Yes. You heard me.🎧 The story of Esther in the Book of Esther. This book is about as prose as prose gets, right? With its long and winding sentences, so long and winding that they parody regal eloquence 🤴, what’s Esther doing among cases of poetry? Well, I’m throwing you the mother of all curveballs.⚾️ That’s what I’m doing. Just watch how this one breaks.
Until now, we’ve been doing poetry on the typical idea that poetry is made by patterning your speech, in a way that sounds distinctly different from everyday speech. You give it rhythms 🪘, you give it rhymes 🎶, you give it symmetries sublimes 👐🙏 🤲. What, that doesn’t work? Well, of course it doesn’t. If I could produce poetry I wouldn’t be sleuthing poetry, now, would I? Hey, it’s like sports. Those who can do it do it.🏂🏌️ Those who can’t do it report it.🎙️ And those who can’t do it anymore color commentate on it!📻 See what I mean?
Where was I? Oh yeah. We were figuring poetry for speech that has patterns. But about 2,400 years ago this Greek philosopher Aristotle (4th cent. BCE) — yes, I read a little outside my wheelhouse every now and then — well, Aristotle made the shrewd point that you could write a science treatise in a completely patterned way. That would be in verse, see? but that doesn’t make it poetry. Now between you and me, I don’t know what kind of scientists Aristotle was hanging around with over there and back then, maybe the types they got here and now @uchicago. Heck, @uchicago they come up with things like Freakonomics™ and Twitterature™. Anyways, Aristotle’s point is that what actually makes poetry poetry is not the rhythming and the rhyming, it’s the virtual voicing, simulating a speaker. Now Aristotle was talking about drama, but he was clear that he doesn’t mean the actors when they’re performing the play. It’s the text of the play as a whole. The text has a voice or voices, those of the storyteller, the chorus, and the characters. This may come as a shock to you 🤯, maybe it doesn’t🥱, it’s not for me to say🤫, but the voices of the text are NOT REAL. They only mimic speaking people, or simulate them, represent them virtually, and so on. That is what makes poetry poetry.
I’m sure you have a lot of questions. 🤨 Aristotle’s a long time ago! I know. 🤨🤨 His book on poetry was lost and we only have an incomplete set of lecture notes! I know. 🤨🤨🤨 You’re thinking yours truly has been in this gig too long, WAY too long, and it’s about time I hung up my gumshoes and made room for someone younger, fresher, faster, and sharper. I KNOW. But here’s exactly the thing. Poetry sleuthing has not progressed much since Aristotle’s incomplete lecture notes!! I kid you not. Hey, no one said sleuths are smart, least of all me. We’re just willing to do the dirty work no one else has the stomach for, digging up details, tracking down elusive figures, grinding out ideas.
You want more recent? OK, so there’s a sleuth, Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Yes, a woman.🕵️ You’re surprised? Now who’s out of date? Some of the best sleuths out there are women. It’s a progressive profession. Tell your neighbor.👵 Tell your neighbor’s daughter.🦸♀️ Well this sleuth Smith has pushed Aristotle’s idea forward, and reasoned out that all fiction can be called poetry. Any novel. All literature. Seriously. All fiction has a voice that tells a story or expresses a sentiment or creates a speech-event, and all these types of voices are simulated, virtual, and so on. It’s not that the characters spoken of are fictitious, it’s that the speaking of them at all is fictitious. No one is actually speaking at all. It’s in your head! Feeling dizzy by now?😵💫 It’s not the drink. It’s the idea. I KNOW. But here’s the thing. By Smith’s reasoning, we can read the Book of Esther — remember Esther? this is a post about Esther — we can read Esther as a form of poetry, a form of literature, do a little sleuthing and see how it works. What, you don’t like that? You’re skeptical? OK, so we’ll call it my contribution to the Jewish “topsy-turvy day” 🙃, Purim🎭, and move on.
The way I see it, Esther is a parody about extremes, all kinds of extremes, including swinging between the extremes of obsessive protocol and choreography and unlimited excess. Even the style is over the top: Long and winding sentences. Long and unfamiliar words. Endless repetitions. Worse than a PROFESSOR!🧐 You see what I’m trying to say here? There is this massive world-wide empire, see?, the Persian empire, headed by the emperor Xerxes (Aḥašweroš) in the 5th cent. BCE (before Aristotle). And in this massive empire everything is always at stake, everything hangs in the balance by a thread. Here’s the story in a nutshell🥜:
☝️ The emperor Xerxes has a thing for beautiful women. He likes to own them and look at them, like porcelain dolls. Xerxes throws a massive over-the-top party and calls his beautiful queen, Vashti (Wašti), to come out all decked out in order to show off her beauty. She refuses. The king’s advisors rush to the extreme conclusion: if word gets out the queen disobeyed the king, all wives will disobey all husbands and the empire itself will be chaos.
