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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.
Esther is the most “secular” book of the Bible. It is, as Adele Berlin described it, “a comic story for a carnivalesque holiday.” The tone of the book‚—especially as it is read in the synagogue, with boos and noisemakers to drown out the name of the villainous Haman—suits its purpose.
Purim is in some ways the Jewish equivalent of Mardi Gras, with its masks, laughter, drinking, and merrymaking. It makes no pretensions to being an ancient festival. Nowhere in the pages of Esther do we read that God commanded the Jews to observe Purim. By its own admission, Purim is a man-made holiday.
Esther (like Song of Songs and perhaps Ecclesiastes) may cause some of us difficulties because they don’t address what we would call “religious” themes. It makes no reference to the temple, prayer, or any distinctive religious practices. In fact, the book of Esther doesn’t even mention the name of God!
And yet, here is Esther in our Bibles, calling us perhaps to let down our hair from time to time and celebrate life. H. L. Mencken once commented that a Puritan is “a person who fears that somebody, somewhere in the world might be having a good time.” We must take God seriously. We must take the moral demands of the gospel seriously. We must certainly take religious liberty and human rights—clear concerns in Esther—seriously. But there is still a time for laughter and fun. This is especially true in a world that is sometimes grim and threatening.
Purim will fall on the 10th of March next year, so you’ve got eleven months to get ready. Perhaps you will choose to celebrate, either out of solidarity with the people of the First Covenant or just because you need a little lightness and frivolity in your life. If you do so, I promise not to tell your pastor.