Edwin Long and Edward Poynter – Orientalism, Neoclassicism and Biblical Art

The Babylonian Marriage Market, Edwin Long, 1879

In one of Stephen’s blog posts on the book of Esther, he chose a painting by Edwin Long entitled ‘Queen Esther’ which was painted in 1878 and it resides in the National Gallery of Victoria. Edwin Long also painted a picture of Vashti, entitled ‘Vashti’ in 1879. He also famously painted a work entitled ‘Babylonian Marriage Market’ in 1875 (above). Edwin Long was born on the 12th July 1829 in England and died on the 15th May 1891 in Hampstead in London. The art periods in which he painted were Academic art, Neoclassicism and Orientalism.

Edward Poynter, on the other hand, was born on the 20th March 1836 in Paris, France. He died on the 26th July 1919 in London. Edward John Poynter, 1st Baronet, was a painter, designer and draughtsman and also famously painted ‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to king Solomon’ in 1890 and this painting resides in the Art Gallery of NSW. He also painted in the Orientalist style and attended the Westminister School, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Heatherley School of Fine Art.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

It is to be noted that both artists were from Europe, namely England, and were English even though Poynter was born in Paris. They were swept up in the style of neoclassicism and orientalism. Neoclassicism is a painting style whereas orientalism has its roots in colonial empire building. In a previous blog post I have mentioned the male gaze which is a feminist concept that explains the almost pornographic images that can be found amongst traditional paintings which reflect the male attitude towards women (see also Stephen’s post about this here). Female artists tend to paint with an alternative lense. Orientalism focuses its gaze on the kingdoms of the east with an eye to dominance and derision of its peoples. During these artists’ lives, the Ottoman empire was failing and falling into ruin whereas “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Orientalism could be seen as an extension of the male gaze where the west looks upon the east with both scorn and perhaps a certain amount of covetousness regarding its social structures and customs involving women and men which were quite different in comparison with the stifling social expectations and mores of Europe.

In Long’s works, women are the subject but in the case of Esther and Vashti they are characters in a biblical story. The women are painted as beautiful and feminine with soft brush strokes emphasising their qualities. The light in the paintings is gentle. As is the case in eastern tradition, Vashti is part of a harem even though she is the queen and as such has little freedom. Her refusal of the king’s request to be seen and admired sees her replaced with Esther who also becomes part of the harem. Esther was chosen from all the eligible young women in the land to be the king’s new queen. The social structure of the day could be quite appealing to men who observe that the east does not necessarily see marriage as just between one man and one woman as Christians do. The painting of the Babylonian marriage market portrays women as almost having the status of slaves and yet in the painting they seem compliant or at least resigned to their fate. Neoclassicism focused on the appreciation and fascination with antiquity and certainly in Longs work he seems rather taken with the subservient nature of women in eastern society.

In Poynter’s famous painting of the Queen of Sheba we see a different painting style. It is grand in size (234.5 x 350.5 cm) and the frame is opulent with its gold gilt. The frame is a reflection of the artist’s intention to show in the painting all the splendour of Solomon’s court. The colours chosen are rich in their hue and the brush strokes are fine so as not to detract from the subject matter. Poynter cleverly brings to life the verse in 1 Kings 10:4-5 “…all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings…[ensured] there was no more spirit in her.” He paints the queen in an erotic costume and her skin tone is brown, a controversial move at the time. It took Poynter six years to complete. He was very proud of the work. Criticism of the work was that it was too dramatic, reverting back to Poynter’s earlier works. However, I feel that the artists captures the charisma of Solomon in that he virtually woos the queen with his wealth and style. Orientalism in this case, doesn’t so much deride the subject but seems to be in awe of it.

If you ever get the chance to see the painting in the Art Gallery of NSW you should see it. It is well worth it and it is an excellent example of orientalism at its best.

Esther before Ahasuerus

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1628–1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection.

In my recent series on irony and satire in the book of Esther I pointed out that the Persian king Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahashverosh in Hebrew) is ridiculed in the story while Esther and her cousin Mordecai manage to persuade (manipulate?) him in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire from a planned genocide.

In an unrelated post Stephanie wrote about the Italian female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and how many of her paintings portray strong women taking control and dominating a man. Stephanie’s post made me think about a painting by Gentileschi of Esther Before Ahasuerus. One version of Esther falling before Ahasuerus is in the Hebrew Bible which says Esther “fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews” (8:3). However, in another scene which appears in an addition to the story in the Greek versions of Esther, the writer describes Esther fainting before Ahasuerus:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendour, he [Ahasuerus] looked at her in fierce anger. The queen [Esther] faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her.  8 Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words …

Esther 15:7

The scene in Gentileschi’s painting is from this addition to Esther, and she would have been familiar with it because the additional material in Esther is part of the Deutero-canonical books in the Catholic Bible (also called the Apocrypha).