✌️ The king deposes the queen and seeks a replacement. The advisors go all-out and bring every single eligible woman in the empire to be examined for the king’s pleasure.
🤟To make sure the women are as beautiful as humanly possible, they do the most over-the-top make-up and body-wash job possible — a rub-down in essential oils for 12 months! The spa of spas experience if I ever heard of one. Anyway, he chooses Esther, a women from the community of Judean deportees, a Jewish ethnic. She keeps that secret. Why? Who knows. But I guess all that spa treatment scrubbed the ethnic right off her and she was Persian-passing now.
✌️✌️ Xerxes has a top advisor, Haman, who wants every single person to bow all the way down every time he walks by.
🖐️ There’s this Judean/Jewish man, Mordechai — Esther’s uncle, would you believe it? — who just won’t bow down. So, in a completely over-the-top reaction, Haman decides that all the Judean/Jewish people in all 127 provinces across the entire empire must be completely killed off. He talks to the king and explains how Judean/Jewish people throughout all 127 provinces of the empire are different from all the other peoples, like, they are more different than all the other differences between all the different peoples. Their difference makes them resisters with revolutionary potential (Pharaoh, anyone?). In the first month of the year he runs a random date-picker, which comes up in the last month of the year, about 11 months away.
Hey, are you seeing what I’m seeing here, the patterns? Listen up. Royal advisors are worried that Vashti’s disobedience will lead to a women’s revolution everywhere. The top royal advisor is worried that Mordechai’s disobedience represents Judean/Jewish resistance everywhere. Also, a whole year for each woman to prepare to be brought before the king; a whole year to prepare for the attack on Judean/Jewish people throughout the empire.
🤟🤟 Greek historians in Aristotle’s time, both before and after, knew a lot about Persia and wrote a lot of about Persia. They were really impressed with it. Two of the things they mention are an extensive network of roads and a mail system that never sleeps. Esther parodies this too. Xerxes has an entire corps of “runners” whose job is to deliver the royal letters “urgently.” As soon the emperor’s word is signed, someone is there to run it everywhere. And, the story assures us, the emperor’s word is “once and forever.” It is becomes not just the law of the land, but a law of the universe, like biology and chemistry, like a god. This because once the emperor pronounces his will, it can never be undone. See what I mean about over-the-top? Keep going.
🖐️✌️ Ancient kings and emperors had plenty of rules about “audience,” and there were plenty of ideas about how royal majesty and peace of mind were connected. Kings should appear unflappable and enjoy pleasure. With Xerxes, this is all over the top. Just a request to have audience risks your life: either he grants you audience or he denies it and you die for asking. Mordechai has to run roughshod over Esther to get her to request an audience with Xerxes to save the Judean/Jewish people of the empire by revealing her identity. She is so afraid that (1) she asks the community to fast for her for three days and (2) when Xerxes asks for her request she deflects with a wine party! At the wine party, Xerxes asks what she wants, and she requests – another wine party! At the second wine party, she reveals that she and her people are slated to be eradicated. She is sure to add that were it wholesale enslavement, she’d never trouble the king peace of mind with it, but it is after all mass murder.
🖐️🤟 Now remember: the emperor’s will and word are a law of the universe. They are eternal and irreversible. So Xerxes cannot possibly undo the letters sent out by so many runners to all the provinces announcing the destruction of the Judean/Jewish people. So he has a second batch of letters sent out that authorize Judean/Jewish citizens to protect themselves.
Are you getting the scene here? Xerxes has told one set of people to attack another and told the other they may defend themselves. Xerxes is calling two parts of the empire to arms against each other. ⚔️ He is single-handedly bringing about civil war throughout the entire empire. And this is all because his text-messages cannot be erased or changed! 💬 The poison of social media throughout Xerxes’ Persia and Media! ☠️ How about this final twist? This is exactly what Xerxes’ advisors always worried him with — women tearing the empire apart and a people that is too different from everyone else turning it inside out.
Look, I’ll say just two more things about this topsy-turvy case of poetry as a parody in prose.
- The idea that productive people are busy being productive, and people in power who crave power are not much more than a powder keg 💣 who can cause the whole kit-and-caboodle to go up in smoke 🔥, is there in Yotam’s parable in Judges 9.
- If you don’t believe me that there’s parody in the Bible, take a look at the Book of Jonah. 🐳 What, you don’t see that? OK, looks like I’ve got another case to spell out for you, another time.
– Happy Purim!