“Many Thoughts in the Heart of Man . . .”: Irony and Theology in the Book of Esther
This article originally appeared in Tradition, 31 (4), Winter 1997. Appears here with permission.
Hardly a single recent piece on the Book of Esther has failed to note at least a few of the book’s ironic situations and lines. Several authors have even argued that irony is one of the defining literary devices of Esther, declaring that the entire book must be read with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” or classifying it as a satire. Yet, to the best of this author’s knowledge, no comprehensive study of irony in Esther has been undertaken to date. In this article, we will present an extensive analysis of the numerous instances of irony in the Book of Esther and examine the role that irony plays in reinforcing the general thematic and ideological goals of the book.
In order to analyze the role of irony in the Book of Esther, we must first understand what we mean by the term “irony.” “The concept of irony as a critical tool is one of the least well defined terms of all the ill-defined terms of literary scholarship.” The term is generally traced to Aristotle, who refers to the qualities of the eiron, the understated, self-deprecating stock figure of the Greek comic stage who undermines the arrogant and foolish alazon or “boaster.” In Quintillian’s writings, irony is described as a rhetorical device, largely restricted to individual statements where “the intention of the speaker is other than what he actually says.” Eventually, irony was used more broadly to refer to situations as well as statements. Since the Romantic era, irony has taken on much larger significance, often being expanded into a general aesthetic and philosophical category.
For the purposes of this paper, we shall define irony as occurring any time an apparently or ostensibly true statement, serious question, valid assumption, or legitimate expectation is corrected, invalidated or frustrated by the ironist’s real meaning, by the true state of affairs, or by what actually happens.
This definition, supplied by D.C. Muecke in his book, The Compass of Irony, is sufficiently broad to cover the many different types and strategies of irony found in the Book of Esther. The irony in Esther includes: verbal irony, in which a statement or figure of speech is found to be ironic; irony of events, in which “after we have more or less explicitly or confidently expressed reliance in the way things go, some subsequent unforeseen turn of events reverses or frustrates our expectations or designs”; and dramatic irony, in which a character speaks or acts in ignorance of a crucial piece of information of which the reader is aware.
Despite the broad array of ironic devices employed in Esther, all of the irony in the book can be classified under the general category of “stable irony.” In cases of stable irony, the apparent meaning which is ironically undercut is replaced, implicitly or explicitly, with a new, unchallenged meaning. Unstable irony, in contrast, offers no such reassurance, undercutting the old meaning without offering a new one. Thus, whereas unstable irony seeks to leave the reader unsure about the ultimate nature of the events or ideas which it portrays, stable irony is a powerful device for delivering a clear, unequivocal message. The central purpose of this article is to examine how the author of Esther uses a stable ironic structure to convey his powerful theological message.
One of the most useful models for the functioning of stable irony is presented by Wayne C. Booth in his book, A Rhetoric of Irony. Booth describes the reading of stable irony as a four-step process in which: 1) the reader rejects the literal meaning, 2) alternative interpretations or explanations are tried out, 3) a decision is reached as to the author’s knowledge or beliefs, and 4) a new, stable meaning of the text is reconstructed. Booth depicts irony as a process of knocking down apparent meanings and reconstructing true meanings. Unlike other rhetorical devices, such as metaphor or allegory, in which there is a direct, unequivocal connection between the surface and the deeper meaning of the text, irony does not offer the reader direct access to the underlying intent of the text. Quite to the contrary, in an ironic text, the surface meaning and the author’s true message are often contradictory. There is thus a certain amount of ambiguity and confusion which is inherent to even the most stable ironies. Booth’s four stages of reading irony describe this movement from confusion to certainty that takes place when reading an ironic text.
Booth’s model is meant to describe the events that take place within the reader’s mind while reading a single ironic phrase or piece of text. However, in the case of the Book of Esther, this model can be applied to the ironic structure of the work as a whole. As we shall see, the author of the Book of Esther effectively walks the reader through these four steps of reading irony. First, we are presented with a world view that on the surface seems to explain the world of Shushan. This world view is quickly undermined through the use of irony. Another world view is then raised as a possible alternative interpretation of events in the book. This is subsequently rejected as well. Finally, a stable system of meanings that successfully accounts for all that occurs in the story emerges as the ideological bedrock of the book.
Each of the three levels of meaning in the book is represented by one of three main characters in the book: Ahausuerus, Haman and Mordechai. As each of the three possible explanations for the working of the world are presented, its representative character moves to the foreground and gains apparent control of the Persian Empire. As each of the first two possibilities are rejected, their representatives, Ahausuerus and then Haman, are disempowered. Ultimately, Mordechai takes center stage and we realize that he represents the true message of the story.
