By Seymour Epstein (Epi)
Having read Erica Brown’s essay on Re-reading Esther, I’d like to offer yet another reading of the megilah based on my recent book, The Esther Scroll: The Author’s Tale (Mosaic Press, 2019). Sometimes, the text reveals a different story than the one you know.
The basic thesis of my reading of Esther is that the anonymous author had an intent which was quite different than the later interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis and their successors. The text that we have in the Hebrew Bible is the Masoretic text. There is no other Hebrew text since there are no Esther fragments at all in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is a Greek text, the Septuagint, which I will refer to later as part of my argument. It’s entirely possible that an oral form of the story existed for some time and that our text is loosely based on that tale, but crafted carefully into elegant prose to be read with concern for revealing verbiage.
Scholars place the writing somewhere between the fifth and fourth centuries before the common era. Note that at the time exile for Jews still had the smell of captivity and distance from God’s presence in Zion. How shall we sing God’s song on foreign soil? (Psalm 137)
By the time the rabbis started interpreting this story and establishing Purim as a universal Jewish holiday, Jews were already scattered far and wide and exile was the norm. More so, after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, their goal was to negotiate life in exile, not to discredit it. Indeed, the ongoing Talmudic dialogue between Israel and Babylon under Persian rule was, if anything, supportive of Jewish life in exile. We must keep these two very different mindsets in front of us in order to understand where I am taking you.
Let’s start with the process. I will quote from my book’s summary.
The process of uncovering the original story by means of a literary analysis of the text can be compared to an archaeological dig in which layers of later civilization are carefully analyzed, but eventually dusted away in order to arrive at a base which was the foundation for all later development. The layers are built on the base but are illustrative of the age of their origin. The original story was suited to its fourth century BCE perspectives on the Persian Diaspora, while a late-biblical and early-rabbinic Judaism, already resigned to a Diaspora existence, adapted the Esther story to suit its needs, and in so doing changed a critique of Diaspora life into a hope-giving tale of victory.
Is the story real? Is it history or fantasy? We can’t know, nor does that issue concern me in the book. I am more interested in the motivation of the author who is anonymous. I subtitled my book, The Author’s Tale, because it is his original intent which I explore. By the way, I use the masculine pronoun, but if there ever was a possibility of female authorship in a biblical book, this is the place, given the role of Vashti and Esther. My theory, simply put, is that the author wrote what we would call a satire to transmit two key ideas which are never mentioned explicitly in the text:
1. Jews should never live outside of Israel, their homeland, and 2. Jews should dwell under the kingship of God, not a king of flesh and blood, like Ahashverosh. Sort of a combination of Ben Gurion and Rav Kook!!
A few key examples from the text will illustrate my theory:
The hyperbole of chapter one in which the king has a mishteh, a drinking party of 187 days to celebrate his third year of reign sets the scene of an absurd kingdom. The interior decoration of his palace reminds the biblical reader of the desert tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, the only other places in the Bible with such description of decor. This sets up the constant textual comparison of this king of flesh and blood with God, the King of kings of kings, who is absent from this story. Turning a minor incident with Vashti into a national crisis is yet more illustration of the absurdity of this territory.
The contest of virgins in chapter two is the first indication that the values of this foreign culture are the opposite of values espoused by the Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible. Another obvious example are the castrated servants. The Torah prohibits even the castration of animals. (See Leviticus 22:24) Chapter 2, verse 6 introduces Mordecai by using the Hebrew verb g-l-h, exile, four times. Not only is his exile emphasized, but both he and his cousin bear names that could only be shocking to the readers of that period: Mordecai after Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, and Esther (previously Hadassah) after Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess. This would be similar to our reading a novel about a Hasidic family in Brooklyn with two children, Christopher and Magdalena.
