Bible as fiction: Esther

Earlier, I proposed reading Bible stories as fiction, and talking about how terrible they are (or not, as the case may be).  A reader suggested the book of Esther.  I had never read it before, and was not familiar with the story.  If it matters, I used the NRSV Bible.

Esther begins with King Ahasuerus and his queen.  At the end of a six-month-long party, the king requests that the queen present herself, but she refuses.  Why does she refuse?  The book doesn’t say.  Gosh, let’s not waste time with motivations or characterization, get on with the story.  The important thing, as far as the book is concerned, is that if she goes unpunished, then women everywhere will know that they can defy their husbands’ whims, and we can’t have that.  So the king strips her of her title.  (Is she cast into poverty, exiled, or executed?  It doesn’t say.)

Here is the one advantage of having an ancient story which follows ancient moral values: suspense.  Is the introduction meant to paint the king as extraordinarily unsympathetic?  Or maybe the story just has terrible values?  I’m not a scholar of ancient Jews, so I don’t know!  I guess we’ll have to read to the end of the story to find out.

Spoiler: it turns out the introduction is not meant to reflect on the king’s character at all.  No, the king is wise and popular.  Rather, the introduction is a pretext for the king to make a call for virgins to join his harem so he can make one of them his new queen.  And that’s how Esther, secretly a Jew, becomes queen.

The rest of the story could be summarized in a few sentences.  The prime minister Haman gets angry at Esther’s cousin, and persuades the king to order the destruction of the Jews.  Esther is upset, so she asks the king not to do that.  But the king can’t take back a royal decree (why?), and instead decrees that Jews can defend themselves.  The happy ending is that the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies, and Esther’s cousin becomes prime minister.  And that’s how the holiday of Purim was founded.

Wow, isn’t that brutal!  By my reckoning, that places Purim somewhere between Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.

Since I’m analyzing this as fiction, it’s up to me to ask, why?  What is the message here?  The trouble is, Esther is hardly given any characterization at all.  I guess she’s beautiful enough to have been selected as queen?  She’s brave to stand up to a king who already has precedent for banishing queens?  If this is a story of the triumph of some value, I can’t tell what that value is, except maybe the value of being Jewish.

As for the villain, prime minister Haman, his main flaw seems to be wrath and disproportionate punishment.  But if that’s his mark of villainy, it’s rather odd that it’s a trait that the heroes King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther both share.

I mean, let’s compare this to Man of Steel, which was a godawful Superman movie.  In that movie, the villains are bad because they want to destroy everything.  The thing is, Superman himself is plenty destructive.  Wasn’t it sure convenient that all those dozens of skyscrapers were empty?  If people died or were traumatized at Superman’s hands, it must have happened off-screen so we don’t have to think about it.  But if you think about it for even a second, you realize how shit Superman is.

Esther is like that except that it doesn’t even have the decency to hide the deaths “off-screen”.  The number of people they killed is listed right there in the boring didactic section.  For shame!

I am willing to take other suggestions, including from other religions.

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8 thoughts on “Bible as fiction: Esther

  1. Leum November 30, 2015 / 5:14 pm

    The NRSV is the translation preferred by most biblical scholars. The events of Esther didn’t happen and may be allegorical for some other event (my OT prof in undergrad thought it was an allegory of the Maccabean revolt, but my OT prof in grad school disagreed). Certainly the thing of the king being unable to take back a law has some sort of symbolic purpose, although what exactly that is has probably been lost to the mists of time and context.

    The Catholic and Orthodox versions of Esther are taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (plus some other stuff) and it added quite a bit in to make the text more theological (lots of references to God). Jews and Protestants don’t use that. If your NRSV has that version, it’s probably titled “Additions to Esther.”

    If you’re interested in another biblical read I strongly recommend the Book of Jonah. You probably know it from the giant fish that eats Jonah, but the fish is honestly the least interesting part of the story. Mostly it’s a satire or farce mocking people who are upset that God’s mercy extends to Israel’s and Judah’s enemies.

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  2. Siggy November 30, 2015 / 7:12 pm

    On Bible Gateway, the NRSV lists the additions to Esther under “Greek Esther”, but I didn’t read those because it was already 10 chapters long and I didn’t want to spend too much time on it.

