We don’t need to spill more ink or exercise more electrons on insisting that God’s absence is really presence. We don’t need to find God in order to justify the time we spend on this book, or on the hilarious holiday that makes it required reading.
Instead, we could delve into a text that is so cleverly designed, so beautifully comic, and so deeply meaningful (without God’s presence) that there is plenty of reason to love it, no matter where we find ourselves on the continuum we call history.
This book is edgy, funny, and truthful. Read it carefully and you will have to rethink who you are. Jewish or not.
Let us imagine reading Esther as one would read Lysistrata.
If we did, we’d have a very good laugh at all the sex in the story. The king, presumably the royal manifestation of virility, can’t say no to anything. Ahaseurus is everyone’s fool. Or tool.
His own is symbolic, and ribaldly so, a golden scepter that he publicly extends. Esther saves her own life by touching its tip (5:2).
Haman has a bigger one, in a manner of speaking. Consider the stake Haman sets up to peg Mordecai upon, one he erects on the advice of his wife, Zeresh (5:14). It’s a very large stake, some seven stories high. (What was she dreaming of, nights?)
Real power is handed over to Haman, and after Haman’s downfall, Esther. Mordecai wins the jackpot in the final chapter. Of course that chapter is a later addition, probably because some ancient Jewish dudes didn’t like the idea of ending the book with a woman holding all the cards. Too bad, since much of the book is all about women holding all the cards.
Then there’s the drinking and the feasting and the drinking.
The killing, too.
To our shock, it would seem that the Jews go on a killing spree in Chapter 9 (though many commentaries insist that the first episode had to be defensive in nature). Esther, our heroine, asks permission for the killing to continue. From a death toll of 510, the story tells us, we advance to one just under one hundred and fifty times higher; by the end of the second day the Jews have killed 75,810 Persians.
Of course, this text is not a history. Of course, this text is a burlesque. Literary conventions as old as writing itself tell stories of the impotent becoming omnipotent. The comedy is cathartic, obviously over the top, clearly part and parcel with the genre: Exaggeration and hyperbole are integral to carnival. The hyperbole in Esther begins in its first verses – in a revelry that lasts six drunken months.
Still, the audience must feel some discomfort. No wonder we would rather ignore the sex, the drugs (alcohol), and the violence in favor of twisting and turning the text to find God somewhere, anywhere. The text uses the word “king” multitudinous times? It must be referring to the real king, the King Above. The name “Esther” comes from a Hebrew root, or “shoresh” that suggests hiddenness – the very name of the book suggests God’s hidden presence!
What if Esther is simply confronting us with the hard reality? Human beings are capable of anything, no matter who they are. Jews can become aggressors, while Persians are, for fear, “Jewing” (8:16). Jews are behaving like Persians and Persians are behaving like Jews. We can all know what it is to feel impotent. We can all be dishonorable, drunken, and loutish.
We could all even kill.
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
Irony, like comedy, demands that we abandon every category. Everything we think we know about the Other and ourselves must be discarded if we are to learn from our laughter (and our tears).
Maybe the lesson we need in what it means to be human should come from other humans, not God. Maybe God wouldn’t find us so very funny.