Shiur #27: From the "Literary Carnivalesque" to the "Theological Carnivalesque"

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Comic narrative

 

            In recent years there has been an interesting development in the scholarly research of Esther.  A growing number of opinions maintain that the book should be regarded as a "comic diversion," whose function and intention is to entertain the reader.  Thus, for example, Ginsberg writes:

 

"For the book of Esther may be described, if one stretches a point or two, as a mock-learned disquisition to be read as the opening of a carnival-like celebration."[1]

 

A similar opinion is offered by Alter:

 

"Not all Hebrew narrative is a version of the Binding of Isaac, with its stark conjunction of fire, wood, knife, and impending sacrifice, its breathtaking violation of human conception in man's terrible exposure before God.  To be sure, Esther is a late text that gives us Hebrew narrative in a holiday mood, and the holiday mood is rare in the Bible."[2]

 

Adele Berlin formulates the approach as follows:

 

"It is a comedy, a book meant to be funny, to provoke laughter.  The book of Esther is the most humorous of the books in the bible, amusing throughout and at certain points uproariously funny… The comic aspects of the book are not incidental, merely to provide comic relief; they are the essence of the book.  They define the genre of the book, and thus set the parameters according to which we should read it.  We cannot appreciate the story fully unless we realize that it is meant to be funny."[3]

 

In the words of Ed Greenstein:

 

"So with its uncomplicated plot, black-and-white portrayal of conflict between the evil Haman and the fair Esther and upright Mordecai, and flat, cardboard caricatures of the actors, the story of Esther is a skit, not a drama."[4]

 

The discrepancy between the revealed and concealed dimensions of the story is likewise interpreted as serving the comic intention:

 

"Desire is located in the gap between the overt and the hidden, more correctly, between the displaced metaphor represented by the plot and the subconscious intention… This subversive structure creates a comic effect."[5]

 

This approach adds a refreshing new dimension to the reading and exegesis of Esther: suddenly, the commentator is able to set aside his painstaking exploration of theological motives and educational messages that are usually bound up in a biblical narrative, and simply follow the humorous unfolding of the story.  All he needs to do is to read and enjoy.  Indeed, there are entire studies that are devoted to a clarification of the comic elements of Esther and tracking the humor and cynicism that are strewn throughout the plot.[6]

 

            However, there are several fundamental problems with this approach.  First and foremost it must be remembered that the character of Esther is bound up with the historical aspect: is the intention of the author merely to entertain? Is the entire purpose of this literary work the provision of comic relief? Since we possess not a single Hebrew work from ancient times whose purpose is merely to entertain, it is difficult to find any basis for the assumption that this is the intention here.  Moreover, if the entire purpose of Esther were merely to entertain, there would be no need for chapter 4, which is quite gloomy.  This is not an insignificant scene that is inserted merely to move the plot forward.  Chapter 4 represents a literary turning point as regards the molding of the characters, and especially that of Esther, and her relationship with Mordekhai.  The value of the individual's self-sacrifice for the sake of the general good, which finds clear expression in chapter 4, envelops the reader in a rather "heavy" atmosphere.  This scene and its mood appear quite unsuited to a story that is meant to be entertaining.

 

            Admittedly, there are strong comic elements in the story that cannot be ignored, but a distinction must be drawn between the manner of writing and its purpose.  Even the comic aspects of the book may serve a theological or educational purpose; the existence of such elements in and of itself does not prove the purpose of the writing or the significance of the story.

 

Literary Carnival

 

            I would like to pay particular attention to another new approach to the analysis of Esther, one that is profoundly connected to the view of the book as a "comic diversion," but which brings the narrative within the bounds of Sitz im Leben (a "setting in life" – its real-life context) and a more specific social context.  I refer here to the approach of Mikhail Bakhtin and its application to the reading of Esther.[7]

 

            One of the cultural and literary foundations addressed by Bakhtin at length is the carnival, which was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages and remains so in some centers (especially in South America) to this day.  To Bakhtin's view, the carnival (or carnivalesque genre) should be viewed as a challenge by the masses towards the establishment and the accepted social laws.  In the words of Knox: "The proper function of comedy was not to advise but to be outrageous.  It is the safety-valve of the emotional pressures generated by life in the polis."[8] The regime (or the Church) would allow the crossing of lines and the violation of accepted manners for a short time, with the assumption that through these celebrations the masses could defuse the anger and frustration towards the establishment which they usually carried inside them in their everyday routine.

