Esther Revealed: Another Hidden Polemic in the Bible
One of the main streams of biblical studies in our time is known as “inter-textual” study, or in short “intertextuality”. As the word implies this is a theory of literature which is based upon interaction and internal comments of one part of a corpus to other parts. Actually, for me this seems like just a fancy name for midrash. For what is midrash in essence if not inter-textual in the purest sense of the word? In more recent times, others have combined this way of reading narratives, perhaps focusing more on one aspect, or perhaps merely adjusting the parameters of intertextuality, and they have defined a core characteristic of biblical narrative as polemics.
One of the major works in this area is Yairah Amit, Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative, Brill 2000. Amit’s original Hebrew text of this work was only published in 2003, “Galui ve-Nistar ba-Mikra: pulmusim geluim, akifim u-be-ikar semuim” Yedioth Aharonot.
In her book Amit gives fascinating examples of hidden polemics in the Bible. One of the main features of this style is to argue with other presentations of similar events or ideas and other biblical literatures, that is, inter-textual. In her foreword she explains the thrust of her work:
“The operating assumption of this book is that biblical literature is ideological, and that all of the genres and sub-genres constituting the biblical canon – such as historiography, including its stories, prophecies, hymns and psalms, law, and wisdom literature, and even its sub- genres, such as the varied types of lists, proverbs, speeches, and the like – appear there because in one way or another they serve ideological needs. A further working assumption is that this canon is by its nature polyphonic, and that the multiplicity of voices found therein is a function of the circumstances of its composition and shaping. Hence, any attempt to uncover harmony among the totality of the texts involves a forced reading of the texts, which ought to be exchanged for listening to the various voices and the polemics that they represent.
…I discuss explicit and implicit polemics, so as to define more sharply the phenomenon of the hidden polemic. … Reflection on biblical literature as polemical, whose meanings are not unequivocal, and which has an interest in emphasizing the existence of controversy and of a multiplicity of views, suggests a certain line of continuity between biblical literature and the literature of the Oral Torah which came in its wake. The latter developed and perfected the culture of polemic controversy and meeting of opinions to the point of turning argumentation into a central matter in its own right, of no less importance than the legal decision that comes in its wake. It seems to me that the beginning of this phenomenon lies in the multiplicity and preservation of polemics in biblical literature.”
The most important contribution of this approach is the identification of the “ideological” nature of Biblical intertextuality. I seems to me that the term “ideological” is used because it seems all inclusive and general. In fact the thrust of polemics in Biblical literature, even in the examples Amit and others bring in their writings, is more specific and includes polemics of a theological, political-national, or social nature. One such example is the book of Esther.
Esther as Joseph II
In 1977 as part of a course on the holidays and I gave at Kaye College in Beer Sheva I noticed this phenomenon, without having a name for it, in the relationship between the narratives of the Joseph stories and the book of Esther. It was clear to me from a meer sketchy look at the plot of both stories that they were connected. A young and beautiful and charismatic intelligent Jewish person finds themselves cut off from their people and family, and through a series of fantastic circumstances they reach a high level of power next to the King, and use their position to save their people and family from destruction. At the time when I asked the class what story in the Bible did this description of a pot of Esther remind them of, almost all of them immediately identified Joseph.
As we discussed the links between the two specific examples were discovered that reinforced the overall impression. Just to give two examples: the turn of the story in which the focus is on the Jewish people and not the individual comes in both narratives after two ministers of the king who had plotted against him are revealed; and in both tales the hero/heroine uses their intelligence to manipulate the King in favor of the Jewish people.
In subsequent preparation I came across other works which made the same connection between the two narratives by showing the strong linguistic connection between the language, word s, syntax , phrases and peculiarity of expression in the two narratives. This is the bread and butter of Midrash and of any inter-textual exploration. The problem is that Midrashim are spread out, and each midrash has its own reason for noticing the linguistic connections. The linguistic connection serves as a lynchpin for an idea, or a sermon, or, in what I later learned to call a polemic.
Two modern articles stood out as the basis for the claim that by linguistic criteria Esther was really Joseph II. One was an old article in German by L. A. Rosenthal, in ZAW, 1895. The same approach appeared in Kaufman, Toldot…vol. 8, p. 439 ff.. The most comprehensive one was by Moshe Gan, in Tarbiz, 31, 1962, p. 144-149. These articles, particularly Gan, make a thoroughly convincing case for the dependence of Esther on Joseph. In particular, the language of Esther is so evocotive of Joseph that all other aspects of connection referred to in this paper seem obvious.
I present 9 such similarities of language in the chart at the end of this article. In as much as the similarities are more clear and more striking in Hebrew, I have left the chart in Hebrew and emphasized the similarities. There are many more such occurences in the articles I mentioned, but the ones presented here speak primarily to the hidden polemic between Joseph and Esther.
Note that in most cases the language of the book of Esther is satirical or a parody of the Joseph story. For example in row one language of collecting all of the grain is positive and bespeaks of a wise decision. The same language in Esther is cynical, the collection being not of grain but of human beings, and the decision is foolish as a means of choosing a queen, instead of choosing a queen according to status and diplomatic or financial needs of the country. In row four Joseph’s refusal to listen is an act of morality and righteousness, but Mordecai’s refusal to listen is unexplained. Indeed, many commentators have suggested different reasons for Mordecai’s obstinance, and in this case it leads to putting the all Jewish nation in danger rather than one Jew being thrown into jail. In row five the passing of the Kings ring to Joseph is a good sign, whereas the same words are used twice in Esther, and the first time is a very bad sign. In row seven the Hebrew root apek is found in the whole Bible only in these two narratives.
