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Does the Book of Esther belong in the Bible?

'Write my story down for the generations to come,' demanded Esther. But would the sages do it? (Historical fiction)
Illustrative. 'Mordecai Writing the First Purim Letter,' by Aert de Gelder, 1675. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. 'Mordecai Writing the First Purim Letter,' by Aert de Gelder, 1675. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you close your eyes, you can almost envision the scene. A group of aging men sit on benches around a wooden table that’s been smoothed by years of use and flecked with ink left behind by industrious scribes. They are men that have harvested the respect of their followers because of their age, and their scholarship, but mostly because of their ability to articulate a vision for the future, despite the cataclysmic changes they have beheld.

The small room is lit only by the sunlight streaming through the windows, and though the almond trees are beginning to blossom just outside, the mud floor retains moisture from the previous season, giving off a faint musty smell that, oddly enough, adds to the air of solemnity. They’ve been at it for weeks, and the olive pits piling up under their feet are witness to hours upon hours of lively debate generated by the scrolls spread out in front of them.

The men do not live in simple times. Varying sects, overlapping ideologies, and divergent conceptions of the interplay between the divine and human realms fuel debates that, from their perspective, bear definitive import. And so they argue, sometimes vociferously, about which literary compilations will come to define the outer-limits of their faith. They argue about which works are prophetic and which merely brilliant, which can be authentically attributed to heroes of the past, and which they need to concede are pseudepigraphical, which contain a monotheistic kernel despite their guise of Hellenistic literature, and which venture too far into suspect theological territory.

The sages marvel unanimously at the artistry of the Book of Jonah, but refuse calls to include the Book of Jashar. Some of the younger participants fidget uncomfortably as amorous sections of Solomon’s Song of Songs are read aloud, and several want it rejected, on the grounds that its message is obscured by its provocative imagery. They note which unflattering portraits of King David were amended by the Chronicler, and they slowly and painstakingly create order out of the Psalms. When the Book of Esther is posed, there’s a palpable shift in the mood of those gathered. Everyone knows that the work has already been censured among certain groups, and the reasons are fairly obvious to anyone who has taken the time to read the work in its original.

What a foreign composition! One contends. Biblical works aren’t gripped by aesthetics the way that Esther is. They certainly don’t encourage a culture of inebriation. Where is the austerity and restraint advocated in our wisdom literature? Susa is hardly Jerusalem!

 No one could contest the fact that the work, were it to be canonized, would be anomalous.

But it’s so popular, comes a jovial, but somewhat naïve voice from the side. Are we Jews above enjoying the satisfaction of some good court intrigue? A friend sitting to the left of the provocateur, knowing that his impudence will not be welcomed, elbows him ever so slightly, urging him to desist.

We are in the business of the sacrosanct, not popularity! An elder affiliate pounces, with infantilizing force.

The now-less jovial participant shrugs, and mutters something unintelligible about Herodotus under his breath.

One man, his finger adamantly tapping the parchment in front of him, has already made his decision. If you’re looking for an exilic Jew to emulate, then include the Book of Daniel, not Esther. Daniel and his companions never compromised one iota of Jewish law to survive in their foreign environment! Daniel maintained a strict vegan diet so as not to defile himself with the foods of the palace. He prayed towards Jerusalem and never missed an opportunity to proclaim God’s transcendence over the madness of paganism. And do you know what happened to Daniel? His rhetorical manner is verging on didactic, and some of his contemporaries are growing impatient. God saved Daniel from the fiery furnace and the lion’s den because the God that we believe in rewards righteousness! That God is absent in Esther’s adaptation of history. Did Mordechai, garbed in the colors of the high priests, utter one prayer up to heaven? And your heroine was unabashedly married to a gentile. A few nods of agreement prompt him to continue. How many devotees of the Hasmoneans chose to be put to the sword rather than eat swine? Esther’s participation at the king’s feasts stand in stark opposition to the notions of purity and impurity we have spent decades formulating. In promoting her tale, you trample, I’m afraid, on the memory of our true heroes.

