Notes from a talk at the New London Synagogue
Was the Book of Esther Written by a Jewish Jane Austen?
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
[The fun thing about the Book of Esther is that it's possible to come up with different compelling, but often mutually exclusive, interpretations about it—and there's no way to choose between them. This talk describes one such interpretation; here's another I blogged earlier.]
The book of Esther, unusually for a book of the Bible, is filled with humour and satire, with description and characterisation. There are some personalities in the Bible that are not well-drawn: the books are not interested in them, just in the events that take place. That is not the case here. Esther is also unusual in being a Biblical book that does not mention G-d, or G-d's role in history. Not only that, but no rituals of Judaism are ever mentioned: What does Esther eat in the palace—does she keep kosher? Prayer, or other forms of worship, are not mentioned—and there are logical places where they could be—and whilst fasting is mentioned, it's not as a religious observation.
The heroine is exalted, but she marries a non-Jewish king (who does not convert). Furthermore, especially at the end of the book it seems very bloodthirsty. It's been criticised for this, especially by non-Jews. (Of course, the killing is of people who were readying to kill the Jews—it's self-defence.)
So what's this book doing in the Bible? And who wrote the book? Now, we don't know the author of most books of the Bible. The Talmud identifies authors, but only midrashically: we take this identification seriously, but not literally. We have no way of certain of knowing who wrote the book of Esther. The book talks about both Mordecai and Esther writing, but what they write are letters, איגריות, not necessarily the book itself.
So, what about the possibility that this book might have been written by a woman? Rabbi Hillel Migram talks about the books of Esther and Ruth, and the story of Judah and Tamar, positing the idea that these sections were written by women. His reasoning behind this may not necessarily convince you, but it makes you stop and think. So the question is not was the book written by a woman, but could it have been?
In those days, women did exist who took important roles in religious life: Moses' sister Miriam is depicted as a one of a triumvirate who was running the show; and she is described as נביאה, a prophetess. To be a prophet is a pretty high role: Prophets spoke and taught people things. It has also been suggested that it was Miriam who originated the Song of Moses, and Moses who fleshed it out into the long version.
In the time of the Judges there was a female Judge, Deborah; there's also the song associated with her, the song of Deborah, though it is unclear as to whether or not she wrote it. Later on, in the time of King Josiah, when a scroll (probably Deuteronomy) was found in the Temple, and the king wanted to know whether it was divine or not, rather than taking it to Jeremiah or any of the other male prophets around at the time, he got the priests to take it to the prophetess Ḥulda—and on the basis of what she said, there was a revolution in Jewish religious life.
So if you had women who had statuses like these, there is no reason to believe that women could not have written books of the Bible too. Elsewhere in the world ancient, for example in Greece, there was poetry written by women at this time.
Who is the central character in the book? Esther! One could have told the same story with Mordecai as the central character, not Esther. It's Esther who takes the initiative to save the Jews, risking her own life in the process.
So, like in the Book of Ruth (which also lacks overtly religious imagery), here we see women emerging from a passive role into an active role. It would have been in the interest of a female writer to tell the story this way.
Rabbi Milgram also argues that the very fact that G-d is not mentioned, and that things happen behind the scenes, reflects that there is a different philosophy at work here—a feminine reading of history, and of destiny: that things happen quietly, and behind the scenes.
Another big question about the book concerns its historicity. Jewish tradition takes the book as literally historical. Most Biblical scholarship, both Jewish and non-Jewish, today, however, sees the book as historical fiction—historical in its setting, but not necessarily in its characters.
One of the main reasons most scholars take that point of view is the names of the characters, echoing the Babylonian gods Marduk, Human and Ishtar. There are various legends told concerning these characters; these stories always are about the triumph of Marduk and Ishtar over Human. There were holidays in Mesopotamia celebrating these victories. So what we have in the Book of Esther is an adaptation of the ancient Babylonian myth: They retold the story, but in a Jewish fashion, transferring the characters from the realm of the divine to the realm of the human, and in a Jewish setting. [Though see also the argument against this interpretation.]