If you take a careful look at Gentileschi’s painting you will see two rather striking things. First, in Esther’s fainting pose her neck is exposed as her head falls back, and she is portrayed with a rather muscular, almost masculine, neck. In fact, I think I detect an Adam’s apple! Second, by contrast with this ‘masculine’ Esther, Ahasuerus is portrayed as a ‘dandy’. It seems to me that Gentileschi knew the story well and had picked up that Ahasuerus is exposed as weak and easily manipulated, while Esther manipulates and therefore dominates him. The artist reveals in a masterful way that she understood what was really going on in the story.

Thanks again to Stephanie, the family art historian, for helping me to see more in Renaissance art than simply pretty pictures!

When Napoleon was King of England

François_Gérard_-_Napoleon_I_001

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in Coronation Robe, François_Gérard, c.1805-1815, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. In the public domain.

Scholars and apologists have spilled a lot of ink trying to reconcile some historical details in the Bible with actual history. I suspect the urge to eliminate any discrepancy between ‘biblical’ and ‘secular’ history begins with the theological position that the Bible is the inspired word of God and free of any errors. If there is a conflict between the Bible and historical information derived from other sources, then it’s argued (by some) that the Bible must be right and the other sources must contain errors, or there must be some way to reconcile them so that both are right.

Let me give just a couple examples. The book of Daniel dates one of Daniel’s visions specifically to the first year of the reign of “Darius the Mede”.

In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. (9:1-2. See also 5:31 where he is called “Darius the Mede”.)

There are several problems here. First, there is no Median king known from history named “Darius”. We do have some Persian kings named Darius, but none from Media. At least half a dozen kings have been proposed from as early as the first century CE as contenders, but there are difficulties with each of them and none are entirely convincing. Second, Daniel places this Darius the Mede between Belshazzar and Cyrus the Great. However, history knows no king between Belshazzar and Cyrus. Third, there is a major problem with the “seventy years” prophecy. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and Cyrus issued his decree for the Jews to return in 538 BCE, and if my maths is correct that is a period of only 49 years. Several attempts have been made to solve the problem, but again there is no scholarly consensus as none of the solutions are very convincing. However, I don’t want to delve further into that particular difficulty here – for now I just want to focus on the problems with kings.

While we are in Daniel, I’ve already mentioned Belshazzar and we have a considerable problem with him as well. He is the main character of the story in Daniel 5 about the “writing on the wall” where he is described as King Belshazzar (5:1), and he calls Nebuchadnezzar “father” (5:2). Apart from the relatively minor problem that Belshazzar was never king (he was crown prince) we have a major problem with the fact that he was actually the son of Nabonidus, a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, and not son of Nebuchadnezzar. There are other historical problems in Daniel, but these are enough to make the point that the writer seems to be very careless with historical facts. However, I think there is another possibility which solves the problem.

Daniel is not alone in confusing his kings, as other biblical books also create problems for scholars and commentators by mixing up their monarchs. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that scholars have tried for centuries to identify King Ahasuerus in Esther, again with no consensus. We also have a problem with the “king of Nineveh” in Jonah 3:6, as Nineveh had no king in the time of the prophet Jonah.

For those who have the book of Judith in their Bible, there are considerable problems there with Nebuchadnezzar being called “king of Assyria” ruling in Nineveh (Judith 1:1) when he was actually king of Babylonia and reigned after Nineveh had been destroyed. However, I think it’s a pity that those who don’t have Judith in their Bible aren’t more aware of it, because we almost certainly have the solution there to our problems in Daniel, Esther, Jonah and elsewhere. Not only does Judith confuse Assyria with Babylonia, the book also completely messes with chronology. We know from elsewhere in the Bible, and from history, that Nebuchadnezzar beseiged Jerusalem and sent its king and many of its inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Yet Judith has Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes coming against the cities of Judah after the return from exile 50 years later! (4:1-3; 5:18-19). By this time Nebuchadnezzar was dead and Babylon was in the hands of the Persians. Judith’s history is topsy-turvy! How could the writer get it so wrong?

It is actually in this topsy-turvy portrayal of history that we have a clue – and a solution – to our problems in Daniel, Esther and elsewhere. Judith deliberately distorts history for literary purposes. Its “errors” are so major and there are so many of them that they have to be deliberate. No one could get history so wrong – especially their own history – unless they intended to do so. As Carey Moore says in an article on Judith [1], to describe Nebuchadnezzar as King of Assyria would be like beginning a story with “It happened at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” Further to that analogy, Judith’s “confusion” about the timing of the seige of Jerusalem and the return from exile would be akin to saying “Hitler’s bombing of London came just a few years after the end of World War II.” It would be so wrong that no one would think it was a simple “mistake” – it had to be deliberate. It’s almost comical. Moore describes the book of Judith as the most quintessentially ironic biblical literature. It abounds in irony, and the historical distortions are a literary device used by the author as part of the ironic effect. The historical “errors” right from the very beginning of the story are unmistakeable signs to the reader or listener that while the story reads like historical narrative it is actually fiction. It is somewhat similar to a modern writer beginining with “Once upon a time …” You wouldn’t start a history book that way, so it’s an indicator to the reader that the story is fictional and even comical in parts, although its underlying message could be serious. In the Judith story it is inconceivable that the writer had forgotten or mixed up the timing of the most cataclysmic event in Israel’s history. However, by appearing to be confused about significant details the writer may be sounding a warning to readers or listeners that if they forget their history or don’t learn from it they are bound to repeat it.