    I knew, because I skimmed the Wikipedia article, that Esther is not historically accurate, and Purim may not have any historical basis. With that in mind, Purim is really more like an inversion of Columbus Day. Columbus Day celebrates a disastrous event covered by a sanitized fiction, while Purim celebrates a non-event covered by a brutal fiction.

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  3. Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist December 1, 2015 / 1:04 am

    Esther’s revealing of being Jewish is what causes the king to not conduct a genocide against the Jewish people, and this fact is important in the story. Purim, like many Jewish holidays, is celebrating the Jewish people (a marginalized people) subverting or avoiding genocide. So I think the Columbus Day and Thanksgiving comparisons are unfair.

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  4. Siggy December 1, 2015 / 8:14 am

    I think it makes sense for people to celebrate their military victories. We have 4th of July, for instance. But also, it’s wrong. Even a “just” war doesn’t make a happy occasion.

    Besides which, it makes for a terrible story. There are the good guys and the bad guys. They struggle, and the good guys win because they happen to have a chess piece in the right position. So what?

    If you consider the important plot point to be Esther’s revelation, then perhaps the theme is: genocide is bad because it might kill someone close to you. This is a terrible theme, because it applies equally well to the people the Jews killed. It also seems it would *not* apply in a typical royal court, where I’m sure the king would simply surround themselves with the noble and powerful.

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  5. Siggy December 1, 2015 / 9:52 am

    Here’s another comparison: Star Wars. In Star Wars, Luke murders a large number of people aboard the Death Star when it was destroyed (even though it’s clear that they’re there under threat of being choked to death by the force). It’s for a good cause, but so what. We’re okay with it not because it’s for a good cause but because we don’t really think about it. Imagine if at the end of Star Wars, the movie gleefully explained just how many people Luke killed. Wouldn’t that make Star Wars terrible? It’s a trick question because Star Wars is already terrible.

    The point of these comparisons is that the Bible is not exceptional. 90% of everything is crap, and that applies to ancient fiction too. Why should I spend time and energy to find a charitable interpretation, when a charitable interpretation is 90% likely to be wrong?

    The secondary point is, I know I’m a curmudgeon and that I hate everything that most other people like. Aesthetic tastes are diverse, you know? The Bible does not escape from aesthetic diversity, and it is wrong to think that everyone must like it, just as it is wrong to think that everyone must like Star Wars.

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  6. Sara K. December 6, 2015 / 12:55 pm

    I agree with a lot of the points you make in this post, however:

    – I think the comparison to the genocide of the North American Indians is uncalled for. If we take the story at face value (which I think we should if we are considering it as fiction), the Jews did the killing for self-defence, which is really different from what Columbus did. It is possible to critique that part of the story without bringing the genocide of the Indians into it. Also, it is distracting from your main point – it made me focus more on the (in)appropriateness of that comparison than how the story of Esther works as fiction.

    – You did not mention my favorite part of the story, which is when Haman tells the king how somebody should be honored, and then he has to do that for Mordecai. I admit that it’s the kind of thing I like in my fiction (I have a taste for trickster stories).

    – I know little of the royal court of ancient Persia specifically, but in some royal courts, the noble and powerful include groups from multiple ethnic groups, and depending on the way the society works, it may be plausible for a member of the royal court to have a connection to an ethnic minority. As far as other kinds of minorities … for example, I think it is very plausible that, in a very homosexual-hating group of powerful people, there may be closeted homosexuals.

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  7. Siggy December 6, 2015 / 1:22 pm

    True, the motivations of the Jewish in the story are much more justifiable than either Columbus or the Pequot War. I actually made the comparison to take a swipe at the holidays in our own culture. Like, if Purim sounds bad, have you ever looked into US holidays? But of course, lots of my readers already take it for granted that Columbus Day is terrible, so the comparison reflects more badly on Purim than I intended.

    From the text it was not at all clear that Haman thought he himself was the person being honored (although I gathered it from seeing a synopsis elsewhere). That interaction really didn’t make any sort of impression on me.

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