T.S. and Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School, and is the author of The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World (Cornell University Press, 1995).
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