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On the literary merits of Hebrew Esther

December 11, 2011

Kurk has been discussing the advantages of Greek Esther (here, here, and here).  I left a long pair of comments on his most recent post, but I’d like to elevate them to an actual post:

Let me tell you how I first encountered Greek Esther. It was in college, in a secular class on the Bible. We used that venerable Bible studies text; the May-Metzger RSV New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition. This edition is still in print today, and it taught an entire generation.

In that book, Esther is presented in a translation from the Hebrew, and there is a section in the Apocrypha entitled “The Additions to the Book of Esther – translated in the order of the Greek version of Esther, but with the chapter and verse numbers of the King James Version.”

The notes for this book were by Metzger himself, who wrote:

Some of the Additions were probably introduced by Lysimachus, an Alexandrian Jew who lived at Jerusalem and who translated the canonical book of Esther about 114 BC (11.1) Other Additions appear to have been inserted several years later, either by Lysimachus or by another person.

The purpose of the Additions is partly to make the story more vivid but chiefly to supply a religious element that is lacking in the canonical book of Esther, which never mentions God or religious practices. The Additions make frequent reference to God, emphasize his choice of Abraham and Israel, and give prominence to prayer. They occasionally contradict the canonical book of Esther, and have little or no historical value.

Not a very pretty picture that Metzger paints, is it?

I mostly avoided Greek Esther after then, but sometimes ran into her, such as when Berlin’s commentary was published. From pages xlix – lii, she considers Greek Esther and Josephus; and from pages lii-liv, she considers rabbinic versions.

Now, while Berlin does not come out and say that Greek Esther is inferior to Hebrew Esther, Berlin does put a negative spin on them. In pages xvi-xxii she compares Esther to a classical comedy,

Granting that Esther is an imaginative story, the next question is: What kind of story is it? What best describes the nature of the story and the way it was meant to be read? As shall soon become clearer, it is a comedy, a book meant to be funny, to provoke laughter. The Book of Esther is the most humorous of the books in the bible, amusing throughout and at certain points uproariously funny.

(p. xvii)

Berlin more specifically describes Esther as farce, which she defines, quoting a standard dictionary of literary terms as

a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple, hearty laughter…. To do so it employs highly exaggerated or caricatured character types, puts them into impossible and ludicrous situations, and makes free use of broad verbal humor and physical horseplay.

(p. xix)

Berlin gives many examples, of which these are only a few:

It cannot escape the reader that there are a lot of parties in the story — ten altogether.

(p. xxiv)

The physical movement of the characters keeps the story moving, quickening its tempo. This fast tempo is characteristic of farce, and it has the effect of making the actions seem abstract and automatic, and consequently less real.

(p. xxvi)

When it comes to the language of Esther, the medium is the message. The language, like the story, is full of exaggeration and contributes to the sense of excess. There are exaggerated numbers (127 provinces, a 180-day party, a 12-month beauty preparation, Haman’s offer of 10,000 talents, a stake 50 cubits high, 75,000 enemy dead) and long lists of unpronounceable names (the enuchs, the advisors, the sons of Haman). The language is flowery (“What is your wish? It shall be granted to you. And what is your request? Even up to half of the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled”). Also the syntax is bulky, with many relative clauses intervening (“If of Jewish stock is Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, you will not overcome him; you will surely fall before him.”) The rule for vocabulary, as for drinking, seems to be ‘the more the better.’ There are lots of “alls” (“all the people who lived in the fortress of Shushan,” “ever palace steward,””‘all the provinces,” “all the women,” “all the Jews,” “all the king’s servants”) and the story never uses one word if can use two.

(p. xxvii)

So how does Berlin characterize the Greek versions (and Josephus)? Well, to put it bluntly, it is a lot less funny.

The Greek versions, especially the Septuagint, have a different tone and reflect a different view of the Jewish characters from the Masoretic Text. David Clines, who believes that the religious elements were originally absent and were added in the Septuagint, has perceptively argued that the Septuagint added the religious dimension in order to “assimilate the Book of Esther to a scriptural norm.”

(p. l)

On occasion, [the Septuagint] seems to move in the direction of the style of the later Greek novels, with emotional and psychological dimensions that are absent in the Masoretic Text…. This is the stuff of Greek romances (and modern ones, too), and it is in utter contrast to the sparseness of the Masoretic Text at this point in the story.

(p. li).

