Esther as Comedy

Can a book of the Bible be funny?

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Another characteristic of farce is a misunderstanding in which two characters interpret the same event in different ways (J. M. Davis, Farce, p. 62). Classic examples of this type of misunderstanding occur in chapter six, when Haman mistakenly assumes that the king is planning to honor him, not Mordecai, and in chapter seven, when Ahasuerus misunderstands or pretends to misunderstand why Haman has fallen on Esther's couch. The effect in both cases is extremely comic.

In farce there is little concern with the subtlety of characterization. Farce tends to use exaggerated or caricatured character types. In Esther, all the characters are types: Ahasuerus is a caricature of a pampered and bumbling monarch, a ruler ruled by his advisors; Esther is a paragon of feminine heroism; Mordecai is the model of a wise courtier; Haman is the archetypal comic villain--a knave, but, in keeping with farce, not darkly evil. We are not meant to feel threatened by the comic villain--not even children are afraid of Haman--nor are we meant to sympathize with him when he meets his deserved end. He is doomed from the start and we enjoy watching his downfall.

While some of these characters show growth as the story progresses, and their various traits can be probed and described in a manner that makes them seem almost full-fledged characters (Fox has done this very successfully), they nevertheless remain types rather than full-fledged characters. This is not a defect in the narrative technique.

The characterization in the book is intentional, cleverly done, and adds to the farcical humor. In fact, there is a striking resemblance to the stock characters in Greek comedy: the alazon, an imposter or self-deceiving braggart (Haman); the eiron, the self-deprecatory and understating character whose contest with the alazon is central to the comic plot (Mordecai); and the bomolochos, the buffoon whose antics add an extra comic element (Ahasuerus).

Unconvincing Plot

The plot is often unconvincing because one of the characteristics of farce is the rejection of rationality. "Farce enshrines the element of unreason" (J. M. Davis, Farce, p. 23). So the logical impossibility that looms largest--that Mordecai's Jewish identity is publicly known while Esther's remains secret--suddenly ceases to be problematic and becomes one more piece in the highly improbable plot. In fact, the entire plot turns on a succession of unlikely events, like the selection of a queen in a beauty contest and a series of ridiculous but irrevocable edicts.

The largest interpretive problems melt away if the story is taken as a farce or a comedy associated with a carnival-like festival. The book sets out a threat to the Jews so that the Jewish audience can watch with glee and laugh with relief as it is overcome. The mad and threatening world of the beginning of the story fades into a happy ending where, for a brief moment, the Jews, through their two representatives, can play at wielding the highest power in the great empire to which they were in reality subservient and in which they were an insignificant minority.

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Adele Berlin

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