Introduction to Esther - On Hidden Reading of Biblical Narratives and the Book of Esther

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



The fact that biblical narratives have been critically studied for a great many years, and that in each generation new layers of meaning are exposed, establishes that the biblical narrative carries manifold messages that are not immediately apparent in a first reading.  Any reader of literature, including a scholar of biblical narratives, knows that a literary text can be decoded on different levels and at different depths.  [1] A simple reading decodes the narrative as representing reality, reflecting real occurrences, while more sophisticated readings take a more abstract view of the data, imbuing it with the symbolism of another world that is presented through the medium of the plot.  At the same time, the fact that even biblical narratives contain hidden messages seems problematic: biblical narratives have an educational, didactic purpose, and the presence of concealed morals would seemingly obstruct the education of readers and scholars.  [2]


However, the concealing of the message of a narrative has certain clear advantages.  In the present context we shall note two of them, one pertaining to the process of reading, the other related to the significance of the narrative.  [3]


1.         When messages are concealed in the narrative, the reader becomes a full partner in the process of decoding the narrative and exposing its meaning.  The reader's sense of having discovered the narrative's secrets influences his identification with the narrative considerably.  Its message is impressed upon him more firmly than it would be were the educational message to be spelled out explicitly, since overt moralizing often causes the reader to become defensive.  The inclusion of the reader in the process of decoding the narrative makes him an "active reader," or even a reader who "creates the text" – concepts that have been addressed at length in recent literary critical theory.  This status contributes significantly to the profound connection that every reader feels towards the narrative and its messages.  [4]

2.         For the purposes of our present discussion, the second point – related to the meaning of the narrative itself and its messages – is more important.  Occasionally, some of the deeper themes of the narrative pertain to questions of revealing and concealing.  In these cases, a concealed style reflects and sits well with the "moral" of the narrative itself.  Thus, esoteric writing is not only a literary device, but also helps to focus the reader on the narrative's theme.


At the very outset of the discussion of "concealed writing" we must draw a distinction between a consciously concealed style and a text whose most profound messages are concealed even from the writer.  Since Freud and the development of psychoanalysis there has been a body of opinion contending that every narrative conceals levels of meaning that are hidden even from the consciousness of the author himself.  Our discussion does not concern this type of concealment, but rather conscious concealed writing where the author veils his messages and merely hints at them, with no explicit reference.  An example of a classic work of this sort is the Song of Songs.  Those who view this book as a complex metaphor for the relationship between a believer and God, or between the entire nation of Israel and God, are actually saying that even if the book does not state this openly, this is its intended significance.  According to this view, a person who reads the book with no awareness of this hidden level is, in fact, reading a parable with no knowledge of its moral; in other words, he misses the essence of the text.


To be sure, this particular example highlights the danger of concealed writing.  It is no coincidence that many modern scholars view that the Song of Songs as secular poetry, and from certain Talmudic discussions it becomes clear that such claims have been made since time immemorial [5].  And herein lies the central dilemma facing the author of such a work: on one hand, he seeks to conceal the most profound messages and meanings with which he invests his narrative; on the other hand, he must leave markers, indicating to the reader that he should pay attention to the deeper level of the work.  The situation may be compared to a children's game of hide-and-seek: each player seeks to win the game by finding the best hiding place, and thereby concealing himself from the 'seeker.' Yet, if he conceals himself too well, he may languish in his hiding place long after the game is over.  For this reason, not every symbolic meaning that may be applied to the language of a text will necessarily represent a revelation of a hidden layer of the narrative.  For example, we may consider a kabbalistic reading of the Bible.  In this matrix, there are several words that hint to different Divine Eminations (sefirot): for example, the word well (be'er) hints at the sefira of Malkhut; the words peace (shalom) and covenant (berit) indicate the sefira of Yesod, etc.  Can this, and other such exegetical interpretations, properly be regarded as drawing from the text its concealed intention and primary meaning? It is extremely doubtful, since the kabbalistic reading projects an external linguistic system onto the text itself.  The actual narrative never alludes in the slightest to such a decoding of its terminology; instead, one starts with a predetermined, externally rendered system of reading norms and codes.


This demands of the reader a critical and, at the same time, sensitive approach.  What is the narrative concealing? What does the author really think; what is he refraining from saying explicitly? Where are the hints to fully unpacking the meaning of the narrative? Thus, there is utility in defining a narrative, at the very outset, as one with a hidden message; this definition serves as a point of departure for the process of reading and the decoding of the narrative.  However, such a definition can be reached only when there is an awareness of the narrative, and only after the reader senses that there are fundamental meanings beneath the surface.  Therefore, any reading that purports to expose the hidden levels of a story is, necessarily, cyclical in nature: the reader retraces his footsteps and decodes the text anew.


In this context, there is particular significance to the motifs and characters that arise at the periphery of the narrative, not necessarily at its center.  This may be a familiar argument for some deconstructionist theorists, but for a completely different reason.  When it comes to concealed narratives, it is on the periphery that we may find clues to the text's meaning: as a technique of the concealment, the author may focus the reader's attention on the protagonist, while a secondary character is revealed to be the one who exposes the deeper meaning of the narrative.  Thus, for example, I will later argue that the literary structure of Esther creates the impression that the climax of the plot is found in the events that occur on the night when the king could not sleep (chapter 6).  In fact, I will suggest, the narrative's transitional moment is somewhere else entirely (chapter 4).


It should be noted that sometimes a concealed meaning is related to polemical writing or a text meant for a certain audience, where the author does not want others to understand his intention.  Many letters, sent from behind the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain to relatives in Western countries, serve to illustrate this point.  Yairah Amit brings the following example: "My mother would receive, from time to time… letters from family members who had been exiled to Siberia… If the letter repeated a sentence to the effect that despite the cold, bitter winter, they themselves were not cold, the adult listeners around me immediately understood that they were very cold, and they planned ways of sending a parcel to Siberia in far-away Russia… When I would ask how they knew this, they replied that it was because the letter repeated over and over the issue of the cold, or because the writer had emphasized especially that they were not cold." [6]


In fact, "concealed readings" accompany us throughout our lives, in communications more elementary than the world of literature.  We are all familiar with the experience of meeting an acquaintance and uttering, or hearing, the (polite) sentiment: "It's been ages! I'm so happy to see you!" Sometimes, the psychological subtext accompanying this statement is, "Oh, no! I'm in such a hurry.  I hope this won't take long…." This subtext accompanies all human interactions and, in this sense, literature is a faithful reflection of reality.


All biblical narratives contain messages that are concealed beneath the surface, but Esther seems to epitomize this phenomenon.  The uniqueness of this book finds expression not only in the quantity of the concealed messages, but also in their nature.  What makes the story of Esther so special is that we may point to contradictory trends in the revealed and concealed readings: the lighthearted whimsy of the revealed narrative, as opposed to the sadness that lurks beneath the surface.  As we shall see, the unique concealment of Esther deviates from the normal esthetic structure of a sophisticated narrative (the first advantage noted above), and is related to the theme of the narrative (the second advantage mentioned above).  In the following discussions, I intend to give special attention to the concealed writing in Esther, and to the particular world of values that is therein generated.


There are many mechanisms of concealment in biblical narrative, but we may list the principal devices.  Not surprisingly, each of them is utilized in Esther.

a.  Enlisting biblical connotations and hinting to free associations.  In this context it must be emphasized that at times the connotations are based upon biblical expressions taken from a different narrative, while in other instances they stem from common idioms, which the author assumes to be familiar to his readers.  The dove's return to Noach, following its first dispatch, is a good example of the planting of auxiliary meanings: "The dove found no rest for her foot, and it returned to him, to the ark, for there was water upon the face of the earth.  And he put forth his hand and took it and brought it to him, into the ark" (Bereishit 8:9).  The phrase, "He took it and brought it to him" arouses marital associations; it is echoed, for example, in the description of Yaakov's marriage to Leah: "And it was, in the evening, that he took Leah, [Lavan's] daughter, and brought her to him, and he came to her" (Bereishit 29:23).  Similarly, in the description of Yitzchak's marriage to Rivka: "Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sara, his mother, and he took Rivka and she became his wife, and he loved her" (Bereishit 24:67).  Of course, we do are not suggesting that the narrative of Noach and the dove is about matrimony.  Nevertheless, there is some value to this reading, since even if its entire purpose is merely to arouse general associations in the reader, it changes the general atmosphere of the text and influences the reader's sense of the closeness between Noach and the dove (in contrast to the relationship between Noach and the raven).


