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Winking Texts

October 28, 2008

I’ve taken a lot of flack over the years for my literary neologisms — mostly from colleagues with a background in more contemporary literary theories. One neologism that I’m particularly proud of (and particularly convinced of the existence of) is a “winking text.” Simply put, such “winks” are places in a narrative where we get an indication that the text doesn’t want us to take it too seriously. These instances abound in the Bible, but often folks miss them and attempt to interpret them literally. This misunderstanding, of course, leads to a misreading of the text.

At the outset, I should point out that this concept (nor perhaps even the term) is not limited to or original to me. Marc Brettler, in his commentary on The Book of Judges (Old Testament Readings), notes the odd case of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim in Judges 3:7-11. To begin, with it’s hard to take seriously a king whose name rhymes with his locale. It’s also hard to believe that his name was really something like “Dark Double-Wicked.” However, as Brettler points out, our sense of credulity is strained past the breaking point when we are told that this invader from the North is repelled by Caleb’s younger brother, Othniel. Caleb’s territory is in the southern Israel. Reporting that Caleb’s brother repelled an attack of Aramians is like saying that the New Mexico National Guard fought back an invasion from Saskatchewan. All of this together lets us as readers know that this isn’t to be taken too seriously. The text is winking at us.

While I could mention my own suspicion that this same principle is behind the chronological problems of Daniel 1, I’d like to point to a more likely possible example in Esther 2.

As with Judges 3, Esther 2 has a cluster of improbables. King Ahasueurus is feeling a bit lonely after ousting queen Vashti in chapter 1. However, rather than go through an elaborate diplomatic procedure to procure a new queen that would serve the political aims of the Persian nobility, he opts for what amounts to a beauty contest. All beautiful, eligible young ladies from all the provinces are brought to the king’s palace. After two elaborate spa treatments each lasting six months, the young women get one night apiece with the king.

Most scholars rightly see here extreme hyperbole. There’s no way we can take this seriously. Yet, in the midst of this (sarcastic?) description of royal excess, we are given a genealogy for Mordecai in 3:5-6.

5 There was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite 6 who had been exiled from Jerusalem among the exiles with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon exiled. (translation my own)

The difficulty here is in the beginning of v.6 where we are unsure as to who the “who” in the text refers to. That is to say, was Mordecai taken off by Nebuchadnessar or was it Kish? The NRSV, along with a fair number of scholars choose that latter. Why? Because if Mordecai was among the exiles, he would easily be over a hundred by the time of Ahasueurus.

However, as noted above, this genealogy is in the midst of incredulous hyperbole. Why look for historical authenticity when we know the text is being playful? What we have here is another obvious example of the text winking.

This is the one of a series of posts on Esther inspired by my cell’s close reading of the text. Some will be academic, some will be pedantic. Hopefully all will be edifying.

One Comment
  1. October 30, 2008 10:40 am

    Winking texts, I really like that!

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