The Book of Esther opens by introducing one of its main characters, Ahausuerus. Ahausuerus sits at the center of his world. He presides over a vast empire whose numerous provinces represent almost the entire civilized world. Ahausuerus brings all of his noblemen and administrators to his capital in Shushan and treats them, as well as the citizens of Shushan, to a dazzling display of imperial wealth and power. The grandeur of Ahausuerus’s spectacular resources is reinforced by the language used to describe this scene, which, by biblical standards, is extraordinarily rich in detail. Furthermore, the author makes use of an all-inclusive rhetoric which will reappear in various contexts throughout the book. He makes frequent use of the word kol, “all,” the word rav, “many” or “large,” and sweeping phrases like “from the great to the small” (1: 5). He also frequently uses language which, if not redundant, at least could have been more concise. One example of this is verse four: “. . . displaying the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor and honor of his greatness, for many days—180 days.” Just as Ahausuerus has spared no expense in giving his party, the author seeks to give us the impression that he has not excluded a single word that might somehow add to the magnificence of his description.
At first, there is very little reason not to take this description of the mighty Ahausuerus and his court at face value. While a party of 180 days certainly seems farfetched, this use of hyperbole does not in and of itself represent sufficient evidence to challenge our initial, non-ironic reading. The reader gets the sense that something is amiss only at the very end of this opening description: “And the drinking proceeded according to law, no one setting restrictions, for thus the king set down for all the palace butlers, to do as each and every man might wish” (1:8). This irony of simple incongruity, the juxtaposition of the king’s law with “no restrictions” and “to do as each and every man might wish,” forces the reader to question the previous depiction of the mighty Ahausuerus. In this verse, the true nature of Ahausuerus’s kingdom is revealed. The king’s “law” (“dat”), through which the king allegedly rules the empire, is in fact a farce. Its primary concern is that there be no restrictions and that every man do as he please. As we shall see, the inefficacy of the king and his laws, which are consistently referred to through the use of the word “dat,” and the Shushanites’ obsession with gratifying their desires, reappear as major themes throughout the book.
Ahausuerus claims to be the ruler of the known world, yet the first order he gives, a simple request of his own wife that she appear before him and his guests, is brazenly disobeyed. The court’s response to Vashti’s refusal also serves to deflate our opinion of the king and his men. Fox argues that Memukhan’s advice that the queen should be deposed, lest all the wives in the empire learn from her example and rebel against their husbands, is “a ridiculous over reaction, turning a domestic squabble into an affaire d’etat and a matter of explicit sexual politics.”14 Even if one were to argue that a queen refusing her king’s orders is in fact a grave offense, Memukhan’s advice is still most ironic. The reason why one would want to punish a disobedient queen is because such behavior undermines the authority of the king over his subjects. Rather than use Vashti’s punishment as an opportunity to reinforce the king’s power, Ahausuerus uses it to empower the masses, attempting to insure that “every man should be ruler in his own household” (1: 22). While the decree declares that “every man should speak the language of his own people” (ibid.) in his own home as a sign of his dominance over his wife, Ahausuerus does not speak his own language in his own empire. Rather, he must speak the language of his subjects. This very decree is sent “to each and every province in its own script, and to each and every people in its own language” (ibid.).
This entire passage is appropriately described in the same overblown language that we noted in the opening scene. The word “kol” appears no less than eight times in these six verses. Similarly, at the end of this passage, we find the first uses of the phrase “x and x,” such as “province and province” (1:22), to mean “each and every x.” This construction is one of the hallmarks of Esther’s all-inclusive language.
This same passage also introduces the vast Persian imperial communications system which is employed to publicize Ahausuerus’ farcical declaration. This messenger system is invariably described using all-inclusive rhetoric. It is a central image in the book, representing the vast power of the apparatus of the empire.
This first chapter secures a beachhead for the author’s attack on Ahausuerus and his empire. We have seen Ahausuerus’s pretensions to being the mighty ruler of his empire and have received a taste of the absurdity of his claim. As the story progresses, the true nature of Ahausuerus’s kingship becomes more and more apparent. Kingship is of central concern to the Book of Esther. The root m-l-k appears over 250 times in the 167 verses of Esther. Yet the only king in the book is pathetic. Ahausuerus is incapable of taking action by himself. He is completely dependent on his advisors, who effortlessly manipulate him. When the king does act, he is usually giving things away, granting tax rebates (2:18) and throwing parties.
Similarly, “the king’s law” (dat) is also a key word in the book, appearing nineteen times. The Persian empire is portrayed as having laws regulating even the most minute details of court life, right down to the amount of time that the women must spend being perfumed before sleeping with the king (2:12). The king’s law is irrevocable (8:8), and its violation is seen as a capital offense (4:11) for which even an entire nation can be wiped out (3:8). Yet these rules turn out to be worthless. We have already seen that the first law mentioned in the book is in fact not a law at all, but a license for excess. Ahausuerus’s decree that all women should serve their husbands is of no avail—women will dominate men several times throughout the book. Similarly, both Mordechai and Esther will, on separate occasions, violate the king’s laws with impunity. When the king’s decrees do function, they backfire. When “the wrath of king Ahausuerus abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what was decreed against her” (2:10). Ahausuerus apparently regrets his deposal of Vashti, but finds himself unable to restore her because he is trapped by his own irrevocable word. His advisors thus suggest that he search the kingdom for a replacement for her.
The “real” Shushan that emerges from under the facade of a tightly regulated imperial capital is a laissez-faire world devoted to the gratification of impulses. The people of Shushan, and especially their king, seem to spend most of their time eating and drinking and pursuing sexual pleasures. The word “tov,” best translated here as “pleasurable,” appears consistently in connection to Ahausuerus’s decisions. For example, “let fair (tovat mare) young virgins be sought for the king . . . and let the girl who pleases (ti-tav) the king rule instead of Vashti. And the thing pleased (yi-tav) the king and he did so” (2:3-4). Similarly, the story is driven forward by individuals’ needs to vent their rage, “hema.” Ahausuerus is infuriated by Vashti (1:12), and so has her deposed and sets the story rolling. Then Haman’s rage at Mordechai drives him to plot the destruction of the Jews and the execution of Mordechai (3:5, 5: 9). Finally, Haman is undone when Ahausuerus turns his anger against him (7:7).
Given this reality, it would seem that Haman should be beyond the reach of the author’s irony. Haman is a self-serving social climber who has completely mastered the realpolitik of Shushan. Haman has no illusions about the true nature of Ahausuerus’s court. He craftily manipulates the king and brazenly bribes him in order to achieve his objectives. Not only is Haman aware of the illusory nature of Ahausuerus’s power, he even claims to have access to a higher controlling force. He consults the fates through the use of a lottery in order to determine the optimum date to destroy the Jews. Haman would thus seem to represent the solid ground of truth in the story. It is he and not Ahausuerus who is truly the most powerful man in Shushan. Indeed, when Haman first appears, all the irony that we have become accustomed to dissolves. No longer are the vast resources of the empire harmlessly diverted towards the service of Ahausuerus’s pleasure dome. Suddenly, a sinister side of the world of Shushan emerges. The all-inclusive language describing the order for the destruction of the Jews and its dissemination via the royal communication system is reminiscent of the earlier descriptions of Ahausuerus’s proclamations and projects. Once again, we have the frequent use of the word “kol” and the double language meaning “each and every.” However, this passage lacks the overblown quality of the previous examples. When we read: “And letters were sent by means of couriers to all the king’s provinces to slaughter, slay, and destroy all the Jews young and old, together with children and women, on a single day,” (3: 13) we are not amused by the extravagance of the language, but horrified by the prospect of total destruction that seems all too possible. When, in the last verse of this passage, the reader in the synagogue briefly switches from the festive chant of the Book of Esther to the plaintive wail of Lamentations, he accurately reflects the sudden change in mood of the book.
Suddenly, it is Haman who sits at the center of the story. The controlling force of Shushan seems not to be its rightful king and his laws; rather, power belongs to he who is most ambitious and adept at seizing it. However, as we all know, Haman’s ascendancy does not last long. The world view that he represents is based on illusion no less than are Ahausuerus’s beliefs. Haman swiftly becomes the central focus of Esther’s irony.
Thus far, the irony we have examined has been of several types. We have seen verbal irony, such as that which is implied by the exaggerated and overblown descriptions of the king’s court. We have encountered irony of events, such as the fact that the book opens with a decree that women should obey their husbands and then tells a story in which women dominate their husbands, and irony of simple incongruity, such as the portrayal of a king who acts like a clown. As the pace of the action accelerates and the plot becomes more complex, it becomes possible to introduce a new form of irony which is particular to narrative. Dramatic irony, in which characters speak or act in ignorance of some crucial piece of information that the reader is aware of, now becomes one of the major forms of irony in the story.
After the counter-movement in the plot begins with Esther’s first audience with Ahausuerus, Haman becomes a consistent victim of the book’s irony. He is completely deluded about what is happening around him. First Haman presumes that Esther has invited him to her party because he enjoys her favor. Haman then decides to attempt to kill Mordechai, who is the queen’s real favorite. Haman proceeds to enter Ahausuerus’s palace intending to ask permission to hang Mordechai even as Ahausuerus is deciding how to reward his favorite Jew. When Ahausuerus asks Haman what should be done for someone whom the king wishes to honor, Haman assumes that the person to be honored is none other than himself, while in fact, Ahausuerus wishes to reward Haman’s arch-enemy. It is only with the king’s order to parade Mordechai through the street and Zeresh’s prophesy that “‘if Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish race, you will not overcome him, but will undoubtedly fall before him’” (6:13), that Haman begins to understand that all is not going well for him.
In these scenes, Haman attains some of the characteristics of the alazon, Aristotle’s boastful figure who is undone by the eiron. When Haman returns home after the first party with Esther, infuriated by the sight of a still disobedient Mordechai, he called for his friends and his wife Zeresh. And Haman described to them the glory of his riches and his many sons and all the ways the king had made him great and advanced him above all the other princes and servants of the king (5:10-11).
