The book of Esther is not a historical document in the usual sense--but that doesn't undermine its importance as a religious book in the Jewish canon.

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It is generally accepted that there is a strong link between comedy and carnival going back to the origin of dramatic comedy, ancient Greece. Comic performances have been associated with popular carnival-like celebrations in medieval and Renaissance Europe. In fact, the Greek word komos, whence "comedy," comes, signifies a riotous celebration.

Certainly, the celebration of Purim is carnival ‑like, with its drinking, costumes, Purim plays, and Purim carnivals. The Megillah itself sets the parameters for the celebration, and its later manifestations are completely congruent with the tone and genre of the book as well as with carnival celebrations known from many cultures.

Carnival celebrations, best known from the Greek Dionysia, the Roman Saturnalia, and the English May Day (and in modern times Mardi Gras, Halloween, and New Year's Day), often contain elements such as eating, drinking, carousing, masks and disguises, parades and processions, and combat and mock battles.

There is an air of wildness, boisterousness, and violence that is made acceptable, perhaps only barely acceptable, because it is done within the bounds of a socially sanctioned festive occasion. Carnival permits the release of one's urge for violence and revenge in a way that channels the violence so that it is not actually destructive.

Hilarity, Mock Destruction and a Happy Ending

It is not a huge leap to see the Book of Esther as a festive comedy--that is, a comedy relating to the celebration of the carnival-like holiday of Purim--for the link with Purim is inherent in the book. I do not mean to suggest that the book was a script for a performance. Clearly, it is a narrative. It may be no accident, however, that the story has been acted out in generations of Purim plays. There is something about the book that lends itself to comic dramatization. (Perhaps it is the large amount of "stage direction" in terms of the positioning of characters.)

Esther may not be a play but it is surely carnivalesque literature. Its secret identities, gross indulgences, sexual innuendoes, and nefarious plot against the Jews are part and parcel of the carnivalesque world of madness, hilarity, violence, and mock destruction. Indeed, violence is very much a part of this world, and it is in this framework that we should understand the slaughter of the enemies of the Jews in chapter 9. The killing is no more real than anything eIse in the plot, and is completely in character with the story's carnivalesque nature.

It is in this light that we should understand Esther. 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.