How the Books of Exodus and Esther Use Humor to Underscore a Message of Hope

April 17 2019

Since the holiday of Purim occurs exactly one month and one day before Passover, these two celebrations of redemption are linked in the Jewish imagination. Joel Kaminsky notes many parallels between the biblical stories associated with the two holidays: each revolves around a genocidal plot against the Jews by a powerful empire (Persia and Egypt), each begins with a woman or women disobeying royal decrees (Vashti, who refuses to appear before her drunken husband Ahasuerus, and the midwives who refuse to throw Jewish babies into the Nile), each has as a protagonist a Jew who lives in the royal palace (Esther and Moses), and each ends in a reversal of fortunes between the Jews and their enemies. While many interpreters have pointed to the use of humor and irony in Esther, Kaminsky argues that there is similar comic use of ironic reversals in Exodus as well. He writes:

It is my contention that the writers of the biblical text used humor not only to enhance the aesthetic experience of the reader or listener, but also to make a deeper theological point. One of the major themes in the Hebrew Bible is trusting in God’s promises even though quite often current reality suggests that the fulfillment of these promises is unrealistic, or even impossible. Inasmuch as the Bible asks those who read it as sacred scripture to develop a type of hope that calls into question a commonsense view of the world, one should not be surprised to find humor in these narratives. This is because there is a structural affinity as well as a direct connection between humor and hope in that each proclaims that the reality of everyday life does not necessarily have the final word. As [the late sociologist of religion] Peter Berger notes, humor challenges the dominant tragic worldview that confines humans to a stoic acceptance of the current conditions of existence. . .

Hope, [like humor], presents a . . . challenge to the status quo and also provides, in Berger’s words, a “signal of transcendence.” Humor is part of the language of hope that points to a higher order than the one in which we normally live and thus we should not be surprised to find it purposefully introduced into narratives where Israel’s hopes and in fact her very existence are being called into question. Of interest is that these ancient [texts] deployed humor in situations that many today would see as no laughing matter. However, it is precisely here that humor, by allowing the reader to laugh in the face of potential tragedy, facilitates the ability to continue to trust in God’s promises even when such trust seems rationally unwarranted.

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More about: Esther, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Jewish humor, Passover

Iranian Attacks in the Persian Gulf Require a Firm Response

June 17 2019

In the past few days, Iran has carried out several attacks on oil tankers in the vicinity of Persian Gulf, and attempted to shoot down a U.S. observation drone. These attacks follow other recent acts of sabotage on the oil trade in the region—and that’s not to mention the Iran-backed Houthi militia’s missile strike last week on a Saudi civilian airport that injured 26 people. David Adesnik urges the White House to send a clear message to Tehran:

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More about: Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy