In the short life of this blog, I’ve already written a few things about linking biblical texts to their context, reading texts according to their genre, and being open to creative interpretations of scripture. All of these things come to bear when reading the biblical book of Esther.
It’s easy to read Esther as a simple history – beautiful girl wins the affections of the king and becomes his queen, the queen’s people are threatened by one of the king’s officials, and despite long odds the queen is able to rescue her people from oppression. Just like the movies Seabiscuit, Apollo 13, Moneyball, or Erin Brockovich, the book of Esther is the sort of underdog story that most of us seem to like.
The problem with reading Esther as a simple history is that the book seems to take liberties with enough things, and seems to so carefully set up ironic reversals that it reads more like an episode of Seinfeld, or a Shakespearean play. When looking deeper, its status as pure history should be questioned.
Like many people my age, I watched way too much Saved By the Bell when I was young . One of the many Vaudevillian things that Saved By the Bell did was give some of its characters descriptive names, such as Max Nerdstrom. English speakers would be able to tell right away that Max is going to be over-the-top nerdy and annoying; it’s just baked into this character all the way down to the name. The technical term for this is aptronym. Comic books are really good at aptronyms, such as Victor Fries, Edward Nigma, Otto Octavius, Richie Rich, etc..
Most of the names of the main characters in the book of Esther have aptronyms. The deposed queen Vashti sounds similar to “beautiful woman” or “beloved” (though I admit this might not be an aptronym). The Hebrew form of Xerxes (king of the Persians) is Ahasuerus, which sounds something like “King Headache”. The name Esther sounds very similar to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war. The name Mordecai means “servant of Marduk”, where Marduk is the head god of the Babylonian pantheon. Haman’s name, when pronounced in Hebrew, sounds like the Hebrew word for “wrath”.
Just like the name Edward Nigma would lose its clever meaning if you didn’t speak English, the names in Esther also lose their vaudevillian characteristics for those of us who don’t know Hebrew or understand Old Persian phrases.
From the opening pages of Esther, we know who is powerful (Esther/Ishtar and Mordecai/Marduk), who is a buffoon (King Headache), and who is the antagonist (Wrath) from their names alone, and not because the story has revealed this through narrative. This signifies, right off the bat, that we might be reading something more than simple, straightforward history.
The excess is excessive
In virtually every chapter of the book of Esther, some sort of crazy excess is described. In the very first chapter, Queen Vashti (the “beautiful woman”) angered King Xerxes (“King Headache”), and as a result he decides to issue a decree to every province and in every language that a man should be master in his own house. Such a response seems a bit excessive, especially since it probably would have been pretty easy to cover up the event and depose the contrary queen, but excess was pursued nevertheless.
In the next chapter, King Headache decides he needs a new wife, so he sleeps with all of the beautiful virgins from all of the provinces, hoping to find a good partner. But first, these women spend a FULL YEAR being prepped for the event – stewing in oils and perfumes, learning the art of applying makeup and whatever other cosmetics were popular back them.
In the next chapter, Hamman (“Wrath”) gets ticked that one man (Mordecai/Marduk) doesn’t bow down to him at the palace gate, and so he decides to take revenge. Reasonable people take revenge on just the person who slighted them, or maybe the person and their family. But in the excess that’s common in the book of Esther, Wrath decides that ALL JEWS should be killed because of Mordecai’s slight.
All of these absurd excesses streak the book through with the humor that would be endemic to something more like a dramedy than something that’s straight, simple history.
All of the excesses discussed above lead to ironic reversals that are just like something out of a Seinfeld episode.
When asked by the King how best to honor someone he owes a favor, Haman describes his fantasy scenario, only to be forced to perform the honors for his most hated enemy.
Haman builds a giant gallows on which to impale Mordecai, but he and his family end up on it instead.
Haman, who wants to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian empire, is out maneuvered by a couple of Jews (and a woman, no less!) so that instead the Jews are allowed to thrive, and the person he hates most, Mordecai, ends up taking his postion of power within the empire.
The real irony here is that Haman – the man named Wrath – is trying to vent his wrath throughout the empire and preserve his own family. But instead, his wrath boomerangs and results in his family’s destruction.
Even though some of the scenes of ironic reversal are quite humorous (such as when Haman thinks he’s being honored by Queen Esther, but is instead being set up as an enemy of the queen and her people), they also contain at least a hint of moral teaching. Wrath comes home to roost. Punishment needs to be appropriate. Pride comes before a fall.
Exaggeration for Effect
Especially as it comes to King Xerxes and his excesses, the book of Esther seems to play fast and loose with the historical record in order to emphasize the point of the book. The evangelical commentaries I’ve read on the book of Esther tend to leave the historical critique out, perhaps because it prompts deeper discussions about scriptural inerrancy. Talking about how the “history” presented in Esther doesn’t fit with the history presented in other sources can be scary if your job and commentary sales are dependent upon you saying the right things, even if Esther might not be trying to be history at all.
Historically, Xerxes is depicted as a strong king who lost some key military battles, but who was up to the task of ruling the empire, initiating a number of well-received building projects. As a result of his rule, he was called Xerxes the Great. He might not have been the greatest king that ruled Persia, but history remembers him as competent, to say the least. (Note – there is some debate as to whether King Ahasuerus should be identified with Xerxes I, but even if you chose the alternative, Artaxerxes II, there are still problems.)
You’d never know that from reading Esther. Xerxes is not only named “King Headache”, he’s also shown as a drunkard, heavily promiscuous, easily influenced by his advisers, and unable to make decisions on his own. At best, he’s innocently incompetent.
Couple that with the fact that there is no historical record of Haman, who was a high official, no record of Queen Esther, no record of Mordecai, and very debatable, at best, record of Queen Vashti.
The upshot is that the characters in the book of Esther are likely exaggerations of a person or combinations of people in order to have the authentic “feel” of living as a Jew in the Persian empire, but not necessarily point out one specific person. That might also be the reason that the names of all the characters seem to be so carefully constructed. It also goes against the grain of reading Esther as a simple history.
My point is that when reading books like Esther, we can be free to read the book first and foremost for what it is – a book that is streaked through with humor, lessons on morality, exaggerations, and clever reversals. We can read the characters as caricatures and the situations as absurd. And then, when all of the dust and laughter settles, we can start to ask the question about what the book might have meant to those who would have initially read it, and then ask what it might mean for us.
The answers to these questions are complex and multi-layered, but the short answer, in my opinion, is that the book of Esther is an attempt by the Jews who were in Persia to develop a sense of solidarity with those who weren’t. It’s a way to tell the story of inclusion with laughter and cleverness, and avoid hurt feelings and generational wounds. Along the way, Esther tells the story of how the Jews got the holiday of Purim, which further enhances their sense of unity. Part of the story is that God hadn’t abandoned the Persian Jews, though He might have dealt with them differently than the ones still in Judea. It’s also a warning against wrath, against leaning too heavily on the gods of your culture, and about the absurdity of it all in front of a God who is in control.
Too often Christians want to collapse reading scripture into reading just one thing, like reading “just the facts” of history. We forget sometimes that the Biblical authors were people, too, full of creativity and inspiration, telling their story in the best way they knew how, which may or may not have been strictly historical. Reading them with genre can made all the difference.