October 17, 2019

Haman’s fall: Diaspora dreams in the Biblical Book of Esther

Even if you’re a serious student of the Bible, you might not know what the Book of Esther is doing there, in the Bible. Don’t worry though, nobody else knows either. Although it tells of near-tragedy, it is written melodramatically, almost as a farce; and it is very hard to read with a straight face. It tells how the exiled Jewish people that had been living peacefully in the Persian Empire were saved by Queen Esther from a genocidal plot designed by an evil minister named Haman. The story and its style are altogether out of keeping with the other texts canonized as the Bible. In fact, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther even once.

We want to suggest two ways of reading Esther that may help explain its awkwardness and make it more palatable. One focuses on its message, the other on its medium. Before tampering with the book’s message, it should be noted that it forms part of a section of the Scriptures known as the “five scrolls,” the other scrolls being the Books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. There appears to be a common denominator to these books, aside from their being very short:  each of them has a special interest in Diaspora. Together they seem designed to raise questions about the appropriate response to living in the Diaspora.

Diasporas pose the dilemma of relating, at one and the same time, to an often hostile “host” society and to the collective memory of a homeland. The Five Scrolls—separately and together—are an invitation to consider that delicate balance. They offer four generic responses: Return, Remain, Revenge and Take-Over (or Rule).  We call them Diaspora Dreams. One is the desire to return to one’s homeland. A second is the wish to remain in the Diaspora. The third is a determination to take revenge on usurpers of the homeland, or oppressors abroad. The fourth is the ambition to take over, or rule, the place where one finds oneself.

Of the Five Scrolls, Esther fascinates most because it provides particular insight into diasporic Dreams. It contains three of the four dreams, Remain, Revenge, Take-over—completely leaving out the most obvious Diaspora dream: Return. Unquestionably, Remain is the predominant Dream in Esther, along with Revenge and Take-over. It is not hard to guess why stories of defamation, dire threat, and its reversal should appeal to Diaspora Jewish communities. It’s a fantasy of deliverance without—or maybe with—the assistance of a miracle.

Living under a King’s protection has been a pattern of the Jewish Diaspora for centuries and so the story fits all too well. Over the years, there is a long list of tyrants who qualify for the part of Haman. Not all of them begin with the letter H, and not all of them preside over Persia. Some do. But all are doomed to fall. More broadly, Esther’s message is that normalcy, even if abnormally achieved, is a worthy dream.

Yet as noted above, Esther’s narrative and style is anything but normal, at least by biblical standards. Unlike others of the canonic texts, it celebrates its heroes and its villains in carnavalesque style, and sets the mood for the fun and games and occasional debauchery which mark the Purim holiday.  Indeed, the Esther story has been continually performed as a play (purim spiel) in European Jewish history.

In this spirit, we noticed that the verb “to fall” appears in the text, both literally and metaphorically, with seemingly exaggerated frequency, as if to call attention to a hidden message. The preponderance of “Falling” and “bowing” prompted us to search for other gestural or postural verbs in the text, and thus we found numerous other verbs such as “to rise,” “to sit,” “to mount.” Along with “fall,” these other jerky movements—bowing, prostrating, standing, mounting (a horse)—activate the text, giving the Book a vaudevillesque quality. That, in turn, led us to consider another wild possibility, namely, that the Book was originally performed as a puppet play, in which jerky up-and-down movements on the vertical axis are the dominant pattern.

This possibly preposterous suggestion would explain why Esther is so different in its literary style from the other books of Bible—an observation posed on top—and so fitting to be performed as a Purim Spiel. For it was integrated into the bible as the script of puppet show or a play—not of the dreams of a prophet or the musings of a sage.

But extending the notion of Esther as puppet show may also explain a crucial component of the meaning of Diaspora and the nature of its dreams. God, we noted on top, is conspicuously absent from the book of Esther. But should the story of Esther indeed be the script of a puppet show, that absence would actually be an overwhelming behind-the-scene presence: God would be the puppeteer.

In biblical thought, God dwells in his city, in his temple. With the exile of his people from that Temple and city, God too, in kabalistic thought, goes into exile. Once the Jews are in Diaspora, God is no longer present in the material world, and the “shchina” goes into exile (“gallut ha-shchina”). The deity of the Diaspora is the puppeteer pulling the strings, but never visible. The Diaspora dream of Remain is expecting God to bring redemption from behind, or rather above, the lively scene.