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eBook JPS Bible Commentary: Esther
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Publisher:  Varda Books
Published:  2004
Language:  English
Pages:   137

Prepared to work interactively with JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Scholar PDF edition), which can be purchased separately.

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ISBN: 1-59045-743-9

About the Book -- JPS Bible Commentary: Esther

In this latest addition to the Jewish Publication Society's commentary series, the reader will further be reworded with many productive and original insights: in this particular case on the background of the feast of Purim.

Adele Berlin argues that the Book of Esther has been is misunderstood in many ways in the centuries following its creation. "...the Book of Esther, --she observes,--as understood by Hellenistic Jews and by rabbinic tradition is a different story from the one told in the Masoretic Text". Thus, Berlin accentuates her commentary with brief discussions on variant treatments in the Septuagint and with relevant Talmudic and midrashic materials.

Berlin emphasizes that the Book of Ester is a burlesque and fictional farce that functions not to critique (i.e., satire), but first of all to provoke laughter. In this approach, Berlin's commentary contributes to a growing body of works that emphasize the Bible's humorous elements.

A reader should not expect light reading, however. After you have read it, you will have learnt a lot. Without burdening one with overwhelming technicalities, the commentary still provides a lot of solid information. Fully half of this book is devoted to a discussion of the background of the work and its interpretations. The work contains a ten page bibliography that makes it clear the work was exhaustively researched and many points of view were considered.

About the Book






Why Was the Book of Esther Written? xv    
Esther as Comedy xvi      

Narrative Artistry: Structure, Style, and Language                                                                                     xxi

Greek Storytelling about Persia xxiv      
The Persian Period: A Brief Overview


Esther as a Diaspora Story xxix      
Esther’s Links with Other Biblical Books  


When and Where Was the Book of Esther Written?         xxxiv  
When Was Esther Included in the Canon?


Purim   xxxvii  
The Greek Versions and Josephus   xl  
Rabbinic Interpretation   xlii  
Esther and Biblical Women   xliv  
Chapter 1: Wine and Women   3  
Chapter 2: Sex and Spies   18  
Chapter 3: Honor and Enmity   26  
Chapter 4: Mourning and Planning   35  
Chapter 5: Party Favors   40  
Chapter 6: Honor Gained and Honor Lost 44  
Chapter 7: Another Party Favor   50  
Chapter 8: A Reversal of Fortunes   57  
Chapter 9: Riots and Revelry   64  
Chapter 10: All’s Well That Ends Well   72  

An Excerpt from the Book -- JPS Bible Commentary: Esther

New Page 1

Esther 3: 8     Haman’s accusation against the Jews contains three parts: that the Jews are
scattered and dispersed; that the Jews have different customs; and that the Jews do not
observe imperial law. Fox points out the rhetorical strategy behind this structure: Haman
starts with the truth (that the Jews are scattered and dispersed); goes on to a half-truth
(that the Jews have different laws and customs); and ends with a lie (that the Jews do not
observe imperial law).

But how should we understand this accusation in its historical context? Although it is clear
that Haman’s accusation is pure fabrication, it rings so true in terms of later anti-Semitic
claims that we are forced to consider if it has a basis in history—that is, to what extent
Haman’s claim had currency in the Persian period (the time that most scholars date the book).
It is difficult to find evidence for anti-Semitism (or, more correctly, anti-Judaism) before the
Hellenistic period, for our written sources are meager. Peter Schäfer has traced anti-Jewish
feeling back to Egypt and points to the destruction of the Jewish temple at Elephantine
in 410 B.C.E. and to the Greek writings of two Egyptians, Hecataeus of Abdera in
about 300 B.C.E. and Manetho in the third century B.C.E. . .