He’s right, says another participant, and his lack of intensity is actually a relief. He walks over to the corner of the room and begins rummaging dramatically through the pile of leather satchels. Those who know him well wonder if the theatrics are premeditated, as attentions shift to his movements, and the volume of the discord gradually subsides. After a few short moments, he triumphantly unfurls a scroll filled with Greek writing and the words he reads aloud are simultaneously familiar and mollifying. The plot is the same, but the scroll he has brought back from his recent trip to Alexandria has supplemental material that alleviates some of their earlier misgivings. Bodies around the room slacken as his audience relaxes into portrayals of Mordechai and Esther as devout Jews, and perhaps most comforting, of their God engaged in history in providential ways

No. No changes. The words startle those captivated by the exotic manuscript, and they turn to locate the speaker. On one of the exterior benches sits a man who, until now, few have paid much attention. He isn’t charismatic like the other sages, but no one could deny his prodigious mind, and that is why he’s there. He rarely speaks, and when he does it’s almost hard to believe that such a tranquil sound could come from such a weather-beaten face. He is often seen walking slowly, alone, and one gets the sense, when watching from afar, that his shoulders are becoming increasingly heavy for him to be lugging around. There are stories whispered about him, in bathhouses and at market stalls, but no one knows which are true and which have been embellished in the time since he’s shown up in town. Some are caught off guard when he stands up and begins to speak. The Book of Esther, as it was written, offers Jews in Exile something no other work in this cache offers. 

Yeah, hedonism, someone chuckles. The speaker ignores the barb and continues.

The Book of Esther offers an alternate model — that may be less recognizable, but is no less vital. If we insert the name of God, and His interventions into the plot, we are suggesting that there is only one way for Jews to know Him. 

There is pushback, as there always is, when there is a perceived claim to authority on the topic of God. One of the more pedantic members of the group is the first react. Our system of belief is founded on the contention that God is involved in how history plays out. It is why our national story began with the splitting of the sea, and why we returned to our land after 70 years of exile. That historic figures and events are marionettes in God’s plan for humanity is one of the pillars of our creed. To exclude God from any narrative is tantamount to denying His very existence.

The speaker nods, accepting that his words will discomfit, but he persists. By including Esther, we don’t run the risk of writing God out of history. They won’t allow for that, he gestures to the books indisputably accepted by now as part of the canon. But by excluding Esther, we are insisting that the only experience of God is the one we have in the books approved thus far. He turns to the individual who just moments ago had advocated for the Book of Daniel. What about the Jews, he asks slowly, who watch the righteous you speak of being thrown into furnaces, never to return? What about the Jews who experience the excruciating betrayal of being turned against by their host country, overnight, becoming objects of unbridled hatred and violence? When virtuous people who believe in Daniel’s God are devoured by the ferocious lions of history, what then? What precedent do we offer those who look for God, even as He remains hidden from view? He lets his barrage of questions penetrate. We give them Esther. 

You make Esther sound like the Book of Job. A cynic chides from the side. Those sitting close enough to the speaker notice something flash in his eyes at the mention of Job’s name. Without turning to identify the detractor, the speaker responds. Job knew pain. He pauses, reflecting. But it wasn’t the same. Job struggled to understand the ways of God, but God’s presence alone provided a solace the Jews of Susa never knew. They were offered no such consolation. The Book of Esther doesn’t include the name of God, and it keeps us searching for Him at every turn. We search in the selection of Esther as queen that in retrospect feels pre-ordained, in the perfectly timed insomnia of the king, and in the literary cues that point to eye-for-an-eye punishment of our enemies. We imagine God just behind the curtains, when Esther’s fasting seems to soften the heart of her tempestuous husband, and we almost see God planting Harvona at the perfect moment in time to recommend Haman’s impalement. The author dangles God in front of us, tempting us to find Him, all the while maintaining His obscurity. The power of Esther lies in the very style you object to. It acknowledges the agony of the unrequited search, as it prods us to keep looking. Perspective, after all, is a choice we make.

