BOOK Commentary on Esther, Jewish Publication Society, Adele Berlin

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.

The Catholic teaching on the “senses” of scripture may be highlighted, from this link to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In particular:

"The senses of Scripture

Paragraph 115
According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

Paragraph 116
The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

Paragraph 117
The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.

  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction.”

  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. "

In comparison to the preceding, the Jewish approach to scripture is defined as follows:

Peshat - the plain, literal sense of the verse where it occurs
Remez - the symbolic sense of the verse
Derash - the homiletic or interpretive sense of a verse
Sod - the secret, mystical sense of a verse

(from JPS Guide, The Jewish Bible)

In terms of both of the preceding sets of ideas, this Commentary on Esther from JPS seems to match the Peshat understanding of the verse.

This is why I read the Jewish commentaries, to focus on that literal meaning based as much as possible on a discussion of the original text, etc. This is the satisfaction I get out of reading the JPS Commentary series.

My goal is to understand the New Testament, as much as possible, too. But, I’m getting a lot of satifaction out of these Jewish commentaries.

Ever read any of Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary on the Old Testament? They are a bit dated (1866-1891) but go through the Hebrew (and some Grk LXX and Latin) mostly assuming the reader has some Biblical Hebrew reading ability. I’m pretty sure they both were protestants, Delitzsch I believe was a Lutheran. I’m also interested in the JPS Tanakh series but its a bit pricy ($380 for only 8 books and Haftarot :eek:) from LOGOS software. Here’s an example of K&D on Est 3.7

“Esth. 3:7. “In the first month, i.e., Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahashverosh, they cast Pur, i.e., the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to the twelfth month, i.e., the month Adar.” The subject of הִפִּיל is left indefinite, because it is self-evident that this was done by some astrologer or magician who was versed in such matters. Bertheau tries unnaturally to make Haman the subject, and to combine the subsequent לִפְנֵי הָמָן with הַגֹּורָל: “Haman cast Pur, i.e., the lot, before Haman,” which makes Pur signify: the lot before Haman. לִפְנֵי הָמָן means in the presence of Haman, so that he also might see how the lot fell. פּוּר is an Old-Persian word meaning lot (sors); in modern Persian, bâra signifies time, case (fois, cas), pâra or pâre, piece (morceau, pièce), and behr, behre, and behre, lot, share, fate; comp. Zenker, Turco- Arabic and Persian Lexicon, pp. 162 and 229. The words “from day to day, from month to the twelfth month,” must not be understood to say, that lots were cast day by day and month by month till the twelfth; but that in the first month lots were at once cast, one after the other, for all the days and months of the year, that a favourable day might be obtained. We do not know the manner in which this was done, “the way of casting lots being unknown to us.” The words: from month to the twelfth month, are remarkable; we should expect from month to month till the twelfth month. Bertheau supposes that the words לְחֹדֶשׁ וַיִּ פֹּל הַגֹּורָל עַל יֹום שְׁלֹשָׁה עָשָׂר were omitted after וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ through the eye of the transcriber passing on from the first לְחֹדֵשׁ to the second. The text of the LXX actually contains such words, and the possibility of such an oversight on the part of a transcriber must certainly be admitted. In the book of Esther, however, the LXX translation is no critical authority, and it is just as possible that the author of the Hebrew book here expresses himself briefly and indefinitively, because he was now only concerned to state the month determined by lot for the undertaking, and intended to mention the day subsequently.
Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (2002). Commentary on the Old Testament. (4:214-215). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.”

I know little about Biblical Hebrew, so a lot of that sails over my head. I try to focus on the conclusions of the commenter.

This quote from K&D makes me think a lot. It says right there that nobody knows how the lot was cast. But, the commentary suggests that there was a lot cast for the month and then a lot cast for the day – for the decree of the extermination of the Jews to go into effect.

So, that’s perhaps why the feast is name Purim (plural, lots), because there might have been a lot to decide the month and then a lot to decide the day.

That was great that you provided that particular quote, because it made me think.

This is an excellent example of how friendly conversations can help to arrive at a plausible understanding of scripture, in the first place. Then, it shows that you’re not going to get everything you want from one commentary, as large at it may be.

Loosely, from memory, I recall being stumped and concerned reading about the 10 plagues that God sent on the Egyptians. As I read the text, several of the plagues seem to be wiping out the cattle. Got me fooled. Wouldn’t one plague be enough? I don’t understand that, and the JPS commentary was silent on that matter.

The message of the book of Esther is that God is always with the Jewish people even in their darkest hour- that He does not forsake them - that there are no coincidences in Jewish history but a pattern even if we cannot decipher it. That there is an underlying need for Jewish unity and Jewish brotherhood through gifts and charity and united festive gratitude to God.

Sure, but no one ever pays retail!

Seriously, the JPS Esther is $23 on Amazon. It is a great introduction to the series, and lots of fun.

To be fair, I’m not sure that the JPS Commentaries are any different from other academic commentaries in this way. But I do appreciate that the JPS Commentaries include the text in Hebrew, and full interaction with the Hebrew text, and that they are so beautifully laid out.

A very different series of JPS commentary series that you may enjoy is the Commentator’s Bible series (to date, only Exodus and Leviticus have been released). This is an attempt to recreate in English a “Rabbinic Bible” in which different medieval commentators interact with each other in understanding the Bible. Here is a sample page, here is an FAQ.

Thank you, that is an excellent insight and summary. Yes, this was clear in this JPS commentary by Berlin.

Yes. I didn’t study Esther’s and Mordecai’s letter in Chapter Nine, but that edict, sent not just in their name, but with the endorsement of the “king” would be such a message about unity to the Jews in the vast Persian empire at that time. Yes, I sense that message of brotherhood, and its very modern application.

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