Nov 24, 2008

Esther as Comedy

Of prime importance in understanding the Book of Esther is to understand its genre. To understand the genre will aid us in understanding the author, his personage and purpose in writing.

Is the author writing as an historian?

Is the author writing as a prophet?

Is the writer a poet?

Is Esther to be interpreted literally? As a record of historical events?

What is the snapshot of history, or the novella (if that is what it is), relative to the Jews in Persia (after the formal ending of the exile), given by the narrator, intended to accomplish in the readers (or hearers)?

Is the Book of Esther a history of some kind? A historical romance or novella? A "historical narrative"?

Some say that "the book of Esther represents a unique genre in the Hebrew Bible."

The following are some of my notes from sources, all which support the view that the Book of Esther is of the comedy genre.

A writer wrote (emphasis mine):

"Modern biblical scholars recognize in Esther, not an historical event, accurate in every respect, but a kind of historical novel that reflects a historical context, perhaps containing a historical nucleus, or at least describing accurately many characteristics of the Persian empire, 538- 333 B.C. (“a Jewish novella,” NISB Introduction; “a pseudo-historical tale,” JSB; see JB Introduction, which points out how Tobit, Judith and Esther deal quite freely with historical and geographical facts)."

"Adele Berlin adds that Esther is a “comedy” that reflects a carnival atmosphere, where the threat of extermination alternates with scenes of grotesque humor and ferocious irony (2001:XVI-XXII). The carnival atmosphere is evident in the continuous contrasts between extermination threats and the ten banquets/festivals: (1) 1:1-4; (2) 1:5 -8, 10-22; (3) 1:9; (4) 2:18; (5) 5:4-8; (6) 5:7-8 + 6:14-7:10; (7) 8:15-17; (8) 9:16-17,19, the rural banquet; (9) 9:18, the urban banquet in Susa; (10) 9:19, 20-32, the later annual festivals of Purim. David Pleins concludes that Esther tries to “deflate the Persian government’s pretenses.” But, in addition to “provincial/ colonial” Jewish humor directed against the Persian Empire, Esther and Vashti mock vain masculine pretenses of superiority, while the eunuchs, along with confirmed bachelor Mordecai, vindicate the honor of the sexual minorities against heterosexism and the “family values” of the anti-Semitic Haman. Esther is thus a highly subversive book."

"When certain Christians insist that the Scriptures attest to Jesus Christ (John 5:39) but deny that Esther contains evangelical teachings, logically they should advocate for the elimination of Esther from the canon."

In her book "Esther as Comedy - Can a book of the Bible be funny?" - By Adele Berlin, the comedic genre of the Book of Esther is well founded.

"Despite the recognition of Esther's comic nature by many scholars, some readers may be surprised or even shocked by this idea. That is because the inclusion of a book in the biblical canon affects the way we perceive the book, or certainly the way it was perceived in premodern times and may still be perceived in traditional circles."

"The very fact that Esther is part of the Bible--a holy book with religious authority and religious teachings--forces us to make it fit the expectations we have about what the Bible is and what kinds of writing it contains. We expect a biblical book to be serious and its message to be congruent with the messages of other biblical books as they have been interpreted by the tradition."

"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."

Defining Humor

"To be sure, it is not always easy to agree on what is funny, especially in an ancient or foreign work. Nonetheless, humor of various types is well-documented in ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Bible. Most readers recognize the humor in Esther 6, when Haman realizes that he must honor the very person whom he wishes to disgrace, and in Esther 7, when the king reacts to seeing Haman fallen on Esther's couch. These scenes are not isolated touches of humor, but are among the most obvious in a book where comedy is the dominant tone."

Esther as Burlesque

"Farce is a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple, hearty laughter. To do so, it employs highly exaggerated or caricatured character types, puts men into impossible and ludicrous situations, and makes free use of broad verbal humor and physical horseplay (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 26)."

"We will return to farce, for it best describes Esther, but first another term, burlesque, should be introduced. Burlesque is defined as "an artistic composition... that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1987)."

"The lofty material that Esther vulgarizes is the Persian empire and the Persian court. The normally sedate affairs of state, the carefully organized and controlled government structure, the legal system, the efficient postal system, the impressive accumulation of wealth indicative of a successful empire--all of the achievements most praiseworthy in the Persian empire are turned into a burlesque of Persian court life, caricatured by ludicrous edicts delivered by speeding messengers, a foppish royal court with an endless hierarchy of officials, and a wooden adherence to nonsensical laws. A major policy decision, the annihilation of the Jews, is made casually, but a small domestic incident, Vashti's nonappearance at a party, becomes a crisis of state, with all the bureaucratic trappings that can be mustered."