 

            Bakhtin shows how the carnival was an eruption of ever-present but suppressed popular sentiment:

 

"The men of the Middle Ages participated in two lives: the official and the carnival life.  Two aspects of the world, the serious and the laughing aspect, coexisted in their consciousness."[9]

 

This carnivalesque sentiment, not infrequently including disdain for the established regime, finds expression in several "reversals" that are manifest during the public celebrations of the carnival.  Among other "reversals" or "transformations" that Bakhtin enumerates, we may mention the following:

 

1.  The marginal becomes central. Bakhtin emphasizes mainly the special focus on bodily pleasures, and especially the emphasis on eating and drinking, concerning which he writes (in reference to a novella by Rabelais):

 

"Almost all the themes of the novel come about through it; hardly an episode could manage without it.  The most varied objects and phenomena of the world are brought into direct contact with food and drink – including the most lofty and spiritual things."[10]

 

2.  The lowly become elevated: the lower strata are spotlighted on the stage; the slave is crowned as "king."  At the same time, the high are brought low: the political and religious figures of power become the target of scorn and parody.

3.  The internal and concealed becomes external and public. As part of this trend, the celebrations are held in the marketplace, in the town square:

"The marketplace becomes… the center of all that is unofficial.  It is the place opposed to all official order and official ideology."[11]

4.  The weak grow strong, while the strong grow weak. For example, at various carnivals it was customary, in the town square, to burn effigies of demons, which were generally feared by the masses.

 

            The same motifs manifest themselves in a surprising and interesting way in Esther, too.  In fact, not only these but also other motifs are expressed here.  Yona Shapira prefaces his study with the statement: "I aim to demonstrate that the carnivalesque style of Esther is based on a set of linguistic splits of gaze, of voice, of world view, of narrative, and of performance."[12]

 

            Shapira's broad claim notwithstanding, the connection between the story of Esther and the carnivalesque perception, as presented by Bakhtin, is especially prominent in the motifs listed above.

 

            The marginal becomes central, and the focus on the body and on partying. The text places surprising emphasis on the treatment of the virgins' bodies in preparation for their encounter with the king: "… After she had undergone the regulations for women for twelve months – for thus were fulfilled the days of their anointing, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with fragrances and with women's ointments…" (2:12).  Likewise, the ten (!) parties in Esther become the spine of the narrative: every dramatic development with ramifications for the plot, takes place in the context of a party or is accompanied by a party.[13]

 

            The low is elevated. Esther herself, who is transformed from an exiled Jewess into the queen – already represents an expression of this turnaround.  However, this motif is emphasized particularly in the special place awarded to the king's servants as the main movers of the plot.  In chapter 1 the reader encounters ministers who decide the fate of Vashti; in chapter 2 it is the servants who propose that a new queen be found for the king; Haman himself is hanged on the gallows because of the intervention of Charvona, etc.  At the same time, as we have noted in our discussion of the various scenes, throughout the story the reader senses subversive elements that express scorn for Achashverosh and for his regime.[14]

 

            The private becoming public, and the central role of the marketplace. Throughout the story, there is a constant tension between the secret plans of the characters and their intentions, and that which is stated openly.[15] The statement, "Mordekhai knew of all that had happened" (4:1), hinting at his knowledge of that which is supposed to be secret (the private conversation between Haman and the king) already undermines the success of Haman's plan.  Through the very transformation of the secret plan into public knowledge, the entire plan falls apart.  The town square and the main street play a role in the plot at two important junctions: in the internal transformation of the characters in chapter 4, where special emphasis is placed on the fact that Mordekhai cannot approach the king's gate, and the public mourning, and also in the overt reversal in the status of Mordekhai and of Haman, when Haman leads Mordekhai "through the street of the town" (chapter 6).[16] In fact, the parties that mark the victory of the Jews in chapter 9 may also be viewed as public, popular celebrations that do not take place in private.

 

            The strong grows weak, while the weak grows strong. Unquestionably, one of the central themes in Esther is "it was reversed": Haman is demoted from his lofty status and replaced with Mordekhai, and the victory of the Jews over their enemies ("that the Jews ruled over their enemies" – 9:1).  As we recall, the entire structure of the story points to this reversal; this conforms with the carnivalesque themes discussed by Bakhtin.[17]

 

The conclusion reached by Shapira and Craig is that Esther should be viewed as a narrative meant to accompany the festivities on Purim – a festival of clearly carnivalesque nature.  As such, it is suffused with carnivalesque motifs:

 

"Both Rabelais and the author of the Esther narrative responded to official culture and dogma with carnivalized language, themes, and images.  In the ancient Hebrew story – replete with clownish crownings and uncrownings, an official and non-official culture, lavish banquets, and the persistent fool – we witness a transposition of carnival into the language of literature."[18]

 

It must be admitted that this approach does explain many motifs in the story, and it represents an interesting view of the central themes of the story and of its development.  Most of all, this approach – unlike some others – is profoundly aware of the disdainful tone of the narrative, the comic elements concealed in it, and the reader's sense that here, unlike the other books of the Bible, he is invited to read and (also) to laugh.[19]

 

            However, as noted above, the form of the writing should not be confused with its purpose.  We must clarify the intention behind the writing of the story; we must not suffice with a definition or demonstration of the ways in which it is molded.  Even if it is true that a reading of Esther in light of Bakhtin's basic assumptions enriches the experience and makes a real contribution to our understanding of it, we have not thereby proved that the narrator's intention is limited to the carnivalesque in and of itself; we have not yet proved that the intention behind the writing of the story is limited to giving literary license to the carnival celebration that is erupting on the streets.  On the contrary, the norms of the Purim celebration as familiar to us today are not set out explicitly in Esther, nor does it appear that the story is a response to them or is even aware of them.  For example, the author could hint at the Jewish custom of dressing in costumes on Purim – a motif so central to ancient carnivals,[20] but which apparently became linked to the celebration of Purim only during the Middle Ages.[21] All in all it is difficult to imagine that the Purim celebration was so significant and widespread, at the time of the writing of Esther (although it is clear from 9:15 that it did exist).  In I Maccabees (written approximately 100 years before the Common Era), the 13th of Adar is mentioned as the "Day of Nikanor" (I Hasmoneans 7:48-49), and there is no mention of the celebration of Purim.[22] It seems more likely that the connection between the story and the festival with its special characteristics should be formulated in the opposite way:  in light of the comic elements of the Megilla, the celebration of the festival gradually molded itself around comic elements - including also a challenge to the establishment – but it seems unlikely that this is how Purim was celebrated already at the time of the writing of Esther, and that the author chose to ignore these customs.[23]

 

            In any event, we need to understand what contribution the carnival elements add to the story of Esther.  Even if we accept the assumption that the carnival itself is not the point of the story, we cannot ignore the comic elements strewn throughout.

 

            It seems to me that what is required is a transformation of the discussion of the "literary carnivalesque" to what may be called the "theological carnivalesque."  The comic elements in the story, which are in fact realized to a great extent in the perception of the popular carnival, seek to hint at a fundamental undermining of the norms of human rule and the norms by which the social reality is conducted.  In this sense Esther does indeed contain some anarchistic elements, aimed not at an undermining of the foundations of society for the sake of undermining, but rather at conveying a psychological and theological argument: man can never decode the full significance of the reality around him – of decisions by political leaders, of society's actions, of his own actions; the regime is not fully aware of what is going on, and likewise the private individual.  In other words, the motif of reversal that is so prevalent in carnivals does indeed find expression in Esther, and this reversal argues for the possible reversal of reality, for the temporariness of roles.  The undermining of the validity of reality as it appears to man is especially highlighted by the special style of writing of Esther – secret writing.

 

Secret writing in Esther

 

            Throughout our studies we have seen how, at various junctures, the book conveys split messages: one message is conveyed outwardly, but beneath the surface lurks a different message, often one that is the opposite of the open message.  As Rosenson aptly comments, at the beginning of his study of Esther:

 

"What is revealed in the story of Esther? We may point to a long list.  Even after looking at just some of it, one agrees – that which is revealed, is revealed! That which is open in the story of Esther is very open.  In revealing that which it seeks to reveal, the story is magnanimous.  The picture of what is revealed leaves no room for any shadow of a doubt.  And the opposite, too: when it comes to concealment, it covers up in a thick, almost impenetrable screen, so that there is almost no-one who is able to reveal it."[24]

 

The "concealment" of the story also finds expression in the actions of the characters and in the development of the plot.  Haman does not reveal to the king the real intentions that lie behind his decree of annihilation for the Jews.  Not only is Mordekhai not mentioned in the conversation between Haman and the king; even the Jews are not mentioned by name.  As we have noted, the king is apparently unaware of the precise content of the decrees.  Thus, Haman operates behind a mask, while the king operates with a lack of full knowledge of the reality around him.  Esther, too, hides her Jewish identity, and as we know, this concealment plays an important role in the development of the story.  From this perspective, as noted by Craig, Esther's second party in chapter 7 represents a scene where the characters "remove their masks": Esther reveals her Jewish identity, and Haman is revealed as an adversary and enemy who has written letters ordering the annihilation of Esther's nation.[25] However, it should be noted that even in this scene of exposure, the general concealment is maintained.  Even if some of the concealments that have moved the plot along thus far are exposed, the secrecy is not lifted altogether, and there are new secrets that are added in this scene: the king acts out of a sense that Haman wants to rebel against him (and has perhaps even attempted to assault the queen), and has him hanged on the gallows; and even at this moment the king is unaware that the entire edict of annihilation is the result of Haman's personal feud with Mordekhai.  The king continues to act out of the same general fog that has surrounded him up to this point.

 

            The activity of the characters with a constant discrepancy between that which is stated openly and their inner motivations, is a sort of reflection of the narrator himself, who tells his story through concealment and creates a separation between the messages which he chooses to convey openly and those that are covert, and to which he hints beneath the surface.

 

            Throughout our study of Esther we have noted various points where such a split occurs.  Let us recall some of the main subjects.

 

Attitude towards the monarchy

 

            As noted in our discussion about the literary structure of Esther, the story opens with the grandeur of the king and ends on the same note.  This fact already makes a clear statement as to the great significance that the narrative awards to the king and his reign; as Gordis notes, it looks as though the author of Esther has written a "Persian chronicle." Moreover, in almost every scene the king features as the sole influence on what happens.  Ultimately, it is the king who decides who will lead whom upon the horse, and who will be hanged on the gallows.  To this we must add the rich descriptions of the parties and the "wealth of his glorious kingdom" which is displayed for all to see throughout the story.

