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Esther’s on the rag: a change will do Jews good

December 12, 2011

God’s little gift is on the rag,
Poster girl posing in a fashion mag,
Canine, feline, Jekyll and Hyde?
Wear your fake fur on the inside.

Queen of south beach, aging blues,
Dinners at six, wear your cement shoes,
I thought you were singing your heart out to me,
Your lips were syncing and now I see.

A change, a change’ll do you good
I think a change, a a change’ll do you good

— Sheryl Crow

Addition D, which follows Addition C, is an account of Esther’s appearance before the king. It is longer and more dramatic than the account in the Masoretic Text….

We have discussed above how the Masoretic Text of Esther sought to fashion itself, in part, on the model of earlier biblical writings, now we see that principle carried further, for different effect, in the Septuagint. But “assimilation to a scriptural norm” does not account for all the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint….

The Septuagint reflects Hellenistic times in another way–in its literary style and tone. On occasion, it 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 most obvious in Addition D, when Esther goes to the king uninvited….

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. So, we may conclude that the Septuagint is, on one hand, more biblical than the Masoretic Text, but on the other hand it is more Hellenistic, both in respect to Jewish identity and practice and in respect to Hellenistic storytelling.

Adele Berlin

We readers of English should be able to hear how Sheryl Crow’s lyrics (above) stress a coming and needed change. Well, Greek readers of the lines of Additions C and D in the Septuagint’s Esther ought to get something similar. In fact, the Esther who prays a private prayer to God says something Greek readers hear in public, something that’s nearly identical to the one line, “God’s little gift is on the rag.” Change is coming; it is good. Does that make you chuckle? In this post we’ll look at that. What might we make of it? Well, Adele Berlin is already a great help (as you also can read above).

Nonetheless, Berlin could be clearer: after all, she’s asserted that the Greek Esther texts are “on one hand, more biblical … but on the other hand … more Hellenistic.”

Is she describing a binary contrast? Does “more” suggest that the LXX is absolutely other than the MT in any pure sense? And, with respect to the LXX alone, does Berlin’s phrase “but on the other hand” imply two opposite characteristics of the Greek, two rival qualities?

Is either the Greek text more biblical, more Jewish sounding (in only the theological sense that Bruce M. Metzger and Herbert G. May would have it, as “partly to make the story more vivid but chiefly to supply a religious element that is lacking in the [Hebrew] canonical book of Esther”)? Or, is the Greek text in the opposing sense, more Hellenistic (in only the sense that Theophrastus has, in his earlier post, read it: as merely “influenced by the Hellenistic desire to write Biblical pastiche or emulate foreign character development approaches”)? Maybe this is what Berlin means. Or maybe, worse, she would allow us to conjoin these two extremely different and absolutely senses so that the Greek Esther texts are a weird mash-up of late Lysimachusian diasporic Alexandrian sophomoric maudlin melodrama.

Is there another possibility? Fortunately, there is. Berlin is saying both “that the early fluidity of the Hebrew [Esther] text …belong[s] to the history of early Jewish biblical interpretation” and also that “the variety of ways that the story was retold, in Hebrew or other languages, belong[s] to the history of early Jewish biblical interpretation.” And, furthermore, Berlin goes on to call the LXX “a window onto how Greek-speaking Jews of the early pre-Christian centuries read and understood the story of Esther”; and she is also calling the LXX Greek Additions to Esther, even and especially, Additions C and D, both biblical and Hellenistic.

If the LXX is “more” biblical and “more” Hellenistic than the MT, then Berlin does not necessarily imply that the MT Esther is neither Jewish nor comical and farcical. What Berlin is saying, and what’s most exciting about the book of Esther in Greek, is that it has “the added complication of diverging rather more from the Masoretic Text than do [the LXX] translations of other biblical books.” The complication, the complexity, the change is a good thing.

Berlin points her readers to Addition D. Even in her summary of the Hellene version, there’s the Hebraic farce that any good Rabbi “making prurient comments, which add to the negative characterization of the ‘villains’ (and to the lewd enjoyment of the story).” (In fact, the Greek may even beat the Rabbi to the punch line if he’s making comments like: “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.” We’ll get to the Greek in a moment). Berlin’s summary goes like this:

Esther goes to the king uninvited. She entered, adorned with majesty, leaning on the arms of her two maids. Her heart was frozen with fear, and the bedazzling sight of the king, in full array, covered with gold and precious stones, was terrifying. Then:
Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he looked at her in fierce anger. The queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words.

Now, let’s get to the Greek. What changes from the Hebrew? Well, Addition C elaborates how “Mordecai went his way, and did according to all Esther had commanded him” (JPS 4:17). Whether the reader was in Jerusalem reading Hebrew or was in Athens or Alexandria reading Greek, this is funny. A man does and hears a woman’s commandments, each and every one of them. (צותה) (ἐνετείλατο). And Addition C also has this woman praying to God.

The Greek readers listen in on the conversation. She comes across like Odysseus, praying to the goddess Athena, having what was naturally beautiful about him (i.e. καλὸν) disfigured, wearing the filthy rag (ῥάκος ἄλλο κακὸν) in public. (See Odyssey 13.429-438).  In a show equal to Homer’s epic, the LXX translator writes:

She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning,
καὶ ἀφελομένη τὰ ἱμάτια τῆς δόξης αὐτῆς ἐνεδύσατο ἱμάτια στενοχωρίας καὶ πένθους

and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung,
καὶ ἀντὶ τῶν ὑπερηφάνων ἡδυσμάτων σποδοῦ καὶ κοπριῶν ἔπλησεν τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῆς

and she utterly humbled her body;
καὶ τὸ σῶμα αὐτῆς ἐταπείνωσεν σφόδρα

every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair.
καὶ πάντα τόπον κόσμου ἀγαλλιάματος αὐτῆς ἔπλησε στρεπτῶν τριχῶν αὐτῆς

She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said:
καὶ ἐδεῖτο κυρίου θεοῦ Ισραηλ καὶ εἶπεν

You know my necessity –
σὺ οἶδας τὴν ἀνάγκην μου,

that I abhor the sign of my proud position,
ὅτι βδελύσσομαι τὸ σημεῖον τῆς ὑπερηφανίας μου,

which is upon my head on the days when I appear in public.
ὅ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς μου ἐν ἡμέραις ὀπτασίας μου·

I abhor it like a menstruous rag,
βδελύσσομαι αὐτὸ ὡς ῥάκος καταμηνίων

and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure.
καὶ οὐ φορῶ αὐτὸ ἐν ἡμέραις ἡσυχίας μου.

The rag that Esther wears, of course, is different from the filthy one that Odysseus wears and later wraps around his head (See Odyssey 14.349). Esther does not specify what she wears upon her head; she just calls it “the sign of my proud position” which she wears in public. And yet she, to the Lord God of Israel, compares this thing on her head in public to the rag women wear in private. And yet, the readers hear all about this. It’s like a “menstruous” rag, “of catamenia,” καταμηνίων. As all Greek readers know after Aristotle, the subject καταμηνίων is one of Aristotle’s favorites. He writes extensively of the topic in two of his biological treatises, and he sees the issue as of supreme importance in dividing females from males. What might the LXX translator be signaling here? He’s already just let the readers know (again having us eavesdrop on Esther and the Lord) that she hates the bed of the males with foreskins uncut-around, which signals, of course, that they are not Jewish. Here again is a favorite part of anatomy that Aristotle discusses regularly, again to stress the difference between the sexes.

Which leads us Greek readers to Addition D, to the Rabbinic-like farces of the LXX translator. Let’s look at both the Old Greek text (B-Text) and the Alpha-text, as Karen Jobes translates these for the New English Septuagint Translation:

Here again, we have a woman persuading a man. This is comical in Athens, and funny in Jerusalem. She’s changed outfits, taking off what the Lord (and the readers of Addition C) saw, putting off her “garments of service” and putting on those “of glory” with the “full flush of her beauty” for the king. All the sexual overtones change, disappear, finally, at the end. The king’s heart is changed, from his “full flush of anger” – because “God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness.”

This is as fast paced as that scene from Aristophanes’ Frogs (289 – 296, Matthew Dillon’s English rendering); remember the dung? recall the lovely woman? see again the “full flushed fevered face”? notice all of the changes?

Xanthias: O horrible! it takes all kinds of shapes, / Now it’s an ox, and now a mule, and now / A lovely woman.
Dionysus: Where is she? I’ll go meet her.
Xanthias: Wait, now it’s not a woman, but a bitch.
Dionysus: Why, this must be Empusa.
Xanthias: Ah! her whole face burns like fire.
Dionysus: Does she have a leg of bronze?
Xanthias: By Poseidon, yes—and the other is cow dung, / Be sure of it.