"The term satire has also been applied to Esther, most recently by Ze'ev Weisman (Political Satire in the Bible, pp. 139-163). The line between farce and satire is hard to draw, and there are certainly elements of satire in the book, especially those directed at Persian court life. However, these elements are incidental. The book is not primarily aimed at criticizing the Persian empire or its lifestyle. After all, Ahasuerus emerges stronger at the end of the story than he was at the beginning, and Mordecai and Esther benefit handsomely from all that the Persian court has to offer and become two of its most elite members."

"It is better to understand the description of the Persian court as burlesque rather than as satire; its purpose is comedy, not critique. The burlesque of the Persian court provides the setting for the farce. Burlesque also has the connotation of bawdiness, and as we shall see, the Book of Esther does not lack bawdiness, especially in chapter 1, the chapter in which court life is most on display."

Comic Styles in the Book of Esther

"The style associated with burlesque, farce, and other types of low comedy uses exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities, and verbal humor. Farce often employs repetition--of scenes, events, and phrases--and inversions or reversals. Most of these features are prominent in Esther and have been identified in the commentaries, but without the realization that they are characteristic of comedy or farce."

"Another characteristic of farce is a misunderstanding in which two characters interpret the same event in different ways (J. M. Davis, Farce, p. 62). Classic examples of this type of misunderstanding occur in chapter six, when Haman mistakenly assumes that the king is planning to honor him, not Mordecai, and in chapter seven, when Ahasuerus misunderstands or pretends to misunderstand why Haman has fallen on Esther's couch. The effect in both cases is extremely comic."

"In farce there is little concern with the subtlety of characterization. Farce tends to use exaggerated or caricatured character types. In Esther, all the characters are types: Ahasuerus is a caricature of a pampered and bumbling monarch, a ruler ruled by his advisors; Esther is a paragon of feminine heroism; Mordecai is the model of a wise courtier; Haman is the archetypal 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--nor are we meant to sympathize with him when he meets his deserved end. He is doomed from the start and we enjoy watching his downfall."

"While some of these characters show growth as the story progresses, and their various traits can be probed and described in a manner that makes them seem almost full-fledged characters (Fox has done this very successfully), they nevertheless remain types rather than full-fledged characters. This is not a defect in the narrative technique."

"The characterization in the book is intentional, cleverly done, and adds to the farcical humor. In fact, there is a striking resemblance to the stock characters in Greek comedy: the alazon, an imposter or self-deceiving braggart (Haman); the eiron, the self-deprecatory and understating character whose contest with the alazon is central to the comic plot (Mordecai); and the bomolochos, the buffoon whose antics add an extra comic element (Ahasuerus)."

Unconvincing Plot

"The plot is often unconvincing because one of the characteristics of farce is the rejection of rationality. "Farce enshrines the element of unreason" (J. M. Davis, Farce, p. 23). So the logical impossibility that looms largest--that Mordecai's Jewish identity is publicly known while Esther's remains secret--suddenly ceases to be problematic and becomes one more piece in the highly improbable plot. In fact, the entire plot turns on a succession of unlikely events, like the selection of a queen in a beauty contest and a series of ridiculous but irrevocable edicts."

"The largest interpretive problems melt away if the story is taken as a farce or a comedy associated with a carnival-like festival. The book sets out a threat to the Jews so that the Jewish audience can watch with glee and laugh with relief as it is overcome. The mad and threatening world of the beginning of the story fades into a happy ending where, for a brief moment, the Jews, through their two representatives, can play at wielding the highest power in the great empire to which they were in reality subservient and in which they were an insignificant minority."

"The story, like its accompanying festival, does what comedy and carnival are supposed to do. It confirms the belief that the power at work in the universe favors life and favors the success of the Jews. The Book of Esther affirms that all is right with the world and with the place of the Jews in it."

"Adele Berlin is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland. Copyright 2001 by the Jewish Publication Society."

The Comic Style

"Another successful rhetorical strategy is the combination of a serious theme and a comic style. The threat of the destruction of the Jews is no laughing matter, but the Book of Esther is hilariously funny. The raucous Persian court, with its lavish display of luxury, and its pervasive drinking parties, is not the setting we expect for the impending annihilation of the Jewish people. The plot glories in revelry, and bawdiness (and this may be the primary reason for the absence of God's name). The frivolity of the book's style--with its hyperbole, mockery, and comic misunderstandings and reversals--undercuts the gravity of its theme."

