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Folklore in the Book of Esther

The biblical story of Esther, like the Jewish festival of Purim that celebrates it, epitomizes the phrase “over the top.”

Children of migrant workers wear costumes as they celebrate Purim in south Tel Aviv.

The biblical story of Esther, like the Jewish festival of Purim that celebrates it, epitomizes the phrase “over the top.” The language of the tale is hyperbolic, richly descriptive, and densely repetitive. For example, the couches in the palace are said to be “of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother of pearl, and colored stones” (Esth 1:6). The Jews are to be “destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated” (Esth 7:4). Similarly, characters are drawn in extremes. Esther, the heroine queen, is the most beautiful and courageous of women, and her cousin, the hero Mordecai, is the most noble and wise. Haman, the villain, is the most evil, and Ahasuerus, the Persian king who controls the lives of Jews in his vast empire, is the most incompetent and stupid of rulers. The plot is shaped by intense antagonism and aggression, including a threat to the king’s life, a rivalry to the death between Haman and Mordecai, and a related threat to the very existence of the Jewish people, whom Haman defames as rebel citizens.

In many ways, these narrative features are reminiscent of themes in a range of international folklore: the rise of the unlikely hero; the wise wife who positively influences her foolish husband; the battle between good and evil; miraculous escape. The book of Esther is also intensely political and ethnic, jingoistic and identity-reinforcing literature. The narrative is a means of self-assertion and self-justification, a product of the fifth century BCE, when the political realities of the Jewish people involved marginalization and lack of self-determination. Thus the wise and good characters, Esther and Mordecai, are Jewish, whereas the foolish, unwise and/or evil ones, Haman and Ahasuerus, are non-Jewish. The adoptive parent is not evil, as in the story of Cinderella, nor is the suitor a savior, as one might expect in comparable tales. Traditional folklore patterns have been skewed to serve the message. Esther is about the human capacity to influence reality through the exercise of wisdom advised in Proverbs: listening closely and surreptitiously, achieving influence among the powerful, pleasing the king, and approaching life’s challenges with the moral orientation suggested by the phrase “fear of God”—even in a work that does not mention the deity.

Ultimately, Esther is about reversals of fortune, and so is the holiday of Purim, established at the end of the story. Purim celebrates the day when the Jews, faithful citizens of the Persian Empire, defended and saved themselves from destruction. Traditionally, the holiday is a time of drinking, wearing costumes, play-acting, and gift-giving—a time to celebrate by escaping workaday realities, in part, by assuming an alternate identity. In contemporary America, Purim is a time to reflect on women’s roles in Judaism: for some, Esther serves as a model of courage, whereas for others she is rejected as a model of passivity or collaboration with oppression. Despite the narrative’s archetypal characters and plots, Esther proves to be a thoroughly modern work, relevant to contemporary issues in feminism, colonialism, ethnicity, and survival. There is always a new Haman on the horizon.

  • Susan Niditch

    Susan Niditch has taught at Amherst since 1978 where she is the Samuel Green Professor of Religion. Her research interests include the study of ancient Israelite literature from the perspectives of folklore and oral studies; biblical ethics with special interests in war, gender, and the body; the reception history of the Bible; and study of the rich symbolic media of biblical ritual texts. Recent publications include: Judges: A Commentary and ‘My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man’: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel. Her new project deals with personal religion and self-representation in late biblical literature.