Esther as Comedy

Can a book of the Bible be funny?

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Despite the recognition of Esther's comic nature by many scholars, some readers may be surprised or even shocked by this idea. That is because the inclusion of a book in the biblical canon affects the way we perceive the book, or certainly the way it was perceived in premodern times and may still be perceived in traditional circles.

The very fact that Esther is part of the Bible--a holy book with religious authority and religious teachings--forces us to make it fit the expectations we have about what the Bible is and what kinds of writing it contains. We expect a biblical book to be serious and its message to be congruent with the messages of other biblical books as they have been interpreted by the tradition.


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.

little girl in fake glasses and noseDefining Humor

To be sure, it is not always easy to agree on what is funny, especially in an ancient or foreign work. Nonetheless, humor of various types is well-documented in ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Bible. Most readers recognize the humor in Esther 6, when Haman realizes that he must honor the very person whom he wishes to disgrace, and in Esther 7, when the king reacts to seeing Haman fallen on Esther's couch. These scenes are not isolated touches of humor, but are among the most obvious in a book where comedy is the dominant tone.

Since we have no theoretical writings from ancient Israel about comedy, or about any type of literature, we must call upon later literary theory and apply it to the Bible as best we can. (Already I have taken the liberty of applying comedy to narrative, whereas in its narrowest definition it is limited to drama. This and related terms can be used for all forms of literature.)

Several modern terms associated with the comic may be usefully applied to Esther. They are not meant to serve as absolute definitions of Esther's genre or subgenre, and since their definitions grew out of very different literatures (ancient Greek and medieval and modem European and American literatures), we cannot expect a perfect fit with Esther.

Nevertheless, these terms and their definitions help to describe some of the parameters of comic literature and to suggest ways to understand the comic nature of the book. Comedy is the most general of the terms, and farce is even better, for it may be considered "the purest quintessential comedy (M. Charney, Comedy High and Low: An Introduction to the Experience of Comedy, p. 97).

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Adele Berlin

Adele Berlin is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland.