This is a review of a book from the Jewish Publication Society, The JPS Bible Commentary on Esther, written by Adele Berlin and published in 2001.
As is typical of other JPS commentaries that I have read through once, this commentary is a very intense discussion of one of the Books of the Bible. A feature that many might find boring, the author is a serious Hebrew scholar and analyzes many of the words used in the book. From time to time the author offers an alternate and original translation that, in her opinion, brings out the meaning of the text under study.
This type of analysis is especially valuable in regard to Ester because the book is a story about the Jews in the Diaspora, specifically in the Persian empire, in this instance. Thus, it is similar in genre to other books or parts of books that have a setting outside of Israel such as the book of Jonah, which is largely set in Ninevah. I don’t recall this from recent reading, but the author says that this is also the setting for the first part of the Book of Daniel and the books of Ruth, Judith and Tobit, and of course, a later part of Genesis.
Not only is it similar in setting, but the emphasis is on the Jewish experience outside of Israel. This is the first book in the Bible which refers to the Jews as Jews.
The author finds the book to be full of exaggeration and improbability and concludes that it is fictional. For example, there is no known record of a Jewish woman (Esther) being the queen of the Persian Empire.
There are a number of versions of the Book of Esther: the Masoretic Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and a couple others. She capably compares the differences in these and suggests that there was redaction or “tuning” the message of the book for various audiences.
But, overwhelmingly, she is convinced that the book is a farce and a comedy. The king of Persia is depicted as a weak character, being driven by all his advisors. The story line is that he issues a decree for the destruction of all the Jews in Persia, based on a recommendation from the villian of the story, Haman, the Agagite (descendent of the traditional enemy of Israel, the Amelikites). Haman is incensed that he has not been shown the proper respect by Mordecai, Queen Ester’s relative. So, that insult is exaggerated into an edict to exterminate ALL the Jews.
That doesn’t sound like a comedy, for sure, but the story line, the author says, is merely a backdrop to further exaggerate the victory of the Jews, in overcoming the king’s edict. The story appears to be the justification of the feast of Purim (lots) observed to this day by the Jews. It is a feast of great celebration. The Talmud allegedly advised that men should get so drunk, that in the re-enactment of the story, they forget whether they are Haman or Mordecai.
It seems that almost half of the 50-page introduction to the commentary focuses on proving that the story is a comedy. With all the banquets, eating, drinking, and implied sexuality, the writer of Esther was loathe to put the name of God anyplace in the story. Prayers and the name of God occur in what are thought to be additions to the book of Ester. Perhaps for this reason, the book of Esther is the only book of what is considered the Jewish Bible that was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran – not having the name of God in it.
One motif in Esther is one found in other literature of the time period, and that is the motif of the Queen as an intercessor to the King, as Esther is in this story, to plead the cause of saving herself and her people.
That is to me the most overt “type” of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, as eternal intercessor to God.
She discusses the links to other books of the Bible, such as the running parallel to the fate of Joseph in Egypt in becoming second to pharoah, as Mordecai becomes second in power to the king of Persia.
The author concurs that the purpose of the book seems to be to justify the origins of the feast of Purim. Purim is plural for Pur (“lot”). There is only one lot cast in the story, and it is a very minor point of exposition. It is not clear how the plural got connected with the feast that the Jews observe, partially with the reading of the book in the synagogue.
This story has significance in that direct sense, but it also rationalizes how the Jews began to celebrate other feasts not commanded in the Torah. This book describes this one observance, and Zecheriah mentions some other fasts that apparently do not originate in the Torah.
Although this book is not based on the Catholic version of the book of Esther, I think it is very helpful to understand the Catholic version and its placement in the Bible.