The most striking an important similarity is found in row six. Since this is clearly a central feature of the polemic between the two books I will deal with it later in the section about the major polemic of Esther with Joseph.
The Theological and National Polemic of Esther with Joseph
After having taught the book of Esther in connection with the holiday of Purim for a few years, and showing that it was referencing Joseph I suddenly saw something which had escaped my attention until then. That was the extreme attention that the author of Esther paid to the passage of time. This would prove to be the key to understanding the nature of the polemic of Esther with the Joseph stories. This is a polemic which has both theological and national themes.
Representing Time in Literature
Representing the passage of time is especially difficult for the writer, since time has to be described or portrayed in words. There are several basic techniques for describing the passage of time, 1. stating specific dates, 2. referring to the ages of characters, 3. portraying the psychological passing of time.
Psychologically, time may seem to flow very fast, or to creep along at turtle speed. A sense of urgency, or top priority, makes one feel as if one is racing against time. On the other hand, a sense of no urgency, or of boredom, may make one feel as if time is creeping along. This portrayal of the passage of time is not so easy for the writer. It may be stated directly, or alluded to by the use of words, such as “panic” or “rush”, which describe feelings relating to time’s flow. Another technique is to invoke in the reader expectations about the meaning of time by connecting events in the story with dates that have historic significance meanings, e.g. the 4th of July or a character’s birthday.
In the Bible, we find all of these techniques for ‘marking’ time:
1) The spelling out of specific dates are most often related to the years of a kings’ reign.
2) Relative time-marking is most often done by telling a character’s age.
3)In addition time is marked by referring to historical events (cf. I Kings 6:1 — 480 years from the exodus from Egypt).
As for the marking of psychological time, this is a rare phenomenon in Biblical writing.[i] There seems to be an oblivious attitude to psychological feeling altogether in Biblical literature. Feelings are ‘observed’ by seeing only external action. Use of words which express feelings about time are thus unusual.
The Book of Esther
The Book of Esther is unique in Biblical literature. First, and mentioned the most, it lacks any mention of God, and furthermore is devoid of a clear sense of divine providence. It seems, from that point of view, totally out of place in a religious collection such as the Bible. Secondly, mentioned by many, it is very clearly a retelling of the Joseph story, a blatant sequel. Finally, not much noticed, is that there is no mention of Erez Israel, except for a backhanded reference to the place from which Mordecai was exiled (2:6). The usual Biblical theme hinting at redemption from exile by promise of living in the land of Israel seems to be missing, much as God seems to be missing.[ii]
Finally, the Book of Esther is unique in its relation to time. It is the only Biblical book to carefully and consistently:
1) keep a clear marking of time related to the years of King Ahasuerus’s reign.
2) use the emotional feeling of fast and slow time to move the plot forward, including its use of words that express feelings associated with the passage of time.
3) use famous meaningful dates to raise historical associations that constitute ironic commentary on the plot of the book.
The reader who is unaware of the use of time in the Book of Esther, is missing one of the main elements of the author’s own internal commentary on the story, and is missing some of the most amusing aside’s of this comedic story. I will examine the use of time in Esther, and then discuss the theological and political-national conclusions I reach as a result of this examination.
Plot division by time — Ahasuerus’s reign
The story in the Book of Esther is divided into four ‘acts’, where the passage of time in each act is very clear. Upon closer examination, this division reveals a striking use of the passage of time to manifest underlying theological assumptions and a national political message.
|Act 1||Sometime in the 3rd year of Ahasuerus’ reign||Chapter 1:1 — 1:22|
|Act 2||From sometime in the 3rd year until the 10th month of the 7th year of Ahasuerus’ reign||Chapter 2:1 — 3:5|
|Act 3||From the 10th month of the 7th year until the 1st month of the 12th year of Ahasuerus’ reign, till the 21st day||Chapter 3:6 — 8:8|
|Act 4||The 3rd month of the 12th year of Ahasuerus’ reign, the 23rd day 8:9||Chapter 8:14 — 9:32|
|the 12th month of the 12th year of Ahasuerus’ reign, days 13-15 (with an allusion to an eternal cycle of days 14-15, the Purim holiday, throughout history)|
The psychology of time – tempo and memory
The tempo of the book changes from act to act. Act one takes place during a four year period. The first incident in the book is a feast which lasts 180 days, almost half a year!! Time moves slowly. The tempo of act two is similar. It takes place during 4 years and 2 months. On the other hand, act two specifies not just years of the king’s reign, but also months. Even though time is moving very slowly, act one and two constitute just one chapter each of the book.
In the third act, the tempo of time’s passage changes dramatically. The whole act takes place in just 21 days, even less than Ahasuerus’ first feast. This act is told in great detail and covers several chapters. Furthermore, to emphasize the author’s intent that the pace of the story has changed she uses words which describe quick movement, as if to say that the lethargic pace of the characters up to now is replaced by frantic hurrying. The core of this act is even more intense, one afternoon, the night, and the next afternoon — just over one day in which the villian meets his downfall, and the heroine is revealed in all her glory.
