Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Esther (Excerpted from The Literary Guide to the Bible)

Commentary on Esther by Jack M. Sasson
Excerpted from The Literary Guide to the Bible, Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987.

The Book of Esther tells Jews that their national liberation festival
originates in a historical event. It explains to them why such a festival
bears the non-Hebrew name Purim and instructs them how to observe it.
It also seeks to imbue them with pride at the accomplishment of jewish
ancestors who lived in a strange land and faced ruthless foes.

The teller spares no effort to convince his audience of the story’s
historical setting: he frequently adopts the style of an archivist, giving
dates for specific activities and providing genealogies for his main char-
acters; he flaunts his (imperfect) knowledge of the Achaemenid Empire
and its administration, scattering Persian words for which he gives He-
brew equivalents; he invents a few of the names he needs, imitating Persian
nomenclature; he challenges readers to check his facts in the chronicles of
past Persian kings-certainly an impossible assignment for the average

The exotic behavior of the foreigners and their court is also stressed.
The storyteller makes observations on details in passing, as with the
crowning of royal horses at parade time (6:8), or he builds a major subplot
around them, as with the procedure for securing an audience with the
Persian king (4:11). In telling how the king finds a replacement for Vashti
(2:8-15), the storyteller lingers over stylized elements which are better
known in the Arabian Nights: the need for two semesters to prepare a
young 'Woman physically for just one night with the king, and the trib-
ulation of a king who must nightly rise to the occasion until he is released
from it by the one true love? This particular scene may not be the teller’s
most successful invention, for it is neither crude enough to arouse prurient
interest nor focused sharply enough to keep us mindful of Esther’s boun-
teous charm and appeal. It does, however, remain typical of Jewish ro-
mances of the Hellenistic period (such as judith, Tobit, Susanna, and
segments of Daniel) in exaggerating the manners and mores of others,
and thus it vividly illustrates why Esther cannot be judged on its distortion
of Persian practices.

The tale can be heard or read in a single session. It alternates action
and description, although the two are rarely allowed to merge. The sto-
ryteller has in mind an audience who will not grow tired of repetitions,
and he adopts a chatty, possibly vernacular, Hebrew. Although some-
times lackluster and often prolix, this idiom nevertheless promotes am-
biguity by depending on certain verbal forms which lack temporal pre-
cision (for example, the infinitive absolute). The teller is careful to use a
language with a restricted vocabulary only when narrating action. How-
ever, when lingering on descriptions of specific scenes (such as the ban-
quets or the search for a new queen) he uses a cataloguing style, rich in a
vocabulary for luxurious living, often without conjunctions. The narrator
often masterfully juxtaposes simultaneous activities within the confines of
a single verse. An excellent example is the brilliant contrasts afforded in
3:15: “As the couriers swiftly fanned out with the king’s resolution and
as the decree was proclaimed in Susa’s citadel, the king and Haman settled
down to drink while Susa was struck dumb.”

The Book of Esther has far less dialogue than other narratives in
Hebrew Scripture, and the storyteller sometimes attributes statements to
groups rather than to individuals (as in 3:3, 5:14). Occasionally the teller
Haunts his omniscience when revelation of a character’s inner thoughts is
important to the plot (as at 6:6). He is not beyond expecting his audience
to suspend plausibility for the sake of a brilliant ending. Thus the story
requires that Haman know nothing of Esther’s relationship (let alone
kinship) to the Jew Mordecai. In this ignorance he may be alone: Mordecai,
after all, himself paced daily in front of the harem before Esther was
chosen, and afterward everyone seems to be transmitting information
between the two and among the Jews of Susa (see especially 2:22). There
are other ambiguities, especially in the dialogues, whose precise import
cannot easily be assessed. For example, Mordecai warns Esther that al-
though she may feel safe within the palace, the help which comes to the
Jews from “another quarter” could lead to her death and to that of her
“father’s household” (4:14). Esther, of course, is an orphan and may well
be an only child.

Except for four central figures--the king, Mordecai, Esther, and
Haman--persons who are given little or no background (Vashti, Memu-
can, Hegai, Hatach, Zeresh, Harbona) enter the story, carry the plot
forward, and leave it without unduly burdening the audience’s memory.
The main characters themselves are deceptively static; but the development
they exhibit as they interact with each other is not expected to alter the
audience’s attitude toward them.

