“‘Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther,” by Shemarayahu Talmon

In this article, Talmon attempts to show that the book of Esther may be classed as a “historicized wisdom-tale” (426, 455), rather than being purely historical, purely narrative, or some combination of these, often called “historical novel” (see 422, including n. 3). He does this in three ways: first, by showing how the lack of overt religious elements in Esther is in keeping with other wisdom literature, both biblical and extra-biblical; second, by exploring how the highly literary characterizations each typify examples of the sage or the fool; and third, by comparing Esther with other biblical books, specifically the Joseph-story in Genesis, which have also been shown to be narrative exemplifications of standard wisdom motifs.

“Altogther,” Talmon writes, “the Book of Esther has, what Torrey styles, a ‘notoriously unreligious appearance’ which sometimes has caused it to be blacklisted by theologians and Bible scholars” (428). This unreligious nature, he explains, can best be understood when we think of the Esther-story as a historicized wisdom-tale. Referring specifically to the wider wisdom tradition in the ancient Near Eastern world—not just the biblical wisdom tradition—he notes that “the idea of an impersonal supernatural power … is a salient feature … of wisdom thought which aims at applicability to any human situation, irrespective of politico-national or religio-national allegiances” (430). In this regard, he also states that there is “not a shred of evidence” to support the idea that the name of God had been excised from the book (428), choosing rather to see the lack of later-interpolated prayers in the narrative as a sign that the impersonal conception of deity in the story is original and essential to its nature (428–430).

The typological roles of the “powerful, but witless dupe—the righteous wise—the conniving schemer” (441) are played out in the narrative by three male–female pairings, respectively: Ahasuerus–Vashti, Mordecai–Esther, and Haman–Zeresh. In describing these roles and their portrayal in the Esther story, Talmon quotes extensively from wisdom literature, arguing his point that these types are set forth in proverbial literature such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, and are here given shape and form to demonstrate how they might appear in “real” life (my quotes). In addition, he compares the Esther-story with other wisdom narratives, most prominently that of Ahiqar, an Aramaic novel in fragments, dating from the 5th century BC and discovered at Elephantine (though Talmon suggests that it was likely composed in the 6th century) (see 426–427). Talmon notes several parallels of typological roles between the two texts, using these to buttress his argument for Esther as historicized wisdom-tale.

Finally, Talmon remarks on the similarities of the Esther-story with that of the Joseph-story in Genesis, previously observed by several scholars,[1] in particular observing that G. von Rad pointed out wisdom motifs in the Joseph-story.[2] He suggests that the stories are so similar not only because of shared narrative elements (obscure Jewish child raised in exile in a foreign land attains powerful position and thereby saves his people), but also because of a shared literary tradition, that of the narrative wisdom-story.

For myself, I would like to note that Talmon argues, on the basis of literary elements, for an early date of composition for Esther, around the 5th century bc, shortly after the narrated events are supposed to have taken place. He does so by comparing the narrative elements in the story, not least of which is a female as the main character, with other literature of both the earlier and the later proposed dates. He argues that the Esther-narrative is a convergence of three different literary elements: “An Ancient Near Eastern wisdom nucleus in a specific biblical variation, imbued with Persian motifs” (453), stating that such a convergence only makes sense if we posit an earlier date of composition. In connection with this, he also effectively shows that it is only in biblical literature, among ancient Near Eastern culture, that women are “deemed fit not merely to serve as objects in wisdom-teaching, but are also credited with subject-activities” (452).


[1] Talmon cites L. A. Rosenthal, “Die Josephgeschichte mit denBüchern Ester und Daniel verglichen,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestatmentliche Wissenschaft 15 (1895), 278–284; Rosenthal, “Nochmals der Vergleich Ester-Joseph, Daniel,” ZAW 17 (1897), 126–128; P. Riessler, “Zu Rosenthal’s Aufsatz,” ZAW 16 (1896), 182; and M. Gan, “The Book of Esther in the Light of Joseph’s Fate in Egypt” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 31 (1962), 144–149. A slightly more recent treatment is A. Meinhold, “Die Gattung der Josephgeschichte und des Estherbuches: Diasporanovelle,” ZAW 87 (1975), 306–324 and 88 (1976), 72–93.

[2] G. von Rad, “Josephgeschichte und ältere Chokma,” Supplement to Vetus Testamentum vol. 1, Leiden 1953, 120–127; reprinted in Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament, München 1958, 272–280.


Talmon, Shemarayahu. “‘Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther.” Vetus Testamentum 13, fasc. 4 (Oct. 1963): 419–455.


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