Now we turn back to the Greek texts of Esther Addition D. He, the king, not aroused by her; he sees Esther’s appearance but is “alarmed.” He turns to her: “I am your brother,” which we all know makes him an equal and her ineligible for advances. He opens up and wants something from her: “Speak to me!” He’s asking to be persuaded by a woman, by her rhetoric, and so he is. She herself might have been Jacob, wrestling with an angel, changed forever. She grants that he’s like the Lord, “marvelous” and “full of grace” and “like a divine angel.”

The religious and the literary, more and more, come through the Jewish Greek Esther. And what good turns the story takes, for the good, as the changes are made.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2011 4:47 pm

    See, Kurk, I don’t follow your argument when you say:

    What Berlin is saying, and what’s most exciting about the book of Esther in Greek, is that it has “the added complication of diverging rather more from the Masoretic Text than do [the LXX] translations of other biblical books.” The complication, the complexity, the change is a good thing.

    I don’t see where Berlin makes a value judgment on the complication/complexity. It is clear that Greek Esther does not match Hebrew Esther — but why that it is a good thing is beyond me. Indeed, the complication/complexity is one that we face today in trying to set the context of the Septuagint; it is not clear that it is one that Greek readers of the Septuagint faced.

    I also don’t follow your argument that Addition D is funny because it contains a women persuading a man. There are, of course, many passages in both classical Greek literature and the Hebrew Bible where women persuade men. (Do you think the story of Eve persuading Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit was funny? That the story is mean to be humorous is not a traditional interpretation.)

    More important, Esther does not make any request of the king in the passage you quote! She is merely preparing to make a request of the king. And the king here merely reassures her that Haman’s death decree does not apply to her.

    Moreover, Esther makes many, many requests of the King in the book of Esther — even in the Hebrew original. How is this an improvement as farce?

    What, may I ask, is funny here?

    You claim passage D is fast-paced, but I do not see the support for that claim. Rather, it seems to be character development. Compared with the Hebrew text 5:1-3, it seems to be taking its time.

  2. December 12, 2011 6:25 pm

    Thanks for asking what is funny here, Theophrastus. I guess you’re being serious.

    Let me offer an answer, but first it seems I need to offer a few corrections:

    I am the one saying “The complication, the complexity, the change is a good thing.” Berlin is the one saying, “The frivolity of the book’s style–with its hyperbole, mockery, and comic misunderstandings and reversals–undercuts the gravity of its theme”; and she’s the one also saying, “The Greek translation, and presumably the Hebrew that lay behind it (which must have been different to some extent from the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text), shows that the form of the story of Esther was once more fluid, and the possibilities for interpreting it were correspondingly more flexible, than had been previously realized.” I like possibilities now for interpreting, think they are good, and hope more study of the extant texts we have (and any others that we might find) will recover the beneficial flexibilities.

    I think the reversals of roles are funny, the mockery of the villain Αμαν and all the other uncircumcised men (perhaps even this lion of a king), the hyperbole (which Aristotle did not think one bit funny), and the comic misunderstandings. I’m talking about these in the Greek Additions. The very style of Greek is funny, the wordplay, the understatement, the ironies of public and private, the ambiguities, the mocking of hierarchies in the vocative addresses. Of course Esther, in Addition D, is not speaking to the king, not making a direct address; funny thing is, she employs well the rhetorics of silence and of listening, in the Greek (which both Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe have worked to recover for rhetorical theory and feminist rhetorical criticism). In Addition D, the Greek and its English translation, does not “merely” suggest she’s getting ready for something else; nor does it convey “merely” that the king is reassuring her. It actually shows subtle and nuanced persuasion (ethos and pathos, to use Aristotle’s terms, if not logos) by Esther. And it demonstrates the profound effects on the king. He is not an unmoved and stoic man here.

    I read the Greek as fast paced, not much slower than the Frogs passage I clipped into the post. You judge whether the Hebrew is faster; but there’s no Hebrew counterpart to Addition D. Addition D may come across as a bridge between two longer episodes, but following Addition C, Mordecai’s and Esther’s prayers, the action flies swiftly. Humans and bodies and emotions and doorways and snippets of conversation and jumping down from thrones and grabbing up in arms and lifting sceptors and gently placing them on necks. Whew, I’m almost as tired recounting it by summarizing it in my reply here. (5:1-3 has its Greek counterparts, and these are as least as quick as the Hebrew, I believe.)