The final act is also only a few months and mainly a few days, it’s purpose is to give us an ending to the tale, to finalize the happenings on the fateful day which the ‘Pur’ had chosen for the destruction of the Jews. It also points to an undefined future. The reader feels the passage of time, in terms of interest and psychological feeling, rather than length of chapter.
The other aspect of time in the book has to do with historical memory. In the book of Esther, this memory is invoked by the author in two ways. One, is by allusions to historical events through the hinting at the heroes of those events, e.g. Saul and Agag, Jehoiachin and the destruction of Jerusalem. The second way is by alluding to calendar dates, sacred time, in the Jewish calendar each date carrying with it allusions to the themes of those events.
Time and themes of Esther
As mentioned above, one of the unique aspects of the book of Esther is “hiding” of prominent biblical themes. 1) The most famous ‘hidden’ theme of Esther is the theme of divine providence. Not only is the name of God not mentioned in the book of Esther, but there is no feeling of divine providence. 2) The second ‘hidden’ theme is the replaying out of events from past Jewish history particularly the Joseph story and Saul’s struggle with Amalek. 3) The third ‘hidden’ theme is the Land of Israel, the place and promise of redemption.
A close examination of the language, structure and use of time in Esther helps the reader ‘uncover’ the ‘hidden’ themes. The case for divine providence can be made by close examination of the unusual coincidences which occur in the book, and which lead the reader to feel that they are so improbable that they cannot be pure fate, but that some hand is arranging these coincidences. Mordecai alludes to the question of providence when he tells Esther, “who knows, perhaps you were chosen Queen just for a time like this?” (my emphasis). Mordecai does not say “God has made sure you are Queen…”, but “who knows?”[iii]
This statement ‘uncovers’ a contrast with Joseph’s statement in chap. 50 of Genesis, when his brothers beg him not to be vengeful for all the evil they did to him. Joseph replies that God has arranged his whole life in order to be able to save them.[iv] Joseph declares the fact of divine providence, Mordecai sees it as a rhetorical question. The reader must answer that rhetorical question on her own, but the overt control of time reflected in the story, the improbable coincidences which occur just at the right moment, and the deja vu of the Joseph story, combine to lead one to answer ‘yes, I know, it must have been divine providence’. A hint at redemption by going to Israel, however, is less clear, and I will deal with that at the end of this essay.
In addition to the coincidences, the main factor which contributes to the sense of providence is the use of time in the book of Esther. Time is a factor in the amazing rareness of the coincidences. Time implies providence – there is the question of who controls time. Is there a force which fixes fortune, either good or bad by date? Haman believes that the Pur, the dice of fortune, fix the outcome of men’s schemes according to date. Yet, it is clear at the end of Esther that Haman was mistaken. Haman may have been among those wise men “who know time” (yodei ha-itim cf. 1:13) His scheme is reversed, and some other force has fixed the outcome of the fateful day, Adar 13th, when Haman thought all the Jews would be killed.[v] Perhaps, Mordecai alludes, it is God from whom no time is hidden (cf. Job 24:1).
I wish to examine more closely the author’s use of time to ‘reveal’ the ‘hidden’. Numbers in parantheses refer to chapter and verse in the Book of Esther.
The plot starts in the 3rd year of Ahasuerus’s reign (1:3). He is not a new king, but also not an established one. We know nothing of his background, how he came to be king, what the kingdom is like, only that it is a vast kingdom including 127 states and stretching from India to Ethiopia. But we are told that in the 3rd year the king makes a gigantic party for all the members of his government, in all the kingdoms for 180 days! (1:4)
Our first sense of time in the book is astounding. The drinking party lasts almost half a year! The implication is that Ahasuerus is not too concerned with governing his vast kingdom. Indeed, the reader might ask, ‘if the king and all of his beurocracy are partying for so long, who is ruling the kingdom?’ Furthermore, the sense of passage of time is very slow. Nothing seems to proceed at ‘normal’ pace. Indeed, time seems almost irrelevant. The unhurried passage of time is highlighted by the content of the verses, which describe in bored detail the artifacts of the Palace, the vessels used in the party, long lists of names of government officials (1:6, 8-10), just the sort of thing people might notice if nothing else is going on.
The most dramatic event of this languid period, is the removal of Vashti, which is the climax of this period. This event also highlights Ahasueres’ drawback as a king. He may rule 127 nations, but he does not rule in his household (1:17). Indeed, he must pass legislation to that effect (1:20). The comic absurdity of the king passing a law that wives must respect their husbands is part of the absurdly langorous dining party. The lack of rule or rules in the passage of time is paralleled by Ahasueres’ lack of rule.
Time passes, time is undefined as in the phrase “after these events”, which opens chapter 2. This chapter takes place from sometime in the kings third year, and ends in his 7th year. Sooner or later, the King notices he is without a Queen (2:1). A contest is proposed so that every beautiful woman in Persia will be brought to the king for a night in his company (2:2-4). After that night, she will either be chosen queen, having found great favor in the king’s eyes, or she will be incarcerated in the king’s Harem forever, unless he calls for her by name (2:14). Each woman is given beauty treatment with cosmetics and perfumes, and can ask for whatever acoutrements she thinks will please the king (2:13). No expense or time is spared. The process described takes a year for each woman to be prepared (2:12), no rush. Time is still passing slowly and is almost irrelevant.
