“A man is master in his own house”: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (1)

VashtiRefusestheKingsSummons.Long

Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons, by Edwin Long, 1879. In the public domain.

There are several unusual features in the book of Esther, including the fact that God is never mentioned! In fact, there is nothing “religious” about the book at all (at least, not the Hebrew version, although the ancient Greek translations are a different story. See my blog post here.) There are no prayers, there is no specific mention of the laws or commandments, and none of the characters are portrayed as being particularly ‘godly’ or moral. It’s probably not surprising then that it is the only Biblical book not to have been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is not quoted or alluded to anywhere in the New Testament.

There are a number of features in the book which are associated with irony and satire elsewhere in the Bible, including exaggeration, hyperbole, aburdities or unbelievable elements, repetition and wordplay. None of these elements on their own would suggest that a work is satirical, but when they occur together and dominate a text this is a good indication that we are reading satire. Over the next few posts I will look at how some of these features work in Esther, and conclude with my ideas about the possible target, or targets.

The Hebrew version of Esther begins with an episode that seems to be only incidentally related to the rest of the story. In fact, we could omit it all together and the story would still make complete sense. This episode features a huge and prolonged banquet hosted by the Persian king, at the end of which he called for his queen, Vashti, to present herself before his guests “to put her beauty on display.” The queen objected, and refused to be paraded before a crowd of drunken men. Conseqently, king Ahashverosh (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ is sometimes translated as Ahasuerus, or Xerxes, but I will use the Hebrew pronunciation here) is persuaded by his officials to replace Vashti and decree that throughout the empire “every man shall be master in his own household.” While this episode provides some background as to how Esther became queen, the story would work just as well without it: the main point of the story doesn’t depend on us knowing how the previous occupant lost her position. The mere fact that an apparently unrelated incident appears in the story should highlight that it needs to be examined more closely. The added fact that the story begins with this incident which has little apparent connection to the main point of the story should alert us to the possibility that it is guiding us towards reading the story as something other than a simple narrative.

There appears to be a considerable emphasis in the book on kingly authority. The Hebrew words for king, queen, kingdom, royal and ruled are all derivates of the same root word מלך which occurs more than 250 times in a book of 167 verses. In some verses these words occur three or four times as if to emphasise, or exaggerate, the king’s authority. The irony is that while Ahashverosh has absolute authority, he has difficulty making a decision on his own and is easily manipulated. His decisions appear to be based on whatever was the last opinion he heard. For example, this initial decree that “every man be master in his own house” wasn’t his own idea but was made at the instigation of his officials. One of the distinguishing features of irony is a contrast between reality and appearance. While Ahashverosh appears to be in control, and this is exaggeratedly emphasised by over-using the words for king, kingly and kingdom, the reality is that he is easily swayed by others. We find similar ironies elsewhere in other stories about foreign kings in the Hebrew Bible, where the tendency is to ridicule them.

This opening scene also appears to use considerable exaggeration. Ahashverosh’s initial feast goes for 180 days (can you imagine a feast going for half a year?!), and then they celebrate its conclusion by having another feast lasting for a further seven days! What’s the ideal way to celebrate the end of a feast? Another feast! Several feasts then follow throughout the book, most of them described as drinking-parties, as though the writer is intentionally trying to depict the Persian court as gluttonous drunkards. Ahashverosh’s major decisions in the story are all made after he has been drinking heavily, which further questions his ability to make sound decisions.

Even in our introduction to Ahashverosh in the first verse he is described as ruling over 127 provinces. Whatever is meant by the word מְדִינָה medinah translated as ‘provinces’ it’s possible that this too is an exaggeration. While there is no corresponding Persian word, the Greek historian Herodotus divided the Persian Achaemenid Empire into 20 ‘districts’ for the purpose of tribute payments. The story later (3:12) uses the Hebrew word אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפָּן  aḥashdarpan a variation of an Old Persian word which has come into English via Greek and Latin as “satrap”. There were only 20 satraps in the Achaemenid Empire. It’s possible that by מְדִינָה medinah the writer of Esther was referring to smaller districts rather than what later came to be called ‘provinces’ but it is equally possible that he introduces his story with an exaggeration to immediately alert the reader to the kind of story that is to follow. At the outset of the book of Judith, another Biblical book probably written around the same time, the writer exaggerated the massive size of the Assyrian army and used place names unrealistically when describing Nebuchadnezzar’s military campaign against Arphaxad (Judith 1:1-16). Rather than being mere historical mistakes, this was probably a deliberate device by the writer to ensure that the reader understood that it was unquestionably historical fiction, and the writer of Esther could very well be doing the same thing here.

The use of exaggeration here, together with the irony that Ahashverosh decreed that every man should be master in his own house when he wasn’t master of himself let alone his house or kingdom, suggests to me that the story is not only fiction but is also likely to be satire. In following posts I will look at more examples of exaggeration and other indicators of irony/satire, and try to determine who may have been its target.

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