>Our community of Jews here in Shushan, Persia, has just had the pleasure of reading the newly written account of events that occurred last year, in 350 BCE, in our capital city and in surrounding towns in the kingdom of Ahasuerus: How an evil man, Haman, rose up against us and with the help of Mordecai and Queen Esther we were able to defeat him and all our enemies and make merry on the great day which we now call Purim.
This wonderful scroll, megillah in Hebrew, or the Book of Esther, has circulated widely and I now offer you my view of this wonderful narrative.
The Book of Esther is an outstanding example of storytelling and surely will find a place in every Jewish household. This tale contains all the timeless literary devices which we Persian Jews love so much: a well-made plot; conflict and suspense; dramatic irony; believable characters; foreshadowing; and a harmonious structure.
At the opening royal feast we meet Ahasuerus, the mighty king of Persia, and see how hastily he disposes of his wife, Queen Vashti, when she disobeys him, foreshadowing the similar dispatch with which he later orders the Jews condemned to death.
Our king does not enjoy being lonely, so he must have a queen. (At this point I must modestly say that I gave him the suggestion for a beauty contest.) Once it is announced our lovely Esther – advised by her uncle and guardian, Mordecai, not to reveal her Jewishness – wins and marries the monarch. Soon – at the end of Chapter Two – Mordecai, a minor court official, unearths an assassination plot against the king. Instead of informing Ahasuerus directly, Mordecai instructs Esther to bring the news. Thus both Mordecai and Esther can win favor with the ruler. Mordecai’s discovery, inscribed in the king’s Book of Chronicles, is pertinent to the story’s development.
The main protagonists – the foolish king, the lovely Esther, the wise Mordecai – have made their appearances. Now, for conflict and tension – enter the villain, Haman, in Chapter Three. Everyone must bow to him, but Mordecai refuses. When Haman realizes that Mordecai does not bow because he is a Jew, he plans to destroy all the Jews. Lots – Purim in Hebrew – are cast, and the pre-spring month of Adar is chosen.
To vent his hatred against one recalcitrant Jew, why should Haman want to kill all the Jews? But since earlier in the story one woman’s action prompted a law for all women, a precedent has been set for mass retaliation for an individual’s misdemeanor.
Since the insubordinate Mordecai is Jewish, Haman infers that the entire Jewish people are disobedient and moreover, their “laws are diverse” (3: 8). Haman persuades the king by promising lots of silver to the royal treasury – booty from the slain Jews.
The chapter concludes: “The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed…” (3:15)-a hint that people in our great city realize that a wrong had been committed against the Jews.
In contrast to the opening moods of revelry, Chapter Four begins with mourning and pathos. Mordecai tells Esther of the coming disaster and asks her to intercede. Fearing for her own life, she hesitates, for she knows no one may come before the king uninvited, on pain of death. Mordecai counters that the fate of Esther and the Jews are one. If she remains silent now, salvation will come from elsewhere; perhaps it is for this very reason Esther has been made queen.
Esther asks the Jews in Shushan to fast for three days, after which she will go to the king. Here, at midpoint of the story (5:2), when Esther is before the king, the reversal starts; the heroes rise, and the villain Haman’s fall commences.
But Esther does not state her request immediately. That evening she prepares a banquet for the king, Haman, and herself. She postpones her appeal until the following day, when all three will dine again. This artful postponement adds suspense and permits the inclusion of yet another crucial strand to the story.
After Esther’s invitation we read that Haman was happy (5:9) – a wonderful bit of dramatic irony, for the villain does not suspect that his downfall is imminent. (Interestingly, each of the male protagonists has a woman involved with plot movement: King Ahasuerus has Vashti, Mordecai has Esther, and Haman has Zeresh.) Haman takes his wife’s suggestion to prepare a high gallows for Mordecai.
The craft of good narrative demands that some strands that later intersect should at first be left dangling. Three appear at the beginning of Chapter Six: Can Esther save the Jews at the banquet? Will Haman hang Mordecai? Has Mordecai’s service to the king been forgotten?
The writer picks up strand number three. A few hours after having dined with Esther, the insomniac king calls for the Book of Chronicles and realizes that Mordecai has not been rewarded adequately for saving his life. The king asks who is in the court. Fortunately, it is Haman, about to request that Mordecai be hanged for treason. At this moment, the villain and hero are at delicious cross-purposes.
The king asks Haman how to bestow honors upon a deserving man. The vain Haman, assuming he’s being considered, suggests something grand: that man should ride royally clad on horseback, throughout Sushan, while all praise him. Then do so to Mordecai, the king tells Haman. And Haman, so high-spirited the previous day, hastens home in mourning (6:12).
Now Zeresh changes her mind. Since Mordecai is a Jew, she tells Haman, you don’t have a ghost of a chance. At once the king’s messenger enters and hastens Haman to Esther’s second banquet.
Note that this little section begins with Haman hastening home (6:12), and concludes with his being hastened away. Another example of the story’s irony are these carefully chosen words, a tongue-in-cheek parallel to the speed with which the couriers “hastened” (3:15) to spread the edict for the Jews destruction.
At the second banquet, Esther petitions for the lives of her people. The king asks: Who is the perpetrator of the crime? Esther points to Haman. Ahasuerus, enraged, leaves. Haman falls on Esther’s couch to beg for mercy. When the king returns, he assumes Haman is attacking the queen. Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai.
At the close of the narrative the villain has been destroyed, but the evil he has set into motion must be stopped. But Persian law states that a royal edict cannot be recalled. The most the king can do is to give the Jews the right of self-defense. Again, the couriers hasten to deliver the news.
Haste and speed are elements in the latter part of this tale. During the first half of the Book of Esther time moves at a leisurely pace. The beginning is either measured in months – the 180-day banquet, the 12 months of purification during the beauty contest- or indefinite time gaps. Gradually, however, time becomes compressed. When Esther decides to go to the king, time is measured by days. From then events follow not by the day, but by the hour. Action occurs swiftly around the clock.
Afternoon: Esther before the king.
Evening: the first banquet.
Night: The king’s insomnia.
Middle of the night: Haman in the king’s chamber
Morning: Honoring of Mordecai.
Noontime: The crucial second banquet.
Afternoon: Haman’s demise; the new edict in favor of the Jews; Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man.
Ironic reversal is a favorite literacy device of the author. Haman comes up to bury Mordecai, not to praise him, yet ends up honoring, not hanging him. The very gallows prepared for Mordecai are used to hang Haman; the Jew’s day of doom turns into a day of joy. Whereas before (3: 15) ” Shushan was perplexed,” now our city “Shushan rejoiced.”
In Chapter Nine the story ends. The Jews defend themselves and are victorious. An epilogue is appended to the end of the tale. Purim is established as a holiday for all time, a day “of fasting and joy, and of sending portions to another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22).
In our story all the characters act of their own volition. Inner human drives move them. Unlike other biblical stories, there is no deus ex machina. Not only is God not mentioned in the Book of Esther, which is the only book in the Bible without the word “God,” there is no hint of any supernatural force.
The book opens with feasting and joy in Sushan and in the palace; it concludes with feasting and joy for the Jews of the realm. Upon this artistically harmonious note concludes the Book of Esther, one of the most perfect narratives in the Bible.
As a child Curt Leviant spoke ancient Persian fluently. Today he can barely say hello. He is the author/editor of some thirty books, including seven novels. His most recent books is the story collection “Zix Zexy Ztories.”