Similarly, in Daniel, it seems to be a feature of the court tales that the writer mixes up or conflates details to give the appearance of historical narrative while also leaving clear markers that they are, in fact, fiction. This is so that the reader/listener is left in no doubt about the true nature of the book. Like Judith (and Esther), Daniel abounds in irony and satire. It shouldn’t be surprising then that these three books (and possibly others such as Jonah) were written, compiled or edited against the same historical background. There are clear signs that Judith and Daniel may have been written relatively close to each other and in response to the same historical events (Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ desecration of the Temple), and Esther too may have been written as a warning against becoming too cozy with the Greeks. In this Hellenistic era the biblical “novel” was beginning to take off as a literary genre, satire was becoming more popular throughout the wider literary world, and irony – a longtime favourite device of biblical writers – was reaching its zenith.

In my view, regardless of one’s ideas or theology about “inspiration” or “inerrancy,” there is no need to stress about conflicts between the Bible and history. They may be opportunities for readers to discover more about the motives of the writers and the literary techniques they used to bring serious issues to the attention of their readers/listeners.

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[1] Carey A. Moore “Judith, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. III, 1117-1125

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.

What Judith can tell us about Esther: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (6)

Judith_Beheading_Holofernes-Caravaggio_(c.1598-9)

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio (c.1598-9). In the public domain.

Some readers of the Bible may ask “I know who Esther is, but who is Judith?” That’s because the Book of Judith isn’t in most Protestant Bibles. It is accepted as canonical (“inspired Scripture”) by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and as Apocryphal by others (including the Anglican and Lutheran churches), but is excluded from Jewish and Protestant Bibles. If you haven’t read it I’d recommend it as a great piece of Jewish literature and story-telling from the Maccabean period (probably around 135-104 BCE). It’s relevance here is that it has been said of the book of Judith that “No biblical book is so quintessentially ironic as Judith” [1]. Moore describes the writer as “an ironist extraordinaire” who often means the opposite of what he says. The books of Judith, Tobit (also deuterocanonical, or Apocryphal) and Esther are very similar in style and in the literary techniques used by the writers. They are early forms of the “novel”. By understanding some of these techniques in Judith we can gain some insights into the intentions of the writer of Esther.

The first thing which strikes us when reading Judith is that it has all the trappings of historical narrative, but a reader who is familiar with biblical history will quickly note several historical and geographical inaccuracies, so many, in fact, that it becomes fairly certain that the writer’s carelessness with the facts was deliberate. While the story has a believable plot, someone even casually acquainted with Jewish history will recognise several discrepancies. For example, the story begins “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh” (Judith 1:1). Most readers of the Bible will know that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylonia, not Assyria, and some will know that Nineveh had been destroyed several years before his reign began. The twelth year of Nebuchadnezzar would have been the fourth year of Zedekiah (cf. Jeremiah 32:1), the last king of Judah before the exile. Yet the story is set in the post-exilic period and Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, is said to come against Judah after they had returned from exile and rebuilt and re-consecrated the temple in Jerusalem:

When the Israelites living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples, 2 they were therefore greatly terrified at his approach; they were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God. 3 For they had only recently returned from exile, and all the people of Judea had just now gathered together, and the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple had been consecrated after their profanation. (Judith 4:1-3. See also 5:18-19).

This is so obviously a distortion of history that any contemporary reader or listener would recognise that it wasn’t a telling of history but was rather a fictitious story using the names of well-known historical characters. Moore makes the point that it would be like telling a story which begins “Once upon a time, when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” No reader/listener would think the writer had simply made a mistake – the errors are so huge (and there are so many of them) that it would be obvious that they were intentional and designed to mimic the style of historical narrative while serving an entirely different purpose. Almost everything about the book of Judith is ironic: it’s major and minor characters, several episodes and the overall plot are all ironic. A  number of scholars, including Edward Good in his classic work “Irony in the Old Testament” (1965), and Carolyn Sharp in her “Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible” (2009), have identified several forms of irony in the Hebrew Bible, all of which abound in Judith.

