Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

Power, Deception, and Comedy: The Politics of Exile in the Book of Esther1

Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

Power, Deception, and Comedy: The Politics of Exile in the Book of Esther1

Article excerpt

The Book of Esther can be interpreted as a political work with its own inherent logic and integrity. While the existence of the divine is not denied in the narrative, it appears to be beyond the reach and understanding of a people struggling for survival. In this sense, the Diaspora is presented as a kind of "lottery," where the only way to survive is to overcome fortune through political cunning and strength of arms. By analyzing the particulars of Jewish political vulnerability as depicted in this narrative, as well as the methods used to overcome it, it may be possible to regard the Book of Esther as a sober guide to the limitations and consequences of Diaspora Jewish life.

The Book of Esther has generated numerous studies by commentators as to how and why it differs from all other books of the Bible. Some of the fundamental questions that are asked about this anomalous text are: why does God not appear in it, why does the narrative take place solely in Persia without any mention of the Land of Israel, and why do the heroes of this biblical work not appear as clear followers of the Jewish tradition?

The first medieval Jewish commentators attempted to solve some of these conundrums by reinterpreting the characters through subtle textual interpretations.2 They frequently transformed the characters into pious Jews in order to show how the narrative is another example of God's miraculous intervention in history to save the Jewish people.3

Modern critical scholarship, in opposition to the religious medieval readings, sought to look at the text not solely as the work of one writer, but placed it in a historical context (and not always the one necessarily shown on the surface) through interpreting it as a work of pseudepigrapha. Through source criticism, they also sought to divide the work into what they thought to be its Greek, Persian, and Babylonian sources, which were finally edited by a redactor.4 Postmodern, feminist, and gender-studies scholars have gone even further by using "the Jew" in the Book of Esther as a metaphor for a variety of minorities (including ethnic, religious, and sexual) living in modern times, in order to foster awareness of the dangers of potential genocide faced by minorities.5

However, one methodology that is less commonly applied within the realm of modern scholarship is the viewing of the Book of Esther through a political lens.6 This is an approach that would require the book to be understood according to its own inherent logic and integrity as a political work demonstrating the full precariousness of Jewish life in exile. Indeed, by analyzing the particulars of Jewish political vulnerability as depicted in this narrative, as well as the methods used to overcome them, it may be possible to regard the Book of Esther in a new light: as a kind of sober guide to the limitations and consequences of Jewish life in exile.

Notwithstanding the questions of when and by whom the Book of Esther was actually written, the work is set by the author in the time of the Persian King Xerxes I5 who reigned from 486 to 465 BCE. This is a century after the exile of the Jews from the Kingdom of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians.7 While scholars have debated the book's historical and fictional elements, perhaps a more balanced approach would be to read it with both elements in mind. This approach would view it as written in the style of historical fiction, but with a specific teaching (perhaps similar to Xenophon's Education of Cyrus).8

If read according to the historical period in which the work claims to occur, this places it chronologically as the last work in the Hebrew Bible.9 The two other works set in the Persian period are the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which take place during the time of King Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 530 BCE. It is believed that these two books were originally one book.10 One could read these three works as two parts of one larger and more comprehensive argument: the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were addressed to the Jews returning to the Land of Israel in order to restore the Jewish community there, while the Book of Esther was addressed to the Jews planning to remain in exile. …

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