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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 21–28 

Persian/Jew/Jew/Persian: Levels of Irony in the Scroll of Esther

Matthew J. Klaassen

The book of Esther is probably best known to many believers as the only book in the Bible that does not mention the Lord. Most Old Testament scholars, however, recognize Esther for its numerous levels of irony. Irony, in fact, is the major tone throughout Esther and generates most of its primary meaning. As we shall see, it gives a particularly interesting meaning for today.

The interwoven plot lines of Esther, with different kinds of literary irony, are identified and illustrated to show the essential fallenness of all peoples.

Shimon Bar-Efrat holds that there are two primary types of irony in the Bible: dramatic irony comes from occurrences in the plot, and verbal irony which comes from the language the author uses in his descriptions and the characters’ speech. 1 While these two categories are very useful when trying to understand how the author’s text works, I do not think the Bar-Efrat’s classification is broad enough to incorporate ironies that are realized by the reader. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has taught us, meaning is not generated by the author alone, but by a fusion of both the author’s and the reader’s horizons of understanding. 2

With Gadamer’s admonition to literary critics {22} in mind, I think it is more helpful to turn to Stan Goldman’s description of the different types of irony. 3 Rhetorical irony is found within the story in various forms: irony of plot, irony of narrative perspective, irony of characterizations, irony of language, and irony of theme. 4 All of the types of rhetorical irony are textual and therefore it covers the area that Bar-Efrat intends to in his work. Goldman defines irony created by “the author’s narrative strategy within the text” as intuitive irony. 5 Finally, the reader’s response to the text when her understanding responds to the author’s intuition is generative irony. 6 My strategy will be to first trace the rhetorical ironies found in the Hebrew text of Esther itself, then look at the author’s intuitive ironies, and lastly discover the generative irony.


The first rhetorical irony of incident has its origin at the very beginning of the story when King Ahasuerus commands his wife, Queen Vashti, to display her beauty before the drunken court. When she refuses to be shown off as just another one of the king’s possessions and retain her dignity, Ahasuerus does not take kindly to this threat to his male superiority and has her deposed. The irony is that, while the king is trying to retain his authority and power over the women of the kingdom, the new wife will disobey him twice by coming to him when he has forbidden it (in chapters 5 and 8) and eventually manipulate and dominate him for her own ends. 7

Another irony of incident occurs in relation to feasting. Feasting is the primary motif of the book, as it begins with a feast of the Persians, Esther prepares two meals for Ahasuerus and Haman, and the book is about the establishment of the feast of Purim. 8 The Persian feasting of chapter one is ironically reversed when the Jews feast in chapter nine to celebrate Adar becoming a month “which turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing . . .” (Esther 9:22). 9

The most obvious and possibly the most severe textual irony is the honoring of Mordecai in chapter six. 10 King Ahasuerus asks Haman, the self-declared enemy of all Jews, especially Mordecai (3:6), what a king should do for the one he desires to honor. Vain Haman, believing that he is the one the king wants to glorify, gives the king an extravagant suggestion that the honored one should be given a wonderful robe and be put on horseback to be led through the city by a prince of the realm declaring his greatness. Haman is, of course, mortified when the king orders him to do this for Mordecai. The Talmud adds an illustration to the incident that shows just how horrible it is for Haman to do this: while he is leading the horse bearing Mordecai through the city, his daughter, on a rooftop far above sees the two men and {23} thinks that the one leading the horse is Mordecai. She therefore empties a chamber pot onto her father’s hated enemy, only to discover that it was, in fact, Haman. Mortified, she throws herself off the roof and dies. This emphasized just how ironically humiliating and crushing the whole incident is to Haman, who began the scene thinking that he would be glorified. 11

Goldman argues that the symbolism of rising and falling contributes to a much broader irony of incident in Esther. 12 Mordecai originally arouses Haman’s anger at the Jews because he refuses to either bow (fall) or even rise to honor his presence. Haman falls at Esther’s (a Jew’s!) mercy when his plot to exterminate the Jews is revealed, and is executed by being hung—risen—on a gallows of his own construction. Obviously, being hung on his own gallows is an ironic incident symbolizing how all of his plotting to destroy others ended in his own downfall and death. 13 In the end, “[w]ith Haman’s fall comes Mordecai’s rise, for Mordecai is given the same signet ring that the king gave to Haman and receives Haman’s lands.” 14