The relevance of this to our consideration of Esther is that both books have features in common:

    1. Both are in the ‘style’ of historical narratives, yet contain historical inaccuracies. For example, no king of Persia had the name “Ahasuerus/Ahashverosh” and the fact that scholars over the centuries have been unable to agree on which king it could be (Xerxes I, Xerxes II, Artaxerxes?) simply highlights that it’s probably a made-up name for a non-existent king. We also know the names of the Persian Queens, and no king had a wife named Esther, or even Vashti, and we know that the wives of Persian kings all came from certain families, so it’s impossible that any Queen was Jewish. Interestingly, that other fictional biblical “novel” – the Book of Tobit (14:15) – mentions a king Ασυηρος  Asoueros, or Ahasuerus, as king of Media (not Persia). [2]
    2. Both books feature irony and ironic characters. The most obvious ironies in Esther are that Haman plotted to have Mordecai killed, but was himself executed on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai, and that the honours which Haman wanted for himself were actually bestowed on Mordecai. The writer of Esther draws  attention to the irony near the end of the story, by saying that “on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred” (9:1). Such twists and reversals are the tools of an ironist. Interestingly, the Book of Tobit also abounds in ironic characters and has an ironic plot, and it too contains historical inaccuracies.

Similarities in style between Judith, Tobit and Esther suggest that the ironic “novel” may have been a known and accepted literary genre in the post-exilic period. All three books have post-exilic settings – Tobit is set in Nineveh following the Assyrian invasion, Judith is set in the Land at the time of an Assyrian/Babylonian invasion but also following the Babylonian exile, and Esther is set in Susa after the Babylonian exile (but being in the Persian period is after the decree of Cyrus and the return of many Jews to the Land). We can’t be certain about the date of composition for Tobit, but we can be confident that Judith was probably written between 135 and 107 BCE in the “Hellenistic” period, that is, the period after the Empire of Alexander of Greek was divided into four and Judea became part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire, and during the rule of the Hasmonean/Maccabean High Priest John Hyrcanus I. There are unmistakeable Hellenistic signs in the books and several clues that Judith’s defeat of Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes may have been modelled on the defeat of Nicanor, a general of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (described in 1 Maccabees 7:43-50). If so, the writer of Judith may have been “targetting” the Seleucids but using the names Nebuchadnezzar, Assyria and Nineveh as “codenames” for Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire. This certainly wouldn’t be unusual for biblical or Jewish literature of the time. The apocryphal book of 4 Ezra and the pseudepigraphical book of 2 Baruch are both set during the Babylonian seige of Jerusalem but describe the events of the Roman seige of Jerusalem. It was probably considered “safer” to avoid referring to one’s overlords directly and therefore using “Babylonians” as a code for “Romans”. The New Testament book of Revelation does something similar by using “Babylon” as code for “Rome”. So too the writer of Judith probably used “Assyrian” as code for “Syrian/Seleucid”.

This brings us to Esther. If this book is doing something similar then “Ahashverosh” and “Persia” may be codes for someone/something else.

… to be continued

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[1] Carey A. Moore “Judith, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. III, 1117-1125.

[2] Although Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of Tobit have been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls this verse (Tobit 14:15) has not been preserved so I cannot check to see if it is the same Hebrew spelling as Esther’s Ahashverosh.

Defining satire: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (5)

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Jan Viktors, The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 1640

Satire and irony are often confused, even in academic literature. Irony is an essential feature of satire, although not all irony is satirical. You can have irony without satire, but cannot have satire without irony. Similarly, humour is common in satire and ridicule is essential to it, but not all humour or ridicule is satirical. Parody, exaggeration and double entendre are also common features of satire (although not necessarily essential to it). So how do we know when any of these elements – irony, exaggeration, wit, ridicule – mark a piece of literature as satirical, and when it doesn’t?

One problem with defining ‘satire’ is that it is a very old literary form which has changed over the course of time and we run the risk of becoming anachronistic if we apply definitions which work for one era or place to another time, language or setting. Ancient genres are not identical to modern ones, and while modern satire bears some similarity to classical Greek, Roman or biblical Hebrew satire, we shouldn’t push the resemblance too far and apply a modern definition to ancient literature. I was acutely aware of the risks involved with applying modern terms to biblical literature when I wrote my doctoral thesis on satire in the book of Jonah. I noted that biblical satire is similar but not identical to classical Greek and Roman satire; however, it may have evolved independently as a literary style from the mocking ridicule common to the Hebrew prophets. I suggested that we really need a term which specifically refers to the biblical literary style which is similar to Greek/Roman satire. In the absence of a specific term (for now), when I use ‘satire’ here I am referring to what we could identify as biblical-satire.

Biblical satire has several essential features. These will always be present.

