Playing Along with Esther: What Christian Readers Can Learn from Jews

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2022

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Abstract

In this dissertation, I attend to historical receptions of Esther MT to illustrate problematic trends in the Christian use of the book and to identify avenues for the development of ethically responsible modern Christian approaches. The receptions under consideration—both Christian and Jewish—are principally premodern. I examine them with attention to the social locations of the communities from which they emerge and the dynamics of power and domination they reflect. An overview of Christian reception of Esther reveals a history of relatively sparse and at times openly hostile treatment of the book. It further shows that in Christian hands Esther has been viewed from an overwhelmingly serious aspect. More often than not, the book has been read from the perspective of and in overt alignment with the interests of the religiously and politically dominant. In striking contrast, the body of Jewish Esther receptions produced across the centuries is rich and abundant. While many of these works are serious in tone, there is also a prominent strand marked by humor, mirth, and play. Furthermore, many are recognizably written from the position and perspective of communities living on the underside of (usually Christian) domination. I contend such receptions reveal that Jewish communities recognized Esther MT as what James C. Scott terms a ‘hidden transcript’—literature responding to the experience of domination—and extended its work with hidden transcripts of their own. Beyond identifying and illustrating the above trends, the core contribution of this project is to read rabbinic Esther receptions through the lens of the hidden transcript. I illuminate ways in which the rabbis respond to contemporary experiences of domination through play with characters such as Haman and King Ahasuerus. I argue that such play is far from frivolous; instead, through play, the rabbis perform work of utmost ethical and theological importance, work worthy of modern attention. Given the harm they have perpetrated through both the use and neglect of this book, modern Christians reading from positions of power and seeking to develop appropriate responses to Esther must first attend to rabbinic and other Jewish voices from across history. In so doing, they will confront the discomforting fact that they often have been recognized as Haman-like villains by those whose survival Esther was written to support. They will also encounter teachers who model the ethical and theological possibilities of responding to a biblical text in what may be for them an unfamiliar mode: that of play.

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Schaafsma, Katrina (2022). Playing Along with Esther: What Christian Readers Can Learn from Jews. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25623.

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