Haman manages to squeeze into a couple of lines all of the key words of the opening overblown description of Ahausuerus’s court. He uses the all-inclusive words “rov,” “many,” and “kol,” “all.” Just as we find Ahausuerus “displaying the riches of his glorious (osher kevod) kingdom and the splendor and honor of his greatness, (gedulato)” (1:3), Haman tells of “the glory of his riches (kevod oshro) and his many sons and all the ways the king had made him great (gidlo).” Just as Ahausuerus awes his “officers and servants” (1: 4) with his party, Haman has been raised above “all the other officers and servants of the king.” Haman is thus presented as a miniature Ahausuerus, displaying his wealth and power to his “court.” Haman is even more pathetic than Ahausuerus. Whereas there is some substance to Ahausuerus’s display of majesty, Haman is completely deluding himself. The recent invitations from the queen are hardly the beginning of a new stage of Haman’s brilliant political career. Haman will not even survive Esther’s next party.
The ironic portrayal of Haman in this scene is brought to a conclusion as we find Haman, the great manipulator, taking orders from his wife. Zeresh gives Haman the fatal suggestion to have Mordechai hanged. Haman proceeds to build the suggested fifty-cubit scaffolding. The height of this structure, more than seven stories, is absurd. It expresses Haman’s exaggerated obsession with destroying Mordechai, which ultimately leads to his downfall. Haman’s pretensions to being the true power in Shushan have thus been successfully undercut through the narrator’s use of irony.
In the climactic scene of the story, Haman becomes quite literally the victim of the story’s irony. When Esther first informs Ahausuerus that someone is seeking to destroy her and her nation, Ahausuerus responds, “Who is the one and where is he, who had the audacity to do this?” (7:5). Ahausuerus is somehow blissfully unaware of Haman’s plot despite the fact that it was he who authorized it. Ahausuerus is completely shocked and infuriated when Haman is unmasked as the perpetrator of this crime against Esther. When Ahausuerus returns after having stormed out to the garden in rage, he once again shows his complete lack of understanding of the situation. He misinterprets Haman’s plea for mercy from Esther as an attempt to seduce the queen. For all his real crimes and misdemeanors, Haman is thus ultimately hanged for a crime he did not commit!
Thus far, we have seen the first three stages of Wayne Booth’s theory of irony as they appear in the Book of Esther. We have rejected the surface appearance of Shushan and its allegedly powerful king. As Haman moved to the foreground, we have considered the possibility that in fact Shushan is ruled by the law of the jungle, by which the most manipulative and the most ambitious triumph. We have come to the conclusion that this approach is also false. If the irony in the Book of Esther were unstable, there would be no more to say. Our conclusion would be that the author seeks to portray an absurd world which does not operate according to any coherent system of order. However, the irony in Esther is stable. We thus must begin the work of reconstructing a coherent reality on the ruins of Ahausuerus’s and Haman’s world views.
In order to uncover the solid ground of our story, we must turn our attention to the character of Mordechai. He is the third and final character to rise to prominence in the book. Mordechai is alone among the major characters in Esther in remaining completely beyond the reach of the book’s irony. There are several methods by which the author places Mordechai in this untouchable position. As Harold Fisch has noted, “In the semiotic pattern of the book, [Mordechai] stands for the alien: he is the odd man out.” Mordechai is first introduced to us as an exile (2:6). Of the four major characters in the book, Mordechai is the only one who, for the majority of the narrative, is not part of the inner circle at court. Furthermore, he stands alone in refusing to bow down to Haman, violating the Persian law and arousing the displeasure of his colleagues. Later he will sit alone at the palace gate in sackcloth and ashes, in sharp contrast to the feasting that is going on inside. As an outsider, Mordechai is a prime candidate to introduce whatever corrective measures might be necessary in the world of the story.
The method of characterization utilized to depict Mordechai is another way in which the narrator sets Mordechai apart from the other characters and places him beyond the reach of the book’s irony. As Fox explains, “Ahausuerus is all surface . . . [I]t is hard to imagine Ahausuerus having any thoughts not obvious to everyone.” “Haman is allowed no mysteries. His motives, drives, and attitudes are transparent, his twisted soul laid bare to all. None of his motives are obscured, and little is left for the reader to wonder about.” Mordechai, on the other hand, “retains a hard nub of inscrutability.” We are rarely privy to Mordechai’s thoughts and feelings, and as such, the motives for his actions are often unclear and at times seem irrational. No explanation is given for Mordechai’s insistence that Esther hide her identity. Similarly, we do not know Mordechai’s reasons for his initial, apparently suicidal defiance of Haman. Erich Auerbach, in “Odysseus’s Scar,” the celebrated first chapter of his book Mimesis, identifies gaps and ambiguities such as these as the primary genius of the Bible’s mimetic art. These gaps create characters and situations that are “fraught with background,” giving the reader the sensation that unplumbed psychological depths lie beneath the surface of the character being presented. “This technique makes Mordechai always deeper than the reader.” The reader thus is not in a position to challenge Mordechai as the reader might challenge Haman and Ahausuerus.
Perhaps the simplest reason why Mordechai cannot be the victim of irony is that he knows too much; “he seems to be always present, listening and observing.” Mordechai is constantly associated with the verb “yada,” “know.” He is the only one who knows about Bigtan and Teresh’s plot, and he mysteriously knows all of the intimate details of Haman’s conference with Ahausuerus concerning the Jews. In keeping with the reticent style with which Mordechai is portrayed, the reader is left to wonder about Mordechai’s sources. Mordechai cannot be trapped in any dramatic irony because there never seems to be anything the reader knows that Mordechai does not.
