Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Book That Sends in the Clowns (Bible)

Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Book That Sends in the Clowns (Bible)

Article excerpt

Someone who thinks the Bible should be approached reverentially--and has a less than expansive view of what constitutes reverence--would be taken aback at a typical reading of the book of Esther on the Jewish feast of Purim, celebrated around the same time of year and in much the same spirit as Mardi Gras. The audience is composed largely of children, many of them wearing outrageous costumes. They are holding noisemakers, which they use to drown out the name of the wicked Haman. They may also cheer loudly at the name of brave Esther or her virtuous cousin Mordecai.

Comedy, satire, farce: these are not the dominant modes in which the Bible speaks to us, but they are not completely absent either. There are comic overtones to such incidents as Rachel's deception of Laban in Genesis, the midwives' defiance of Pharaoh's murderous decree in Exodus and--perhaps especially--Balaam's conversation with his donkey in Numbers. But the most sustained comic episode in the Bible is the book of Esther. While the book explores some dark corners of human experience, including genocide, the exaggerations, coincidences and reversals of fortune with which it is replete suggest that its approach to these topics is best read as a comic one. Characters such as Ahasuerus, the mighty Persian emperor whose opinion is that of whatever person he has just spoken to, and his chief minister Haman, who puffs himself up just as we know he is about to be humiliated, would be at home in a Moliere play.

The author of Esther is sufficiently removed from typical biblical concerns that the Hebrew version of the book manages to avoid any mention of the name of God. The longer Greek version incorporated in the Catholic Bible includes some passages, such as the prayers of Mordecai and Esther, that are more consonant with conventional notions of reverence. But by no means all of the passages contained only in the Greek blunt the book's comic point. By presenting two contrasting letters issued by Ahasuerus at different times, the Greek text points up not only the king's vacillating character but also the fickle nature of all political favour. In the first letter, written when Ahasuerus has fallen under Haman's spell and has agreed to his plan to kill all the Jews, the minister is "well proved for his unfailing devotion and unshakeable trustworthiness." In the second, the now disgraced Haman has become "a Macedonian, without a drop of Persian blood and far removed from our goodness."

In some ways, the book of Esther is a comic version of the story of the exodus from Egypt, and Ahasuerus is a caricature of Pharaoh--himself insecure and confused beneath the trappings of power. …

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