3:13     Both of these authors gave an account (not extant but preserved
in later authors’ works) of the Egyptian version of the biblical Exodus story. Hecataeus, who
is not elsewhere anti-Jewish, describes the Jews of having a way of life different from all
the other nations. Manetho accuses the Jews of having laws completely opposed to Egyptian
custom. This is not so different from Haman’s accusation that the Jews have different laws
or customs. So we may have in Esther an early and milder form, already in the late Persian
period, of what was later to grow into the classic anti-Semitic argument that the Jews are
xenophobic and misanthropic. As Schäfer notes, the Septuagint goes beyond the Masoretic
Text of Esther in developing the anti-Semitic theme.14 Reading back into the Esther story
the anti-Semitism of its own time, Addition B 5 containing Artaxerxes’ letter reads:

We understand that this people, and it alone, stands constantly in opposition to every
nation, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is ill-disposed to
our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain stability.

scattered and dispersed    Indeed, there were Jews throughout the Persian empire, as
there were many other peoples. The concept of dispersion may have struck a nerve with the
postexilic Diaspora community, for it underlines their lack of cohesion and vulnerability.
The Jewish victory and celebration of Purim later in the story provide an antidote, as it were,
through the picture of a united Jewry. It is not clear why the Persian king would see the
dispersion of the Jews as undesirable in and of itself, as there were many communities with
mixed ethnic populations. Perhaps the reason has to do with the absence of a Jewish province.
As Levenson points out, the book gives no notice to the Temple or to the return to Zion.
In fact, there is a resounding silence about the re-establishment of a Jewish jurisdiction in Judah.
Perhaps Haman is insinuating that the Jews do not constitute their own province, and hence
they were not obligated to pay a separate “Jewish” tribute, for tribute was assigned according
to satrapies or provinces. This line of argument was more likely to convince the king that
they were dispensable.

whose laws are different    Dat can mean “custom” or “practice” and that is prob-
ably what is meant. Although the Masoretic Text avoids any mention of religious practice,
rabbinic exegesis supplied the details of the distinctively Jewish religious practices, such
as eating kosher food, observing the festivals, and the like. Targum Sheni, which is especially
expansive, gives a long list of Jewish observances as seen through the eyes of non-Jews. It is
a humorous, pseudo-self-deprecating piece—a fine catalogue of Jewish practices with insight
about how they could be perceived as inconveniencing non-Jews.16 The rabbinic emphasis
on religion per se is anachronistic. During the Persian period, religion was just one aspect
of communal identity (others being ethnicity and language); religion did not become an
important distinctive marker until Greco-Roman times, especially in the Christian era.

While the emphasis on the distinctiveness of Jewish practice sounds like an incipient anti-
Jewish argument, it seems unlikely that distinctive practices would have been widely viewed
as negative during the Persian period; the empire contained diverse peoples with distinctive
customs and the attitude of the Persian government was tolerant toward them. Haman’s ac-
cusation should be understood as the exaggeration that it is.

who do not obey the king’s laws On a superficial level, this could refer to the fact that
Mordecai refused to obey the royal command to bow to Haman. But the accusation is couched
in different, and broader, terms. Verse 3 spoke of mitzvat ha-melekh, and here it is a question
of dat ha-melekh, “imperial law.”

Imperial law extended over the entire Persian empire. The provinces were permitted to
retain their local laws as long as they were not in conflict with imperial law. In fact, they were
urged to codify their local laws and to follow them. Imperial law was not a separate law code
or juridical system superimposed on the provinces; it was essentially the bringing together of
all the various law codes and customs under Persian sovereignty. It was a political rather than
juridical system whereby everyone gave allegiance to the king. What Haman is really saying,
then, is that the Jews do not to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king; and this constitutes

How did people show their lack of allegiance to the king? Aeschylus summarizes the Greek
view succinctly in The Persians, 585–88:

Not now for long will they that dwell throughout the length and breadth of Asia abide under
the laws of the Persians, nor will they pay further tribute at the compulsion of their lord, nor
will they prostrate themselves to the earth and do him reverence.

These same three items—abiding by Persian law, paying tribute, and doing obeisance—
seem to be at issue in our chapter, although they are not so neatly laid out. Mordecai’s
refusal to do obeisance motivates Haman; Haman may be implying that the Jews do not
pay tribute; and he states explicitly that they do not obey imperial law.

One or more of these three items figure in other references, also with the sense of treason . . .

An Excerpt from the Book


"(JPS Bible Commentary: Esther) is rich in original historical, literary, and linguistic insights that will reward scholars and lay readers alike for many years to come."

Scott B. Noegel, University of Washington


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