Esther as Comedy

Can a book of the Bible be funny?

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Esther as Burlesque

Farce is a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple, hearty laughter. To do so, it employs highly exaggerated or caricatured character types, puts men into impossible and ludicrous situations, and makes free use of broad verbal humor and physical horseplay (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 26).

We will return to farce, for it best describes Esther, but first another term, burlesque, should be introduced. Burlesque is defined as "an artistic composition... that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1987).

The lofty material that Esther vulgarizes is the Persian empire and the Persian court. The normally sedate affairs of state, the carefully organized and controlled government structure, the legal system, the efficient postal system, the impressive accumulation of wealth indicative of a successful empire--all of the achievements most praiseworthy in the Persian empire are turned into a burlesque of Persian court life, caricatured by ludicrous edicts delivered by speeding messengers, a foppish royal court with an endless hierarchy of officials, and a wooden adherence to nonsensical laws. A major policy decision, the annihilation of the Jews, is made casually, but a small domestic incident, Vashti's nonappearance at a party, becomes a crisis of state, with all the bureaucratic trappings that can be mustered.

The term satire has also been applied to Esther, most recently by Ze'ev Weisman (Political Satire in the Bible, pp. 139-163). The line between farce and satire is hard to draw, and there are certainly elements of satire in the book, especially those directed at Persian court life. However, these elements are incidental. The book is not primarily aimed at criticizing the Persian empire or its lifestyle. After all, Ahasuerus emerges stronger at the end of the story than he was at the beginning, and Mordecai and Esther benefit handsomely from all that the Persian court has to offer and become two of its most elite members.

It is better to understand the description of the Persian court as burlesque rather than as satire; its purpose is comedy, not critique. The burlesque of the Persian court provides the setting for the farce. Burlesque also has the connotation of bawdiness, and as we shall see, the Book of Esther does not lack bawdiness, especially in chapter 1, the chapter in which court life is most on display.

Comic Styles in the Book of Esther

The style associated with burlesque, farce, and other types of low comedy uses exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities, and verbal humor. Farce often employs repetition--of scenes, events, and phrases--and inversions or reversals. Most of these features are prominent in Esther and have been identified in the commentaries, but without the realization that they are characteristic of comedy or farce.

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Adele Berlin

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