 

            However, as we have noted elsewhere, the concealed, hinted reading conveys the narrator's scorn for the king and his reign, over and over again.[26] In various ways the narrator intimates that the king is not in control of what is going on; rather, he is led to decisions based on the desires or suggestions of his servants.[27] In fact, the entire conflict between Haman and Mordekhai and Esther rests on the question of who will succeed first in convincing the king to perform his (or her) wishes, and to destroy his (or her) opponent.  The king himself has no opinion of his own.[28] Even when the king seeks to act, it suddenly becomes clear that the king's ring has more power than the king himself…

 

            In this context there is an interesting typological similarity between some of the motifs in Esther and some folklore legends,[29] such as the story of Cinderella, which has been invoked as a parallel by some scholars.  Greenstein, for example, argues that

 

"Esther shares with folk tales these common features: the heroine, poor Esther, is an orphan; she is elevated to royalty, like Cinderella; the king offers this beloved queen up to half his kingdom; the display of his wealth is calculated to impress."[30]

 

Even if this similarity exists, it only serves to emphasize the difference between the spine of the plot of Esther and that of "Cinderella."  Cinderella's marriage to the royal prince concludes her story, while Esther's marriage to King Achashverosh represents the starting point of hers.[31] In other words, the marriage to the king is not featured in the story as a sign of success, but rather as an opportunity to act in order to save others; the attainment of royalty by an orphaned girl is not presented as a soothing happy ending, but rather as a circumstance that moves the plot forward.

 

            It must be emphasized that the discrepancy between the plain description of the reign of Achashverosh and the hints that whisper beneath the surface cannot be bridged.  They are two mutually contradictory readings, one plain and open, the other hidden and nullifying the open reading.

 

Attitude towards women

 

            In the story's implicit attitude towards women, too, there is a sharp difference between the story's overt statements and its concealed messages.  We recall that the entire story begins with Vashti's refusal to come to King Achashverosh, an act interpreted by the chamberlains as having serious ramifications: "For word of the queen will go out to all the women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes" (1:17).  Bearing this concern in mind, the reader encounters the king's first decree in the story: "That every man should rule in his house" (1:22).  The plain message, then, is that the man should rule over his wife.  Indeed, some scholars have crystallized this as the book's message: "Between the lines it transmits a code, a norm of behavior for women.  This code and norm is delivered completely from a male point of view."[32]

 

            However, as we have seen, the entire atmosphere surrounding the "Husbands' Rule Amendment" is one of cynicism, and the humor in this scene is clear.  The cynicism grows in chapter 2, with the narrator comparing (through veiled hints) the king's attitude towards the girls brought to his palace with the accumulation of Pharaoh's agricultural produce in Egypt, and with the embalming of Jacob's corpse by the Egyptian magicians.  Aside from the veiled criticism in the story for the king's view of women, it must be borne in mind that the entire plot progresses by means of a negation of this very law promulgated at the start.  The king ends up doing what Esther wants him to do, even without fully understanding why he is doing it.  We must also not forget Haman, who acts in accordance with the advice of his wife, Zeresh, and builds a tall gallows to hang Mordekhai.

 

            Thus, a discrepancy is created between the open decree with which the story opens, and which pretends to reflect the story's negative view of women, and the hints scattered throughout the narrative, reflecting precisely the opposite view.

 

Attitude towards honor

 

            As Laniak has demonstrated at length, the motif of honor plays a major literary role throughout the story.  Honor drives the plot, and the characters of the story seek to attain it.  More specifically we may say that the honor sought by the characters is honor bestowed by the king.  However, we must ask: does the narrator truly believe that there is any value to the royal honor that may be attained? As we have seen, in the main scene illuminating the subject of honor in Esther – where Mordekhai is led on horseback through the street of the city – the narrator chooses to show scorn for this honor.  The leading of Mordekhai upon the horse is subtly compared, by the narrator, to the spitting by a childless woman whose husband has died, at her brother-in-law who refuses to fulfill his religious family duty and marry her.  The reader is thereby assured that the great honor bestowed on Mordekhai is like a spit in his face…

 

            As part of the motif of honor, the verb "to see" is especially prominent in the story.  Shapira sums up the significance of the repeated use of this verb throughout: "It seems that nothing is really happening unless someone sees it, or, more correctly, seeing means happening."[33]

 

            In other words, the author of Esther hints to his readers that since honor is so supremely important in the Persian kingdom, there is no significance to actions in and of themselves; all that matters is society's attitude towards them.  There is no significance to judging a character on the basis of his actions; rather, he is judged by the honor accorded to him; by that which "is seen."  This focus on external seeing allows the characters to act while concealing their true intentions, and at the same time allows the narrator to hide his own intentions.  In this respect, too, a profound discrepancy is created between the importance that the story appears to attach to the royal honor that is seen outwardly, and the scornful view of this honor that lurks between the lines.

