Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Shiur #27: From
the "Literary Carnivalesque" to the "Theological
By Rav Yonatan
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
"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."
A similar opinion is offered by
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
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
In the words of Ed
"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."
The discrepancy between the
revealed and concealed dimensions of the story is likewise interpreted as
serving the comic intention:
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."
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
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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):
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."
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
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:
marketplace becomes… the center of all that is unofficial. It is the place opposed to all official
order and official ideology."
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."
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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:
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."
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.
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,
but which apparently became linked to the celebration of Purim only during the
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.
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.
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
Secret writing in
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:
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
such as the story of Cinderella, which has been invoked as a parallel by some
scholars. Greenstein, for example,
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
Many scholars believe that one of the messages of Esther is that a
Jew in exile may have "dual loyalties."
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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."
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'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.
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
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."
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:
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."
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
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.
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."
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