    What I do not think is funny is male over female hierarchies and the silencing of women by any culture using any language and scriptural or scientific sanctioning of such. Addition D seems to be a reversal of the long ancient Greek trend of sexism of the sort that F. A. Wright documents so thoroughly in Feminism In Greek Literature From Homer To Aristotle. Murray really could have named his book Sexism in Greek Literature. Aristotle wrote one of the greatest treatises on rhetoric that has ever been written. And yet, notes contemporary rhetorician Cheryl Glenn:

    Aristotle makes no provision for the intellectual woman, except for his nod to Sappho: ‘Everyone honours the wise . . . . [T]he Mytilenaeans [honour] Sappho, though she was a woman (Rhetoric 2.23.1389.b). Otherwise, Aristotle denied any philosophical or rhetorical contributions by women. (Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, page 49).

    Assuming the LXX context of Alexandria, the namesake city of the great pupil of the infamously sexist Aristotle who would allow women no rhetorical agency, I think Additions C and D of Esther are funny.

  3. December 12, 2011 10:01 pm

    Interesting Kurk. Forgive my denseness, but what is the wordplay you see in Addition D? Probably you mentioned it in a previous post, but I’ve lost track with the back-and-forth.

    I also do not see the role-reversal you attribute to Addition D but not to the original Masoretic text. In Addition D,

    (1) Esther is preparing to petition the king,
    (2) The king is initially angry
    (3) The king reassures her that she is not subject to the order of genocide
    (4) Esther praises the king, and says his face is like a “divine angel”
    (5) She faints (or sweats)
    (6) The king and his court are troubled, and reassure Esther

    So where in this dialogue is the role-reversal? If anything, it seems to reinforce the feminine-weak nature of Esther (see elements 4 and 5 above).

    I think I am misunderstanding you, because the only type of “role-reversal” I see is later, in the MT (and corresponding LXX) sections. (In fact, it does not seem to me to be role-reversal, but a type of petitioning of the King. While one might argue that King’s uxorious nature is by itself humorous, it is a common character type in Greek drama [and, for that matter, in the Hebrew Bible].)

  4. December 13, 2011 3:05 pm

    the feminine-weak nature of Esther (see elements 4 and 5 above).

    Let me ask you, Theophrastus, whether anyone really has to interpret Esther’s nature as you describe it? Is she really “feminine-weak”?

    She said she saw (εἶδόν) the king’s face (τὸ πρόσωπόν σου) like an angel of God (ὡς ἄγγελον θεοῦ). But Gideon likewise, rather in shock, said (ἆ ἆ) or “Oh no!” or “Oy vey” or “Alas” (εἶδον ἄγγελον κυρίου πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον) “I saw an angel of the Lord face to face.” (see the LXX translations of Judges 6:22) Gideon surely wasn’t “feminine-weak,” was he?

    She fell because of weakness (ἐκλύσεως) into the arms of the king. But so did Astyanax fall into the arms Hecuba, the male in the arms of the female; and looking at him in her arms she said, looking at his features: “O hands, how sweet the likeness you retain of his father, and yet you lie so weak (ἔκλυτοι) in your sockets before me!” (see Euripides’ The Trojan Women, 1179). And Ahithophel strategized to Absalom how to capture King David: when he was faint (ἐκλελυμένος) and sure enough the King and the people with him fell weak (ἐκλελυμένος). (see the LXX translation of 2 Samuel 17:2,29) Astyanax and King David and his people were not “feminine-weak,” were they?

    Since the LXX translators were making Esther act like Gideon and Astyanax and King David, must we assume her actions were because of her “feminine-weak” nature?

    I’m not sure I focused a whole lot on the word play of Addition D in my postings. I do think it’s funny that, after Esther prays to the God of Abraham and notes her abhorrence for Goys (is that too strong?), and after she sees the King’s non-Jewish face as an angel of the Lord, that King says to her: ὁ ἀδελφός σου, “I’m your brother.” He says this, it seems, because she’s afraid. It reminds some readers of when Abraham, in Egypt (doubly funny in Alexandria, Egypt, where the LXX is translated), says to the King there, ἀδελφή μού ἐστιν “She’s my sister,” when speaking about Sarah his wife. (see LXX translation of Genesis 20). Abraham says this because he’s afraid. Some things are changed, are switched around, are reversed here. Humorous role reversals.