 

Attitude towards exile

 

            Many scholars believe that one of the messages of Esther is that a Jew in exile may have "dual loyalties."[34] Bush, for example, provides the following explanation for the narrator's mention of "the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Mede and Persia": "By so doing, he implies that the stature of Mordecai as the head of the Jewish community is commensurate with that of the royal rulers of Israel's distant past, the period of the monarchy."

 

            Indeed, this is what the conclusion of Esther seems to imply: the king is pleased with his new second-in-command, and Mordekhai's nation is equally pleased, since he looks out for their welfare.  In this context, as some scholars have noted, Esther joins with the story of Yosef, both together shining an optimistic light on the situation of the Jews in exile.  But is this what the narrator of Esther is trying to say? It would seem that here, too, this feeling has its basis so long as we analyze only the plain level of the words.  However, close attention to the hidden level reveals the narrator's criticism of the Jews of Shushan for remaining in Persia and not returning to their own country.  In fact, on the hidden level, the story of Esther should be viewed as a story that negates exile and points to its dangers for Jewish survival.  The danger inherent in exile is manifest, first and foremost, in the plot itself, which is built entirely upon the edict of annihilation that is imposed on the Jews as a result of the personal anger of the king's second-in-command, and rests upon the king's apathy.  It seems unlikely that the conclusion of such a story would be a coming to terms with Jewish existence in exile.  In fact, negation of the exile is a message that is sensed throughout the story: it starts with the description of the king's banquet and its subtle literary hints recalling the Temple, thereby creating literary tension between them; it continues with the description of Haman's rise to greatness, using allusions that refer the reader to the rise of Yehoyakhin from his prison in Babylon (end of II Melakhim); and concludes with the complicated description of the acceptance of the festival, where the narrator hints at the political and ideological conflict between the Jews of Shushan and the Jews of the Land of Israel.  The conclusion of the story, which indeed recalls the Kingdom of Israel, comes not in order to compare Mordekhai to the kings of Israel, as Bush suggests, but rather to hint at the difference between them.  The author refers his readers to the period of the Israelite monarchy, and thereby creates an ironic reading of Mordekhai's status.  The entire story points to the fact that the position of second-in-command to the king (Haman, for example) is subject to the king's whim; this position is no guarantee of any special success or security.  In this context, as we have seen, the analogy to Yosef becomes fully realized: just as the story of Yosef seemed, at first (at the end of Bereishit), to be a success story, it turns into the story of slavery in Egypt (at the beginning of Shemot).  Likewise, Esther's coronation looks like a success story, but might its continuation not be like that of Yosef? Is it not possible that there will arise "a new king who did not know Mordekhai"?

 

Attitude towards fate

 

            At first glance, the lot (in Hebrew, "pur") cast by Haman does not appear to be an important motif in the story.  Indeed, some have suggested that the similarity of the word is all that connects Haman's lot to the name of the festival:

 

"It seems likely, as Levenson and other have suggested, that the holiday and its name originated independently from the book, and that the book is the vehicle through which the holiday was reinterpreted so as to invest it with Jewish significance.  It is here that the name of the holiday is linked with the story of its origin, through the type of false etymology that is so common in the Bible."[35]

 

However, it is also possible that this is the narrator's way of showing scorn for the lot cast by Haman. On one hand, since this is the name of the festival, it would seem that there is some value to the lot.  This lot also conforms with the advice of Haman's advisors, who told him that he was destined to fall before Mordekhai (6:13) – and they were correct.  However, needless to say, the lot that Haman casts fails to fulfill itself.  Similarly, the reader who recalls that the same wise men who predicted Haman's fall had suggested, the previous evening, that a gallows be built for Mordekhai, will understand the narrator's disdain for these enchanters.  From the perspective of our discussion it would seem that here too, the narrative awards a certain degree of respect to fate and the deterministic world that it represents – characterizing, as we know, the prevalent perception in the Persian kingdom.  At the same time – and here we are not speaking of a veiled hint – the reversal of the plot, expressing the inversion of reality, shows that fate is not fixed, and the "pur" – the lot, in honor of which the festival is named – can be overturned; it has no value.