While Mordechai’s privileged position is evident almost from the outset, it is not immediately obvious what it is that Mordechai stands for. Mordechai’s reticence makes it very difficult for us to determine the system of values that guides his actions. It is only in chapter four, in his crucial dialogue with Esther, that Mordechai’s beliefs, and hence the ideological solid ground of the story, become apparent.
In order to analyze this passage, it will first be necessary to introduce some technical terminology. In The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Meir Sternberg argues that one of the primary poetic devices of biblical narrative is the interplay of perspectives between the omniscient God and omniscient narrator on the one hand, and the limited reader and characters on the other. Sternberg proposes a model of two parallel axes along which we can chart these different positions. The informational axis represents the various players’ relative knowledge about events in the story. The normative axis, on the other hand, represent their moral and ideological correctness. In both cases, God and the narrator remain on the far end of the spectrum, always in possession of all of the facts and of the normative truth. The reader and the characters fluctuate along these lines and usually draw closer to the truth as the story progresses. It is this interplay of perspectives that Sternberg argues is responsible for producing much of the suspense and irony in the Bible.
By analyzing Mordechai’s exchange with Esther in chapter four according to this model, we can see how both Esther and the reader gradually learn the situational and ideological reality of the book. At the opening of the scene, the informational axis is arranged as follows: At one end we have God and the narrator, who know everything that has happened thus far as well as the outcome of our story. Next we have Mordechai, who, as we learn in the very first verse of chapter four, “knew all that had happened.” In verse seven, we find out that Mordechai even knows all the intimate details of Haman’s conversation with Ahausuerus. Mordechai later reveals to us that he also has some general knowledge about how events will turn out. Following Mordechai is the reader who, like Mordechai, is privy to the all of the palace’s secrets. The reader, however, lacks any foreknowledge. Right next to the reader are the masses of people in the empire who have been informed of Haman’s decree, though they lack the inside details. At the far end of the spectrum stands Esther, the only figure who is completely unaware of the recent events in the kingdom. When she learns that Mordechai is sitting in front of the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes, she is extremely confused.30 Esther becomes the victim of one of the sharpest ironies in the book when she naively sends Mordechai a change of clothes. This action accentuates Esther’s ignorance of the terrible events that are taking shape around her, as she glibly assumes that all of Mordechai’s problems might easily be solved with some clean clothes. Mordechai informs Esther of the impending doom facing the Jewish people, thus bringing her up to par with the reader.
However, just as this informational gap is being closed, a disparity on the normative axis becomes apparent. Mordechai tells Esther that she must go to Ahausuerus and attempt to intercede on behalf of her people. Esther at first declines to do so, citing the great personal danger to which she would be subjecting herself. Mordechai, who advocates self-sacrifice for the sake of the Jewish people, stands squarely with God and the narrator on this issue. Esther, on the other hand, with her concern for her own interests, leans more toward the world view of Shushan. The reader wavers in the middle. At this point in the story, the reader has been supplied with very little guidance in determining the proper normative structure of the story. Both Mordechai and Esther are basically sympathetic characters, and the reader has no real basis on which to reject one or the other. Esther’s claims about self-preservation seem most feasible in a world in which Haman and his self-seeking world view are still in ascendancy. Furthermore, in making her argument to Mordechai, Esther attempts to reverse the informational axis, claiming that it is Mordechai who belongs on the far end of the spectrum. Esther appropriates for herself Mordechai’s personal verb of “yada,” explaining to him that all the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, do know, that whoever, whether man or woman, shall come to the king’s inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, namely, to be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live. But I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days (4:11).
Esther claims that it is Mordechai who is the naive one, making unreasonable demands of her. Mordechai’s response sets matters straight, collapsing both the normative and the informational axes into single points. He tells Esther, “Do not think to yourself that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance shall arise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house shall perish. And who knows if it was for a time like this that you came to the throne (4: 13-14). In one of the most dramatic lines in the entire book, Mordechai reveals to Esther and to the reader the hand of Providence. Mordechai’s discussion of “relief and deliverance . . . from another quarter” is certainly a veiled reference to God’s working behind the scenes of history.33 Mordechai’s confidence that, one way or another, the Jews will be saved, can best be explained through his belief in divine providence. Mordechai believes that no matter what individual people plan or intend, God will arrange events so that things work out according to His desires. God will save His people in the end. The Jews are responsible to have faith in God and must attempt to become part of the divine plan by doing everything in their power. If a Jew fails to identify with his people and does not help to move the divine plan forward, he faces divine retribution. It is most significant that at the end of the speech, Mordechai uses his favorite verb of “yada” in order to admit his own ignorance. “Who knows (mi yode’a) if it was for a time like this that you came to the throne,” he says. Even Mordechai does not know all the details of God’s workings. He recognizes his own place along the informational axis and acts accordingly.
