In class on Friday, we talked about the Book of Esther. As we discussed, the book has been seen as sort of a canonized justification for the Jewish holiday Purim.If we choose to accept this idea, then the Book of Esther is no longer an intense drama, but a historical fiction written for a holiday. Additionally, Esther loses its value to the non-Jewish/religious reader as a literary resource. Although this post is more of a summary of what I feel Esther offers us as critical readers, I’ve included some background about Purim to help make sense of the holiday since the book serves as a sort of etiology for it.
Before I was aware of Purim, I read Esther like any other book of the Old Testament. It is about a woman who courageously defends her people by risking her own life. The villain of the story, Haman, attempts to wipe out the Jewish people from their kingdom, but Esther steps in, eventually revealing her identity as a Jew and exposing Haman’s plot. Good triumphs over evil, but how can it be called a religious victory when God isn’t specifically mentioned in Esther?
While not mentioning God might elude to the sort of mysterious, unexplainable ways in which He handles situations in the Old Testament, it is odd that the writers of Esther would tell an entire story without the use of God or miracles as a plot device. Instead, they rely on coincidences and luck to make the story work. This isn’t the first time a biblical story has relied on coincidence for coherence, but in those times God was the plot device used to tie together the loose ends. As in other dramatic stories, such as the Joseph cycle, it is possible that those who chose to record the stories were missing details and simply had to be creative in order to have a complete story. This leads to the historical fiction aspect of the book, where a close reading can show details that are not so easily accepted.
For example, Brettler points out in “How to Read the Jewish Bible” that while the descriptions of the Persian empire were accurate, several details of the story do not agree. He mentions the logical argument that a king would not be so willing to “kill off a portion of his tax base.” Brettler also mentions that Persian kings were usually tolerant of minorities and religions, which conflicts with the whole “killing all the Jews just because they are Jews” idea (269).
So, why did the writers of Esther choose to elaborately craft this story as a way to justify the Jewish holiday Purim? This begs the question, “What exactly is Purim?”
Purim is a holiday celebrated on the day Esther saved the Jewish people from genocide as described in Esther chapter 9. Its interesting to note here that Purim is the only Jewish holiday not mentioned in the Torah, so celebrating it as a religious holiday would not make sense unless there was a canonically specified reason.
Purim involves the reading of Esther, exchanging of gifts, and general partying. When Andrew mentioned that it is actually encouraged to drink alcohol during Purim, I will admit that I was intrigued to look into it further and figure out where they are getting this stuff from. One Jewish website said the Talmud instructs a person to drink until they “can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘praised be Mordecai,’ which sounds like a lot of drinking to me. Purim is also famous for its signature pastry, Hamentaschen, which is in the shape of a triangle. I’ve read that the triangle shape signifies either a triangle-shaped hat that Haman wore, or his ears, which is sort of odd.
Another ‘great’ tradition of Purim is to make noise whenever Haman’s name is read during the reading of Esther. I’ve read that while some people stomp or hiss, others have rattlers which are used to drown out his name when spoken. While it seems a little harsh to direct a lot of anger at one person, keep in mind that Haman was probably not specifically a person, but more of an idea that the Jewish people should not be allowed to live a certain place or practice their religion freely, an idea also known as antisemitism.
Suggesting antisemitism was around during the time this book was written might be a stretch, but it does make sense. The major evidence comes from the use of the word “Jew” in Esther, a term not used before in the Tanakh. By depicting the Jewish people as small communities or minorities, the book of Esther tries to characterize the Jews as a scattered people who are susceptible to the kingdoms they live in, but are ultimately protected by God.
Before you sympathize with the Jewish people described in Esther, keep in mind that the book was written by (a) Jewish author(s). While Haman is an evil guy set on killing the Jews, once the message is announced to the community, other ‘enemies’ of the Jews offerto help with the genocide. This seems like an odd detail to include in the story, especially since there are no defenders of the Jews mentioned. Brettler notes that Esther describes non-Jews in a “negative fashion,” and this seems to be the case.
Whether justification for a religious holiday or a slap in the face to the anti-semitics of the time, Esther is a dramatic little short story where a woman uses her beauty to break the rules and get her way. Ultimately, it works, possibly due to some help from God, although that’s more of an inference. On the surface, it is a story about courage and protecting your family. When ideas of the Purim holiday, female sexuality, and antisemitism are introduced, the discussion shifts to more complicated terms. While some of these might not been the purpose the writers of Esther were going for, the themes are there and critical readers will point them out and discuss at will.
So how does Purim change how we view Esther? If Esther is a etiology of Purim, can it not also be a story of a brave woman who uses her intelligence/beauty to overcome an obstacle? By establishing that the story is historical fiction, we know that the writers of the book designed the plot to fit their own agenda. Could they have been trying to justify the Purim holiday and create a strong feminine role model as well? Sure, why not? The great thing is that we don’t really know. Some readers might use Esther as a role model for the strong, beautiful woman, while others, particularly of the Jewish faith, use the book to add religious significance to an ancient celebration of freedom and existence. Whatever the reason, the book of Esther is not just there for the sake of Purim, but is also there to add another story/hero/obstacle to the growing lists that many people choose to read, learn, and use in their own ways even in modern times.
How to Read the Jewish Study Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler