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 Mordecai 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)

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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.

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