"Yet, for the Purim festival this setting, plot, and style are natural and fitting, part and parcel of the celebration of Purim. The tone of the book fits its purpose: a comic story for a carnivalesque holiday. I find in this comic style additional evidence that the purpose of the Megillah was to model and to authenticate the celebration of Purim. In the Greek versions of Esther, which deemphasize Purim, the comic elements are diminished. The Hebrew Esther and the festival of Purim bring us a uniquely irreverent and joyously optimistic celebration of Jewish identity and Jewish continuity."

The Ancient Link Between Comedy and Carnival

"It is generally accepted that there is a strong link between comedy and carnival going back to the origin of dramatic comedy, ancient Greece. Comic performances have been associated with popular carnival-like celebrations in medieval and Renaissance Europe. In fact, the Greek word komos, whence "comedy," comes, signifies a riotous celebration."

"Certainly, the celebration of Purim is carnival ‑like, with its drinking, costumes, Purim plays, and Purim carnivals. The Megillah itself sets the parameters for the celebration, and its later manifestations are completely congruent with the tone and genre of the book as well as with carnival celebrations known from many cultures."

"Carnival celebrations, best known from the Greek Dionysia, the Roman Saturnalia, and the English May Day (and in modern times Mardi Gras, Halloween, and New Year's Day), often contain elements such as eating, drinking, carousing, masks and disguises, parades and processions, and combat and mock battles."

"There is an air of wildness, boisterousness, and violence that is made acceptable, perhaps only barely acceptable, because it is done within the bounds of a socially sanctioned festive occasion. Carnival permits the release of one's urge for violence and revenge in a way that channels the violence so that it is not actually destructive."

Hilarity, Mock Destruction and a Happy Ending

"It is not a huge leap to see the Book of Esther as a festive comedy--that is, a comedy relating to the celebration of the carnival-like holiday of Purim--for the link with Purim is inherent in the book. I do not mean to suggest that the book was a script for a performance. Clearly, it is a narrative. It may be no accident, however, that the story has been acted out in generations of Purim plays. There is something about the book that lends itself to comic dramatization. (Perhaps it is the large amount of "stage direction" in terms of the positioning of characters.)"

"Esther may not be a play but it is surely carnivalesque literature. Its secret identities, gross indulgences, sexual innuendoes, and nefarious plot against the Jews are part and parcel of the carnivalesque world of madness, hilarity, violence, and mock destruction. Indeed, violence is very much a part of this world, and it is in this framework that we should understand the slaughter of the enemies of the Jews in chapter 9. The killing is no more real than anything eIse in the plot, and is completely in character with the story's carnivalesque nature."

"It is in this light that we should understand Esther. The largest interpretive problems melt away if the story is taken as a farce or a comedy, associated with a carnival-like festival. The book sets out a threat to the Jews so that the Jewish audience can watch with glee and laugh with relief as it is overcome. The mad and threatening world of the beginning of the story fades into a happy ending where, for a brief moment, the Jews, through their two representatives, can play at wielding the highest power in the great empire to which they were in reality subservient and in which they were an insignificant minority."

"The story, like its accompanying festival, does what comedy and carnival are supposed to do: it confirms the belief that the power at work in the universe favors life and favors the success of the Jews. The Book of Esther affirms that all is right with the world and with the place of the Jews in it." (Same author)

"I have found Fox's nuanced discussion of the author's deliberate absenting of God in the story and the message of that silence particularly thought-provoking. As he says in his response to Levenson's argument that God is to be understood as implicitly present, "The author's silences too must be interpreted. In my view they leave us with a maybe-a 'maybe' that demands an even bolder faith than plain statement would" (italics his, p. 290)."

"Readers will also benefit from pondering the "incongruous" humor and irony of Esther that Fox highlights. Genocide is no laughing matter, and many readers of Esther have therefore been uncomfortable with appreciating its humor. Fox's explanation of the function of humor in the story from a Jewish perspective gives us permission to appreciate it. "Humor, especially the humor of ridicule, is a device for defusing fear. The author teaches us to make fun of the very forces that once threatened-and will again threaten-our existence, and thereby makes us recognize their triviality as well as their power. `If I laugh at any mortal thing,' said Byron, `t'is that I may not weep.' Jews have learned that kind of laughter. The book of Esther begins a tradition of Jewish humor" (p. 253).