  1. Ridicule. The purpose of satire is to confront and debunk ideas, whether they be political, religious or social. Satire does this by ridiculing the leaders and adherents of the movements progressing these ideas, not simply to mock them as individuals but as a vehicle to bring about reform and improvement. While it ridicules, mocks, offends and humiliates, the intention is to bring about change in those who are ridiculed.
  2. Target. A distinguishing feature of satire is that it has a target. Satire always has a target. Without a target a work may be irony, but it’s not satire. The character(s) being mocked or ridiculed may be fictional, even if based on real historical persons. If so, these characters will represent contemporary individuals or ideas. For example, a writer may produce a fictional work and ridicule an historical person from an earlier time, not to mock that person but for the purpose of targetting a contemporary whose ideas or actions are superimposed on the fictive character. These days a book or film might begin with the words “This is a work of fiction, but is based on real people and events.” Biblical writers did much the same, but without the opening disclaimer (well, I have a theory that they did this in their own way, but that’s for another time). In modern works we might detect contemporary characters ‘dressed’ as historical persons and even though a story is set, for example, in the sixteenth century we might recognise a ‘modern’ idea, attitude or individual in the historical character. Similarly, a sixteenth century writer (such as Shakespeare) may have set a story in ancient Rome but satirised contemporary sixteenth-century individuals in its ancient characters. Sometimes we will detect an anachronism which may be a deliberate way for the writer to inform the reader or listener that they are satirising something contemporary, such as putting ‘modern’ words or ideas in the mouths of characters from a previous time. Biblical writers used similar techniques.
  3. Irony. Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way as to contradict or conceal the real meaning, so that the intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. For a modern example, if someone said “X would know because they are the smartest President/Prime Minister we have ever seen” they could actually mean the opposite: “we shouldn’t listen to a word they say because they are the dumbest President … etc”. The context will usually determine what the writer/speaker intended, and many (perhaps most) in the audience will recognise the irony, but because of the inevitable ambiguity there will always be some people who take the words literally, not recognising the irony, and this in fact adds to the humorous nature of satire.

Biblical writers also used several techniques to produce satire. These techniques on their own do not identify a work as satirical, as they also occur independently of satire, but the preponderance of these techniques – when several of them are clustered together – act as ‘markers’ in recognising satire. Not all these techniques need to be used, but a combination or ‘cluster’ of them are a good indication that a work is satirical.

  1. Exaggeration, and hyperbole (gross exaggeration). I’ve mentioned this several times in this series already and provided a few examples in Esther. It is almost always present in satire.
  2. Humour. When wit or humour is used in satire it will evoke disdain and contempt rather than to simply arouse laughter. It is generally coupled with ridicule and is therefore almost ‘essential’ to satire. While a satirist generally needs to use wit as part of the essential ridiculing, not all humour is satirical.
  3. Puns and wordplays. Biblical Hebrew uses wordplays in a wide variety of contexts, so wordplays alone do not indicate satire. However, Biblical satire makes great use of puns, wordplays and meanings of names, often as part of ridicule.
  4. Contradictions, including contradictions within a text (i.e. one detail in a story contracicts another detail in the same story), as well as contradictions between the text and historical sources. The book of Judith, for example, calls Nebuchadnezzar the king of Nineveh (Judith 1:1) when he was actually the king of Babylon, and Nineveh had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s predecessor Nabopolassar. Readers are likely to have known this. The contradiction is probably an intentional device by the writer, making it clear from the outset that this was a work of fiction, although based on an historical personage. Rather than being mere historical mistakes, such contradictions could be a means for the writer to ensure that the reader understood that it was a work of historical fiction or, in some contexts, satire.
  5. Unbelievable elements. Satire often includes a mixture of unbelievable or unrealistic elements. Biblical examples could include surviving for three days inside a large fish, talking animals, or surviving being thrown into a furnace. Rather than reading such stories simply as ‘miracles’ we should look for other literary devices which may suggest these unrealistic elements serve some other literary purpose. 

In my next post I will evaluate the book of Esther using these criteria.

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

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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

Is Mordecai the real hero? Irony and satire in the book of Esther (3)

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Haman and Mordecai by Paul Alexander Leroy, 1884. In the public domain.

Mordecai is a central character – perhaps the central character in the book of Esther. In some ancient literature the book is even called “the Book of Mordecai” and the earliest reference to the festival of Purim outside Esther refers to it as “the Day of Mordecai” (2 Maccabees 15:36). Undoubtedly in the Greek versions Mordecai is the real hero of the story, and rather than the story beginning with the feast of Ahashverosh, as it does in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Greek versions begin with God speaking with Mordecai in a dream. In this post I want to look solely at the Hebrew version and ask the question, is Mordecai also the hero of the story there?

While the book bears Esther’s name, Mordecai is actually mentioned slightly more often (58 times for Mordecai, 53 times for Esther). And while Esther is the one who appeals to king Ahashverosh to spare her people from murderous annihilation, she did so only at Mordecai’s prompting. Her initial response, in fact, was to show concern for her own life and safety if she appeared before Ahashverosh uninvited, rather than the lives of all the Jews in the Persian empire (which included the Jews living in the land – the Persian province of Yehud – as well as those who remained in Babylon or settled elsewhere in the empire). Almost everything Esther does in this story is done at Mordecai’s initiative. The main point of the story – saving Jews from Haman’s murderous scheme – only comes about because Mordecai refused to show respect to Haman, for some unstated reason. So Mordecai is the real instigator of the actions which are central to the plot. And while the story begins with Ahashverosh and the might and wealth of his empire, it ends with Mordecai being second in rank to him (10:3).

Mordecai appears to be the hero of the story, yet there are some unsettling things about him. First, no reason is given for his refusal to show respect to Haman, the king’s representative, and therefore his disrespect to the king. Second, even in the face of the possible genocide of his own people he does nothing to undo the crisis of his own making by retracting his stubborn refusal. If we weigh the possible deaths of all the Jews against Mordecai’s own humiliation his stubborness seems to be even more unreasonable. Thirdly, when Ahashverosh readily agrees to stop the planned genocide of Jews, Mordecai himself proposes that this is best done by allowing the Jews to slaughter 75,800 people (undoubtedly another exaggeration). Surely this was not the only way to undo Haman’s scheme, and other options could have been devised to prevent the slaughter of Jews without the Jews having to slaughter tens of thousands of people. There was no urgency to come up with a half-baked plan. The text specifically says that Mordecai came up with the plan on the 23rd day of the third month allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies (8:9-12), but that the day scheduled for the attack was not until the 13th day of the 12th month (9:1). In other words, Mordecai (and Esther) had nearly nine months to come up with another plan. Even if it was true that the king’s initial decree could not be revoked (which is inferred from 8:8), they could have come up with a more creative way to rescind it which wouldn’t have ended in a slaughter.

There is an irony in the king’s words to Esther, cancelling Haman’s edict. Esther had asked

“If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king.” (8:5-6)

Ahashverosh’s response effectively revoked Haman’s plan. There was no need to do anything more, no need to allow the Jews to defend themselves. Haman’s decree (in the name of the king) was revoked.

“See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. You [Esther] may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” (8:7-8)

Ahashverosh agreed to her request and said she could write whatever she pleased with regard to Haman’s planned annihilation being undone. Ironically, he said whatever she wrote would be the king’s edict and could not be undone, even though by this very action he was undoing and revoking an earlier decree. Some commentators have argued from this that Mordecai and Esther had to come up with a plan that allowed Haman’s edict to stand while circumventing it. But the text says no such thing. It says the first decree was revoked. The king did not ask for or even suggest that a way should be found to allow both decrees to stand. He specifically said Esther could write whatever she pleased. Yet it is not Esther who writes this letter. It is Mordecai, and the idea which enabled 75,800 people to die was entirely his own.

The decision to allow the Jews throughout the empire to defend themselves against their attackers was completely unnecessary. It could only come about by allowing the first decree to stand. Even if it couldn’t be undone, a slaughter could have been prevented in any number of ways. For example, people could have been ordered to remain within their houses for the day (and we all know that’s feasible!), or not to carry weapons. There was no need to prevent one slaughter by allowing another slaughter.

What then is the story telling us about Mordecai? Herein lies another irony and lays the groundwork for reading this as satire. Early in the story we find Haman scheming to effectively replace the king. Not satisfied with being promoted  to a very high position, he  proposed that a person who pleased the king (thinking this person was none other than himself) should be clothed in royal clothes, should ride the king’s own horse, and should be given a royal crown. In other words, he wanted to be king! Ironically, there is a twist in the story and Haman is executed while Mordecai is honoured with all these things. Mordecai becomes what Haman wanted to be be. But herein is the greatest irony, and perhaps the most disturbing twist: by ordering the slaughter of tens of thousands Mordecai gains not only what Haman wanted, he becomes Haman!

… to be continued

Exaggeration and hyperbole: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (2)

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“Esther Denouncing Haman” by Ernest Normand, 1888. In the public domain.

Exaggeration and hyperbole (gross exaggeration to the point of absurdity) frequently occur in satirical literature. A text is not necessarily satirical simply because it contains exaggeration, but when clustered with other markers such as irony, ridicule, wit and wordplays, its presence in a text is a strong indicator of satire. I mentioned some examples of exaggeration in Esther in my previous post and here are a couple more.

One of the main characters in the story of Esther is Haman who, for undisclosed reasons, plots to commit genocide against all the Jews in the Persian empire. One of the features of the Esther-story is that it doesn’t provide explanations for some of the key events or decisions. Haman is a key character, although he doesn’t appear until chapter 3 where his promotion to the highest position in the empire next to the king is announced but without a reason being given.

After these things King Ahashverosh promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. (3:1)

We learn little about Haman from the book of Esther. The fact that he was an “Agagite” suggests he wasn’t a native-born Persian (although his name may be Persian, as are the names of his 10 sons), but how he came to be an important official and why he was promoted to the highest office isn’t explained. From ancient times scholars have noted that “Agagite” probably means he was descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites – long-term enemies of Israel – who was executed by king Saul after defeat in battle (see 1 Samuel 15; Numbers 24:7; Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). They also note that Mordecai, the protagonist or “hero” of the Esther-story, was “son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5). If this is the same Kish who was father of king Saul (1 Samuel 9:1-3), and if we “read between the lines,” then there may be an indication here that the hostility between Haman and Mordecai was the product of historical enmity between the two families. If so, this isn’t spelled out in any way in the story and we are left to simply speculate about it. I will come back to this in a later post because there may be a clue here as to the target of the satire.

