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Purim, Puppet Masters, and Politics

First Published JCF Newsletter March 2017

 By SHARON ALLEY

Purim is in the air here in Israel, with its costumes and confections, and our attention turns again to reading the Esther scroll. There is an inherent irony in these celebrations—on the one hand, you have a carnival like celebration, which in many ways seems suited to this wild and crazy story, on the other hand you're dealing with serious issues like genocide. How do attempted annihilation and silly costumes and wine parties go together?

A key to understanding the Esther scroll is understanding irony. God has a supreme sense of justice, as well as a supreme sense of humor, and, occasionally, those two are combined. A sense of humor does not contradict serious subjects. Rather, it often helps us see things clearer, or get a new perspective on truth.  And the Bible, like creation itself, was meant to be enjoyed.

The scroll of Esther is uncompromising in its artistry, and is saturated in ironies, so that what appears, on the surface, to be the case, differs radically from what is actually the case. We laugh at the burlesque, when the serious is treated flippantly, or the mundane is catapulted to significance. Like good literature, the story of Esther begs us to read between the lines. Besides amusing us, irony is actually trying to teach us. “It exposes falsehood and stupidity, recognizes foolishness and pretense.  It mocks those who think they are something when they are actually nothing.”[1]

Nowhere does the author of Esther state that the Persian king is incompetent. In fact, every mention of Persian law speaks of its power and irrevocability. Yet, the actual portrayal of the king shows that these literally positive statements are meant ironically. By repeating the reputation of the law, and then imitating the foolish king, who can’t seem to remember any of the laws he passes, the author succeeds in making fun of them both.

This is emphasized in Est 8:8, “Any decree that is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring cannot be rescinded.”  The author includes this note to remind the reader of the law’s irrevocability at the exact point when Haman’s previous law is being reversed by the newly written law.

Another example of a reversed Persian law is found in Est 1:20. The intent of the law is to make all women honor and obey their husbands.  In the story, however, the wives are the ones who give advice which the husbands obey. Esther requests her two banquets, the sparing of her people, an extra day of reprieve for the Jews, and the hanging of Haman’s ten sons on the gallows, all of which the King obeys. Zeresh, Haman’s wife, along with his friends, advises Haman to build the gallows, which Haman does, and predicts his ultimate downfall. The theme of the book shows how the supposedly unchangeable Persian law is changed, and moreover, largely by a young, foreign woman.

The author makes use of both physical and abstract risings and fallings. In Est 3:5, Haman is maddened that Mordechai doesn’t bow down to him.  In Est 5:9, all of a sudden Haman is upset that Mordechai doesn’t stand up when he walks by.  When Haman tells his wife and friends of his wish for Mordechai to bow before him, they predict the reverse, calling Mordechai the start of Haman’s downfall, and foreseeing that Haman shall surely fall before him. In Est 9:2, no one could stand before the Jews, because their fear fell on all the people. There is playful shifting between standing and falling images. 

Haman builds gallows in an attempt to hang[2] Mordechai up in a shameful death. Instead, Mordechai is raised in honor to the position of second to the King, and Haman is hung in shame on those same gallows.  Haman had aspired to rise to extreme heights, politically, but ironically, his only exultation was on exaggeratedly high gallows.[3]  

This up-down motif is reminiscent of Exodus 17:8-13, which tells the story how the whole victory of the Israelites depended on whether Moses’ arms were up or down.  After some vacillation, Moses’ reinforced arms are held high and the victory is Israel’s.  This war story also contains a sense of burlesque, in that the fate of nations is pictured as an orchestra attending to the waft of the conductor’s wand.  It is significant that the enemy in Exodus are the Amalekites, who are the ancestors of Haman.[4]

Of all the books in the Bible, God is never mentioned in the scroll of Esther.[5]  As we have noted, the scroll of Esther has intentionally crafted a theme of standing and falling.  Whether this “up-and-down” motif is used figuratively, or in concrete image, it aptly fits on the stage of a grand puppet theatre.  It points to a hidden hand pulling strings—a Puppeteer directing events behind the apparent vacillating scenes of chaos.  He is above all the political maneuverings, the “irrevocable” laws, and people’s petty abilities.  Even in our world where conspiracy is suspected in every political statement and government action, the scroll of Esther emphatically affirms the sovereignty of God by, ironically, not saying it. 


[1] Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.  Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981, p. 24

[2] Or, more likely, impale, which gives an even clearer picture of lifting up.

[3] 75 feet=23 meters

[4] According to the writer of Esther, Haman is an Agagite (Est 3:1).  Agag was the king of the Amalakites whom King Saul defeated (1 Sam. 15:8).

[5] And probably Song of Songs as well. See the critical notes on the Song of Songs 8:6. For example, see here