Archive for Friday, March 2, 2001

Is Esther, the biblical book underlying Purim, a comedy?

March 2, 2001


Jews are noted for humor, but was the biblical book of Esther written as a comedy?

True, it provides the basis for Judaism's most lighthearted festival, Purim, which begins at sundown Thursday. But could an ancient holocaust plan to exterminate a nation's Jews have been a laughing matter?

Yes, contends Adele Berlin, a University of Maryland English professor and specialist in Hebrew Scriptures, in a new commentary on Esther (Jewish Publication Society, 169 pages, $34.95) issued barely in time for Purim. She's not alone in this interpretation.

Esther is an unusual biblical book, the only one that doesn't mention God. Also missing: prayer, ritual and other Jewish religious practices. The tone is not only secular but sometimes a bit bawdy. Thus, Jewish sages hotly debated whether Esther even belonged in the Bible.

Fact or fiction?

The Esther story, in brief:

Persia's King Ahasuerus (identified as Xerxes, who reigned in 486-465 B.C.) chooses Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew) as his new queen through a beauty contest, not realizing she is Jewish. Later, without the king's assent, Prime Minister Haman orders the extermination in a single day of all Jews, "young and old, children and women." Esther pleads to save her people; the king agrees and orders Haman's execution.

The Jews celebrate their reprieve with the first Purim and attack their oppressors.

Berlin's keystone is the skeptical view, widely held among modern scholars, that none of these events ever happened. As Berlin puts it, the book is "imaginative storytelling" akin to a historical novel.

"Many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable," she writes.

Her arguments: Apart from the Bible, there's no record of a Jewish queen in Persia, nor was that likely, nor could a Jew have concealed her ethnicity. Also implausible is a king so lavishly out of touch with his regime.

Finally, the Bible elsewhere presents the Persians as tolerant toward the Jews.

Scholars who read Esther as history note that the narrative is presented as straight history, that the book contains remarkably authentic information about Persian customs and terminology, and that such odd events occurred elsewhere.

Plus, they ask, could Jews have created a major festival if the story had no historical basis?

A 'low comedy'

Berlin asserts that though "we expect a biblical book to be serious," this was fiction meant to provoke laughter. It wasn't satire that attacked the Persian regime or lifestyle.

"Its purpose is comedy, not critique."

Instead, she labels it burlesque or farce, "low comedy" that employed "exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities and verbal humor."

In her view, the story features implausible edicts, a "foppish royal court" and an "endless hierarchy." The refusal of Esther's predecessor Queen Vashti to attend a party becomes a crisis of state. And a major policy decision, directing genocide, is reached casually.

As for caricature, Ahasuerus is a "pampered and bumbling monarch" run around by his underlings. Berlin thinks the architect of genocide, Haman, is treated as "the archetypical comic villain a knave, but, in keeping with farce, not darkly evil. We are not meant to feel threatened by the comic villain not even children are afraid of Haman." His deathly directive is "preposterous."

Such burlesque would be less effective once the Persian empire had ceased to exist, Berlin reasons, so she figures the book was written within a century or so of Xerxes, though some experts choose later periods.

The book's purpose was to give diaspora Jews an optimistic message, Berlin writes. Esther lets Jews laugh with relief as peril is overcome. It starts with a "mad and threatening world" and ends with Jews wielding great power, even though in reality they were a subservient minority.

Esther confirms that "the power at work in the universe favors life and favors the success of the Jews."

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