The man who had spoken up earlier about court intrigue interjects once again, this time with the slightest modicum of humility. He has been perusing the scroll as the speaker presented his case, and he is shaking his head in dissent. You speak of anguish, but I read these words and I laugh. He reads aloud the scene depicting Mordechai in full regalia being pulled through the streets, and those listening, while still undecided as to where they stand in the current debate, cannot help but smile. He reads about Haman stumbling onto Esther’s couch, sealing the pretext of his death, and he challenges those present to deny its hilarity. He lays the scroll down, and goes on to list the comedy of outrageous errors that led the bumbling king to hand his signet ring over to Mordechai. And if we’re already speaking of the king, he considers for a moment, and exhales sharply, knowing that there is no coming back from the line he is about to cross. This is a story about kings and courtiers, but it is the women, even Haman’s wife, who prove wiser than the men they were commanded to honor. When Vashti refused to be objectified, she was deposed, and a pageant was held to find a more obsequious wife. Tell me you don’t laugh when that “docile” replacement ends up, for all intents and purposes, ruling the empire.

The speaker is charmed by the audacity of his contender, and the outer corners of his lips curl into a half grin. He waits for the commotion to settle, and then addresses what has just been vocalized. Of course you laugh, he validates. The author of Esther wants us to laugh. Laughter is humanity’s greatest safety valve, and when Jews are loathed and vulnerable, revenge fantasies provide us with a catharsis no lamentation ever could. Laughter is not the opposite of pain; it is an escape from it, and the Jewish ability to laugh is at the root of our resilience.

There’s a stillness in the room. People look down at their sandals. All due respect, comes a reticent, younger voice, and it is clear from his tone that he is grappling with the implications of what he has just absorbed. His eyes are squeezed shut and he is rubbing the furrow between his brows. There is a piece, that for him, has not yet fallen into place. What of the criteria we have outlined? We have spent so much time pouring over these works and contesting their relative imports, but what we have been looking for all along, beneath the layers of history and narrative, are the philosophies and doctrines unique to our religion. We have been including only those works that inspire through their inherent truths. Other than the catharsis you speak of, where is the lesson in this scroll? What is its teaching?

The teaching, the speaker broadening his gaze now, taking in the expanse of the room, is right here. The teaching this time is not about what God does for us, but what we do for each other. The teaching is in Mordechai’s insistence on his proximity to power so that, if and when necessary, he could partake in the game of politics. The teaching is in Esther’s begging the king to save the lives of her people, knowing full well that, in doing so, she was risking her own. The teaching is embedded in what our heroes understood — that if you thrive as an individual but remain callous to the needs of the community, then you haven’t truly lived as a Jew. That if you safeguard your own fate, but disregard the fate of your people, then you may live, at one point in time, but you will not endure on the continuum of Jewish history.

The speaker scans the room a second time. He sees that a new understanding is beginning to pervade. His shoulders straighten ever so slightly. He accepts that his role is to share from what he learns, where pain and reverent living collide.

The young man who had posed the question is riveted, and, without realizing that he is thinking out loud, follows the train of thought to its logical conclusion. So that is why we celebrate. The speaker nodding his head, concurs. That is why we celebrate. And when he continues speaking, it is with a newfound vibrancy. We celebrate through laughter on Purim because we won. But as we read through the story, we also know that there will always be more Hamans, and there will always be another Persia. And so, we hold on tightly to each other the way the Jews of Susa did. We fast for each other, we promote each other, we defend each other, and most importantly, we celebrate each other. We celebrate with festive meals, and gifts to the poor, and baskets of food for people who live among us — who live our story. We celebrate the courageous Esthers and the dedicated Mordechais in our midst. We celebrate on Purim so that, from a young age, our children know that, while they may not witness miracles that defy nature, their very existence bears witness to the survival of a people that defies logic.

Minds had been swayed. Souls had been stirred. The room was silent.

Kitvuni Le-Dorot, Esther demanded. Write me down for the ages. So they did.

Illuminated Esther Scroll Manuscript; ink and pigment on parchment from Ferrara, Italy, circa 1615. (Ardon Bar-Hama)

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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