This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2004 vol. 161 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
EstherWestminster John Knox Press, Louisville December 29, 2011
This work on Esther presents an interesting junction of contrasts for evangelical readers. Bechtel argues briefly that the book is nonhistorical, and then she argues for its canonical authority and power as a witness to God’s delivering power. The Book of Esther is to be dated, she says, between 400 and 200 B.C., but it does not intend to present itself as a sober historical record of the events it narrates. These events could not have occurred, she insists, since the story as told conflicts with other information regarding the reign of Xerxes, notably information from Herodotus (p. 3). Taking into consideration a series of improbabilities in the text (six months of feasting, 1:3–4; 127 provinces in the Persian Empire, 1:1; a seventy-five-foot gallows, 5:14; and others), Bechtel concludes that the book is not historically true. Instead, she says, it is poetic truth. “Fiction, then, is not the absence of truth, but often the vehicle for it” (p. 4, italics hers). She then suggests, following Adele Berlin, that the book is a burlesque, that is, a literary caricature or farce that can take on a tone of “ ‘mock dignity,’ often with hilarious results” (p. 4). The characteristics of burlesque are “exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities, verbal humor . . . repetition—of scenes, events, and phrases—and inversions or reversals” (p. 4).
Bechtel discusses the book’s structure as a U-shaped plot (a classic comic plot) whose great reversal occurs in chapter 6. In chapters 1–5 the predominant note is negative for the protagonists. Then in chapters 6–12 the story moves toward a positive resolution.
In spite of these limitations Bechtel presents a brief but often insightful and stimulating discussion of the narrative in the Book of Esther. She says that the aim of the book is to challenge the reader to decide how to live in a pagan culture hostile to faith. The Jewish people in exile faced a dilemma in the story, embodied in the persons of Mordecai and particularly Esther. She parallels Haman, both of them having limited power, who must work through the king to accomplish their goals. Haman, having completely adopted Persian culture, displayed its foolish lack of proportion by determining to destroy a whole people because one of them, Mordecai, snubbed him. Haman disguised his purposes orally, but in writing, under the king’s (uninformed) seal, he decreed that Jews should be destroyed, killed, and annihilated, young and old, women and children (Esth. 3:13).
By contrast, but as a parallel to Haman, Esther is a model of proportion, an ideal woman of wisdom. She too must work through the king to accomplish her goals, but she adapted herself to the culture; she did not adopt it. She was able to use and sometimes even violate the culture for two reasons. Her well-timed action saved the king from a plot on his life (2:22), and a series of “coincidences” (evidence of God’s action in the book, pp. 13–14) gave her opportunities to speak acceptably to the king. She also, like Haman, disguised her goals, both for the king and for Haman. Yet unlike Haman she acted with a healthy sense of proportion to accomplish them. The exposition of the book carries out these main themes.
Bechtel is uneasy with the state of the text of the Book of Esther. The Septuagint includes six passages not present in the Masoretic text, passages generally rejected by Protestants but accepted by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities. While she disclaims the ability to do justice to the exposition of both forms of the text, “to ignore the additions completely seems both arrogant and unecumenical” (p. 2). Therefore in an appendix she includes a relatively lengthy (for the size of her treatment) discussion of the additions.
As a treatment of Esther’s narrative, itself a valuable task, Bechtel’s book is a useful addition to the literature. Evangelical readers would do well to consult this brief treatment to pick up literary aspects of the story that are often overlooked. However, its brevity somewhat diminishes its value, as does its position on genre and historicity. The works by Fox, Berlin, and Baldwin provide much better help for expositors.
—James E. Allman