A Comic View of Esther

"During the public reading of the Scroll of Esther in synagogues on Purim, the readers (like myself) may feel that we are reenacting the events of the story. When the Jews are in danger – we almost cry. When the Jews are saved – we feel relieved. But dramatizing the scroll is usually very difficult in the carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim: most of the congregants are busy making noise when Haman’s name is mentioned, even at the most dramatic points in the story! Although most Jewish commentators have read Esther as a book about a very serious event, popular tradition has always seen it as terribly funny."

"Adele Berlin’s new commentary on Esther gives scholarly support to this tradition. True, she is definitely not the first to notice comic elements in the Scroll. Many modern readers have categorized Esther as satire, comedy meant as critique, directed against the Persian court. Berlin, however, views it as farce and as burlesque, and I believe she is the first to write a commentary along these lines. Farce and burlesque are forms of comedy for its own sake. As farce, the Scroll uses exaggerated character-types and absurd situations. As burlesque, it uses vulgar language for important matters, and dignified language for the ordinary. Esther is a book written about Purim, but also for Purim, with both book and holiday celebrating Jewish survival in the Diaspora:

“Certainly the celebration of Purim is carnival-like, with its drinking, costumes, Purim plays and Purim carnivals. The Megillah itself sets the parameters for the celebration…” (p. xxi)

"This view of Esther solves a number of exegetical problems in the Scroll, some of which we will mention here. First, the royal decree in chapter 1, removing Vashti from the throne, but also prescribing male dominance in households throughout the empire:

“The danger that Memucan sees in Vashti’s refusal is preposterous. How will it provoke a rebellion by all the wives in the empire against their husbands?” (p. 17)

"Second, the Scroll – as opposed to other books in the Bible – does not see any problem in violence, intermarriage, or eating non-kosher food. Third, it is impossible to believe that everyone knew Esther was related to Mordecai the Jew, but that her own Jewish identity could be kept hidden. Fourth, Haman’s ability to convince Ahasuerus to annihilate the Jews without even mentioning their name seems absurd, as do the irrevocability of royal decrees and the large number of enemies killed by the Jews in battle (75,800). Fifth, we must consider the absence of God’s name in Esther, a book that in many aspects is modeled after other Biblical texts."

"When viewing the book as a farce, however, these absurdities, exaggerations and moral/religious problems become irrelevant. The problems faced by characters in a farce, as well as their ways of solving them, are absurd, exaggerated and over-violent by generic convention. Thus there is no reason why Vashti’s refusal to show herself at the banquet would provoke a women’s rebellion:

“The burlesque of the great Persian empire, drowning in luxury, wine, courtiers, and incompetent management, reaches one of its high points here, with a touch of male sexual anxiety added for good measure.” (p. 17)

"The book has no opinion whatsoever on intermarriage or kosher food. (Mock) violence has a place of its own in carnival, as it “symbolize[s] both the aura of make-believe and the permissible reversing of the rules of society.” (p. xlviii)

"Haman could not have convinced the king to annihilate the Jews. Royal decrees were indeed revocable. The Jews could not have killed so many enemies in such a short time. There is no way Esther could have kept her Jewishness hidden. But in this type of story, these things are irrelevant.

"The absence of God’s name is also due to the book’s genre:

“…the absence of religious language in the Masoretic Text is completely appropriate, if not absolutely necessary, given that it is a farce associated with a carnivalesque occasion.” (p. xlix)

"Here, the theological problem that many readers would see in the book’s fictionality is addressed as well:

“The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value. The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.” (Ibid.)

"The religious importance of the book, in Berlin’s eyes, is the establishment of a new Jewish holiday, Purim, whose history is intertwined with that of the Scroll of Esther. Both book and holiday celebrate the Jews’ ability to survive in the Diaspora, against all odds."

"Although some of these arguments may not sound convincing to many readers, myself included, Berlin’s comic reading is an important development in Esther studies, on three accounts. First, she adopts an extreme viewpoint on the question of comedy in Esther, an argument which previously had only one extreme opinion, that which rejected the idea altogether. Berlin’s overall comic reading will provide an alternative hypothesis for dealing with the Scroll in general. This will enable us to come to more balanced conclusions than previously, when dealing with various exegetical matters."

Second, her commentary has shown us that not all questions have answers. Not every genre of literature pays the same amount of attention to every detail, and there may be matters considered important in some genres, but irrelevant in others.

