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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Genre and Purpose.

1.

The blatant historical difficulties, the internal inconsistencies, the pronounced symmetry of themes and events, the plenitude of quoted dialogue, and the gross exaggeration in the reporting of numbers (involving time, money, and people) all point to Esther as a work of fiction, its vivid characters (except for Xerxes) being the product of the author's creative imagination. Recognizing that it is not historical, although it reflects actual conditions and problems of the post-exilic Jewish Diaspora, has allowed scholars to appreciate many of its literary features and to compare its thematic aspects with those of certain other canonical, deuterocanonical, and extracanonical pieces.

2.

Esther has long been called a ‘Diaspora novella’ (Meinhold 1969; 1975–6 ). Like the Joseph story in Genesis and the book of Daniel, it is a fictional piece of prose writing involving the interaction between foreigners and Hebrews/Jews. In all these works, the Jews have low status, are threatened, and at the end achieve success and a rise in status. The plots of these tales depict only one series of events, all occurring within a limited time period. Esther's similarity to Daniel and to the Joseph tale, especially with many lexical connections to the latter, may be the result of all three of these novellas also being ‘royal courtier tales’ (see Humphreys 1973 ). That such tales contain many elements of wisdom literature is also a compelling consideration (Talmon 1963 ).

3.

An important dimension to the wise-courtier aspect of Esther and other biblical pieces is added by noting its folkloristic features (Niditch and Doran 1977 ). Recognizing the presence of certain elements that are known cross-culturally, outside biblical tradition, broadens the consideration of literary traits and genres to include awareness of the social setting. The type of folk-tale exemplified by Esther involves status difference as a critical element. The interplay and tension between high- and low-status persons and/or groups, with the lower-status character or community prevailing, constitute a kind of resistance literature (Smith 1989: 162–4). The creation of such tales in many cultures uses similar themes and elements because those features, whereby a minority hero/heroine rises above and achieves some sort of victory over the dominant power, allow the oppressed group to maintain identity, self-respect, and hope. Through her cleverness and patience, Esther thwarts a superpower. The official culture's dominance is thereby contested, and traits (wisdom, piety, cleverness) available to even the powerless are shown to have empowering value.

4.

In the case of the Book of Esther, as in many other such folk-tales, the outcome does not mean that the dominant power is toppled. Rather, the achievement of the hero/heroine is to establish the integrity of the minority group within the larger culture. That is, Judaism cannot and thus will not overtly oppose its imperial masters; but it can maintain its core identity while subscribing to most of the Persian regulations and structures. More broadly, Jews can be loyal to two masters; they can live successfully in the Diaspora.

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