In this act we are introduced to the Jewish heroine and hero, Esther and Mordecai. We are reminded of an historical event (2:6), the exile from Jerusalem of King Yehoiachin and his court in 597 b.c.e. This is the only direct reference to the land of Israel in the book. It is the land from which the Jews were exiled. A parallel reference is found in the Joseph story. Joseph requests to be buried in the land of Israel when God will visit the Jews and return them to their land (Gen. 50:24-25). The reference to providence in the Joseph story is clear, and in Esther it is equivocal. The reference to Israel as the land to which to return from exile is clear in the Joseph story, but in Esther such a reference is absent altogether, or at best alluded to just barely.
Esther is depicted as very beautiful, and obedient to Mordecai, and she is taken to the contest (2:8). Mordecai uses his connections to follow her progress (2:11). He is obviously worried, not by her being chosen to be queen, but by what is likely for all but one of the myriad contestants, a life of sterility and captivity in the king’s harem. But, Esther is very intelligent and clever. She asks the keeper of the Harem what the king likes, rather than rely on her own ideas. He apparently tells her that the king likes natural beauty and so she appears before him with no special accoutrements (2:15). This finds favor in the kings eyes, and he immediately declares Esther to be queen, and declares a feast in her honor. This takes place in the seventh year of the king’s reign, in the 10th month, Tevet (2:16). Four years have passed while choosing a queen, no rush.
Strangely, Mordecai commands Esther not to reveal she is a Jew (2:10), the king’s choice is apparently based on looks alone, national origin need not be mentioned. Esther obeys as usual (2:20). At that same time (“in those days” 2:21-23), during Esther’s coronation in the 10th month of the 7th year, two of the king’s ministers plot to kill him. Mordecai learns of the plot, and instead of telling him directly, he tells Esther to reveal the plot to the king in his name (2:22). She does, and after investigation the accusation is found to be true, and the conspirators are executed. This incident is written down in the king’s book of daily chronicles, presumably for the period of Tevet in the king’s seventh year (2:23). This event will have repurcussions later on. Time has become a little more focused than in the first act, that is, not only are we told the year of the king’s reign as point of reference in time, but the month as well.
Time passes, still undefined as in the phrase “after these events”, which opens chapter 3. Presumably, after the plot to kill the king there is a shake up among his ministers, and the king promotes Haman as the chief minister, to control the others. He establishes his authority by decreeing that all must bow down to him (3:2), as to the king. It is not spelled out how much time passes before this change of political order takes place. Mordecai refuses to bow down, and is questioned “day after day” (3:4) about his seeming scorn for the king’s rules. Presumably, these events also move slowly, with no rush. Haman’s anger at Mordecai’s snub while incandescent, takes a long time to ignite. Finally, he decides to destroy, not only Mordecai, but all the Jewish people (3:6). This decision is taken over four years later, in the first month of the king’s twelfth year.
As a believer in lots (pur), Haman looks for the most propitious day to destroy the Jews. Time is connected to destiny. Haman searches for the day when his luck is at a maximum and the Jews’ luck is at a minimum. The search for the right day is done by casting lots which will determine the propitiousness of each day for Haman. He goes through the calendar day by day and month by month. Presumably, time is controlled by the gods, and the fate of individuals is coordinated by the gods with time.
Haman’s casting of the lots raises the central question of who rules time or events. We have seen up to now that it is not Ahasueres who rules, indeed things and time seemed to be formless up to now. Haman casts his lots starting with the first month, Nissan, of the twelfth year and goes day by day and month by month he is becoming more and more depressed (3:7), for no day seems to be the most suitable one to murder all the Jews. He finally gets to the twelfth month, Adar, of the twelfth year. Haman is almost without hope of finding any day of the year that will be favorable for his evil thought, when lo and behold the lots turn up positive on the 13th day of Adar, in the twelfth year of Ahasuerus’ reign (3:7).
From this point on, the pace of time and its functions in the story change dramatically. Instead of years being the framework, and langorous phrases and actions being the norm, events speed up to a frenetic pace. Action is measured in days, and even in hours, night and morning. Words such as ‘hurry’, ‘pushing’, ‘rushing’ even ‘panic’ appear connected with certain events. It is as if once Haman’s gods have fixed a time for destruction of the Jews, a date, which in keeping with the languid pace of the two earlier acts, is almost a year off, suddenly Haman and all others lose control over time. Time goes beserk and events cascade one upon another to overturn and reverse Haman’s will, or that of the gods.
The Core of Act 3
Here is the sequence of events till the end of act 3, which, while only taking 21 days, comprises the bulk of the book:
1. The first month, Nisan, of the 12th year of Ahasueres’ reign. On this day, Haman gets the kings approval to murder all the Jews on the 13th day of Adar, the twelfth month of that year (3:10-12).
2. The 13th and 14th days of the first month, Nisan. On this day, the king’s decree telling all people to make themselves ready for the day of murder, 11 months hence, is written down (3:12). The next day, 14th of Nisan, the decree is sent out “urgently” (dehufim 3:15) by messenger to all of the kingdoms. Here we enter the province of days and hours. This is the first word signifying haste.