    In Addition D (where readers are looking to see how the Lord might answer Esther’s prayer prayed in Addition C), there is an interplay between the faces and the hearts of Esther and of the King:

    τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτῆς ἱλαρὸν ὡς προσφιλές
    ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῆς ἀπεστενωμένη ἀπὸ τοῦ φόβου

    τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πεπυρωμένον δόξῃ
    ἐν ἀκμῇ θυμοῦ

    her face is cheerful as if affectionate
    but her heart is anguished from fear

    his face is fevered (“fired”) with glory
    in it, rage

    she’s bowing her head (τὴν κεφαλὴν)
    on which is that public sign of her proud position (which she’s already told the Lord she abhors like private and unclean catamenia rags)

    and then what happens?

    καὶ μετέβαλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ βασιλέως εἰς πραΰτητα
    καὶ ἀγωνιάσας ἀνεπήδησεν ἀπὸ τοῦ θρόνου αὐτοῦ

    the Lord changes the spirit of the King (because of Esther’s actions with her head? because of her earlier prayers about her head?), changing it to gentleness,

    and out of agony he jumps down off his thrown.

    She’s bowed her head down in prayer, and she’s bowed her head down in the King’s court, and the Lord bows the King’s spirit and he’s down off his throne.

    There’s more, but that’s enough for now.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 13, 2011 10:54 pm

    Doesn’t “I am your brother” mean that he is going to share her racial concerns – he will defend her race?

  6. December 14, 2011 12:06 am

    Kurk: I was referring in particular to Esther’s fainting/sweating before the king. That seems to me to be a sign of weakness.

    I don’t have the Trojan Women in front of me just at the moment — my memory is that Astyanax was (1) a child, and (2) dead. That would seem to me to qualify as weak. Am I misremembering?

    Similarly, the collapse of David and the Israelites is different; they were exhausted by the prolonged march in the desert without rest, food, or water.

    I did not regard viewing the face of the king as weakness (as much as flattery), but the case of Judges 6:22 was different in any case because Gideon actually saw an angel (rather than a non-Jewish mortal.)

    But I fear that in the details, you may have missed my main point. If there is a role-reversal in Esther, it is in the underlying text which has parallels in the Masoretic Text, and not in Addition D. Addition D does not portray Esther as a woman of strength.


    Suzanne: I read the “I am your brother” mostly similarly but a bit differently; the King was assuring Esther that she would be treated as a royal personage, not as a commoner, and thus exempt from the order for genocide.


    I still have to say that I don’t get the joke in Addition D, while I do see the humor in the Masoretic text version. If there is humor in Addition, I must say it is certainly more subtle, but I am not convinced that the primary purpose of Addition D is farce. In contrast, I find Berlin’s arguments that Esther taken as a whole is comedy/farce to be compelling, and certainly much of the Rabbinic midrashim is also farcical.

  7. December 14, 2011 2:00 am

    I want to say one more thing about Esther (relying on the Hebrew version that I know better than the Greek version).

    Part of the humor in Hebrew Esther does come from seeing the (forgive the gender-incorrect term) “masterful” way in which Esther manipulates Ahasuerus. Ahaseuerus is a hot-head (1:12, 7:7) and portrayed in the story as bumbling and easily rushed into decisions by his advisors (e.g., his counselors’ recommendation to depose [or, the text may darkly imply, execute] Vashti, Haman’s recommendation to engage in a genocidal campaign against the Jews].

    Despite the obvious danger of the Ahasuerus’s quick temper, Esther finds a way to get him to reverse his easy approval of Haman’s genocidal plans (without having Ahasuerus lose face.) She successfully implies to the king that Haman is making advances towards her. She makes requests of Ahasuerus at 5:4, 5:8, 7:3-4, 8:5-6, and 9:13 (a careful note of the style reveals she does so at some peril, since the king’s easy approval [“up to half my kingdom] is offered before her earlier requests but denied for her later requests, suggesting that Esther is going right up to the brink of her ability to convince Ahasuerus.)

  8. December 16, 2011 6:09 pm

    Theophrastus and Suzanne,

    Thank you very much for your insights and thoughts here. It seems we’re reading not only Hebrew and its Greek translation but also how Adele Berlin reads them and writes of her thoughts in English. There’s a presumption that we all make, of course, when naming texts and their variants “Additions,” as if the Greek never had Hebrew as its original in any form or sense. So, for me, the discussion becomes both a look at what “more” the Additions bring and also a look at how we decide we know. The conversation has been fascinating (so far), and I’m grateful for the forum of this blog and your wonderful perspectives and comments!

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