Dark humour: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (4)

1450px-Ester_y_Mardoqueo_escribiendo_la_primera_carta_del_Purim_(Ester,_9-20-21)_-_Aert_de_GELDER_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Esther and Mordecai Writing the First Purim Letter, by Aert de Gelder, c.1685. In the public domain.

Wit and humour, often expressed as ridicule, are characteristics of satire and in the context of a serious subject such as genocide the humour can be somewhat “dark”. Devices for creating a humourous effect include exaggeration (some examples of which I noted in previous posts) and repetition.

The writer of Esther uses repetition and  exuberant language through the use of synonyms. For example, when letters are first sent out throughout the Persian empire ordering the massacre of Jews they gave instructions “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children” (3:13). The language is tautological as the verbs “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate” all effectively mean the same thing. However, the use of these verbs with similar or identical meanings together is chilling, and the same wording occurs twice again (in 7:4 and 8:11) as though the writer wants to maintain or emphasise the effect. Further, having said “all Jews” are to be massacred it would be unnecessary to elaborate further by saying “young and old, women and children” except to emphasise the cold-blooded mercilessness of the atrocity.  The third time these three verbs are used together is in the letter sent out by Esther and Mordecai where it also expresses their horror at Haman’s hateful plot. The repetition also has another effect: it starkly draws attention to the disproportionate nature of Haman’s response to a personal insult by one man, Mordecai, in ordering the massacre of an entire ethnic group. Rather than an appropriate or proportionate “eye for an eye” response, Haman’s reaction to the insult is an overkill (pun intended). But then, the number of people who are killed when the edict is revoked, or reversed, is also somewhat comical (I did say it’s “dark humour”!) As Haman’s reaction to a personal insult was excessive, so too was the slaughter of 75,800 people in the aftermath. It was not enough that Haman and his ten sons were executed, a huge number of people throughout the empire also died. Perhaps the writer is saying that hatred always spirals out of control.

The letter from Esther and Mordecai declared that “the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them” (8:11). To emphasise that everyone would receive this warning with plenty of notice the Hebrew uses the word כָל “all/every” five times in three verses:

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 13 A copy of the writ was to be issued as a decree in every province and published to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies. (8:11-13)

The repetition emphasises that no one had an excuse for not knowing about this new decree, and forewarns them to do nothing. There was no danger to anyone, so long as no one attacked the Jews first. Yet 75,800 died died precisely because they ignored this second edict. How could so many people be so stupid?! The number is exaggerated, but so too was Ahashverosh’s almost-delighted response on hearing the news that so many of his own people perished: “In the citadel of Susa the Jews have killed five hundred people and also the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” (8:12) Rather than showing any signs of sadness he grants Esther’s request and allows a second day of slaughter and for further deaths to occur! (8:13). This response is so unrealistic that it’s almost humorous. Historically, there is no evidence that any of this ever occurred, or that Esther and Mordecai ever existed. The humour, even dark humour, probably wouldn’t work if the events were real. However, in the context of exaggeration and hyperbole and highlighted by repetition Ahashverosh is not only depicted as a king who is easily manipulated but one who is callously out-of-touch with his own people.

The literary effect of this repetition includes building suspense. When Esther agreed to Mordecai’s plan that she should approach the king to ask for their people to be spared she invited Ahashverosh and Haman to a banquet. Yet nothing happens. The next day she invites them to another banquet. There is considerable repetition in the telling of the story, and it effectively build suspense. There seems to be no other purpose for the first banquet other than this literary effect, and to draw attention to the Persian love of drinking and feasting.

The story begins with Ahashverosh hosting a banquet which lasted 180 days (clearly an exaggeration). Both the Hebrew text and the ancient Greek translations use words which specifically refer to the banquet as a drinking bout. The Hebrew word מִשְׁתֶּה “banquet” occurs 20 times throughout the book and comes from a root meaning to drink. On four occurrences it is combined with the word for wine as מִשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן “wine-drinking banquet”. The Septuagint Greek uses the word πότον “drinking party”. The frequent and repetitive use of these terms implies that the Persian court was constantly feasting and drinking. Esther’s request to Ahashverosh to spare her people, when she exposed Haman as the murderous schemer, was made during the second successive day of drinking/feasting and “as they were drinking wine” (7:2). This repetition has the effect of portraying the Persian court in general, and the king in particular, as heavy drinkers whose judgments were clouded by their excesses. The repeated mentioning of their drinking effectively ridicules them and implies that their excesses not only made them irrational but left them open to easy manipulation.

The Persians and Ahashverosh are not portrayed positively in this story, but why not? It was the Persians who allowed the Jews who were captive in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation and Temple. So why ridicule them?

… to be continued

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