This is a good time to digress to discuss the later rabbinic reading of Esther which is the source for Purim as we know it and celebrate it. The difference between my reading, which I claim to be the original intent, and that of the rabbis can be summed up with regard to Esther’s name. As I noted earlier, the rabbis lived in an era where Jews were already widely dispersed even before 70 CE and the destruction of the temple. Diaspora was already normative. They read the story as a victory in the ongoing negotiation of living as a minority in lands ruled by others. And they read the name Esther as rooted in the verb s-t-r, to hide, a reference to God’s hidden presence and Queen Esther acting as His emissary to save the Jews. The author, in my opinion, changed her name from the beautiful Hebraic Hadassah to that of a Mesopotamian goddess, Ishtar, in order to emphasize her total assimilation into Persian culture. By the way, the only reference to any religion in the book is in the names of the two Jews! There is not only no mention of God in the text; there is also no mention of any other religion, including the faith of the Persians.
In chapter 3 Haman told King Ahashverosh: “There is one people who are scattered but set apart among the nations in all the provinces of his kingdom. Their laws are different from all other nations and they do not observe the king’s laws, therefore the king should see no value in tolerating them.” (3:8) This is a clear statement of what we now call anti-Semitism. For the author, this is the fate of Jews in Diaspora existence. Not exactly my view, but these days, one begins to wonder. But this is also the chapter in which Mordecai decides to refrain from bowing to Haman as is the court custom. One wonders why this Persian Jew decides to assert his Judaism in this manner, there being no direct Torah prohibition on such court politesse. A much better place for Mordecai to act Jewishly might have been protecting his cousin from entering the virgin contest and eventually living in a palace without kosher food and distant from the Jewish calendar. The author here is demonstrating the confused values of assimilated Jews, the two heroes of the rabbinic tale.
My reading of chapter 4 will be the most difficult to bear for those devoted to the traditional reading of Esther. In the Purim tradition these are the heroic moments when God’s hand pushes Mordecai and Esther to begin the mission of saving the Jews. Not so in the original reading of this text. Here both Mordecai and Esther betray their assimilated distance from Jewish values and from God. Esther’s situation is even more exaggerated than that of Mordecai who becomes transformed soon after his cousin demonstrates her ignorance of the threat to her people. Eventually, both are transformed into the Jewish heroes we recognize, and the mission is on.
One must wonder, though, at the initial response of Mordecai and his fellow Jews at the beginning of the chapter. One can imagine the right-wingers organizing a local Jewish Defence League and buying illegal weapons. Or one can think of the left-wingers creating a Persian-Jewish Brotherhood Organization and appealing to the king as loyal citizens of beloved Persia. A third group could be that of the faithful appealing to God for salvation. And a fourth might be those who decide to flee.
None of this happens. They are already in mourning for deaths scheduled months ahead. The rabbis were acutely aware of the fact that Mordecai did not pray to God for salvation. The author has him crying out a great and bitter scream, but not to God. Subverting the author’s clear intent, the Septuagint added to this chapter a long prayer to God from Mordecai and another long prayer to God from Esther. Open any Catholic version of the Old Testament and you will find these two prayers, a rabbinic subversion of the original intent of the author’s desire to paint Mordecai as totally assimilated and distant from God.
We all know how the story develops. Esther saves the day, but a single verse in chapter 8 further emphasizes the absurd values of this kingdom. “And you may write an edict that appeals to you in the king’s name and seal it with the royal signet ring, for an edict written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring cannot be rescinded.”(8:8) That the king cannot alter his own edict is utterly ridiculous. Compare it to the King of Kings, the God of the Hebrews, who can change His mind even under human persuasion. (See Exodus chapter 32 and Jonah chapter 3). This new edict caused the unnecessary murder of over 75,000 of the king’s subjects.