Ahasuerus is a caricature of a king who is swayed by the first advice
he hears; but this trait is required by the plot: all the multiple reversals
that are featured in the story could not occur easily were the king single-
minded in perspective or conviction. On the contrary, the king must be
totally open to suggestion. Thus, except when the intoxicated monarch
brashly asks for Queen Vashti’s presence at the second banquet honoring
the palace personnel (1:10-11), he never acts Without some expressly stated
or subtly intimated advice. Indeed, the frequency with which advice is 
offered from all sources and to every character is such a major feature of
Esther’s plot structure that it has led some scholars wrongly to locate
Esther’s origins in Wisdom circles.

Ahasuerus is not without his droll moments, and the writer assigns
him what may be the story’s most comic line. When Esther denounces
the man who has sold her and her people into slavery, the accused, of
course, could be the king as well as Haman. Yet the events of barely a
fortnight earlier are so hazy in his memory that Ahasuerus can answer:
“Who is he and where is he who dares plan such a thing?”

The writer assigns Haman a rich assortment of postures befitting his
evil character. He is proud of his subordination to a capricious king; yet
he is so insecure that he brandishes his vita even before those who must
know it well (5:9-12). Haman so obsessively needs to destroy Mordecai
that he departs from his own plan in order to hasten the death of his
archenemy. His vanity turns him into a buffoon (6:6); so does his panicked
reaction to Esther’s accusation (7:8). Yet Haman is not one-dimensional.
During one brief moment, in fact, he even comes to realize the conse-
quences of his own acts, and in this regard he may well deserve to be
termed “antagonist” This occurs when Haman is told: “If Mordecai,
before whom you have begun to fall, is of jewish stock, you will not
overcome him; you will certainly come to ruin in his presence” (6113).
Haman, however, is hardly a Persian Shylock, and his fall remains comic,
never eliciting audience sympathy.

Esther enters the scene already favored by circumstances. A jewish
orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai, she is pretty and Winsome; but she
responds to what others expect of her. She becomes a queen because she
lets others make decisions crucial to her future, and she can be browbeaten
by Mordecai’s threat even when assured of her husband’s attachment
(4:13-14). Yet, like many other women in Hebrew Scripture who come
into their own after men create crises they cannot resolve themselves,
Esther does rise to the occasion, and even after Mordecai has become the
king’s main adviser, she finds the means by which to save her people (8:1-
6). That she returns to Mordecai’s control after her moment of triumph
tells us much about the circumscribed range of movement antiquity al-
lowed women.

The writer’s fondness for Esther is obvious at all stages of the story,
and he gives her the most personal voice of any character. Esther can
show anxiety about her cousin’s welfare (4:4) as well as elicit pathos at
the burden she carries in behalf of her people (4:16). She can be feminine
and mysteriously coquettish (5:8), but she can also be ministerial (815,
9:13). Her most brilliant lines, however, are delivered at the second ban-
quet, when she Hatters, pleads, deplores, then turns sarcastic-the last,
admittedly lost on Ahasuerus--all within two verses (7:3-4);
If you favor me, O king, and if it please you, may my own life be givenme as my wish, and my people as my request; for we have been sold-I andmy people-to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we beensold just to become male and female slaves, I would have kept my silence;for about such a trifle, it is not worth troubling the king.
The teller sustains tension for two more verses, allowing Esther to deliver
the coup de grace: “the man, the malevolent enemy, is this evil Haman!"

Mordecai is played like a theme in a Sibelius symphony, with frag-
ments of his personality occurring scattered in the early chapters; only
after Haman’s fall are they integrated into a full version to represent the
writer’s perfect image of a partisan jew in a position of mastery: “Indeed,
Mordecai the jew ranked just below King Ahasuerus; he was highly
regarded by thejews and was very popular among his brethren, constantly
seeking his people’s welfare and interceding in behalf of his kindred”

From the moment he first appears, Mordecai is a courtier, and his
battles are with his colleagues at the royal court. The writer does not
judge Mordecai when he brings his brethren to the brink of disaster either
because of rancor (he had just saved the king and felt that he deserved
better than to be forgotten) or because of insubordination and misplaced
pride (it is the king, after all, who determines how to treat Haman). The
storyteller is deadpan as he reports Mordecai’s quick forsaking of his
mourning garb when Haman calls for him with royal attire and chariot
(chap. 6). Mordecai has come to represent the jew who will not be bowed
by circumstances and who will seize unforeseen opportunity. Moreover,
the teller, who is certainly familiar with Israe1’s history, knows that under
no circumstances would a descendant of Saul-in this case Mordecai
(2:5)-allow a descendant of Agag-in this case Haman (3:1, 11; 9:24)-
once again to escape God’s will and thus avoid extirpation (see 1 Sam.
15). Mordecai himself seems aware of the momentous aspect of this
confrontation when he berates Esther: “Even if you maintain silence in
this situation, relief and liberation will come to the jews from another
source, while you and your family will perish. Who knows, you may
well have come to the throne just for this occasion” (4:14).

