The Story of Esther as Redemptive Humor in the Bible: When God Lets Us in on the Joke of Empire
The Lord is wise. He is mighty. God is faithful and compassionate. And He is funny. Though absent from most lists of divine attributes, humor is also among God’s traits, as we discover from the humor in the Bible.
We miss an important facet of God’s redemptive work when we overlook the healing laughter He provides. For some troubles of the soul, laughter really is the best medicine. And God gives us that medicine right where we need it—as seen in the story of Esther, one of the most riotous comedies in the Bible.
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Finding the Humor in the Bible
Biblical scholars have not traditionally recognized “comedy” among the genres of Scripture. Theologians generally consider their big black Bibles too heavy to include levity. At least Christian theologians do. Jewish commentators have long enjoyed Scripture’s playfulness. But in recent years, scholars of various stripes have begun to appreciate the importance of humor in the Bible.
They are even increasingly acknowledging that there are full-blown works of comedy in Scripture, like the almost slapstick story of the left-handed assassin in Judges 3:12–30;1Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 37–41. the misadventures of the sulking prophet in the Book of Jonah;2Steve Wilkens, What’s So Funny about God? A Theological Look at Humor (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 228. John R. Miles, “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” in Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup 92; Bible and Literature Series 23; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 203–15. Also my podcast, “Jonah as Comedy” (www.anchor.fm/thebibleisbeautiful). and the queen of biblical comedies, the Book of Esther.3Karen H. Jobes, The NIV Application Commentary: Esther (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 37. Adele Berlin, Esther: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (JPS Commentary; Philadelphia: JPS, 2001), xvi–xxii. Kenneth Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995). Wilkens, What’s So Funny about God?, 151–61. Radday, “Esther with Humour,” in On Humour and the Comic, 295–313. Adele Berlin writes, “The Book of Esther is the most humorous of the books of the Bible, amusing throughout and at certain points uproariously funny.”4Berlin, Esther, xvii.
It is that crowning masterpiece of biblical jest and its ministry of humor for our souls that I will explore. This is a tricky undertaking, however. E. B. White once observed that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog: both die in the process. I assure you that no animals were harmed in the writing of this essay. And though I am neither a comic nor the son of a comic, I hope what follows will help enliven your appreciation for the serious role of humor in the Bible.
The Book of Esther Is a Tragedy Told Comedically
It must be affirmed up front that the lived experience of Esther was no laughing matter. In a previous generation, Esther’s people had been forcibly removed from their homeland. Esther was a third culture kid who never knew the land of her heritage nor belonged to the land of her birth. Then both her parents died, leaving Esther to be raised by her older cousin Mordecai. Though she grew up to be quite beautiful, Esther’s attractiveness got her noticed by the wrong people. She was eventually drafted into the royal harem for the gratification of a lustful, indulgent ruler.
There is nothing funny about these events. But there is plenty of vapid pomposity to pillory in a society that perpetrates such atrocities. Some forms of comedy make us laugh at trivialities, like the number of clowns one can(not) fit into a compact car. But other forms of comedy do serious work. Irony and satire, for example, can serve a formative function in biblical faith.
Done right, such humor lays bare the shallowness of society’s values. And it does so in a way that frees us from temptation to share those values. Comedy is not just the stuff of late night entertainment. It can also serve the purposes of Sunday morning sanctification, when it is created to serve the ends of faith and not simply to get a laugh. The biblical telling of Esther’s story is an example of comedy’s power to take on hard subjects for redemptive ends.
Downsizing the Oversized
When we open the Book of Esther, the first character (or caricature) we meet is the Persian emperor. Ahasuerus “reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces” (1:1). Never before had a single man possessed absolute power over such a vast swath of humanity.
We first meet this king during the final feast of a royal party that had been going for six months (1:3–8). His palace was adorned with violet curtains on marble pillars, “and also couches of gold and silver.” For 180 days the king “showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness” while the wine flowed without limit. The rest of the book continues this picture of a king with unlimited wealth and kowtowing servants.
But a joke emerges whenever the king acts. For despite this great show of glory, the king never made any decisions himself. When Queen Vashti refused his summons, the king was befuddled. He did not know what to do. He had to ask his advisors (1:13). When he later grieved the loss of his consort, the king sulked until his advisors came up with a solution: an entire harem of beautiful women (2:2). Even when the king made a troubling discovery in the middle of one night, he asked if anyone was lingering in the palace halls to tell him what to do (6:4).