Also, the evoking of the meaning of time and its psychological effect by alluding to historical dates of great significance, begins in ernest at this point. For the 13th and 14th days of Nisan are the days before Pesah, the Jews’ sacred festival of freedom. Imagine Jews going to the market place to shop for the Seder feast commemorating their deliverance from slavery, and they behold a decree from the king announcing their utter destruction 11 months hence. The feelings of joy and hope for redemption which accompany every Jew as Passover approaches, the feelings of warmth and family reunion are suddenly shattered.
Instead of joy and celebration of deliverance and salvation, instead of the Seder table laden with good food and wine, the Jews declare fasting, weeping and wailing (4:3). The period of celebration is turned into one of mourning, feasting to fasting.
3. The 15th of Nisan. Mordecai decides to use Esther to intercede for the Jews. He goes to the palace and manages to slip into her a copy of the decree. The total alienation between the palace and the street means that Esther had not heard of this decree, even though we are told that everyone in the city was perplexed by it (3:15). Esther has a dillema. She wants to help, but if she appears before the king without being summoned, she will be executed, unless the king decides on the spot to pardon her (4:11). She is willing to take the chance, as his beloved queen, except that she tells Mordecai that she has not been called to see the king for 30 days (4:11)! The king is fickle, and not too brilliant, he seems to need constant partying and change. Esther is afraid that he is losing interest in her, and appearing unanounced would give him the perfect opportunity to remove her, as he did Vashti, and start a new contest.
Irony abounds in the allusions to time in this incident. Esther had not been called for 30 days. In the calendar that would make the last time she was called, the 14th or 15th of Adar, exactly the days following the intended destruction of the Jews, but more importantly the days which we, the reader, know will turn into days of Purim, the celebration of deliverance, the days upon which Esther’s story and heroism is read to all Jews. In Hebrew the word used, lo nikreiti, “I have not been called”, can also mean “I have not been read”, since the verb kara is used for both summoning and reading. Indeed the blessing which we recite over the reading of Megillat Esther is al mikra megillah, reading the Megillah. Esther was not called (read) since that date, but she will be called (read) on that date forever after (cf. Esther 9:27-28, and particularly v. 32). This subtle hint at redemption amidst the anguish of the Jews in Shushan can only work for the reader, who knows the end of the story and the joy of the holiday of Purim, just as Joseph’s certainty that his remains will be reinterred in Israel works for the reader who knows the book of Exodus.
4. The 16th, 17th and 18th of Nisan. Esther decides to try anyway. She exhibits courage and fortitude, and brilliance. She turns into the heroine, everything is left in her hands. She commands Mordecai to tell the Jews to fast for her 3 days straight, 16, 17 and 18 of Nisan, the first three intermediate days of Passover. Mordecai obeys her command, their roles are reversed, Esther commands and Mordecai obeys (4:16-17, cf. 2:20). Esther becomes the true heroine of the story.
5. The 18th (late in day) and 19th of Nisan. Esther has concieved a plan which will enable her to discredit Haman and which is simple enough and venal enough for Ahasueres to understand and appreciate. It is brilliant in its design and execution. Esther is truly a queen, not merely for her looks, but for her imagination and intellect. But, still and all she is not sure of the king’s mood to her, and she enters his throneroom with trepidation on the 18th of Nisan.
The king is overjoyed to see her. He, the fool, has been too busy partying. It is now seen as a blessing that he hadn’t called her for 30 days. It has whetted his appetite for her, and made him more receptive to her wishes. What was thought to be a sign of trouble turns out to be for good. Esther has stocked up courage to invite the king and Haman to a banquet that night. Yet when the king presses to know what she really wants, Esther is flustered, as her long and rambling reply to the king, the reader can almost hear her stammering, indicate (5:7-8); she merely re-issues the invitation to the king and Haman to come to a feast that night, the 19th of Nisan, then she will reveal her wish to the king (5:4).
From this point to Haman’s death is only a day and a half. Time speeds up some more. The first hint of that speeding up is that the king commands Haman to “hurry up” (maharu) to the queen’s first feast (5:5). The brilliance of Esther’s plan begins to be seen. Haman is flattered that only he and the king are invited. She has thrown him off guard, playing on his egotism. He surely would have investigated a dinner where the queen comes unannounced to invite the king alone. But, as a result of her invitation to him, he sees Esther as his ally. We also begin to see her great courage, for she has neutralized Haman for the time being, but any plea she makes on behalf of the Jews will have to be to his face, for he will be there. Will her courage be enough?
At the feast, Esther again seems to be flustered. She cannot reveal her request to the king, and stutters out to invite both of them back to another feast the next night (5:7-8), the 20th of Nisan. We are again worried. Esther is intelligent and courageaous, but still a woman alone in a hostile environment, face to face with a man who controls the king’s ear, and she has to take him on and win, no second chances. Perhaps it is too much for her. We are afraid that this postponement of the confrontation is a sign of trouble.