The characterization of Mordecai changes radically in the other ver-
sion of Esther available from antiquity: the redaction in Greek preserved
in the Septuagint and containing 107 additional verses not found in the
Hebrew/* Mordecai of the Greek version is a more detached person, more
obviously aware of the cosmic struggles in which jews are mere pawns.
This version is set a full year before the Hebrew text begins its tale, and
precisely ten years before Haman casts lots. Mordecai receives a dream
full of enigmatic visions. He awakes and cannot resolve them but stumbles
upon the plot to kill the king. He is immediately rewarded by the king,
for which he earns Haman's jealousy and hatred. The Greek text intimates?
Hamans involvement in the plot, and his Agagite descent is made Mac-
edonian (Greek A:1-12). Mordecai’s refusal to treat Haman as the king
had commanded is given a noble reason in one of the many prayers
inserted in the text: “You know, Lord, that it was not because of insolence
or arrogance or vanity that I . . . did not bow down before arrogant
Haman . . . But I did this in order that I might not put the glory of man
above the glory of God” (Greek C15-7). When, after many self-conscious
prayers (not available to the Hebrew version), Mordecai reaches the pin-
nacle of power, he can recall his dream and find correlations to the events
of the past ten years (Greek F:1-10). The reader of the Greek version,
therefore, never needs to delve into Israel’s past to appreciate fully the
book’s many mysteries; they are all resolved for him by a didactically
explicit Mordecai. 

In either version, the fate which overtakes Haman is predetermined,
and in the ensuing triumph of Mordecai the writer gives his audience
opportunity to hope for the future of the Jews. In the Greek account, the
storyteller suppresses all that is comic, delivering his grave lesson in a
serious tone; and his stylistic and structural imitation of apocalyptic lit-
erature (Daniel and the many apocalypses of the Hellenistic period) serves
his purpose perfectly. In the Hebrew rendering, however, the comic po-
tential of the story is richly exploited, and laughter at human vanity, gall,
and blindness becomes the vehicle by which the writer gives his tale
integrity and moral vision. Were it not for its modern pejorative conno-
tation, “travesty” (wherein serious subjects are treated lightly) would suit
Esther as a literary category. Setting aside the questions of intellectual
influence or contact, we can say that this is essentially the same literary
mode adopted by Hellenistic romances (for example, Apuleius’ Golden
Ass), by the medieval fabliaux, and by Voltaire in his satiric Contes phi-
losophiques (such as Candide, Zadig, and Micvomégas). In all such stylized,
farcical narratives, the laughter is broad and comes from the incongruity
of situations and from the sharp reversals of fate.

In the Hebrew version of Esther, banquets are a key to the tale’s
structure. This version opens with two successive banquets (the second
also includes Vashti’s own) set in Ahasuerus’ third regnal year (1:3-9),
and it ends with two others, set in his twelfth year, wherein the jews
celebrate their victory over their enemies (9:17-18). These parallels bracket
the tale, of course, but, more important, they complete a gradual shift of
interest from generalities regarding the Persian Empire to particularities
of Jewish concern. The lavish descriptions of Ahasuerus’ commemorative
banquets are therefore balanced by the reasoned prescriptions for festivities
perpetually imposed upon the Jews by Mordecai’s edict (9:20-23) and by
Esther’s letter (9:29).

The banquet in honor of Esther’s installation as queen occurs (appro-
priately enough, given the formulaic importance of the number) in the
king’s seventh year (2:18). The king’s munificence on this occasion con-
trasts sharply with his moody response at the end of Vashti’s banquet.
The primary purpose of the king’s banquet, however, is to establish the
time for Mordecai’s thwarting of the attempted regicide (2:21-23), an act
which ultimately will affect Haman’s fate more than any other. It is not
surprising, therefore, that the Greek version places it at the beginning of
the story, thus subordinating plot to pedagogy.