An irony of narrative perspective occurs when Haman falls on Esther’s couch begging for mercy. Ahasuerus angrily storms out of the room after Haman’s plot is revealed (v.7) and Haman begins begging for his life (vv.7-8). Unfortunately for Haman, the king returns shortly, and Haman is erroneously (not to mention ironically!) sentenced to death for assaulting the queen. “The reader enjoys the dramatic irony of perceiving more than the characters’ individual points of view in ch.7, while each character is oblivious to the other’s point of view.” 15

Irony of characterization is naturally focused on Esther herself. As we saw in the discussion about narrative perspective, Esther neatly manipulates Ahasuerus and Haman to her own purposes. The silences in the text can lead us many directions—was she trying to arouse jealously in the king against Haman? Is the second banquet simply a way to enjoy her control over Haman and the king? Whatever the case is, it is clear that Esther’s character has ironically changed from a submissive young woman in the first several chapters to that of a dominating, manipulative queen. 16 This reversal of characterization is completed in her behavior towards Mordecai. At first, she is the obedient adopted daughter, “Esther did what Mordecai told her as she had done when under his care” (2:20). However, when she last speaks to Mordecai in the text, she is the one giving orders. “So Mordecai went away and did just as Esther had commanded him” (4:17). The transformation from servant to monarch is complete.

Ironic language is also present in the story. Goldman discusses the exaggerated numbers of the king’s provinces, the beauty treatments of the potential brides, the amount of riches, etc. and this hyperbole, of course, adds to the irony of the story. 17 Another instance of irony of language occurs when {24} Haman returns to his wife, Zeresh, after leading Mordecai through Susa. At first, she had been the one to advise him to build a gallows for Mordecai. However, upon Haman’s humiliated return she says “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him” (6:13). At first, Zeresh was enthusiastic about her husband’s plan to destroy Mordecai. Now this wife of an anti-Semite thinks that Haman will fail because Mordecai is Jewish. Her language here is ironic, and it additionally is an ironic reversal of characterization for her. 18

Goldman is no doubt correct when he states that “[i]ronic reversal is a central theme of Esther.” 19 All of the ironies I have discussed above lead to this result. “[T]he entire story is a development of these words: ‘the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened; and the Jews got their enemies in their power’ (9:1).” 20 In verse 9:22, the word nhpk describes the metamorphoses of the 15th of Adar from a day on which the Jews had expected to be destroyed to a day of joyful celebration. 21 Thus, we see that the text of Esther depends greatly on irony for the meaning contained within the actions and words of its characters.


The intuitive irony of the text is in the author’s suggestions to Jews for dealing with the Diaspora. The irony in the story is that the Jews survive and retain their distinct identity while becoming part of the Persian power structure—or so the author wants us to believe. This is most completely embodied in the story by the ascension of Mordecai to second place in the Empire while still serving his people, the Jews.

Goldman writes that the aspect of assimilation is also demonstrated in the way that the author writes in a Persian, rather than a Jewish manner and the absence of explicit mention of Yahweh or even Elohim—“Esther is written by a Jew writing as a non-Jew.” 22 While Moore points out that the name of God may have been left out of the Hebrew text to prevent drunken revelers at the celebration of Purim from profaning the name of God, 23 that the Jews have now adopted a festival of drunkenness just as the Persians had at the beginning of the story shows the extent to which the Jews have become Persian.

Many scholars argue that Mordecai and Esther are names drawn from the Babylonian-Persian gods Marduk and Ishtar. In addition, some contend that the whole story is a Jewish adaption of a tale from Babylonian legends, or may be based on a conflict between ancient Babylonian religious rivals. 24 If this is true, the author would have some sense of this, and this would be a further way in which the author’s narrative was imbedded in Persian culture and {25} reinforces the irony of Jewish assimilation into it. While the author wants to retain Jewish identity—Mordecai, Esther, and all the Jews in Susa fast in chapter 4—the irony is that it can only be maintained if Jewish adaption to Persian culture is achieved.


The main generative irony in the story comes out of the Jewish attack on their Persian “enemies.” The modern reader reflecting on this wholesale slaughter of 75,810 people, including women and children, is repulsed. Of course, there have been attempts by various scholars to explain this away. Some argue that the massacre is included simply to fulfill literary expectations, or that it is a catharsis for the powerless Jews. However, neither of these options solve the ethical problem that is presented. 25

C.A. Moore argues that ethical questions miss the point; the real issue in Esther is the establishment of Purim. 26 This explanation does not fit with the author’s horizon of meaning, though. “Esther is written foremost as an ironic explanation of Jewish/Gentile relationships, not merely as an explanation for a minor Jewish holiday.” 27

Moore argues in a later article that the Jews were engaged in a struggle for survival, thus they did not have the time to judge their actions, they did what they thought had to be done in a desperate situation. 28 “Good military strategy often makes for unacceptable ethics” 29 is the explanation. This does not quite fit with the story’s content, though. Goldman points that “the story takes pains to illustrate the pro-Jewish sentiments of the Persians.” 30 When Haman’s edict is announced, “the city of Susa was in confusion” (3:15).