6. The 20th of Nisan. That night, after the feast, the king cannot sleep. Perhaps he overate, overdrank, all possible with this king. He calls for his book of chronicles to be read. He enjoys most hearing about himself, and it is guaranteed to put him to sleep. The king has been ruling now for 12 years, and every day his activities and deeds are written down. If we assume one page per day, the book, or books, contain over 4,000 pages. The density of time and activities is spread out before us in this scene. From where should one read in this vast and long record? The text does not spell this out, but the impression is that the king tells his servant just to open the books randomly to any page and start reading. “And it was found to be written” (6:2) implies serendipity. Out of all the 4,000 plus pages to which the book could have been opened, it turned up on that one day in the 7th year of the king, almost 5 years earlier, when Mordecai saved the king’s life by informing on the assasination plot.
The king only vaguely remembered Mordecai. What was done to pay him back, he asks. The reply: nothing! (6:3) The coincidence is astounding. How are significant events remembered, how are they compensated for? The king is distressed he must make this up to Mordecai, but how? At this point time becomes even more frenetic. Events speed up, one event not being completed before the next event starts. Words signifying speed abound in this section. Irony piles on Irony.
Haman has decided to speed things up, he can’t wait 11 months to kill all the Jews in order to get his revenge on Mordecai, who still refuses to bow to him. He decides to come that very same night to the king, bolstered by the idea that the queen also loves him, and request to hang Mordecai the next day, the 21st of Nisan. He is in such a hurry, and so confident of his control over the king’s mind, that he tells his servants to prepare the gallows to kill Mordecai, even before setting off to get the king’s permission (5:4). Now we see, once again, that what we thought was trouble is for the good. Esther’s hesitation and postponing the confrontation has worked to the Jew’s advantage. The king now knows who Mordecai is, he now remembers how he selflessly saved his life. A day before, he would have had no good feelings toward Mordecai, nor probably even have remembered who he was.
The king, as usual, needs advice. He is not sure how to honor Mordecai. Haman has just come to request Mordecai’s execution as a traitor (cf. 3:8) Haman knows that the king will not remember Mordecai by name. Haman also knows that Mordecai disobeys the kings’ law by not bowing down to Haman. What he doesn’t know is that this faceless courtier has just been mentioned to the king as the man who saved his life!
The king speaks before Haman, asking him what to do to someone whom the king wishes to honor. This stops Haman’s rush to execute Mordecai, he thinks of himself. His advice, clearly his own dream for himself, is to be dressed up as the king, and paraded through town, on the king’s horse. The king is delighted. He commands Haman to “hurry” (maher 6:10) and do all those things to Mordecai.
Haman is losing control of time and of events. He is being “pushed” or “rushed” (nidhaf 6:12) He must be depressed, but on this 20th of Nisan, instead of killing Mordecai he is forced to honor him, in just the way he would want to be honored himself. He just manages to finish this humiliating task, and is “pushed” into his home in a state of mourning. Surrounded by friends they wonder if this is not a sign, and maybe Haman should reconsider his plan. But before they can even finish the discussion, the king’s messengers come to “rush” Haman to Esther’s second feast (6:14). Night has come, the 21st of Nisan, and Haman has forgotten his invitation. The king wants to begin the feast, the Hebrew word denotes “rushing in panic” (va–yavhilu).[vi]
The reader knows what the king “read” that night, about his being savved by Mordecai. What did Esther read that night? The book does not tell us directly, but as is its way, perhaps it hints at this hidden information. I wish to suggest that she opened her Torah, and there came across the story of Joseph. I would like to think that it was at random as apparently was the case in the king’s chronicles.
The hint the text gives us that Joseph was what Esther read is in the language with which she reveals to the king what she wants. Her brilliant plan depends upon her having recently studied the story of Joseph. The language hints at the Joseph narrative, and, most tellingly, the formulation of Esther’s “do or die” speech to the king. She brilliantly sees that Joseph suceeded because he always spoke in terms of Pharoah’s interests, never making a point about how his plans were also good for Israel. She even interprets the slavery as an achievment of Joseph’s heirs to Jewish power, for it staves off the killing of every first born son.
She applies her reading to her own situation, and couches her plan only in terms of the King’s best interests. Indeed, she, and her people, woud be willing servants for the king. There is no hint of self-service, only of the king’s benefit. Indeed, it is not clear if Joseph foresaw that his moves with Pharoah would lead to saving Israel from starvation, being as wise and farseeing as he was it is possible, and, perhaps he declares that it is all God’s work after the fact. Esther, on the other hand, learns from reading the Joseph narrative, and knows that her moves are done with conscious forethought. I am enlarging the scope of my midrash to imply that all of this hints that Esther truly was the author of her epynonomous book. Her reading of Joseph from that fateful night is woven into the text of Esther.
7. The 21st of Nisan. Esther finally reveals her request, and we find her acumen revealed. She asks for her life and those of her people, but not by sobbing or begging for pity. She has a calculated logical argument to show the king that he has gotten bad advice. It is simple enough for him to understand, and connected with his profit, so he will listen and be interested. Esther reveals she is Jewish, and that the nation slated for destruction at the end of the year is her nation (7:3). But, she argues, how silly to kill all of the Jews and only profit from their belongings. Would the decree be to enslave the Jews, says Esther, I would have held my tongue. Implying that not only would they then stop being a bothersome people to the king, but he could then sieze their belongings, as well as have the benefit of thousands of slaves. As the decree stands the trouble to kill all the Jews is just not worth it to the king’s treasury (7:3-4). The suggestion that the Jews would be valuable as slaves, and that this status would enable some redemption to come to them some time in the future, is ripped straight out of the Joseph story.