Having been shifted up the informational axis to Mordechai’s position, Esther loses no time in making a similar ideological move from Ahausuerus’s harem to Mordechai’s house. She takes the initiative in planning her approach to Ahausuerus to plead for her people’s existence. She orders all the Jews to fast (and presumably pray) for her in preparation for her dangerous mission and boldly takes on whatever risks it may entail, telling Mordechai that “if I perish, I perish” (4:16). The significance of the shift that occurs with Mordechai’s speech should not be underestimated. Mordechai forces us to radically reinterpret the story. This is because the first chapters of Esther make a sharp break with the conventions of Biblical narrative. As Sternberg explains, most biblical narratives make use of various methods of prospection to clue the reader in as to how the story will end. One of the most common prospective devices in the Bible is historical precedent.34 The reader recognizes various schemes from other biblical stories and knows that the narrative he is reading must follow a similar pattern. One of the most common patterns which is found with some variation throughout the Bible is the Sin-> Call to Repentance/Warning of Divine Retribution-> Punishment-> Repentance-> Redemption cycle. In the Book of Esther, this cycle is seriously disrupted. The Jews face punishment not only without any prophetic warning, but without any sin having been reported by the narrator which would justify the Jews’ fate.35 The moral economy in which sin is equated with punishment and thus repentance with redemption is never established. This unfamiliar situation offers the biblical reader no reassurance that the Jews’ perilous situation will be alleviated.
The readers’ expectations of a comic ending are reinforced in almost every other biblical narrative by the fact that these stories anchor themselves in Jewish history. Often, this is accomplished merely by the fact that the story is placed among the other narratives in the continuing saga of the Jewish people, which is the case for all of the stories from Genesis through Kings. In other cases, the book will open with some historical reference, allowing the reader to place it in relation to the time line set up in the major narrative segment of the Bible. This is the case in Ezra, Ruth and practically all of the later prophets. The reader is thus reassured from the outset that in this new story as well, God’s guiding hand will protect the Jews as it has throughout Jewish history. Esther, in contrast, opens only with a historical reference to the Persian kings, “And it came to pass in the days of Ahausuerus. . . .” The Jews are not even mentioned until the middle of the second chapter. When they are introduced, they appear not as a nation, but as a pair of individuals. The only reference to Jewish history is to the fact that Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews from their homeland.
For the first time since the exile in Egypt, the entire Jewish people is threatened with total destruction, and this time, there does not seem to be any justification for this threat nor any assurance that it will not be realized in full. In the first chapters of Esther, the possibility is opened up that this story will not follow previous biblical narratives to a favorable conclusion for the Jews. Perhaps the Jews, having been exiled for their sins, no longer enjoy any special providence. Perhaps the Jews are now subject to the historical and political forces that the Hamans of this world are so adept at manipulating. In his speech to Esther, Mordechai refutes this possibility, telling us that we must read the book of Esther like a biblical book. We can assume that everything will turn out all right for the Jews in the end. The suspense lies not in whether or not God will save the Jewish people, but in how He will do it and in whether individual Jews will live up to their responsibilities or fail and be punished.
The central theological doctrine of the Book of Esther might thus be summed up by the verse from Proverbs: “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21). Even the most carefully laid plans cannot counteract the will of God. Any attempt to destroy the Jews must fail because it is not in accordance with the divine plan. Since this idea involves a frustration of expectations, it is itself ironic.
This ironic theology is confirmed by what is perhaps the most obvious ironic element in the entire book, the overall structure of reversal that pervades the plot. Not only are Haman’s plans foiled, but they result in an outcome that is the exact opposite of what he intended. For example, Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had erected to hang Mordechai. This ironic structure is the only irony in the book which is explicitly pointed out by the narrator. It is thus the sole example in the book of what Meucke calls “overt irony,” in which the irony is explicitly asserted by the narrator or some other reader. In 9:1, we are told that “Now, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, when the king’s word and his law were due to be carried out—on the very day when the enemies had expected to gain control over them, whereas things were to be turned about in that the Jews would gain control of their enemies.”
Later we are told of how the Jews would celebrate “the month that turned about for them—from misery to merriment, from mourning to holiday” (9:22). Even if the reader has missed many of the more subtle ironies in the book, he cannot fail to see this crucial irony.
Reinforcing this theme of reversal of fortune are numerous linguistic parallels between the various expectations set up in the first half of the book and their reversal in the second half. These parallels have been dealt with extensively by Fox, Berg and others, and there is little point in reproducing their work. We will cite here only one of the striking examples of this phenomenon as it is brought by Fox. The chart on the facing page presents the similarities between Haman’s decree to destroy the Jews and Mordechai’s decree to save them.