To make things worse, one must remember that there were two attacks on the “enemies of the Jews,” the second one occurring after the sons of Haman were killed in Susa. This is not a God-invoked holy war against the Canaanites, this is vicious human initiative. 31 The same words Haman uses in his edict against the Jews—destroy, massacre, and exterminate—are used by Esther when describing the edict to the king, and the implication is that this is what the Jews will do to their enemies. 32

If we must now judge the Jewish attack as unethical, what have we learned? “Irony here produces a leveling effect: Jews behave like Persians, Persians behave like Jews.” 33 Many Persians at the end of the story have become Jews (8:17), yet we have seen how the Jews have become Persian. There is no one race that is wholly evil, and there is no one group that can never go wrong. The Persians were not out to “get” the Jews in the story, and the Jews are not a helpless people fighting for their lives. In this ironic light, the scroll of Esther becomes a scroll of positive Jewish self-criticism to be remembered when also reflecting on the glory of the nation of Israel. {26} 34


Esther is a story full of many levels and types of irony. They cannot all be adequately discussed and developed here, so I have chosen a few and emphasized the meaning of one of them. All of the rhetorical irony in the story builds up the theme of the Jewish triumph and coming into power at the end of the story. The author means this to make a point that Jews must assimilate themselves and use the Persian power structures to make a place for themselves in the Diaspora.

The story is an ironic tale of reversal focusing on Jewish-Gentile relations. Modern readers realize that the true irony of the story is that the Jews are, in the end, no different than the Persians. They adopt Persian customs, the Persians adopt theirs, Haman had planned to exterminate the Jews, and the Jews kill many innocent Persians. The message for people in religious or ethnic groups is a simple one but one all too often unapplied: no matter what their past achievements or promises, all peoples are fundamentally the same, no one has an original claim to righteousness.

Naturally, this interpretation of Esther and the method used to achieve it may not be convincing to everyone. And there may come a time when this way of understanding the generative irony of Esther does not fit the contemporary situation, when the Jewish attack does seem justified. But I would be a foolish hermeneut, Gadamer would say, if I thought the dialogue was ever really over.


  1. Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, Trans. Dorothea Shefer-Vanson (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 1989), 125, 210.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York, NY: Crossroads, 1992).
  3. Stan Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies in Esther,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 47 (1990): 15-31.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid., 16.
  6. Ibid., 15-16.
  7. C. A. Moore, Esther (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), vi.
  8. C. A. Moore, “Eight Questions Most Frequently Asked About the Book of Esther,” Bible Review 3 (1987): 20.
  9. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 17.
  10. Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 129. {27}
  11. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 17-18.
  12. Ibid., 8.
  13. Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 129.
  14. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 18.
  15. Ibid., 18-19.
  16. Ibid., 20.
  17. Ibid., 21.
  18. Ibid., 20.
  19. Ibid., 21.
  20. Ibid., 21.
  21. Ibid., 21.
  22. Ibid., 26.
  23. Moore, “Eight Questions,” 28.
  24. Ibid., 20-21.
  25. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 22.
  26. Moore, Esther, 91.
  27. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 23.
  28. Moore, “Eight Questions,” 28-29.
  29. Goldman, “Narrative and Ethical Ironies,” 23.
  30. Ibid., 23.
  31. Ibid., 22-24.
  32. Ibid., 22.
  33. Ibid., 24.
  34. Ibid., 24-25.


  • Bar-Efrat, Shimon. Narrative Art in the Bible. Trans. Dorothea Shefer-Vanson. Sheffield: Almond, 1992.
  • Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, eds., Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall. New York: Crossroads, 1992.
  • Goldman, Stan. “Narrative and Ethical Ironies in Esther.” Journal for the {82} Study of the Old Testament 47 (1990): 15-31.
  • Moore, C. A. Esther. Doubleday: New York, 1971. Idem, “Eight Questions Most Frequently Asked About the Book of Esther.” Bible Review 3 (1987): 16-32.
  • Sabua, Rachel. “The Hidden Hand of God.” Bible Review 8 (1992): 31-33.
Matthew J. Klaassen graduated from Tabor College in 1994 with degrees in Philosophy and in Biblical and Religious Studies. He is interested in pursuing study in philosophy or music composition. This paper was written as part of his work at Tabor College.

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