Here we can discuss God’s absence in the text in contradistinction to the ubiquitous presence of the king. There is a scribal tradition to write the scroll with melech, the king, as the first word of each column. It’s not that difficult since the word melech appears over 200 times in this text. While the melech malchei ha’mlachim, the King of kings of kings, is central to the rest of the Hebrew Bible and its culture, the only king mentioned in this story is our drunk Achashverosh. The author is not speaking of the non-existence of God, but rather for believers, a more traumatic situation, the absence or non-presence of God. Remember Psalm 30: “You hid your face, I trembled with fear.”
And in the end, how do the Jews celebrate their victory? With a mishteh, a drinking party, the very motif in the story which illustrates the decadence of their host culture No thanks to God, no prayers, no sacrifices – as we would find in Israelite culture elsewhere in the Bible.
A last word about reversal on which I wrote a brief essay in the book. When we think of reversal in Esther we refer to 9:1 – “Thus on the 13th day of the 12th month, that is Adar, when the king’s edict and law were to take effect, when the Jews’ enemies thought to overpower the Jews, all was reversed in that the Jews overpowered those who hate them.”
But that is not the only reversal in the story. I count fourteen in total, and I think the author is using reversal as a constant and ongoing theme with purpose. In the dynamics of this story, reversal is not a plot technique to save the Jews; it is, in fact, a motif of instability that continually threatens the Jews.
A final quote from my summary.
My reading is certainly not in line with the rabbinic interpretation of this text, nor with any of the later readings based on what I see as rifacimento (a process by which an earlier story is adapted or re-interpreted to suit a new reality), but it is also not a product of the modern age. Ever since the European Enlightenment, critical scholars of the Bible have been justifiably obsessed with history, dating, authorship, comparative linguistics, similar narratives of other near-eastern settings, and corroborating evidence from host cultures. I say “justifiably obsessed,” since these scholars were using the tools of their time, such as the study of Semitic languages and archaeology, to maximum effect in order to bring the study of Bible in line with other scientific endeavours so respected by the modern age.
This reading is, in fact, a product of a post-modern perspective and one that is also profoundly influenced by the existence of the State of Israel since 1948. At no other period in Jewish history could one witness simultaneously a thriving Diaspora of Jewish life in certain countries, disintegrating Jewish life in other settings, suppression of Jewish culture and religion and the murder of Jews in numbers that make Haman look mild in his hatred, and the complex state of Jewish life in a democratic sovereign state of the Jewish people. This multi-faceted view permits us to see beyond the traditional reading of the Esther Scroll that envisioned the potential for a negotiable life in the Diaspora towards other readings that could be possible in both the distant past and today in a world unlike any we have encountered before as a people.
Only in identification with a world in which Jews were living both in Israel and beyond its borders, and when other powerful cultures such as Greece and Persia were exerting their magnetic influence can we in our open society appreciate the possibility of a radically different story from the same text we revere as part of the Hebrew Bible.
Let me conclude by telling of one of the first times I lectured on Esther in Montreal of the seventies. In my traditional synagogue I gave a talk that interpreted Esther in the fashion of this book, and an elderly gentleman who sat behind me in synagogue never let me forget that I had greatly disturbed him. He constantly reprimanded me for the error of my ways. What I wondered about and should have asked him was whether he accepted my interpretation and found it had ruined his Purim or whether he was convinced I was wrong and bordering on blasphemy. The question is whether this reading supplants the traditional story and thereby invalidates Purim as a meaningful Jewish festival. Absolutely not! We have a long tradition of reading both the plain meaning of a text alongside the midrashic, homiletic, mystical, and contemporary interpretations of the same text and viewing them all as authentic to our heritage. If anything, this alternative reading can add value to Purim by demanding that we use the celebration to ask difficult questions about the current state of Jewish peoplehood. … We can read the text into our lives and ourselves into the text.
What emerges is one story among many.
Dr. Seymour Epstein (Epi) worked at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto and helped to found an experimental high school there in 1971. From 1973 to 1978 he was an assistant professor at McGill University where he directed the Jewish Teacher Training Program of Montreal.
From 1999 to 2009 Epi was the director of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education.