An examination of the text of Mordechai’s decree will reveal the return of the all-inclusive language that we noted earlier. However, in this case, the grand decrees disseminated by that fantastic messenger system appear in a very different light than they did previously. Now that Mordechai, instead of Ahausuerus or Haman, sits at the center, irony all but disappears from our story. This time the king’s law is not portrayed as silly. Neither does it at first appear terrifyingly evil, only to later prove to be a paper tiger. For the first time, this all-inclusive language is used to portray the Persian empire with a straight face. The king’s laws, as issued by Mordechai, are just. They can and will be carried out in their entirety. This feeling of the potency of Mordechai and Esther’s decree is reinforced when the verses mandating the holiday of Purim are read in the synagogue on that day. As the congregation hears of the command: “These days are to be remembered and kept in each and every generation, each and every family, each and every province and each and every city . . .” (9:27), they are in fact fulfilling it, testifying to the decree’s force, thousands of years later, at times and in lands that Ahausuerus never imagined existed.
In a similar manner, the riches of Shushan are transformed from mere hollow trinkets into true symbols of majesty. The description of the royal clothes in which Mordechai appears at the end of book draws on many of the words used to describe the splendor of Ahausuerus palace in the opening scene. Compare, “And clothes of white, percaline and violet bound with cords of linen and purple . . . with couches adorned with gold . . .” (1: 6) with, “Then Mordechai went out from the king’s presence in royal clothing of violet and white, in a large golden turban and a cloak of linen and purple” (8:17).
This rehabilitation of Shushan extends even to the person of King Ahausuerus himself. In the final chapter of the book, it states,
And the king Ahausuerus placed a tax on the land and on the islands of the sea. And all the acts of his power and his might . . . these are all written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Media (10:1-2). At last, Ahausuerus acts like a great emperor, asserting his power over the entire world. Ahausuerus no longer gives things away as he has throughout the book. He now takes independent initiative to tax his people, in direct contrast to the tax break he gave to the empire in honor of Esther’s coronation (2:18). At this point in the story, there can be little doubt that we have arrived at the firm ground of reality, after reconstructing the book’s stable irony. With Mordechai in control, kings behave like kings, laws are just and effective, wealth is truly glorious and, most importantly, everything runs according to the divine plan.
Thus far we have followed the irony in the Book of Esther from the initial attack on Shushan and King Ahausuerus to the final reconstructing of a correct ideology and a real empire. However, there is one final irony that we must examine which will give us greater insight into the overall role of irony in the book. This irony involves the absence of God’s name from the Book of Esther. As we have already seen, there are certainly indirect references to divine providence in the book, such as Mordechai’s assurance to Esther that the Jews will be saved. Similarly, Esther’s command to the Jewish community to fast before she goes to the king obviously implies that the community should pray for her as well. However, God is never directly appealed to nor given credit for any of the events in the story.
While God is hardly present as an actual character in Esther, He reappears more prominently on another level of the book. If we are to read the Book of Esther as scripture, as both Mordechai as well as the canonizers of the Bible urge us to do, we must see God as the architect of all of the events in our story. As Kaufman has pointed out, this dual causality, in which events are the result both of natural causation as well as God’s hidden hand in history, operates in all biblical stories. However, in most biblical stories which lack overt miracles, the events portrayed are feasible enough to be explained by natural causality alone. The reader usually relies on some sort of divine revelation in order to understand how these occurrences fit into the divine plan. For example, the story of Absalom’s revolt in the second half of Second Samuel might very easily be understood in terms of the politics of David’s court, which probably resembled the intrigues found in many other ancient Near Eastern kingdoms. It is only Nathan’s prophecy to David, “Thus sayeth the Lord, behold I will raise up evil against thee out of thy own house, and I will take thy wives from before thy eyes, and give them to thy neighbor, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of the sun” (II Sam. 12:11),that informs the reader that Absalom’s revolt and his taking of David’s concubines must be read as divine retribution for David’s sin with Bath Sheba.
In Esther, however, God’s hand is hardly so hidden. The story is driven forward by a series of coincidences that defy credibility. These coincidences become more abundant and more fantastic as the story reaches its climax. First, Ahausuerus conveniently cannot sleep the night after the first party. Then, his servants just happen to read to him the account of how Mordechai foiled an assassination plot. Mordechai mysteriously has not been rewarded for his services. These coincidences continue until Harbona appears out of nowhere to tell Ahausuerus about the gallows Haman has erected to hang Mordechai and to suggest that this structure be used to execute Haman instead. As we have seen, Esther also contains a structure of reversal whose precision is remarkable. Normally, we might criticize such a story as contrived. In a secular story, one would certainly protest that the author has manipulated events to an unacceptable extent in order to make his story work out. In a scriptural work, however, this is perfectly acceptable. It simply reveals the hand of the great Author scripting history.
Notwithstanding all of this, we cannot fully support Clines’s contention that “there is nothing hidden or veiled about the causality of the events of the Esther story.” The fact remains that God is never directly given credit for anything that happens in the story. As Fox points out,
the author must be aware that readers will be expecting a statement that the Jews fasted and cried out to God (as we must imagine them doing), or a declaration of faith that deliverance is from the Lord (from who else?), or a report that the Jews gave thanks to God after the victory (what else could they do?) or an exhortation to thank God in future Purim celebrations (as Jews have always done). The frustration of these expectations must be purposive (p. 246).