As mentioned, the author may likewise employ common idioms in order to hint at a concealed reading.  Still, caution must be exercised in applying this claim, since it is first necessary to ascertain whether a certain expression was, in fact, common at the time of its composition.  Thus, for example, a modern reader might argue that the story of the Exodus from Egypt appears to convey covert criticism of the borrowing of the vessels from the Egyptians, since the text formulates its summary of the event with the words, "they exploited" (va-yenatzlu) the Egyptians (Shemot 12:36) – an expression that, in modern Hebrew, has strongly negative associations.  However, this would be a mistaken reading and a distortion of the narrative.  The verb "le-natzel," in biblical Hebrew (in the intensive case) has nothing to do with extortion or unfairness towards others; its meaning in the verse means "to empty," "to take spoils." [7]


b.  Using multivalent expressions.  Naturally, a concealed reading that is hidden beneath the plain reading will be realized through ambiguous expressions, where one reading points to what is clearly apparent, while the other reading hints to what lies beneath the surface.  Thus, for example, it is no coincidence that the victories and successes of King Shaul are described using the unusual verb "yarshi'a" (the causative case of the root r-sh-a, meaning to sin): "Shaul consolidated the kingdom over Israel and fought all his surrounding enemies – Moav and the children of Amon and Edom and the kings of Tzova and the Philistines, and in all his endeavors he was successful (yarshi'a).  And he gathered an army and smote Amalek, and delivered Israel from those who spoiled them" (I Shemuel 14:47-48) [8].  The plain reading praises Shaul for his success in his battles against "all his enemies." But the verb "yarshi'a" is ambiguous.  On one hand, the context here indicates that its meaning is "was successful," "performed judgment," etc. But the reader is inclined to draw on the usual sense of the root – indicating sin, owing to its appearance in close proximity to the mention of Shaul's battle against Amalek ("and smote Amalek") – the battle in which he lost his kingdom for his sin.


c.  Irony.  Irony is another device implanted in biblical narratives as a clue to the existence of a truth that is hidden beneath the surface.  When there is a discrepancy between the reader's and the characters' knowledge, the reader senses that "knowledge" is a subject that needs clarifying, and not all of the truth is known at every stage to all of the characters (and perhaps not even to him, as the reader).  The greater the number of situations in the narrative that create a sense of irony, the greater the extent to which the story will be defined as such, leading the reader continually to ask himself: who knows what? Who is acting out of awareness of the situation, and who is in the dark? In this context, the experience of reading becomes a continual journey of discovery.  It must be noted that the author may choose to assume ignorance and not hint at a truth that is concealed behind the words; nevertheless, the reader will often understand the hidden message.  Thus, for example, Ruth is described as "chancing to chance upon the portion of the field belonging to Boaz" (Ruth 2:3).  Despite the emphasis on the "coincidence," the sensitive reader understands that the narrator is specifically drawing attention to the Divine Providence hidden in the story:


"This mode of reading is similar to a 'providential' reading of Ruth – so that Ruth's 'chancing to chance' upon the field of Boaz (sic) is viewed not, indeed, as 'chance' but as the doing of God." [9]


A modern author who made extensive use of this device was S.Y. Agnon, a Nobel laureate for literature.  We will suffice, in this forum, to mention his story, "The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight" [10].  At the end of the story, there would appear to be resolution and reconcilement (the "crooked" becomes "straight," alluding to Yishayahu 40:4).  In reality, however, not only does this apparent reconcilement not bring any resolution, but on the contrary, the end of the narrative hints at a much greater problem than the private complication faced by the protagonist throughout the plot (even if the greater problem is "concealed" from most of the characters, and only the reader shares the awareness of its existence).  The Bible offers a wealth of ironic situations, and Esther is a prominent source in this regard, as we shall see.