Five more years will pass before Mordecai openly clashes with Ha-
man. In this central section of his tale the teller perceptibly quickens the
narrative pace. On the first month of Ahasuerus’ twelfth year, Haman
casts his fateful lot, determining that the year shall not end without the
jews’ full destruction. The private banquet that Haman and the king enjoy
at the end of their conclave (3:15) not only is set against the despair that
obtains among the jews in Susa but also contrasts sharply with Mordecai’s
mourning and the Jews’ three-day fast at Esther’s bidding (4:I5-16). These
events themselves are but background for the most brilliantly conceived
of the tale’s banquet scenes; for within a week’s time, the festivities offered
by Esther will bring about a complete reversal of fortunes between Mor-
decai and Haman.

The Hebrew version exploits a motif that was all too familiar and
even realistic to audiences in antiquity: a usurper murders a king and seeks
legitimacy by forcibly appropriating the reigning queen. These crucial
scenes (chaps. 5-8) change so rapidly and are filled with so much move-
ment that the audience hardly realizes how carefully they are plotted. In
fact, some scholars have mistakenly tried to use these chapters to prove
that Esther is formed of two separate strands, one focusing on the harem
intrigues involving Vashti and Esther, the other on the court struggles
involving Mordecai and Haman. In order to appreciate the artistry of these
scenes, we should recognize that Haman’s fall requires the conjunction of
three separate factors. By itself, Esther’s accusation of personal malice
might only have led the king to investigate the matter, as he did earlier
in similar circumstances (2:23). The king himself might not have decided
instantly to impale Haman if he had not very recently remembered Mor-
decai’s loyalty. With Harbona’s revelation, right after Haman’s clumsy
lurch at the queen, that Haman has prepared a (seventy-five-foot!) stake
for Mordecai, the evidence for a conspiracy fully crystallizes in the king’s
mind. Moreover, the scene realizes its comic potential through the contrast
between two separate points of view: that of the king, who grows in-
creasingly suspicious, and that of Haman, who, even to the last, never
knows why the king, let alone Esther, turns against him.

Esther’s first appearance before the king and the latter’s offer to place
at her disposal half his kingdom (repeated almost moronically later) may
well have erotic implications because of the submissive tone she adopts,
for the king lapses into unseemly familiarity when he talks about "Esther"
(without her title “the queen”) to his aides (5:5). What this first visit does,
however, is to prepare us for the king’s acceptance of Esther’s second
banquet invitation. We cannot know how Esther’s deferential remarks in
extending her second invitation, this time within earshot of Haman, affect
the king: do they arouse his jealousy and alert him to Haman’s future
behavior? In Haman’s case, however, Esther’s words certainly raise his
self-confidence and lead him to cast prudence aside in order to seek Mor-
decai’s immediate death. It is at this point, therefore, that the noose opens
wide for Haman.

Chapter 6, which tells of the king’s insomnia and Haman’s misplaced
advice, contains a first-rate example of rude comedy and reversal of ex-
pectation. However, it also adds a bit of information that will be crucial
in the next scene. When Haman advises that he whom the king wishes to
honor be dressed to look and act like royalty, he is in effect proposing
treatment (we know from extant cuneiform evidence) reserved for sub-
stitute kings.

Haman returns home to receive his supporters’ forecast of doom.
This vignette is pivotal. The mourning with which he is clothed harks
back to Mordecai’s own, but the language at 6:12 (hafuy ro’sh, “crestfallen”)
prefigures his despair (peney haman hafu, “ashen faced”) when Ahasuerus
accuses him of assaulting the queen (7:8). It is not surprising, therefore,
that, badly shaken by the crowning of Mordecai and by his own family’s
evil prognoses, Haman is not able to react coolly to Esther’s accusation.

Everything falls together at Esther’s second soirée. She denounces
Haman; the king is angered and rushes out to reflect; a terrified Haman
turns to Esther for succor; the king returns to End his vizier prostrate on
his wife’s couch and suspects the worst. When Harbona comes in with
the announcement that Haman had planned to kill the very man whom
the king recently honored for loyalty, Haman’s fate is sealed. As befits
the crime, the punishment is severe: the king orders the execution of
Haman’s whole family. Any audience in antiquity would recognize the
annihilation of a whole clan as standard punishment for treason. Any jew
would find in Haman’s discomfiture an excellent instance of measure given
for measure; if cognizant of Scripture, a Jew would moreover realize that
Haman’s downfall finally completes the job of destroying the Agagites
that God imposed on the Benjaminite Saul. Anyone else, including all
those who now read the tale purely for pleasure, will End in it unambig-
uously drawn characters and fully resolved situations. In Esther, unsubtle
villains meet with brutal fates; proud partisans are fully vindicated; lovely
heroines retain the affection of all; and stolid, dim-witted monarchs are
there to be used by all.