The king is incensed at the idea of this economic mistake, and demands to know who gave him this worthless advice (7:5). Esther points to Haman as the culprit (7:6). The king is angry at Haman, but, as usual, is not sure what to do. In his distress he walks out into the garden, presumably to think or find another advisor to tell him what to do. Haman, distrought and depressed by the day’s activities, realizes that Esther has aroused the king’s wrath against him, and falls down by her palinade to plead for mercy (7:7). At that moment the king re-enters from the garden, and seeing the scene thinks Haman is trying to seduce his queen, on top of bankrupting him. He is incensed, and Harbona his servant remarks about the gallows prepared for Mordecai, who spoke on the king’s behalf. The king makes his only decision in the book, without direct advice, and commands to hang Haman on that very gallows. Haman is hung on the gallows prepared for Mordecai, and this calms the king’s anger. (7:8-10)
The fast paced flow of time, frantic action, the switching of fortunes, all take place in one week, the week of the festival of Passover. Esther’s argument emphasizes the week of Passover, by ironically suggesting enslavement, shades of Egypt, instead of destruction! The implication is that Haman’s design was worse than Pharoah’s. On this holiday of Passover, Esther[vii] is actually suggesting enslavement in order to save the Jewish people from total destruction.
The main enemy of the Jews is dead, but his decree still is in effect. His ideas and intentions are still alive and can be put into effect. “On that very day” (8:1), the 21st of Nisan, the king gives Haman’s job and authority to Mordecai. The 21st of Nisan is the last day of Passover, which according to Jewish tradition is the day of the downfall of Pharoah at the Red sea. In these sections the emotional and psychological overtones of time are connected to important historical events.
The frantic flow of time and events is like background music in a film, emphasizing the emotional reactions to the events. In Persia the day of salvation was not the first day of Passover, marked by an exodus from slavery, but the last day of Passover, marked by a reprieve from murder and a narrow escape from enslavement. Esther must have meant her proposal seriously. Fortunately, the king forgets about it, in the heat of his anger against Haman and his passion for the queen. Still, it is only a potential escape, because the actual day of the decrees fulfillment is 11 months, minus a week, off. It turns out that Haman’s decree cannot be nullified, the only remedy is another decree which would in effect cancel it out. The Jews are given the right to promulgate any counter decree they want. (8:7-8)
During this 11 month period, time seems to return to normal. Not slow and langorous as in the first two acts, nor fast and frenetic as in act 3. The counter decree to Haman’s gives the Jews the right to defend themselves, and to kill any enemy who tries to carry out Haman’s decree. The Jews are given the right to kill in self-defense. Mordecai formulates this decree. But, time is so normal, that it takes him two months to think of what to write. Mordecai, appears to be in no great rush, and the decree countering Haman’s is promulgated only in the third month, Sivan, on the twenty third day of the month (8:9). As if to emphasize Mordecai’s complacence in not doing this sooner, the messengers go out both “in panic” (mevohalim) and “urgently” (dehufim), the highest degree of haste spelled out in the book, is reserved for that day (8:14).
The third month, Sivan, also has historical overtones. It is the month of the revelation at Sinai, when Israel made its first covenant with God (Exodus 19:1).[viii] The Talmud records an opinion that God forced Israel to accept the covenant at Sinai, by holding the mountain over them. When it is suggested that if this is so the Jews have a good way out of keeping Torah, i.e. it was forced upon them, it is replied that they accepted the covenant with God a second time, volitionally, in the days of Ahasuerus (cf. Shabbat 88a). Perhaps the biblical text anticipates the Talmudic midrash by putting the Jews acceptance of God’s providence in the third month, Sivan.
Mordecai is a good second in command to the king, and, the way of the world, is that many now fear the Jews, and even convert (8:17). But what will happen on the fateful Adar 13? There are, after all, two conflicting kingly decrees promulgated, two conflicting “thoughts” (cf. 9:24-25). Which one will prevail? On that day, we are told, the opposite happened, things turned around (9:1). Instead of the Jews’ enemies destroying them, the Jews stood up against their enemies and not one of them was killed.
The text implies that a rather major war took place between the Jews and those wanting to destroy them, with the casualties numbering in the tens of thousands (9:16). Even though these wars were difficult, they were confined to the one day alotted by the decree, so that on the 14th of Adar the Jews enjoyed “rest”, and celebrated with joy and feasting (9:17). In the capitol of Shushan, the enemies did not respect the one day decree, and attacked on the 14th as well, so that the rest and festivities for the Jews was on the 15th of Adar (9:18). The denoument of the whole story takes just three days.
Finally, the text tells us that, just as in Egypt the command to observe the exodus as a festival in the future was given in Egypt (cf. Exodus 12); so the command to observe Purim in the future, is given in Persia (9:20-32).
