Although there seems to be some debate, King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther is generally identified with the Persian king Kshayarsha I, better known as Xerxes I. I always enjoy the reactions of my students when I point out to them that this is the same king depicted in the movie and graphic novel 300. I’m not sure what it does to the story to picture Esther married to a guy who looks like this:
At the same time, it is worth pondering the fact that both Frank Miller’s graphic novel and the biblical book take liberties with the story for the sake of entertainment. According to Adele Berlin, the genre of Esther is not history at all, but farce or burlesque. We cannot fully understand the story, she says, unless we understand that it was meant to be funny. Among the characteristics of burlesque, Berlin notes
- Exaggeration and caricature
- Ludicrous situations
- Practical jokes
- Verbal humor
- Repetition of scenes, events, and phrases
- Inversions and reversals.
Most of these features are prominent in Esther and have been identified in mainstream commentaries, but without the realization that they are characteristic of comedy or farce. Even if one believes that there is at least a kernel of historicity to the story of Esther, there is no reason the book can’t have been written for the purpose of entertaining the hearers. That is certainly how the text has been received in Jewish tradition, with its lighthearted Purim plays and effacement of the name of Haman—a stock comedic villain if ever there was one—through catcalls and noisemakers when the book is read in the synagogue.