The Persian Fantasy of Esther

The Scroll of Esther is an unusual text for a variety of reasons. First, because the story is an odd burlesque tale of the ancient Israelites in Persia, and it makes no mention of God -one of only two Biblical texts to do so (the other being Song of Solomon). Instead, Haman (the brutal Persian oppressor of the Jews) notes the different “rules” followed by the Jews, without specifying anything particular about the Jewish religion. The second reason Esther is unique is because it is the only book of the Biblical canon that was not found among the texts at Qumran. In many ways Esther stands alone. Esther’s fabricated world of an oppressive Persian empire in which a noble Hebrew plebeian rises to power (by sexually pleasing the ruler) in Persia and saves her people; paints a pleasing picture of the goodness of ancient Israel, as well as the ancient hope for the coming salvation of the Persian empire, though the story surely never actually happened.

The story makes no attempt to correspond to the historical realities of Persia, and was likely written much later, though it remains consistent with the ancient Judaic diaspora narrative. In contrast to the text, the Persians were renowned for their empire of tolerance toward ethnic minorities, at least as far as ancient empires go, hence why the text is uncharacteristic of the time. In the fantasy-world of Esther the Persians are a decadent ruling empire, opening with a grand feast lasting 180 days. King Ahasuerus (likely either Xerxes, per Herodotus, or Ataxerxes) agrees to an unusual genocidal doctrine against the Jews in Persia, as proposed by his counselor Haman, until a Hebrew Persian-born commoner, Esther, rises up to become Queen of Persia and she saves her people from destruction. Haman (associated with the Amalekites in the text, though the Amalekites were the enemies of Israel several centuries earlier) decides to oppress the Jews, and demands that Jews, like Mordecai, bow before him. Mordecai declines to do so, and Haman condemns Mordecai to death by impalement.

Haman Begging For The Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt around 1635

At the same time, Queen Vashti, the King’s wife, refuses to join in the Persian feasting, so Ahasuerus, in a fit of fury, seeks another woman as his wife. Like Joseph, Esther mysteriously rises to power through the ranks of an oppressive empire. The King of Persia is pleased with her sexually after he brings various women to his bed each night. Finding his appetites satiated with Esther, the King appoints her as his new wife, and she appoints her step-father or guardian, Mordecai, to be a chief regent. In a strange twist of events, as is characteristic of the text, Mordecai, who was once condemned to death by impalement on a pike for refusing to bow before Haman, now turns on Haman. Upon discovering his evils acts, the King of Persia condemns Haman and his sons to death by impalement on the same pike that was meant for Mordecai, and Mordecai goes on to be a celebrated Jew in the kingdom of Persia.

Some have suggested that the only reason Esther was written, was to reaffirm the ‘feast of Esther’ or the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrating the triumph of Esther over Haman. The festival typically takes place in early Spring and mirrors the fasting of Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews of Persia as described in the text. Indeed, one can easily imagine the Book of Esther reinforcing the national Hebrew narrative of overcoming slavery. It is a beautiful and imaginative rags-to-riches tale that stands out as unusual among the early texts of the Biblical canon.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.

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