 

Attitude towards God

 

            Among all the concealments in the story, the concealment of God stands out most as influencing reality and as activating the characters.  Much has been written about this, and as we noted in our Introduction, it is a phenomenon that cannot be coincidental; it is not possible that the narrator did not intend for the narrative to come out this way.  The phenomenon is particularly noticeable in those incidents that embody clearly religious norms (such as fasting and crying out in prayer): even here, the narrator refrains from mentioning God.[36] Some have argued that our narrative presents a "secular" viewpoint - different from the one that pervades the rest of the Bible - according to which the responsibility for action rests with man, and he has the power to save himself.[37] To my view, however, it appears that this reading is somewhat anachronistic; it falls into the trap that Esther sets for its readers.  Fox (along with others) notes correctly that:

 

"Esther, like the other biblical narratives, teaches divine causality: the religious of the story is that even in the non-divine sphere God is secretly at work, even if his name is not mentioned."[38]

 

It is difficult, in this context, to speak of a split with a real contradiction between the plain level and the hidden one.  The action of the characters that is outwardly manifest is, indeed, what propels the plot.  Were it not for Esther going in to the king, Haman's decrees would not be cancelled; and had Mordekhai not reported Bigtan and Teresh, he could quite possibly have been hanged upon the gallows that Haman prepared for him.  Nevertheless, there is a special place reserved for "coincidence" in the story.  This is especially striking in the events of chapter 6: by chance, the king is unable to sleep on precisely the night when Haman prepares the gallows for Mordekhai; by chance the king is reminded at that point of the absence of any reward for Mordekhai's loyalty; and at that precise moment Haman enters to ask that Mordekhai be hanged.  This coincidence may be interpreted as luck, but in the biblical context it is reasonable to assume that it is meant to be understood as Divine Providence.

 

            A similar phenomenon is found in the description of Ruth's arrival in Boaz's field: "And she happened to light on the portion of the field belonging unto Boaz" (Ruth 2:3).  The implied reader of the text knows that this coincidence is to be attributed to Divine Providence: "The audience knows it is hardly by chance that Ruth came to Boaz's field."[39] The true meaning of the words is the opposite of their literal meaning:

"Surprising as it may seem at first glance, the author's real meaning in 2:3b is actually the opposite of what he says… For Ruth and Boaz it was an accident, but not for God… By calling this meeting an accident, the writer enables himself subtly to point out that even the 'accidental' is directed by God."[40]

 

            A similar literary technique is used in Esther: for the characters who participate in the story, Haman's appearance before the king on exactly the night when the king is reminded of Mordekhai, is a coincidence, but not so for God.

 

            God's concealment in Esther indeed seeks to hint to a philosophy according to which reality progresses through the decisions made by the characters, but this does not mean that God is uninvolved.  His role is to time the encounters in the story, to sow opportunities, but the development of the plot to some or other point is indeed left to the free choice of the characters.[41]

 

            The danger inherent in secret writing is fairly obvious: many readers are bound to fall into the trap of concealment, to be led astray by the plain message.  For the most part, in perceiving only the superficial level, the reader does not pay too dear a price; after all, the moral of the story features on that level, too, as Sternberg claims in his argument (contrary to the prevailing opinion among scholars) that the biblical narrative, too, offers description of the psychology of its characters:

 

"The reader who, in the wake of all of this [the concealment of the psychological processes – Y.G.] grasps the top of the iceberg, will miss the crux of the matter, without necessarily sensing that he has missed anything.  The text allows him – or even tempts him – to make do with that which is explicit, for that which is explicit, too, is a truth that can suffice – albeit at the price of artistic superficiality of the story, to put it mildly, but without the narrative's world collapsing."[42]

 

This makes sense when we speak of biblical narrative in general.  However, in the case of Esther, a reader who fails to sense the hidden level of the story will miss out on the main messages of the story and its moral.  Humphreys seems to be correct in noting that the special form of writing in Esther shows that the author puts great faith in his readers.  In commenting on the scene where Mordekhai is led on horseback (chapter 6), he writes:

 

"In one sentence, one verse of the text, the fall of Haman is brought about.  Yet, all the details are now left to the reader's imagination.  Only an author with a sure hand and confidence in his reader would allow this climax in the bitter relationship between his two protagonists to pass with so few words and leave so much to the audience.  A skilled author knows when not to say too much."[43]

 

Since the hidden writing is so prominent in Esther, we must pay attention to its message.  Aside from some or other issue that is processed in the story in a dual fashion – on the plain and concealed levels – is there is special message that is conveyed by this form of writing in and of itself?

 

            We mentioned, in our Introduction, that there are different aims that may lie at the foundation of hidden writing.  One of them is what we may call "concealment for the sake of concealment" – i.e., the concealment becomes an end in itself.  As noted above, the author's desire to undermine the reader's sense that he understands fully what is going on (the reality that is recounted, reflecting the real situation around him), is, to my mind, what underlies hidden writing.  In other words, from the point of view of the narrator, the significance of the events in reality looks one way openly, but has another layer to it which, for the most part, is hidden from the eye of the beholder.  The full significance of the selection of Esther as queen is not made manifest at the time of her selection; rather, it becomes clear only some time later.  The full significance of Mordekhai's decision to report Bigtan and Teresh it not apparent (even to Mordekhai himself) at the time of his act, but rather unfolds through a winding and event-filled plot.