The book is historical in that it probably represents a major truth as to the way Jews lived their lives in the diaspora of Persia. There probably were threats to the Jews, more than once. And, of course, it's historical in that the king did actually exist: Aḥashverosh is [a Hebrew mangling of Khshayarsha, which the Greeks transcribed as] Xerxes.
The setting of the story is very accurate as to how the Persians lived, and the Persian court functioned. It could not have been written other than by somebody who lived in Persia. It's also satirical, poking fun at Persian life, and Persian court life, with its banquets and so forth; not to mention the king, who, for the most powerful man in the world, is portrayed as a great fool, who doesn't know what to do, and has no original ideas of his own. (Even after finding Haman apparently on the queen's bed, he requires a chamberlain to tell him to what to do with him!)
(Note the book also lacks any mention of the Persian religion, which would have been very present in the court.)
Xerxes served as a viceroy under his father Darius. The Greek cities in his realm revolted against him. In 490 Darius struck back at them, and destroyed as much of Greece as he could, but did not succeed as well as he intended: at Marathon, he was defeated, leaving unfinished business. When Darius died, Xerxes threw himself into the war against the Greeks, and mobilised a huge number of people. Darius had 25,000 men in the battle of Marathon; Xerxes had ten times that number, and they proceeded to burn Athens to the ground.
But Xerxes had a problem feeding an army of that size. He had to do so by sea, which meant that whoever controlled the sea would succeed. There was a big battle by sea, which Xerxes himself oversaw—but which he then lost, putting an end to his attempt to conquer Greece.
All this constituted background to the book of Esther, which the original readership would have known. By saying the book started in the third year of the reign of King Aḥashverosh, this set it between his first failed attempt to conquer Greece, and his second failed attempt. The readership knows the king is ultimately going to be a failure. Maybe the story acts as a foreshadowing of this.
Another point alluded to in the book of Esther: The book is set after the return to Zion. There is a point in which we switch theto the trop of Lamentations: because the reason all these Jews are in Persia is because the Temple had been destroyed and the Jews exiled. What's not mentioned is that fifty years before the story, Cyrus had permitted the Jews to return and rebuild the Temple! How come the Book of Esther does not mention this, but instead brings in the trop of Lamentations?
Maybe the author is making the point that all this trouble happened because the majority of the Jews didn't go back? [Also, the book of Ezra describes how after those Jews who did return did so, antisemites forced the work on rebuilding the Temple to be stopped: this wouldn't have happened if Yahud had remained an independent kingdom.]
So what is the book of Esther trying to do? It's a dark comedy; it belongs in the realm of the the absurd, what is called in Yiddish a bitterer gelechter. It has similarities with Dr Strangelove: both have total annihilation as subjects, but both are told in a way as to make you laugh.
At the end, you have the powerful king who doesn't know what to do, you have the melodramatic villain frustrated at every turn; and he is the one who builds the stake [not a gallows—the Persians didn't hang people] on which he ends up being executed.
At the end of the book, it says that Mordecai was popular and was loved, not by all of the Jews, but most of them. It's like the joke about the board of trustees voting 6-5 to send the rabbi a get-well card.
The story is telling the salvation of the Jews. How does the salvation of the Jews come about? It's a coincidence that the queen just happens to be a Jewish girl who won the beauty contest. And it seems to be pure luck that after she's not managed to get the king's attention for thirty days, she manages to get him to save the Jews. And finally, when Aḥashverosh finds Haman on his bed, it's luck that the chamberlain tells the king to execute him.
So how do Diaspora Jews go about savimg their lives when their lives are in peril? It's black humour: the story is saying depend on Esther winning the beauty contest; depend on her getting the king to let her talk to him, etc. But in reality you can't depend on everything working out all right in the end; the real answer is to have a plan. This is a serious point. The Zionist revolution was a revolt against this way of thinking—that the Jews had to rely on the good wishes of the countries they lived in. Does this make the book of Esther a Zionist book? Maybe. But it's the only book in the Bible which is Diaspora-centred. The book relies on the fact the Persian diaspora was going to remain. Maybe the book was written by a member of this community, to remind the readership they're living in a dangerous place, and to plan their lives accordingly.