The difficulties of the biblical book of Esther are obvious: God is not mentioned; the behaviour of most of the characters is consistently problematic; even the behaviour of the heroes, Mordechai and Esther, is often perplexing. The heroes’ names are surprisingly reminiscent of the pagan gods Marduk and Astarte or Ishtar. No wonder Jews were still arguing about whether the book should be included in the Bible as late as the third century, long after the rest of the canon was established.
Dr. Seymour (Epi) Epstein, a gifted educator well known to The CJN’s readers, presents a refreshing and surprising reading of the book in The Esther Scroll: The Author’s Tale. The volume contains the whole text of Esther in Hebrew and English plus a commentary and a series of short essays, all written by Epstein. There is also a thoughtful preface by the Israeli intellectual Hillel Halkin.
Epstein argues that the traditional Jewish understanding of the book of Esther, as a text celebrating the miraculous Jewish victory that underlies the holiday of Purim, is not what the author of the book originally had in mind.
Epstein contends that the book of Esther was written as a political satire. The author was poking fun at life in the Persian Empire. Who ever heard of a king throwing a 180-day-long drinking party to celebrate three years on the throne (Esther 1:3)? King Ahasuerus is described as a buffoon who can’t make any decisions on his own and is easily swayed by advisors. Even by ancient world standards, he is shockingly exploitative of women, arranging to have a stream of virgins sleep with him, one every night, and only after they spend 12 months doing ablutions in preparation for the great honour. Politically immature, the king believes that once he promulgates a law, he is powerless to retract it (Esther 8:8). The author portrays a corrupt, sensual society, the antithesis of the kind that the Bible wants Jews to live in.
Up to this point, many earlier interpreters of the book of Esther would agree with Epstein’s analysis. But his next step is surprising and original. While most interpreters of the book claim that the author’s consistent intent was to praise the behaviour of Mordechai and Esther, and thus promote the celebration of the holiday of Purim, Epstein argues that the author’s political satire is directed not only against the gentiles of the Persian Empire but also against its Jews, including Mordechai and Esther.
When the Jews are in trouble in the book of Esther, they don’t pray. When they are saved, Epstein writes, “There is not one single word of thanks to God for this saving moment. God was not part of the solution, nor is He to be thanked.” Instead, they behave like Ahasuerus, celebrating their victory with a drinking party (mishteh), a word used four times in Esther Chapter 9, but never anywhere else in the Bible to describe a Jewish religious celebration.
Epstein makes the book of Esther more palatable to modern Jews. Why did Esther ask that Haman’s sons’ dead bodies be publicly impaled on a stake (Esther 9:13) when the Torah specifically forbids public displays of dead bodies, even of executed criminals (Deuteronomy 21:23)? Why was it necessary for Mordechai and Esther to arrange for the Jews to massacre over 75,000 of their enemies, when the book states that “no one stood up against them [the Jews], for all the peoples were afraid of them” (Esther 9:2)?
Epstein’s answer: the author is satirizing Jews’ behaviour when they become comfortable in the Diaspora. They end up adopting the bad habits of their gentile neighbours and forgetting about true biblical values. According to Epstein, the book of Esther has one of the strongest Zionist messages of any biblical book. It shows how bad Jewish life in the Diaspora can become even when the Jews are not in physical danger.
Epstein makes a strong case for his radical reading of the author’s original intent, presenting arguments clearly and succinctly. It would have been a little easier to follow if the publisher had put Epstein’s verse-by-verse commentary on the same page as the verses themselves. But with a little page turning, the case comes across.
The Israeli Bible scholar, Prof. Uriel Simon, argues that Purim, the holiday of reversals, was always the favourite holiday of Diaspora Jews. It reassured them that when times were bad and they felt threatened, they need not give up, for the story might turn around as it did in the book of Esther. Simon says that for Jews who are alive now after the horrors of the Shoah, where no reversal occurred, this reading is no longer tenable.
Epstein goes a step beyond Simon, arguing that from the beginning, the message of the book of Esther was never hopeful for Diaspora Jews. Yes, in the book of Esther a reversal took place: the Jews escaped from dire straits to positions of safety and even political power. But reversals go in both directions, as Epstein sagely explains. Just as a bad situation in the Diaspora can suddenly reverse itself for the better, a good Diaspora can also suddenly turn bad. Sadly, this has often happened in Jewish history, even in countries where the regime was not as immoral as in ancient Persia.