 

            Moreover, in this context we may view Esther as an anarchistic story. The regime and society's norms appear, outwardly, to be in order: several laws are promulgated over the course of the story, and a great many couriers are dispatched to all of the king's provinces in order to publicize each new order.  In truth, however, this law and order is illuminated in an ironic light, in terms of both the motivation for its establishment and its inner lack of significance.[44] In practice, the story of Esther expresses an absolute lack of order; in the words of the narrator himself: it is "reversed."  However, this is not social anarchy, with disdain for the regime in and of itself; rather, it is philosophical anarchy. According to the narrator, reality is capricious by nature; social roles (such as roles in government) change "by chance," and even the deterministic "lot" does not guarantee anything: it, too, may be overturned, depending on the actions of the characters and on the will of God.

 

            In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge openly the weakness of the argument for a hidden literary reading.  Towards the end of a comprehensive article devoted to irony in Esther, Goldman writes:

 

"Can we be sure that irony is intended in the author's description of the massacre? No.  Literary study is not a murder trial; we cannot expect proof beyond a reasonable doubt, only a reasonable premise and sufficient textual evidence."[45]

 

This reservation is extremely important for any literary reading which may sometimes appear to project conventions that are not necessarily present onto the biblical narrative.  However, it is doubly true when the reader argues for the presence of systematic hidden writing throughout the story.  By definition, hidden writing is hidden, and it is necessarily very difficult to prove unequivocally that this hidden level exists.  All that we can do is to speak of what seems "likely" or "reasonable," and to pay close attention to the narrator's hints, referring the reader to that hidden level.  Nevertheless, such a reading can never assert itself beyond all doubt.

 

            This series on Esther has reached its end.  To the readers who did not give up, and who have remained with me over the course of this difficult trek all the way to the end, I offer my congratulations.  On a personal note I would like to add that, beyond some or other analysis of Esther, the story gives prominent expression to God's love for His people; even in exile, and even under the hand of Haman and Achashverosh, He guards and protects the descendants of Abraham, His beloved one.  It is for this reason, too, that the story of Esther is so precious to Jews wherever they are.

 

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 



[1]H. L. Ginsberg, "Introductions," in The Five Megilloth and Jonah (2nd), Philadelphia 1974, p. 8.  Further on, he links this assertion with the omission of God's Name from Esther.  At the same time, it is important to Ginsberg to emphasize: "Must we conclude, then, that our author was a religiously indifferent man? Not at all" (pp. 83-84).

[2] Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, New York 1992, p. 33.

[3] Adele Berlin, Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary, Philadelphia 2002, p. XVII.

[4] Edward Greenstein, "A Jewish Reading of Esther," in J. Neusner et al. (eds.), Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, Philadelphia 1987, p. 231.

[5] Shapira, p. 13.

[6] See: F. B. Huey, "Irony as the Key to Understanding the Book of Esther," SWJT 32 (1989), pp. 36-91; Yehuda T. Radday, "Esther With Humour," in: Y.R. Radday and A. Brenner (eds.), On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Sheffield 1990, pp. 295-313; Stan Goldman, "Narrative and Ethical Ironies in Esther," JSOT 47 (1990), pp. 15-31; Rodriguez 1995, pp. 76-80.  In a different article ("Humour in Names," p.  71) in the aforementioned publication (On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible), Radday addresses the humor concealed in the personal names in Esther: for instance, he argues that "Mehuman" arouses, in the mind of the Hebrew reader, the word "mehuma" (panic); "Bizata" suggests "biza" (plunder); "Charvona" is reminiscent of the word "charuv" (drought); "Dalfon" sounds like "delifa" (leak), etc.

[7] Several such attempts have been made.  I shall base my words here primarily on the comprehensive studies by Yona Shapira and by Kenneth Craig (Kenneth Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque, Louisville 1995), devoted to a proposal that Esther be read against the backdrop of Bakhtin's basic assumptions.

[8] B. M. Knox, "Athenian Religion and Literature," in: D.M. Lewis (ed.), Cambridge Ancient History, vol. V, Cambridge 1992, p. 286), quoted by Berlin, p. 9.

[9] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (trans. by Hיlטne Iswolsky), Bloomington 1984, p. 96.

[10] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (trans. by Caryl Emerson and M. T. Holquist, Austin 1981, p. 178.

[11] Craig, p. 69.

[12] Shapira 1996, p. 2.

[13] I have elaborated elsewhere on the role of the parties in the story: "Bein Mishteh le-Tzom bi-Megillat Esther," in Hadassa Hi Esther.  Concerning the parties in Esther representing a carnivalesque atmosphere, see Craig, pp. 62-68.

[14]  David Hanshke elaborates on this aspect of the story: See "Megillat Esther – Tachposet Sifrutit," in Hadassa Hi Esther.  See also Yisrael Rosenson, Massekhet Megillot, Jerusalem 5762, pp. 184-185.

[15] See below, in our discussion of the secret writing.

[16] Concerning the role of the public square in Esther in the context of the carnivalesque narrative, see Craig, pp. 70-79.

[17] Although to my mind, it is difficult to regard Mordekhai or the Jews as classic literary representatives of the "weak."  Mordekhai, we recall, sat at the king's gate, and from the very beginning of the story his status is stable; it is undermined only in the wake of his refusal to bow down to Haman.

