The target: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (7)

Armitage, Edward; The Festival of Esther

The Festival of Esther, 1865, Edward Armitage. Royal Academy of Arts collection.

In an earlier post I provided a kind of ‘checklist’ of features we would need or expect to see in a work of satire. Esther checks most of the boxes.

  1. Ridicule. The Persian court in general, and Ahashverosh in particular, are mocked as constantly feasting and drinking, beginning in the opening scene with a feast lasting six months! Almost every time we meet Ahashverosh he has a wine goblet in his hand, and before Esther asks him to save her people she invites him to a wine-drinking party on two successive days, presumably to ensure he is in ‘good spirits.’ 
  2. Target. As the main object(s) of ridicule appear to be Ahashverosh and the Persian court, we might well wonder what purpose the writer would have in targetting a power which allowed the Jews exiled in Babylonia to return to the Land under their protection, and permitted them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. I’ll deal with this below.
  3. Irony. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, Esther abounds in irony. Haman and Mordecai  in particular are both ironised, and their fates are ‘reversed’ in truly ironic fashion.
  4. Exaggeration. Almost everything is exaggerated in Esther, from the length of the opening feast and the incredible numbers attending, Haman’s outlandish bribe, and the height of his gallows, to the enormous numbers of people who failed to heed the warning and were killed as a result.
  5. Humour. It’s somewhat dark, but it’s there! (See here)
  6. Puns and wordplays. I haven’t dealt specifically with these; although they are not a big feature of the book they are there. Perhaps I’ll come back to it later.
  7. Contradictions. Esther has these in the form of contradictions between the text and historical facts. 
  8. Unbelievable elements. Some of the exaggerations (hyperbole) in Esther are simply unbelievable, such as the duration of Ahashverosh’s banquet, and Haman’s incredible wealth. 

So everything is there to make us think the book of Esther abounds in irony, but to be  satirical it must also have a target. Why would the writer want to target Persian rulers who had been relatively friendly to them? A feature of what some have called ‘resistance literature’ is that writers do not directly challenge their overlords or people in authority. Rather than write about the Seleucid kings who were in control of the Land at the time, Judith is a fictionalised account of an Assyrian king who comes against Israel, but there are so many Hellenisms in the book it’s clear that ‘Assyrians’ are ‘code’ for the Seleucids who are the target. Likewise, Daniel is set in Babylon, but the writer’s real concern is the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who he describes using apocalyptic imagery although without naming him. Later, the books of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch will deal with the Romans, but their stories are set in Jerusalem during the Babylonian invasion. The pattern tends to be that writers of resistance literature address contemporary concerns by setting their stories in earlier times and/or in other places to avoid naming their overlords. If Esther follows the same pattern then we should expect its target to be later in time, and after the fall of the Persian empire.

There are really only two contenders. First, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III and claimed that, while dying, Darius had named him as his successor to the Achaemenid throne and he then ruled from Babylon over an empire which extended from India to Egypt. Alexander is said to have adopted several elements of Persian dress and customs at his court and was also renowned for feasting and drinking. His death in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon at the age of 32, from unknown causes, came  after heavy drinking. Alexander also adopted the controversial practice of proskynesis, falling to the ground to pay respect to superiors, a practice which was later abandoned. Is there an allusion to this practice in Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman? There are certainly similarities with Ahashverosh in the Esther story, although while Ahashverosh had a large harem Alexander, on the other hand, had three wives and also had a male lover, Hephaestion, and a reputation for preferring the company of young men over women. If the target of Esther was Alexander, and if he was being portrayed in the story as Ahashverosh, then there may be some satirical significance in the fact that while Ashverosh had a huge number of women at his disposal if he so desired, and took a lengthy period to choose the most beautiful woman in his empire as his Queen, he doesn’t seem to have had much of a sexual interest in her. There is a possible hint of this in 4:11 where Esther comments that he hadn’t called for her – the most beautiful woman in the empire! – for 30 days. 

Interestingly, in order to symbolically unite Greek and Persian cultures, Alexander took a Persian wife and organised a mass wedding at Susa, the scene of the Esther story, in 324 BCE. I find this particularly interesting in the light of the Septuagint Greek translation (LXX) of Esther 1:5 which describes Ahashverosh’s banquet in Susa as a γάμου wedding feast. 

There is a second contender as the satirical target: ‘Hellenist’ Jews in the Maccabean/Hasmonean era who adopted Greek customs and philosophies. There is a clue in the LXX translation of the description of Haman as “the Agagite”. Rather than “Agagite” the LXX in 9:24 calls him ὁ Μακεδών the Macedonian and elsewhere as a Βουγαῖον Bougean, possibly a reference to Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who became an intimate friend and lover to Alexander the Great. Linking Haman to Alexander could be a warning to Jews living under Greek rule not to trust them or forget their atrocities.

My inclination at this stage is that the book of Esther is ‘resistance literature’ written during the time of Greek control of Judea. Being unable to directly criticise the Greek overlords, the writer depicts them as Persians – a fairly logical choice given Alexander’s fondness for Persian customs and way of life. In Esther, Alexander in particular and the Greeks in general are being satirised, as a warning to Jews living in Judea not to trust them or get too close. The irony that Mordechai ends up becoming like Haman and orchestrating the massacre of tens of thousands of people also serves as a warning that the conquered run the risk of becoming like their conquerors, and that Jews living under Greek rule who become too ‘Hellenised’ can easily lose their Jewish identity.

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