Vox Tablet

Heroics Aside, the Story of Purim Is the Bible’s Greatest Farce

The Book of Esther doesn’t mention God. Robert Alter’s new translation shows that’s just one way the biblical text is unique.

March 4, 2015
'Queen Esther Before King Ahasuerus,' Julia Margaret Cameron (1865)(Wikimedia Commons)

‘Queen Esther Before King Ahasuerus,’ Julia Margaret Cameron (1865)(Wikimedia Commons)

The Book of Esther is among the Bible’s shortest stories. It tells the tale of a young Jewish woman who saves her people from a genocidal plot conceived of by Haman, an adviser to King Ahasuerus. It’s a story Jews around the world celebrate on Purim with costumes and revelry.

Robert Alter, a professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, has been working for years on new translations of all the books of the Bible. Included in the most recent edition of project, Strong as Death Is Love, is Alter’s take on the Book of Esther. In living so closely with the Esther text, Alter has come to see the story as a great farce or satire. He joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to offer his theories as to why the Book of Esther, one of the few to omit God’s name, was made part of the Bible, to share insights on the racy euphemisms that appear in Esther’s story, and to explain what Mardi Gras has to do with it all.

Plus, if Purim’s here, Passover isn’t far behind. To get ready, Deena Robertson shares an unforgettable tale about matzo balls. And Vox Tablet listeners are invited to send in their own anecdotes of Seders past.

Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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