BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 58, 2010
ROBERT P. DEBELAK, JR, Hidden in Plain Sight: Esther and a Marginalised Hermeneutic (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth, 2008). Pp. xiv + 156. Paper-back. £15.00.
This short work seeks to champion the place of “astute literary-critical analysis [as] a helpful companion on the reading journey” alongside historical-critical methods (x), using MT Esther as a paradigm of the capacity of biblical texts to solicit hermeneutical strategies proper to their genre. As such, it represents an admirable attempt to marry style and substance. Specifically, Robert P. Debelak, Jr, offers a character-driven, narrative-critical reading of Esther, building on the highly credentialed work of scholars including Yairah Amit, Robert Alter and Dana Nolan Fewell. Unfortunately, D. struggles to carry his argument precisely at the point where it promises to contribute something new to this field.
The book is written with readers of English translations in mind and aims to raise sensitivity to the presence and features of skilfully narrated stories in the Bible, especially among Christian ministers looking to bridge the ‘gap’ between scholarly and devotional readings. The first chapter outlines D.’s case for the contribution of narrative criticism to a more spiritually formative reception of Scripture. The interaction between the text and the reading community is nicely nuanced here.
Chapter two offers a reading of Esther and is gathered around what D. identifies as four key movements or developments in the character of Esther: her background, her reading of a written text, the struggle for meaning and a posture of personal resolve. The author’s treatment of the relationship between the events the text narrates and the history that ‘haunts’ the text, in the Jamesonian sense, is a little tentative, but we are, nevertheless, successfully ushered into the world of the text. Once there, however, some extra-textual assumptions continue to ‘haunt’ the reading.
Esther’s beauty, for example, is clearly defined in the Hebrew in terms of her physical form, whereas D.’s contrary assertion that the “text will rather stress the magnificence of her internal character and the nobility of her actions” (20) is unsustainable from a narrative-critical perspective. Mordecai is not presented as a humble, self-abasing Jew (39). Nor can we argue from the text that Esther and Mordecai “serve as a moral conscience in a lawless, selfish society” (31, n. 40). In fact, the ambiguity and inscrutability of their actions and motivations is part of the narrative’s “crafting and clout,” and at no stage does the reader or do other characters have access to Esther’s “innermost thoughts” (34, compare 49). We are, on the other hand, given clues as to what drives Ahasuerus, and it is not “his apathy towards human life” (35). Indeed, having drawn upon Kenneth Craig's application of the “carnivalesque” in Esther, D. is slow to highlight the parody integral to the text’s introduction of the Persian Empire and the machinery of its court (21; compare 25–26, and 31, n. 40). The role of Vashti in setting up the dramatic tension to follow is better handled, despite comparisons between Vashti and Esther tending to miss or lack reference to the subtle variations and differences in the way they each inhabit their royal identity that are crucial in the complex characterisation of Esther (see 28).
D.’s often engaging and accessible reading is marred by some technical lapses and imprecision. Haman, for example is not “story's nemesis” (31), but rather the antagonist, or villain (see 39); he is, of course, the Jews’ nemesis. And, in the absence of any semantic field analysis, a list comprising “revelry, requirement, refusal, reaction, response, and reference” (32, and see Charts A.1 and A.2 on 143–44), does not so much constitute “six consistent literary features” as a cluster of thematic motifs. The work also suffers from frequent stylistic and grammatical infelicities, malapropisms and some rather awkward adaptations in the service of a legitimate analysis of gender issues (e.g. “man-ipulated” and “man-aged”). For all that, there are moments of great insight and greater elegance, such as in the section on “Rising and Falling” (40–42), and the chapter concludes more convincingly than it begins.
In chapter 3, “Findings,” the author maps Esther’s four “character movements” arriving at “a model for reading biblical narrative [that] integrates … recognizing what the reader brings to a text … A faithful searching of Scriptures … A quest for meaning [and] … A commitment to apply learned values in a faithful confession to the world” (62–64). These aims may be unobjectionable (if unoriginal) in and of themselves, but to privilege the Esther narrative—and a particular reading thereof—in order to advance this, or any, set of parameters for what constitutes authentic engagement with biblical texts more broadly seems problematic on several fronts.
The first of three appendices containing study questions is very long, and the questions, which focus primarily on aspects of comprehension of the plot, would not sufficiently challenge the nominated readership. In Appendix 2 questions of historicity and setting are confused, and there is no real theological or even literary-critical reflection on key findings such as the absence of any reference to a deity or religious practice. Whilst this is promised in the third appendix, the analysis stalls over the belated exposition of a basic system for a narrative poetics and a retelling of the story.
D.’s bibliography and list of Other Resources indicate his wide-ranging and solid research. In an academic and ministry context, however, where literary-critical hermeneutical strategies are no longer marginalised, its premise lacks traction, and the author’s own demonstration of the techniques he advocates is not as compelling as might be hoped or expected. As one who is enamoured with narrative-criticism and the Book of Esther, this reviewer was disappointed in a book that held much potential, but whose reach ultimately exceeded its grasp, and I would steer readers towards better examples of the method.
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