d.  Order of the presentation of facts in the narrative.  Every linguistic expression acquires its full meaning in light of its context.  This is true not only in the decoding of the lexical meaning of a linguistic expression, but also in attributing literary meaning to a linguistic statement.  It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this datum, and many messages are concealed beneath the surface by virtue of the order in which the data are revealed to the reader.  Thus, for example, in the story of Avshalom's rebellion, David's encounter with Chushai is conveyed to the reader immediately after his prayer, "David said: Lord, I pray You – turn the counsel of Achitofel into foolishness" (II Shemuel 15:31).  This sequence hints that Chushai should be regarded as the answer to David's prayer; i.e., it is he who is destined to turn Achitofel's counsel into foolishness.  [11]


e.  Revealed statement expressing concealment.  To highlight the element of concealment in a narrative (as a central element) the author may give this element a role in the development of the plot.  In other words, if in a certain story there is someone (or something) that is hiding behind a mask, perhaps a character who withholds the truth and operates in secrecy, then the issue of concealment rises to the level of the reader's consciousness and he pursues it throughout the narrative.  The reader is given a clue as to the existence of concealed elements, not everything is exposed, and thus he seeks the messages that have been hidden from him, with a view to discovering them.  [12]


As we shall see in our future discussions, all of the above devices are integrated into Esther, and concealed writing should be regarded as one of the principal characteristics of this book.


What is the method of concealment in Esther? We might offer as possible answers all of the mechanisms listed above, but to my mind there is one that is most central.  On one hand, there is no doubt that this form of writing has made the story of Esther particularly beloved, and it is not surprising that this book has been the subject of many literary studies that have emphasized the irony in its arrangement.  [13] The text brings a smile to the faces of many readers who come to share its disdain for the kingdom of Achashverosh and for his advisors; for the characters who are protagonists in their own eyes alone, but are really antagonists; the plot that develops out of a combination of situations that appear at first glance to be coincidental; and the way in which these circumstances are manipulated in various ways by the different characters.


At the same time, we cannot outright reject the argument that the messages of this book were "forced" into concealment from some form of censorship, depending on when the book was written and who wrote it.  At least according those maintaining that it was written in Persia (and certainly if the authors were Mordechai and Esther themselves) [14], and that the book was awarded the royal seal of approval, historically it would have been the king's advisors who had to approve the narrative.  In this case, the scorn for the king and for Persian culture would have to be concealed from possible official censorship.


However, I believe that even if the above two reasons may possibly be correct, they miss the literary quality that emerges from a book of this sort being written in this style.  It seems to me that the tension between the revealed reality and the concealed causes that bring it about is one of the fundamental questions that the narrative seeks to clarify.  Is reality really as it appears at first glance? Are honor and glory really in the hands of the king, such that he decides who will be honored and who will be scorned? Is the obliteration of the Jews really dependent on the whim of a mortal ruler or viceroy; is the nullification of the decree of annihilation dependent on the king's free will? At first it does indeed seem that the narrative is built and continues to develop upon these foundations, but a reader attuned to the messages beneath the surface discovers a different world, according to which the order of reality is determined on the basis of altogether different parameters.  In this context it is not sufficient for the narrative to contain concealed messages (which we may assert of every narrative qua narrative), but these concealed messages actually assert the opposite of what the revealed plane is expressing.


This brings us to one of the most fundamentally controversial points concerning the nature of Esther.  Some scholars have argued that this text should be regarded as a satire meant to entertain the reader, intended solely for his pleasure [15].  There is no educational, moral or spiritual message behind the story, according to this view; its purpose is merely "to entertain and to arouse gaiety" [16].  Others have maintained that the story is a secular one – i.e., a narrative in which God plays no role.  Thus, for example, according to Cornill Esther reflects "purely secular history," whose theme is "the satisfaction of earthly desires and inclinations" [17].  An even more extreme formulation concerning Esther is proposed by Anderson:


"A witness to the fact that Israel, in pride, either made nationalism a religion in complete indifference to God or presumptuously identified God's historical purpose with the preservation and glorification of the Jewish people."  [18]


