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Esther as Literature: A well written story

One of the distinctive of the book of Esther is the very high literary quality. It is a good story, and a well-told story. Actually, one of the “evidences” that people use to prove that the story is not historically true is that it reads more like a good novel with character development, scenes, a climatic moment when the people are saved, etc. Good storytelling does not, though, need to undermine the historicity of the story it is telling.

That said, there are a few important literary motifs that would be helpful to note:

Feasts and gallows as literary device

Throughout the story, there are frequent and recurring references to both feasts and gallows. Each time a feast or gallows is referenced, it serves as a sort of mile marker in the development of the story. And while the next post will demonstrate this through a framing of the book of Esther as a play in 3 acts, plus an epilogue, a few initial observations on feasts and gallows can be made.

  • Feasts (or banquets, or parties, depending upon translation)
    • There are a lot of parties in this story
    • Hebrew word for “feast” is used 20 times in Esther
    • That same word only appears 24 times in the rest of the Old Testament combined!
    • Study Esther and one thing becomes very clear: the people like to party
  • Gallows
    • Gallows appear 4 times in the story
    • The first three serve almost as the end of an act in a play or end of a chapter in a book
    • The gallows on which the Persians “hung” people are not like what we imagine from old western movies
    • They were tall poles that the victim was impaled upon, sometimes using nails to hold them to the impaling pole
    • What does that sound like?
    • Crucifixion: the Romans perfected it, but it was the Persian empire here that developed this form of attaching someone to a pole for executive
    • For more, read this article from Ligionier: Was Haman Hanged or Impaled?
  • Irony
    • There is a great use of irony throughout the story
    • The “great” king Xerxes is revealed as a tool being used by his subjects
    • The “wise” men are anything but
    • Multiple times in the story something happens to make you think, “Boy that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” (Cue Ron Burgundy)RonBurgundyEscalatedQuickly
    • Example: Mordecai would not bow to Haman, so Haman moves to eliminate all the Jewish people in the empire
    • Example: Mecumen (Es 1:16) declares that Vashti disobeying Xerxes is a wrong not only against the king but against men everywhere who are now going to see their wives revolt against them
  • Character Comparisons
    • Story is set up to invite the reader to make comparisons between the characters, both within the story and with other characters in Biblical history
    • Examples: Haman vs. Mordecai | Vashti vs. Esther | Esther vs. Daniel | Xerxes vs. Jesus
  • Reversals
    • “the reverse occurred” (Esther 9:1)
    • Like any good story, this one has a climatic scene that leads to a series of reversals

Before venturing on deeper into Esther, I encourage you to sit down and read the story. Not in chapters and verses. But as a novel. Read the whole thing and enjoy the high literary quality, the character arcs, and see the subtle providence of God at work.

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