Haman’s promotion isn’t the only unexplained detail in this episode. It should be noted that his advancement comes immediately after the episode where Ahashverosh became aware that Mordecai had saved his life by foiling a plot to assassinate him (2:19-23). Mordecai wasn’t rewarded for that at the time, and no explanation is given: the fact was simply noted in the court records. As part of Haman’s promotion Ahashverosh commands that all the king’s officials should bow down and pay Haman homage, as the representative of the king (3:2). There is nothing unusual or surprising about this, and treating the monarch’s representative with respect as though you were dealing with the monarch themself is a practice which has continued to this day. What is surprising is that Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. No reason is given for this, and for centuries scholars have tried to find a reason. Some have suggested that Jewish law prohibits bowing down to someone, as it implies an act of worship. However, several other characters in biblical narratives bow down to kings or nobles to show respect and Esther herself later falls down at the feet of king Ahashverosh (8:3), so it seems there was no explicit prohibition against bowing to a person of rank. Even when repeatedly questioned about his refusal to bow to Haman, Mordecai provides no explanation. Apparently this went on for several days without Haman even noticing, and it was not until it was brought to his attention by officials that Haman flew into a rage and set out to not only destroy Mordecai but to commit genocide on his people throughout the kingdom (3:2-6). This in itself is an absurdity because Haman’s response to the insult was disproportionate to the offence. A modern reader would be justified in thinking that wholesale genocide is always disproportionate and there can be no justification for it, but it would be anachronistic to read this back into the story as though the writer is making that point. If Haman was descended from the biblical Agag, king of the Amalekites, then he may have felt some historical justification for revenging the slaughter of his own people centuries before at the hands of Mordecai’s ancestors. However, the writer never explicitly makes this point and there is nothing in the story to suggest that until this incident Haman knew who Mordecai was, and even then that he knew Mordecai was a distant relative of Saul.

While no reason is provided for Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, his actions appear to be quite unreasonable in the face of the genocide of his own people. The whole story hangs on Mordecai’s inexplicable refusal to show respect to the king’s representative, and in the light of potential genocide it is somewhat surprising that Mordecai makes no attempt to avert the catastrophe by simply demonstrating his respect for the king’s man. From the beginning almost nothing is explained in this story. Why did the king have a six month long celebration? Why did he not reward Mordecai for saving his life? Why did he promote Haman? Why did Mordecai disrespect the king by disrespecting his representative? Why did he not swallow his pride to avert disaster for his own people? The story raises more questions than it answers!

In what follows there are two noteworthy exaggerations. First, Haman approaches Ahashverosh and offers to pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury in return for a decree to slaughter all the Jews. That is an extraordinary amount to pay. According to some commentators it was equivalent to 340,000kg of silver (according to my calculations at today’s prices that’s worth more than $300 million [Australian dollars]). What was that in ancient terms? The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that running the Persian empire cost 15,000 talents of silver per year, so Haman’s bribe was equivalent to two-thirds of the entire running costs of the Empire! That is an unbelievable amount for one man to be able to afford, no matter how wealthy, and even if he was that wealthy Haman could almost certainly have obtained approval by offering considerably less. While the writer makes the point that Haman was prepared to pay handsomely, even way beyond what was necessary, the actual amount offered is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration.

Another exaggeration soon follows. Haman plots for Mordecai’s execution, and working on the assumption that Ahashverosh will go along with his plan he erects a 50 cubits high gallows (or stake)  in preparation (5:9-14). Fifty cubits is approximately 25 metres. That’s extraordinarly high for a gallows! The form of execution was probably impalement or crucifixion, rather than hanging by a rope, but however it was to be carried out 25 metres is unnecessarily high. Even if the purpose of a high gallows/stake was so that the victim would be publicly seen and disgraced, the risk associated with such a high gallows is that it is too high and the victim would be almost out-of-sight. This is clearly another exaggeration designed to demonstrate the extent of intended humilation rather than a high gallows serving any practical purpose. It seems that almost everything in this story is exaggerated.

One of the ironies of the story is that Haman himself and his 10 sons were eventually hanged on these gallows (7:9-10; 9:13-14). In fact, Haman’s execution on the gallows he’d built for Mordecai is just one of several ironies in the book. There are a number of twists and turns throughout the story and the writer hints near the end that “reversal” is at the core of the tale:

… on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred (וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ): the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them (9:1)

The word וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ means there was a turn, a twist in the story. Coming back to Haman’s promotion, there is a “reversal” here as well, for in 10:2 the writer uses the same word used earlier for Haman’s “promotion” (גדל) to describe the advancement of “Mordecai, whom the king promoted.” Earlier in the story no reason was given for Haman’s promotion, nor is any reason offered for why Mordecai wasn’t rewarded at the time. Perhaps the writer was highlighting that in the “upside down” system of rewards and punishments in Ahashverosh’s court good behaviour wasn’t necessarily rewarded and that the king was arbitrary in his judgments and with his rewards. He didn’t need a “reason” for any of his actions. While the point is repeatedly made that the king was all-powerful, he is also portrayed as lecherous, as a drunk, as capricious, arbitrary and easily manipulated. Is he really in control?

… to be continued

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

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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.

The two (or three) versions of Esther

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Queen Esther. Painting by Edwin Long, 1878. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The book of Esther is found in two different versions in our Bibles. Jewish and Protestant Bibles follow the Hebrew version known as the Masoretic Text, while Catholic and Orthodox Bibles follow the Greek version known as the Septuagint. This Greek version has just over 100 additional verses in 6 blocks, in addition to some other relatively minor differences. The additional material appears to have been mostly translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original [1], and includes a colophon (Esther 11:1) which names the translator:

“In the fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who said that he was a priest and a Levite, and his son Ptolemy brought to Egypt the preceding Letter about Purim, which they said was authentic and had been translated by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy, one of the residents of Jerusalem.”

From the date in the colophon we can set the latest possible date for the translation as either 142 BCE or 78/77 BCE, both dates being in the Maccabean or Hasmonean era. The longer (Septuagint) version of Esther has some noteworthy differences from the Hebrew:

  1. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all, not even once, while the Septuagint version uses “God” or “Lord” about 50 times, mostly in the additional verses but also including a handful of places where the Hebrew parallel does not mention God.
  2. There is nothing “religious” about the Hebrew version. However, the Septuagint version includes prayers by Esther and Mordecai, refers to laws of Moses including circumcision and dietary regulations, and speaks of Israel as God’s “inheritance.” It also includes the “Deuteronomistic” claim that Israel went into exile because of disobedience to God’s laws (14:6-7), and refers to the Temple in Jerusalem as God’s house (14:9). 
  3. The Hebrew version tells the story of how Esther came to be Queen, married to a Persian king, but only the Septuagint version tells us that she found it abhorent that she was compelled by necessity to be married to a Gentile (14:15-18).

There is a scholarly consensus that while the longer Septuagint version was translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, some of these additions were probably made to the Hebrew version before it was translated, and not added by the translator. The additions were not all necessarily made by the same person or at the same time. Scholars are mostly agreed, however, that these are additions, and were added some time after the shorter Hebrew version which has come down to us as the Masoretic Text was written, but before being translated into Greek. In other words, the shorter version is earlier than the longer version – verses were added to the long version rather than deleted by the short version. (For an alternative view, David Clines has argued convincingly that the religious elements in a Pre-Masoretic story were edited out by the author of a Proto-Masoretic version  [2].)

Interestingly, the longer (Septuagint) version is more “biblical” than the shorter Hebrew version in that it frequently mentions God and his relationship with Israel, refers to biblical commandments and morality, contains prayers, and mirrors theological ideas which we find elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. This has led many scholars to speculate that the reason the additions were made was to give the book a more religious character, to make it a religious rather than a secular story, to make up for the “religious deficiencies” of the shorter version, and to explictly state God’s involvement which is at best only implicit in the Hebrew version. All the additions emphasise God’s providential care for Israel. The additions also add drama and detail to the shorter version, and may have had the intention of improving its trustworthiness.

In fact, we actually have two ancient Greek versions of Esther: the Septuagint is sometimes known as the β-text (or BT) but there is also another ancient version known as the α-text (or AT).  The α-text also has the additions which are in the β-text (which it appears to have copied from the β-text) but for the remainder it appears to be a translation of a Hebrew original which was different to both the Masoretic Text and the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint (β-text) was translated. So at one stage there may have been three different Hebrew versions of Esther in existence.

The fact that we have these three versions of Esther demonstrates that from a very early time, quite likely soon after the story was first written down, alternative or expanded versions (“redactions” if you like) started to appear. In Esther’s case we still have three of those versions, and in the case of other books of the Bible we can be confident that alternative, revised or expanded versions were also made. Sometimes we can detect evidence of redaction in the texts which we have, although we don’t have a complete record of the editorial process and we don’t know what the “original” form looked like. At best we can speak of the “final forms” – the versions which have been preserved in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, and other ancient versions – but we should never refer to any of these texts as “the original” version. I have to laugh (or cry) when I hear people speak of “the original Hebrew [or Greek]” of the Bible as though we still have those “orginal” manuscripts. The fact is, we have well and truly lost “the original” and it would be quite wrong to refer to the Masoretic Text, or any text, as the original. We have copies which have been edited, revised, expanded, and redacted, we have “final forms” of this editorial process, and our oldest manuscripts are preserved in multiple versions, but alas, no “originals.”

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[1] It is, however, generally accepted by almost all scholars that the two “edicts” in 13:1-7 and 16:1-24 were composed in Greek and are later additions.

[2] Clines, David J. A., The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement series 30. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.