Even if the latter approach is not accepted among most critics, and even if it contains a fundamental, anachronistic flaw [19], alluding to it highlights the special nature of this book.  In my eyes, this very claim serves as proof of the perspicacity of the author and his success in concealing its message.  After all, even serious readers have fallen into the trap that the author laid for them, failing to notice what was happening beneath the surface of the story.  Indeed, there can be no doubt that this book represents a radical deviation from the accepted biblical style: it contains no (explicit) mention of the Land of Israel, the Temple plays no (overt) role in it; there are no explicit teachings concerning reward and punishment, and – most crucially – it contains no mention of God's Name.  This writing is so unusual that there can be no discussion of the significance of the story without addressing its style.  Nevertheless, the question converts into its own answer: is it possible that, quite coincidentally, the Name of God appears nowhere throughout the entire narrative? This phenomenon is so startling that it must be regarded as proof positive for deliberate concealment: concealment for a reason.  In other words, the very difficulty is the best proof of the special, concealed style of Esther! As Meinhold so accurately defines it, a "religious book in nonreligious language." [20]


Those scholars who maintain that the book contains satirical elements are certainly correct, but we must not confuse the form of writing with its purpose.  To put it differently, it is specifically because the author of the book seeks to conceal his messages that he employs the satirical form, sometimes also garnished with irony and cynicism, so as on one hand to present the reality as operating according to a clear order, while on the other hand disdaining the overt operation of reality and hinting that the truth is hidden beneath it.  This is the power of satire, and it is indeed realized in several images within Esther.  [21]


One final comment pertaining to the following discussions: since much has been written about the Book of Esther, and since our Sages deduced from it that "anyone who utters some [teaching] in the name of its source brings redemption to the world, as it is written: 'Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai'" (Mishna Avot, 6:6), it is important to note that we shall have occasion to rely on various different commentaries and studies.  For convenience of reading and to spare the readers a multiplicity of footnotes during the course of the chapters to follow, I list below my main references, and encourage readers to keep this table available throughout.


The Midrash of Chazal – especially those mentioned in the first chapter of Tractate Megilla in the Babylonian Talmud – contain highly valuable material.  Using their exegetical language, the Sages often noted messages hidden in the story that are also related to its literary structure.  Since their teachings are written as homiletic exegesis, they are generally ignored in analyses of the plain text.  However, as we shall see, their interpretations should often be regarded as well grounded in the text and its themes.


Beyond these midrashim, the following are the primary commentaries upon which we shall base most of our discussion.  Additional sources will be mentioned during the course of the chapters to follow:


Bardtke 1963

H. Bardtke, Das Buch Esther, KAT, Gütersloh 1963.

Berg 1979

S. B. Berg, The Book of Esther: Motifs, Themes and Structure, Missoula 1979.

Berlin 2001

A. Berlin, Esther, Mikra Le-Israel, Tel Aviv 2001 (Heb.)

Hadasa Hi Esther

A. Bazak (ed.), Hadasa Hi Esther, In Memory of Dasi Rabinovitz, Alon-Shvut 1997.

Clines 1984

D. J. A. Clines, The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story, [JSOT Supplement 30], Sheffield 1984.

Fox 1991

M. V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, Columbia 1991.

Levenson 1997

J. D. Levenson, Esther, OTL, Louisville 1997.

Moore 1971

C. A. Moore, Esther, Anchor Bible, New York 1971.

Paton 1908

L. B. Paton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther, ICC, Edinburgh 1908. 





[1] Some twenty-five years ago, S. Yizhar proposed a "model for reading literature," listing four different levels for reading narrative (S. Yizhar, To Read a Story, Tel-Aviv 1982, pp. 206-221.


[2] In a different context, Uriel Simon postulated a similar argument in his response to Perry and Sternberg, who had proposed that the story of David and Batsheva contained certain unsolved lacunae, and that the reader ends up surmising his own answers (for instance, whether Uriah suspected the king).  See: U. Simon, "An Ironic View of a Biblical Story – On the Interpretation of the Story of David and Batsheva," Ha-Sifrut 2 (5730), pp. 598-607.


[3] We ignore, in the present context, the case of philosophical writing where the author seeks, knowingly and deliberately, to conceal the truth from the simple reader, intending it only for those in the know.  Some examples of this type of work include Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (especially his discussion of the reasons for the contradictions between biblical books, as set out in his Introduction to the work (seventh reason); and Nachmanides' Commentary on the Torah, where an explanation that is offered "according to the true understanding" is presented in the form of hints so that a reader who is unfamiliar with the secrets of Kabbala will not understand (see the Introduction to Nachmanides' Commentary on the Torah).


[4] An extreme formulation of this position was proposed thirty years ago by Umberto Eco in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Bloomington and London 1979.  Eco is not alone in this position, which is becoming increasingly common in literary criticism.  Suffice it, in this context, to mention three prominent names: Michael Riffateere (1966); Stanley Fish (1970); and Ronald Barthes (1970). 


[5] See, for example, E.E. Urbach, "Derashot Chazal u-Perushei Origanes le-Shir Ha-shirim ve-Havikuach ha-Yehudi Notzri," Tarbitz 30 (5731), pp.  148-170; G.D. Cohen, "Shir Ha-shirim be-Aspaklaria ha-Yehudit," A. Shapiro (ed.) Torah Nidreshet: Chibburim be-She'elot Yesod be-Olamo shel ha-Mikra, Tel Aviv 5744, pp. 89-108; and R. Kimelman, "Rabbi Yohanan and Origen on the Song of Songs; A Third Century Jewish-Christian Disputation," HThR 73 (1980), pp. 567-595.


[6] Yairah Amit, Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative.  Tel-Aviv 2003, p. 11 [Heb.]


[7] BDB pg. 665. Indeed, various modern translations have rendered the verse accordingly.  For example, "Thus they plundered the Egyptians" (New American Standard Bible (1995)).


[8] The Septuagint renders the word "yivashe'a" (was delivered), but as Abramsky notes: "There is room to suppose that the expression 'was delivered,' in the Septuagint, is more likely an interpretation or adaptation, with the unusual introduction of a passive verb to describe warfare, in an attempt at reaching a clear early formulation, in keeping with the parallel record in II Shemuel 8.  This is especially likely since, at the time of the creation of the Septuagint, it was undesirable to leave such an ambiguous expression as 'yarshi'a,' which might be interpreted as being directed against Shaul amongst the messages of the stories in the Book of Shemuel" (S. Abramsky, Malkhut Shaul u-Malkhut David, Jerusalem 5737, p. 46.  See also his article, "U-vekol Asher Yifneh Yarshi'a," in Ch. Rabin (ed.) Sefer Meir Wallenstein, Jerusalem 5739, pp. 48-65.


[9] D. M. Gunn and D. N. Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, Oxford 1993, p. 81


[10] S.Y. Agnon, "Of Such and Such," Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 5738, pp. 57-127 [Heb.].


[11] J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Vol. I, Assen 1981, p. 191


[12] See in this regard: Y. Zakowitz, Ki ha-Adam Yireh le-Einayim ve-Hashem Yireh le-Lev: Al Tachposet u-Gemula be-Sippurei ha-Mikra," Jerusalem 5758.


[13] See, for example: F. B. Huey, "Irony as the Key to Understanding the Book of Esther," Southwestern Journal of Theology 32 (1989), pp.36-39.


[14] As posited already by Rashi, and also: C. A. Moore, Esther, Anchor Bible, New York 1971, p. 93.


[15] This idea was proposed by Ginsberg in his Introduction to Megillat Esther: H. L. Ginsberg, "Introductions," in: The Five Megilloth and Jonah, Philadelphia 1969, pp. 82-88.


[16] Berlin, p. 5.


[17] C. H. Cornill, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, Leipzig

1891, p. 153


[18] B. W. Anderson, "The Place of the Book of Esther in the Christian Bible," JR 30 (1950), pp. 32-43.


[19] In modern times, "secular nationalism" does indeed exist as a phenomenon, but this was not so in the ancient world, at the time when the book was written (Fox, p. 236).


[20] A. Meinhold, Das Buch Esther, Zürcher Bibelkommentare, Zurich 1983, p. 99-101

[21] Cf: Fox, p. 244-247 ("The Message of Silence").


Translated by Kaeren Fish