Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review
Adele Berlin, JPS Torah Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia, PA.: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), Pp. lix, 110. ISBN 0-8276-0699-0.
Adele Berlin is well known for her numerous and valuable contributions to biblical studies, especially in the field of literary criticism. In this work, the latest addition to the Jewish Publication Society's commentary series, Berlin turns her attention to the Book of Esther, and here too she rewards the reader with many productive and original insights.
As one might expect, Berlin's commentary attempts to convey the literary sophistication of the book of Esther. Thus, Berlin judiciously points out a number of structural and stylistic features in Esther including a use of frame narratives (e.g., banquets begins and end the story), an extensive use of the passive voice, exaggerated and lavish expressions of totality, numerous dyadic expressions, ironic reversals, key words, the employment of Persian words, plot delays as suspense builders, and a general sparseness of dialogue.
Berlin argues that we should understand these stylistic features collectively as fundamental elements of comedy. According to Berlin, the Book of Esther is a burlesque and fictional farce that functions not to critique (i.e., satire), but to provoke laughter. Thus, Berlin's commentary contributes to a growing body of works that emphasize the Bible's humorous elements.(1)
Unlike other works, however, Berlin treats Esther's comedic aspects not as mere literary embellishments, but as integral to the interpretive framework of the entire story.
The comic aspects of the book are not incidental, merely to provide comic relief; they are the essence of the book. They define the genre of the book, and thus set the parameters according to which we should read it. We cannot appreciate the story fully unless we realize that it is meant to be funny (p. xviii).
For Berlin, the story's stylistic and structural features contribute to an overall rhetorical strategy that served in antiquity "to model and authenticate the celebration of Purim," (p. xvi) itself a carnavalesque celebration.
Berlin contextualizes the comedic aspects in Esther by way of comparisons with Near Eastern and Greek materials, especially the works of Herodotus, Xenophon, Ctesias, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Plutarch, Qunitus Curtius Rufus, and Diodorus of Sicily. As Berlin shows, these comparative materials demonstrate that the Book of Esther draws significantly on a common repertoire of contemporary literary motifs associated with Persia (Berlin dates Esther to ca. 400-300 BCE).
Esther should be seen as part of the same literary context from which the Greek writings emerged. Esther and the Greek works share a set of literary motifs and stereotypes relating to Persian court life (p. xxviii).
Berlin's comparisons are convincing and always insightful, and throughout, she is careful to distinguish the attitudes that these literary stereotypes represent in Greek literature from how they function in the Book of Esther. As she observes, Jewish attitudes toward Persia, unlike in the Greek world, were relatively positive, and were in no way anti-monarchic. Thus, while the Book of Esther draws upon contemporary literary stereotypes associated with the Persian court, it does not share the Greek xenophobic disdain for Persian courtly life.
Although Berlin focuses on the ancient Persian context of storytelling in which the book was authored, she also offers a number of observations concerning the ways the book has been understood in the centuries following its creation. As she observes: "...the Book of Esther as understood by Hellenistic Jews and by rabbinic tradition is a different story from the one told in the Masoretic Text" (pp. ix-x). Thus, Berlin accentuates her commentary with brief discussions on variant treatments in the Septuagint and with relevant Talmudic and midrashic materials.
Berlin also demonstrates how the Book of Esther, and rabbinic discussions about the book, enjoy intertextual dialogues with a number of other biblical stories, especially the Joseph cycle, the Exodus, 1 Samuel 15, the Book of Kings, and Daniel 1-6. With close attention to context, Berlin notes that Esther's web of intertextual allusions
...ties the fate of the Diaspora community to the story of biblical Israel. The Book of Esther presents a tale of Persian Jewry, and by extension all exiled Jewry, as a continuation of the story of Israel, with the same type of enemies and heroes, and the same patterns of danger and deliverance. Esther, no less than Ezra and Nehemiah but of course in a different fashion, picks up the story of Israel where the Book of Kings left off, with the exile of Jehoiachin to Babylonia, signaling the end of Judean independence and the beginning of the exile (2:6) (p. xxxvi).
According to Berlin, therefore, Esther is a "Diaspora tale," but unlike other Diaspora tales, Esther differs significantly by "its lack of God's name, prayer, kashrut, traditional modesty, and endogamous marriage..." (p. xxxiv).
In addition to providing the interpretive framework with which to understand the book, this commentary examines Esther from a variety of informative perspectives. Thus, it provides a brief history of the Persian period and surveys the historical origins of Purim, the place of Esther within the biblical canon, the differences between the Masoretic text of Esther and its Greek recensions, rabbinic interpretation of Esther, and the character of Esther in the light of other biblical women.
In sum, this commentary is a welcome addition to the Jewish Publication Society's commentary series. It is rich in original historical, literary, and linguistic insights that will reward scholars and lay readers alike for many years to come.
Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington
1. See e.g., J. M. Sasson, "Esther," in R. Alter and F. Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA.: Belknap, 1987), pp. 335-342; T. Y. Radday, and A. Benner, eds., On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990); David Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible (Brown Judaic Studies, 301; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995); B. R. Foster, "Humor and Wit in the Ancient Near East," in J. M. Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 4 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; Macmillan, 1995), pp. 2459-2469; K. Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); Z. Weisman, Political Satire in the Bible (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998); and more recently J. W. Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The latter work significantly expands the definition of "comedy" beyond that which is useful for Berlin. See Scott B. Noegel, Review of Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision, RBL, http://www.bookreviews.org/Reviews//0521495075.html Back