osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Back from Balticon, Meanderings on Esther Before I Get Back To Work

So now I am home and need to get to work on my Petition to Deny. But I've annoyingly had my brain spinning on the Book of Esther since yesterday. So I will get that out of my system first.

I generally am capable of compartmentalizing my thinking about Jewish texts between my secular 21st Century Princeton-educated brain and my religious brain. I can blend them too. But my point is that I have no problem thinking of religious texts in entirely secular ways as a thought experiment.

OTOH, when I do so, I want the same rigor I apply to non-biblical sources. This being what generally bugs me about most "biblical criticism." It is so resistant to natural meanings of the text or changes in what is known archeologically that I find it difficult to take it seriously. Of course, some of that is resistance to the opposing perspective that takes any evidence of something that is vaguely consistent with the Biblical narrative as being proof of the absolute literal veracity of the text. But even so, rigor is important.

Which brings me to what bugged me about yesterday's session at Balticon: Esther as Woman of Power or some such. Mind you, I have no idea what this was doing on the Balticon science track in the first place, but OK. Being tired of working on telecom stuff I decided to drop in. This proved to be a big mistake. The fellow giving the lecture rubbed me completely the wrong way. Some of it was stylistic. I am not a fan of what I think of as pseudo-Borscht Belt for what I am hoping will be a serious lecture. But the real annoyance I had was mixing and matching approaches in what I feel is an inconsistent manner.

What this guy was doing, from my perspective, was basically applying a 21st Century literary criticism frame around the Esther story. Treat it as a piece of literature rather than a religious text, then take the text standing on its own to develop a meaning. Now I'm fine with that approach. A text stands on its own, and I can approach the biblical text as a work of fiction. This fellow's overall point, if I followed correctly, was on the nature of activity and passivity. Achashverosh, the King, wants to be the center of activity and everyone else (except those expressly delegated by him) are passive and obey. Thus, Vashti is punished for defying the King. Mordechai is punished for essentially the same thing, defying the king by proxy. Esther is powerful because she manages to become an independent actor, breaking the cycle of action-as-rebellion.

Now this could be an interesting approach, except that the fellow in question decided to mix this with a historic textual analysis, which is where I got annoyed. If you are going to do historic textual analysis, i.e., what does this text mean to the author in the time period in which it was written, based on analysis of language, you need to be consistent. You can't borrow that analysis where it fits your 21st Century analysis and then junk it when it becomes inconvenient.

Which is what happened when the fellow hit the scene in Chapter 1 calling on his advisers "the ones who know the law. Those closest to him . . . . the Seven Officers of the Persians and the Medes, who see the face of the king and sit first in the kingdom." The lecturer wanted to make a point about the king isolated himself, not knowing his job, and not trusting others. I pointed out that this is actually a historic allusion that would have been well known to the author of the story and the audience. Historically, Cyrus (the first emperor of the Persians and the Medes) has 7 close companions and these 7 became the established noble families of the Empire. This is therefore, I argued, an important literary trope included by the author for an air of authenticity and one should not read into the textual language a separate set of symbols. He dismissed the argument and moved on with his narrative approach (it was his lecture, I made my point and he is entitled to reject it). But then two minutes later he is relying on the same textual analysis to bridge the connection between Haman "The Aggagite" being connected to Amalek.

Which is where I get annoyed. Having established that you are analyzing the text as text and without regard to the author's perspective, you cannot then go and dig up codes from the author's specific response to support you point. Either you view it in a modern framework or you analyze it in terms of how the author and the author's contemporary audience would have seen it, but mixing both is showing a lack of intellectual rigor and getting all results oriented.

Still, it did get me thinking about the narrative and narrative structure. What clues do we have to the possible author of the text, assuming we reject the traditional Jewish answer of it being written by Mordechai and Esther after the events literally transpired. Of course, my brain totally focused on this instead of on my work. So here are a few clues.

My feeling, working from the text alone, is that we are talking about authorship in the Palestinian Jewish community, probably relatively soon after the return of the Babylonian Exile and the reconstruction of the Jewish community Post-Ezra. It is structured in the mode of an explanation for where this funky new holiday comes from. Here's my basis for analysis:

1. The author writes in Hebrew. This may seem obvious, but books written in Babylonian exile (Daniel, Ezra) are written in substantial part in Aramaic. The author's choice of Hebrew is therefore significant, as it is either the spoken language of the community or a deliberate effort to hark back to the Biblical language to enhance authenticity. But the later is not necessary, given that non-Hebrew books were acceptable in the Cannon. Still, the facility with Hebrew and, as we will see, the effort to translate certain key words and phrases, indicates that the target audience is not the Persian Jewish community but the Palestinian Jewish Community.

2. The author emphasizes Mordechai and Esther's Jewish heritage and connection with Israel. Mordechai is listed as being part of the "exile that Nebuchadnezer exiled from Jerusalem." i.e., "See, he's one of us! Not only is Mordechai Jewish (natch), but he shares a connection with the Palestinian Jewish community. So this funky Persian holiday is not just a Persian thing but a thing for all the Jews.

The author takes the same care to establish the link to Esther by telling us that her real name was "Haddassah," which is Hebrew rather than Persian. (I tend to think that too much is made of the whole Marduk/Ishtar thing. We know from Daniel and other sources that Jews in Babylon and Persia adopted local names fairly quickly (Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego) and a Persian Jew named Mordechai would be no more unusual to a Palestinian Jew of Ezra's time than a modern American Jew named "John" or "Mark" or "Matthew" or "Luke" or even "Paul." What is interesting is that the author gives us Esther's "real" Jewish name and does not do so with Mordechai. I postulate it is from the desire to establish the connection with the Palestinian Jewish community.

3. The author translates the word "pur" meaning "lot." This is where we get to the just so element. Why is this funky holiday called "Purim." Well, says our Israeli author to the Hebrew speaking audience, it derives from this Persian word. Otherwise, why tell us that Haman "hipil pur, hoo hagoral liphnay Haman" (trans. and so he cast pur, which is a "lots," before Haman).

4. The use of certain literary tropes. The author displays a certain knowledge of contemporary Persian tropes, but does not display deep knowledge of local custom. What is added is enough to convey verisimilitude to a non-native audience, but not to a native audience.

5. The concluding just so element and everything is back to normal. The book of Esther concludes with a recitation of "why we therefore follow these customs that everyone is now doing for this funky Persian holiday that no one local ever heard of before these Persian guys came back." There last several verses of Chapter 9 are about how "and therfore, to preserve the memory of these deeds, did all the Jews take it upon themselves and their generations to do this forever more, and we will continue to practice this exactly like Mordechai the Jew and Esther, the daughter of Avigail (which is a very Jewish name) did in their day. And then the King established a tax and everything went back to normal. The end."

Anyway, stuff for thought. Back to work.

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