The combination of exaggerated grandeur and exaggerated impotence form one of the great gags of the book, thereby exposing the vanity of empire. Of course, Persian emperors were actually astute and decisive rulers. The book’s author knew that. But this story offers a spoof of empire. Comedy exaggerates details, but it does so to accurately reveal deeper truths.
The world’s powerful are not to be held in awe. Their glory is just a charade. Even the despots of Persia do not deserve the fear of God’s people.
Nevertheless, all that being so, the book does not utterly castigate the Persian king. Though his semi-divine glory be exposed as a sham, Esther and Mordecai never neglected the honor he was due as a ruler. In fact, Mordecai overheard a plot on the king’s life and defended the king by exposing it (2:21–23). At the end of the story, Mordecai accepted a promotion as the king’s prime minister (10:2–3). The book lampoons imperial arrogance, but it does not deny a ruler’s proper (restrained) authority. This book offers biting but not bitter satire. It is told redemptively with measured ridicule and dignity.
The story’s primary villain is wicked Haman. From his first appearance (3:1), Haman’s lust for power is matched only by his hatred for Mordecai and the Jews. Throughout the story he is painted in black: sinister, conniving, and manipulative. Unlike the king who never makes decisions, Haman is constantly cooking up new plots. But every plot, however genius, eventually falls on his own head.
Haman finagled a decree to destroy the Jews (3:7–11). But “the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them” (9:1). Haman determined to impale Mordecai on a tall post (5:14), but he was the one hung there in the end (7:9-10). Haman initially secured an appointment as the king’s prime minister (3:1–5), but it was Mordecai who ultimately possessed that office (8:2; 10:2–3). And in what Karen Jobes calls “arguably the most ironically comic scene in the entire Bible,”5Jobes, 152. Haman entered the palace early one morning with designs to shame Mordecai. But he left with orders to honor him (6:1–13). Haman’s role in the book is a comedy of errors woven with stunning wit.
By giving Haman a face of evil but feet of a buffoon, the book defangs fear for its audience. The book is not written to tickle the fancy of the comfortable (though it may do that). This book is written for people who face real Hamans, and it uses comedy to replace fear with faith.
By the end of the story, we discover the book’s purpose. It was written to explain Purim, a Jewish holiday of “feasting and gladness” (9:22). The Book of Esther tells the holiday’s origin story. By providing it in comic form, public readings would help stir the holiday spirit each year. And the holiday’s name “Purim” is the book’s crowning joke.
Back when Haman began plotting, “they cast Pur (that is, they cast lots) before Haman day after day . . . till the twelfth month” (3:7). This was done to determine the auspicious timing to strike. But the date identified to destroy became the date for celebration. “Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur” (9:26).6Purim is the pluralized spelling of Pur, once transliterated from Akkadian into Hebrew. The book’s ultimate joke is that Israel’s God used the Persian lots to reveal his appointment of a holiday for his people. So the Persian name for lots was adopted for this Jewish festival.
This lesson is magnified by the fact that God’s name is nowhere mentioned in the book. Esther is the only book in the Bible that never once mentions God. The writer did not accidentally forget. God’s silence is part of its design.7Bryan R. Gregory, Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 1–13. The book is a miniature of life in exile. Esther’s people lived in a land where the name of God was not known. But this book and its holiday bear testimony that even in such godless lands, Yahweh remains faithful to his people.
Only satire can communicate this lesson so effectively. And only by recognizing God’s humor in the Bible can we appropriate this message—and laugh. It is a joke God’s people still need, especially those suffering under oppressive regimes. Human rulers try to eradicate the name of God. But “he who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psa 2:4). And through a story like Esther, the Humorist in Heaven invites us in on the joke. He beckons us with comedy to remain aloof from worldly arrogance, and he strengthens us to wait upon him with faith and light hearts.
1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 37–41.
2. Steve Wilkens, What’s So Funny about God? A Theological Look at Humor (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 228. John R. Miles, “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” in Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup 92; Bible and Literature Series 23; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 203–15. Also my podcast, “Jonah as Comedy” (www.anchor.fm/thebibleisbeautiful).
3. Karen H. Jobes, The NIV Application Commentary: Esther (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 37. Adele Berlin, Esther: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (JPS Commentary; Philadelphia: JPS, 2001), xvi–xxii. Kenneth Craig, Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995). Wilkens, What’s So Funny about God?, 151–61. Radday, “Esther with Humour,” in On Humour and the Comic, 295–313.
4. Berlin, Esther, xvii.
5. Jobes, 152.
6. Purim is the pluralized spelling of Pur, once transliterated from Akkadian into Hebrew.
7. Bryan R. Gregory, Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 1–13.
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