Third is the issue of Greek parallels. As Esther was written at approximately the same time as Herodotus’ Histories and other early Greek historical works, such a comparison is warranted. Also, viewing Esther as a comedy warrants comparison to Greek comedies. However, until now, no other scholar has undertaken a systematic study in this direction. Berlin’s verse-by-verse commentary is filled with Greek parallels to Esther, from historical texts and comedies, with comments on both the similarities and the differences between the texts. For example, the Jews’ battle against their enemies in chapter 9 is compared to the killing of the Magi in Herodotus 3:79:

“The death of the Magi… has often been compared to Esther because it, too, tells of a festival arising from a victory against an enemy; and like Esther it is violent and bloodthirsty.” (p. 82)

But the differences are even more important than the similarities for understanding Esther:

“Here, as elsewhere, the biblical account is less graphic than the Greek, with much less blood and guts… It is not important how the Jews killed their enemies, only that they did so, that they had been authorized to do so (by royal decree and by the rightness of their cause), and that they were amazingly successful in their undertaking. Another difference between the Greek and the Hebrew accounts is that the author of Esther is describing Jewish actions for a Jewish audience, while Herodotus is describing Persian actions for a Greek audience. For the Greeks… the narrator is… reporting unsympathetically about the practice of a strange tribe. The biblical narrator… approves of the Jews’ acts and is cheering them on and enjoying their success.” (pp. 82-83)

In short, Berlin’s commentary is remarkable for her view of Esther as farce, and for her systematic use of Greek parallels. Although in farce, not every detail has meaning, Berlin offers us an excellent close reading, making maximal use of the language and style of the scroll, with comparisons to both Greek parallels, and those from the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha.

Greek versions of Esther are mentioned, and a few pages of the introduction are devoted to them (xlix-lii), but they are not used as systematically as in other commentaries, and the Greek additions to Esther are not treated as part of the story. This is a specifically Jewish commentary, so the basic text is the MT, although Berlin does make use of textual criticism.

The commentary to each chapter is preceded by an introduction, giving the readers an overview of its events and major themes, while contributing to our ability to read the commentary fluently.

So all in all, Berlin’s commentary is original and engaging, with plenty of new ideas for the expert, and easy enough to read for the layperson. Especially with regards to the issues of comedy and Greek parallels, this should be considered a major work in Esther studies for years to come.

Reviewed for JBS by

Baruch Alster
Bar Ilan University

"Esther of late has received considerable attention as a comic work of first rank. Several scholars have made the case for a comic interpretation, offering valuable insight into the variety of dynamics that combine to render Esther as a magnificent illustration of the comic vision in ancient Israel. Indeed, in a most stimulating study of Esther, Michael Fox makes the striking claim: "The book of Esther begins a tradition of Jewish humor." I would agree that Esther contains a rich vein of "Jewish humor..."

"In my judgment, Esther emerges as perhaps the clearest embodiment of the comic vision among all the biblical narratives, representing a brilliantly conceived story in which plot-line, characterization of major figures, and rhetorical strategies combine to produce a finely told comedy.

"The story opens up with an opulent description of the greatness of the Persian Empire as illustrated by the wondrous wealth of the royal court in Susa. As Berg and others have argued, banquets bracket the major episodes of the narrative, focusing the theme of festivity at beginning, middle, and end, and crating the setting for the significant actions. Already the exaggerated representation found in the opening scene one discerns comic hyperbole. The vast extent of the empire stretching "from India to Ethiopia" is highlighted by the sheer number of provinces: one hundred and twenty-seven (in contrast to the twenty satrapies Herodotus mentions). The citadel of Susa becomes a microcosm that mirrors the grandeur of the huge empire: the kind "displayed the great wealth" (1: 4). No less than three banquets are given (two by the king, one by the queen), the first and most sumptuous feast lasting no less than one hundred and eighty days. On the seventh day of the second banquet, the kind "was merry with wine" (to echo a quaint, euphemistic translation), thus setting a good (or bad) example at a party (page 174)

The Bible and the Comic Vision By J. William Whedbee

("Esther As Comedy")

"If Fox has given readers permission to see the humor in the Esther story, Berlin goes so far as to identify the genre of Esther as burlesque, making it "a comic story for a carnivalesque holiday" (p. xvi). In Berlin's view, Esther is imaginative storytelling that "historicizes" the Jewishness of Purim, although she sees no authentically historical material in the Esther story."


Anonymous said...

Celebrating PURIM is like celebrating the Holocaust!

Anonymous said...


It looks like you have never studied the Prophets of Israel. Jeremiah ch 7 & 8 should help you to see the problem in the Old Testament & when you read John 8:43-47 you will realize who it was that compiled the canon of Old Testament scripture. They also corrupted the Books of the Prophets by putting in verses into their books which contradicted what the prophet was saying. The same type of people did the same with the New Testament at the Council of Nicaea. They put in epistles that were supposed to have been written by Paul, Peter etc.