This fact is made even more striking if we consider that the Masoretic Text of Esther is not the only version of the book in our possession. Even ignoring the major insertions, the Septuagint version of Esther mentions God on eight separate occasions, making it clear to the reader that it is the Almighty in whom the Jews place their trust and it is He who is directing the events of the story. Though it seems unlikely that the editors of MT actually excised all direct references to divinity from an earlier version of the book from which the Septuagint also emerged, the very existence of a relatively early text in which God’s name conveniently appears where we might expect it, drives home the fact that on one level or another, God’s name has been systematically suppressed from our version of the book.
The South American writer Jorge Luis Borges suggests that the systematic avoidance of a key word on the part of an author can in fact be a way of drawing attention to that word. In Borges’ story, “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” one of the characters discusses a ficticious Chinese work of the same name: “The Garden of the Forking Paths is an enormous guessing game, or parable in which the subject is time. The rules of the game forbid the use of the word itself. To eliminate a word completely, to refer to it by means of inept phrases and obvious paraphrases, is perhaps the best means of drawing attention to it (emphasis mine—m.s.) . . . I can state categorically that not once has the word time been used in the whole book.”
Though Borges’s idea may applicable in our case as well, this does not fully explain why the author of Esther chose such an unconventional means for drawing attention to God and His role in the story. Fox argues that God’s role in the story is meant to be indeterminate. He further theorizes that this carefully crafted indeterminacy is best explained as an attempt to convey uncertainty about God’s role in history. The author is not certain about God’s role in these events (are you?) and does not conceal that uncertainty (p. 247).
Fox is not far from the mark. He aptly reads the absence of God’s name as creating ambiguity about God’s role in the story. However, his claim that the irony in Esther is ultimately unstable is colored by his modern agnosticism and is not borne out by the text. There can be no doubt that the reader is meant to interpret the events of the story as directed by divine providence. This is Mordechai’s position, and, as we have seen, the author never does anything to undercut Mordechai or his opinions. The reason why the author attempts to hide God’s role in the story is not because he himself is unsure of it; rather, the author wishes to leave open the possibility that some inattentive or unbelieving reader might interpret these events as a product of chance or, as Haman and his folk would call it, fate. It is still possible to explain all of the events in our story as a phenomenal coincidence. This possibility is just highly unlikely. If God’s name appeared in our book even once, such a misreading would be made infinitely more difficult.
This interpretation of the absence of God’s name from Esther is consistent with the main themes of the book as we have explicated them. Just as Haman and Ahausuerus naively understand the world as operating according to principles other than divine providence, the author leaves a similar erroneous possibility open to the reader. The author leaves this opening in order to reinforce his theories about divine providence. In summing up the book of Esther, the Rabbis quote the verse in Deuteronomy (31:18) in which God warns that “I will surely hide my face from thee on that day.” The Book of Esther is set in a new, post-exilic world order in which God is no longer as present as He used to be. No longer can the Children of Israel depend on overt miracles to save them. Neither do they receive guidance from prophets who have direct access to the word of the Lord. Even Mordechai is not sure of the exact details of the divine plan. “Who knows if it was for a time like this that you came to the throne,” he tells Esther. The author of Esther wishes to assure us that this does not mean that God has completely withdrawn from Jewish history. The believer will continue to see the hand of Providence protecting His chosen people. As Mordechai asserts, the Jews can count on God to come through for them in the end, even if they now lack prophets who will tell them exactly what God plans to do. However, in this world of hester panim (God’s hidden face), God’s actions will no longer be obvious to all as they were even to the Egyptians at the Exodus.
It will always be possible for the scoffer to attribute any given event to chance or fate. The believer must have faith that God is with him.
We now see why irony is such an appropriate device for the Book of Esther. Irony is a covert form of expression. The author’s true intent is completely absent from the simple meaning of his words. Jonathan Culler has pointed out that “No sentence is ironic, per se.” In order for a statement to be ironic, it must be possible to read it in a non-ironic manner. Irony is, in this sense, an elitist form. The ironist creates a community of insiders who understand the real truth, leaving out others who continue to read only the surface meaning of the words or events that confront them. Irony is thus the perfect method for expressing the theology of the Book of Esther. The author believes that God’s workings in the world are hidden under the guise of “coincidence” and are revealed only to the believer. So too, the real meaning of the Book of Esther is hidden beneath a surface that appears to refute this meaning. Only an initiated reader can see that behind the portrayals of powerful kings and devious schemers, God’s all-powerful, benevolent hand works invisibly, executing justice and protecting His people.
*This article represents a revised version of a paper submitted to the department of comparative literature at Princeton University in April 1992 as part of my undergraduate independent work requirement. It is dedicated to the memory of my father, Dr. Harold Rosenbaum, z”l, and of my teacher, Baruch Berman, z”l, who died tragically during the period in which I wrote this paper. I would like to thank Professor Andrew H. Plaks, Mrs. Yehudit Fraenkel, Mrs. Naomi Goldstein, Mrs. Lisa Halpern, and Rabbi Shalom Carmy for reviewing the manuscript at various stages of its production.