[18] Craig, p. 168.

[19] At the same time it must be emphasized that the actual definition of a certain scene as an ironic or comic one is somewhat unclear.  I identify with the criticism raised by Rodriguez: "When broad definitions of irony are used, scholars tend to find it in almost every scene of the story" (Angel M.  Rodriguez, Esther: A Theological Approach, Michigan 1995, p. 76.)

[20] Craig is aware of this deficiency and seeks to identify the motif of dressing up in the concealment of the motives of the main characters in the story, as though they were acting in disguise, under a mask (Craig pg. 111-119).  However, even if Craig is correct are there are indeed elements of concealment and of costuming (see below, in the discussion on concealment in the story), the author gives no hint of the popular Jewish custom of dressing up with real masks.  Just as the narrator comments on the custom of partying, he could certainly add other customs, too, if they had been prevalent at the time.

[21] Greenstein, Jewish Reading, p. 231

[22] Ben-Sira, in his Sheva Avot Olam (written approximately 180 years before the Common Era), where he lists the great leaders of Israel (up to Simon ha-Tzaddik), likewise makes no mention of Mordekhai and Esther.  Only in II Maccabees, written about 40 years before the Common Era, is there mention of "Mordekhai's day," but this too is noted as an aside, in the context of mentioning the Day of Nikanor, which falls "one day prior to Mordekhai's day" (II Maccabees 15:36).  Concerning this mention see Betzalel bar-Kokhba, "Al Chag ha-Purim ve-al Miktzat mi-Minhagei Chag ha-Sukkot bi-Yemei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni u-Leacharav," Tzion 62 (5757), esp. pp. 387-389 (in note 7, ad loc, he assumes that the Purim festival is familiar to the readers of II Maccabees); Daniel R.  Schwartz, The Second Book of Maccabees: Introduction, Hebrew Translation, and Commentary, Jerusalem (Yad Ben-Zvi), 2004, p. 285.

[23] In fact, even the Mishna offers no documentation of carnival customs, such that it seems even less likely that they were prevalent even before the author wrote the story.

[24] Rosenson, Massekhet Megillot, p. 183

[25] Craig, pp. 111-119

[26] See especially Henschke, mentioned above; Fox, pp. 171-177; S. Talmon, "Wisdom in the Book of Esther," VT 13 (1963), pp. 450-451.

[27] As noted above, in the discussion of Bakhtin's approach and his attention to the transformation of the lowly into the elevated in Esther.

[28] E. Greenstein, "A Jewish Reading of Esther," p. 230-231

[29] S. Niditch, Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore, San Francisco 1987, pp. 132-140.

[30] Greenstein, Jewish Reading, p. 228

[31] As Shapira correctly argues, pp. 40-41.

[32] Kristin De Troyer, "An Oriental Beauty Parlour: An Analysis of Esther 2.8-18 in the Hebrew, the Septuagint and the Second Greek Text, in: A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, p. 55.

(De Troyer refers here to the process of selection of Esther in chapter 2.  To my mind, this chapter is meant to be read with cynicism and scorn for the king's attitude towards women; the chapter does not reflect the author's own view.  On the contrary, in this chapter his discomfort arising from the accepted view of women, as presented in the story, is especially manifest.)

[33] Shapira, p. 118

[34] Berg, 178-179; Clines, 168; Jones, 437, Humphreys, 216; Goldman, Ironies, 26.

[35] Adele Berlin, Esther, JPS, Philadelphia 2001, 90-91.  See also Moore, p. xlix.

[36] M.V. Fox, "The Structure of the Book of Esther," in: Isaac Leo Seligmann Volume III (1983), p. 298

[37][37] R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the OT, London 1952, 742-743

[38] Fox, The Structure, p. 298.  (This argument rests upon the words of Yechezkel Kaufman (Toldot ha-Emuna ha-Yisraelit, vol. IV, p. 445 onwards).

 

[39] Edward E.  Campbell, Jr., Ruth, AB, New York 1975, p. 112. 

[40] R. M. Hals, The Theology of the Book of Ruth, Philadelphia 1969, pp. 11-12

For a different approach, see: Jack M. Sasson, Ruth: A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and a Formalist-Folklorist Interpretation, Sheffield 1989 (2 Ed.), 44-45.

[41] See especially our discussion of the dialogue between Morekhai and Esther in chapter 4.

[42] Meir Sternberg, "Language, World, and Perspective in Biblical Narrative Art: Free Indirect Discourse and Modes of Covert Penetration," Literature 32 (1983), 130.

[43] W. Lee Humphreys, "The Story of Esther and Mordecai: An Early Jewish Novella," in: G. W. Coats (ed.), Saga, Legend, Tale, Novella, Fable, (JSOTSup 35), Sheffield 1985, p. 103.

[44] Rosenson, "Massekhet Megillot," pp. 184-185.

[45]  Stan Goldman, "Narrative and Ethical Ironies in Esther, JSOT 47 (1990), p. 25