So, the element of farce is decreased. The characters are more humanized; the pace is slowed down; and the story becomes laden with excessive piety, making the reader who laughs feel a bit guilty.

In contrast, the rabbinic interpretations often increased the element of farce.

The Rabbis did not shy away from making prurient comments, which add to the negative characterization of the “villains” (and to the lewd enjoyment of the story): Vashti’s party for the women was in the king’s bedroom; she was ordered to appear naked before the king; and she was to be executed naked; Haman’s daughter dumped the contents of a chamber pot on her father’s head.

(p. liv)

She gives an elaborate example later on that page and concludes

In the scene that the midrash constructs, Haman is a greater villain and fool than in the biblical study, and is degraded even more…. The midrash is funny in its own way and has its own type of bodily humor. It is carnivalesque in its own right — a fitting complement to the carnivalesque story that it interprets.

(p. liv)

Indeed, the midrashim so impress Berlin that she goes out of the way to weave it into her commentary.

Selections from the midrashim are interspersed throughout the commentary that follows. They obviously do not reflect the plain sense of the biblical story, but they enrich the reading of the story in an imaginative way.

(p. liv)

Kurk has argued above that Greek Esther is more of Athens than of Jerusalem, but I think Greek Esther is not a remarkable text; rather it is yet another maudlin Greek text. In contrast, Hebrew Esther is most close to pure Greek comedy — and can stand on its own with the classics. This fact was certainly not lost on the interpreters of late antiquity, who wrote midrashim that brought out the comic element even more. To me, the most authentically Jewish works on the subjects are less influenced by the Hellenistic desire to write Biblical pastiche or emulate foreign character development approaches, and instead responded to the bawdiness of the original text, and took it up several notches. And those midrashim are still funny today.

If tonight is a silent film festival, which movie would you select? Would you pick a Buster Keaton film or an Ernst Lubitsch film? Comedy or melodrama?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2011 1:46 pm

    Thanks for this post. I left a comment in reply at the other post, where you first wrote your pair of comments. Look forward to talking more.

  2. December 11, 2011 7:56 pm

    I like the thesis of this post also – as I said on the other post, the first chapter read to me like a comedy – but I did not continue. It is curious that a three or four year old reader of Hebrew can see that it is a comedy without being told. I don’t think I would have read the English that way – at least I didn’t when I was a different person 35 years ago

  3. December 11, 2011 10:03 pm

    Kurk, thanks for your comments. As always, you leave perceptive remarks (and I am sorry for the confusion caused by originally making this post a comment to your post, etc.). But regarding Greek vs. Hebrew Esther, I’m not sure I have anything to add to what I said above.

    Bob, yes you are right. It is interesting that when the Jews laugh at Megillah Esther, it does not seem that it is mere triumphalism; after all, other festivals celebrating victories over opponents (such as Chanukah or Passover) are treated with joy, but hardly with laughter.

  4. December 14, 2011 7:28 pm

    I found my old posts on Esther – I gave up after translating chapter 1, so I did not finish the 5 scrolls. On the last verse of chapter 1, I commented thus: Many scripts – many tongues – how much Persia then mimics the world today! What do the complementarians do with this book? This reads like a farce in the making. It is so obvious that the men should have been embarrassed rather than muttering and ‘thinging’ about the king’s rep in the face of foolish behaviour. Bravo Vashti!

  5. December 14, 2011 7:54 pm

    Bob — Excellent. In fact, I am particularly fond of the book of Esther — I think it is one of the most interesting books of the Bible, and great fun. I’ll have to translate some of the midrashim to Esther for the blog. There are far more midrashim for Esther than any other book of the Bible, including: Esther Targum Rishon (probably around 7th century); Esther Targum Sheni (probably around 7th century); Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (9th century); Esther Rabbah (11th-12th century); Midrash Lekach Tov (12th century); Midrash Megillas Esther (13th century); Midrash Panim Acherim (13th century); Yalkut Shimoni (13th century?); Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b-17a (4th-5th century); as well as the commentaries of Rashi (11th century); Joseph Kara (11th century); Rashbam (12th century); Yehudah ha-Chasid (12th-13th century); Ibn Ezra (12th century); Bachaye ben Asher (13th century); Gersonides (14th century); Ramah (14-15th century); Yitzchak Arama (15th century). Why this massive outpouring of work? I think there are many reasons: besides the literary quality of the book, Esther is a diaspora novel and thus has a certain universal quality.

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  1. Esther’s on the rag: a change will do Jews good « BLT

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