Esther is a fast-moving erotic comedy. It is also one of the books of the Bible.
Esther is the story of a young Jewish living with her older cousin, who is recruited to the Emperor’s harem. The foolish King wants to teach women a lesson, and a wicked advisor named Haman plans to kill her cousin and murder all the Jews. But the story ends with a woman writing the laws, her cousin getting a plush government job, and the Jews safe and respected!
The comedy of Esther is two-fold. First, it’s just funny. In one episode wicked Haman thinks the King is planning a reward for him, and so gives extravagant instructions — but the reward is actually for his enemy Mordecai!
So Haman came in, and the king asked him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?”
Now Haman thought in his heart, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” And Haman answered the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let a royal robe be brought which the king has worn, and a horse on which the king has ridden, which has a royal crest placed on its head. Then let this robe and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, that he may array the man whom the king delights to honor. Then parade him on horseback through the city square, and proclaim before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!'”
Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry, take the robe and the horse, as you have suggested, and do so for Mordecai the Jew who sits within the king’s gate! Leave nothing undone of all that you have spoken.”
So Haman took the robe and the horse, arrayed Mordecai and led him on horseback through the city square, and proclaimed before him, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!”
Likewise, there is plot driven humor. The entire action of Esther is driven by the King’s desire to teach women their place:
This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath. If it pleases the king, let a royal [h]decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not [i]be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.”
But the story ends with the King giving Esther the authority to formally create a new holiday!
Then Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter about Purim. 30 And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, with words of peace and truth, 31 to confirm these days of Purim at their appointed time, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had prescribed for them, and as they had decreed for themselves and their descendants concerning matters of their fasting and lamenting. So the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim, and it was written in the book.
The comedy of Esther is what J.R.R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe” — a happy end from what should have been a dire circumstance. “God,” the “Land of Israel,” and the “Law” are never mentioned, but the structure of Esther is that of the Bible — with Revelation being the happy (and even comic, as it ends with a wedding!) eucatastrophe to the whole affair of creation.
Esther is also a quick story. I wrote that “The Gospel of Mark is so fast it leaves you dizzy” — but Mark is sixteen chapters, and Esther only ten. Also like Mark the writing is non-standard]. Mark is written like Robert DeNiro in The Irishman:
Well, as for John, he was clothed in camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist. And for food he ate locusts and wild honey. And he cried out, “Right behind me comes someone greater than I! I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen the tie on his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
So it was in this setting that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately, as he was emerging from the water, he saw heaven opened up and the Spirit coming down upon him as a dove. And there was a voice from heaven, “You are my son, my beloved one. I delight in you.” Mark 1:6-11
While I haven’t been able to find a translation of Esther that preserves this style, Robert Alter’s translation makes note of it. In Esther verb tenses can be translated wrong, sentences sometimes are very long, and the author seems delighted with Persian-sounding words.
The concision of Esther is totally lost in the Second Targum of Esther, an Aramaic “translation” of the Book that goes into exhausting detail at the expense of the humor and pace.
The Book of Esther begins in a drunken party, and not just beauty:
After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s servants who attended him said: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king; and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to Shushan the citadel, into the women’s quarters, under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women. And let beauty preparations be given them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”
This thing pleased the king, and he did so.
For obvious reasons, each night a woman would leave the harem in the evening, and return in the morning:
In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name.
Now when the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his daughter, to go in to the king, she requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her. 16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti Esther 2:14-17
Any specific actions are spoken of euphemistically:
Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house. So it was, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter.
And the king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you—up to half the kingdom!”
Eros is one of the four loves, and along with friendship and affection are shadows of Loving Kindness. Within the Scriptures the other famous example of eros being used to teach the faith is the episode of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, also preserved in the Qur’an with the same implications. It is interesting — and I do not know what to make of it — that in the Qur’an’s erotic episode the King is clearly a symbol of God, while in Esther the King is more like foolish fortune, while God’s work mediated through all the characters.
Esther is a funny book. It’s a fast book to read. And an erotic book.
And then there’s this foreshadowing, which is odd. There seems great confusion of the translators to describe the method that Haman wanted to use to humiliate Mordecai. “Impale,” “hang on gallows,” etc, but none of this is what’s actually written. The word, that in Esther is often translated as “gallows,” is almost everywhere else translated as “Tree.”
Haman wished to hang Mordecai on a tree – a tree even tall er than the palace.
Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a tree be made, fifty cubits high, and in the morning suggest to the king that Mordecai be hanged on it; then go merrily with the king to the banquet.”
And the thing pleased Haman; so he had the tree made.
But this same Tree becomes a sign, becomes the mean by which Haman is defeated, becomes the instrument that makes Mordecai the inheritor of all Haman had:
Now Harbonah, one of the eunuchs, said to the king, “Look! The tree, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke good on the king’s behalf, is standing at the house of Haman.”
Then the king said, “Hang him on it!”
Perhaps a Tree will be important later in the Scriptures as well