The theological theme of Esther seems to be inherent in Mordecai’s plea to Esther, “who knows”. Maybe God is involved in events and maybe not. But, the book presents a clear message that the gods, i.e. the pur lots or astrology, definitely do not control events. So, who does control time and the events of history? All of the calendar overtones point to Israel’s sacred history past where it was clear that God controled time and events. There is even a hint of future sacred history, the hint to Purim and the remembering of Esther, whom the king forgot 30 days. So the book seems to be making the point, that the God of Israel works in time. The traces of God’s activity in time are to be found in historical dates which commemorate incidents of Israel’s redemption. Theoretically, what difference does it make on what date Israel was redeemed from Egypt? We can celebrate redemption at any time. Indeed, Moslems celebrate Ramadan at all times of the year. Only in Judaism is the calendar calculated so complexly, in order that the dates of the exodus always fall in the spring. God pushes time forward, when Israel is in need. Events are not random, but occur on recurring dates to reinforce the idea that in the ongoing tension between Israel’s destruction and Israel’s redemption, God tends to move things towards the latter. The date is a clearcut specific pointer to the “fact” of redemption.
By using the passage of time and historical dates with special significance, the author of Esther adds psychological depth to her story and implies a theological framework, while leaving the question of divine intervention open for future contemplation. By making the story so reminiscent of Joseph the reader is enticed to speculate, what happens after Mordecai is dead? If being close to the ruler is what determines the Jews fate, could not another Haman arise? Joseph too thought that God had sent him to save the Jews, but right after his death the subjugation begins.
The story of Esther certainly reflects the concern found in the Passover Haggada “in every generation there are those who want to destroy us, and God saves us from their hand”. In this case, in very strange ways. But where is the theme of “in every generation one should look upon themselves as leaving Egypt”? The theme of redemption, unspoken at the end of the Joseph story, is unspoken at the end of Esther as well. But every Jew knows the continuation. The Jews left Egypt by force, in order to seek redemption, physical and national, in the Land of Israel, their own space.
Even though I have stressed time in the book of Esther, space is also prominent. The Book begins with Ahasuerus who rules over 127 lands. Presumably, the refounded Jewish commonwealth under Persian rule is one of them. But the Jews of Sushan act as if they have no land, or at least most of them don’t want to acknowledge the one they have. The silence among these Jews living the good life in Persia, close to the government, about moving to Israel is reminiscent of the silence on that subject in an average synagogue party in New Jersey, or anywhere else in the diaspora for that matter.
According to the Talmud (Megillah 13a Rava) Mordecai exiled himself. In Ezra(2:1-2) and Nehemiah(7:1-7), which talk of those leaders returning to Israel after Cyrus’ decree, a certain Mordecai is mentioned as having been among the returnees. Did Mordecai return. After his success in Perisa, did he go back? If so, why is that not mentioned at the end of Esther? The Torah records that Joseph, who requested to go back to Israel, was returned, but only as bones! Is Mordecai, a good example, in contrast with Joseph? If so, why not spell it out.[ix]
Jeremiah reveals to us a deep dispute among the exiles(chap. 29). Those who felt that this was the end of the Jewish people, that there was no use to continue with normal lives (8-9). Jeremiah admonishes the people to marry, have children, build houses and pray for the exilic state they live in, for in 70 years their exile will end, and they have to prepare themselves for it, and be ready to return to Israel in strength. By the period of the book of Esther it is clear that the Jews followed part of Jeremiah’s advice, to procreate, make money, and become involved in the welfare of the exilic state. But, have they remembered to go back after 70 years?
The Talmud records that there was a mistake in counting the years, so this may excuse Ahasuerus hubris, but it also excuses the Jews not fulfilling the second half of Jeremiah’s prophecy. According to Esther, Mordecai selectively follows Jeremiah’s words, taking care of his fellow Jews materielly and politically, but issuing no stirring cry to return to the land from which they were exiled, when he had the power to make such a decree. Instead of the decree he wrote in Sivan, Mordecai could have written to transport all the Jews back to Jerusalem, and strengthen the newly approved Jewish state. But, in the book of Esther, there is silence.
The wisdom books, which stress earthly prowess in bringing God’s plan forward, seem unperturbed by the reality of enemies of the Jews who want to destroy them. Jews need only to deal with that fact by being clever and politically adept at manipulating power. The book of Esther seems to propose a more complex theology. There are two contradictory ideas, thoughts in Hebrew, perhaps meeting historical forces at work in Jewish history. One is the thought to destroy the Jewish people, and the other is the thought to redeem them. (9:24-25)
The first is a thought in the minds of humans, particularly people who have power and who flaunt total control over a nation to bolster their power. The second, at least according to the Joseph narrative, is in the mind of God, at least Joseph thought it was. In the Joseph narrative God is totally absent just as in the book of Esther, but at the end God is introduced by Joseph himself as the source of the thought of redemption for Israel. The book of Esther proposes that the thought of redemption for Israel might also be thought of as being in the purview of humans. It is implicit in Mordecai’s statement “who knows”, and is illustrated by the manipulations of Mordechai and Esther to save the Jews from Haman’s decree.
Indeed, the author of Esther uses another inter-textual device to highlight and explicate this approach. In row 10 of the chart we see that the author has referenced the figure of Amalek who attacks the Jewish people as they leave Egypt for no discernible reason. For the first time the nation has to choose soldiers to fight in a war against an enemy who wishes to destroy them. What catches the attention of our author is the fact that Amalek’s desire to destroy the Jewish nation is not explained. It seems to be some kind of extreme, perhaps even pathological, hatred, which has no explanation, at least no good rational explanation. Furthermore, in the Torah passages presented here, the conflict between Amelek’s extreme hatred of Israel and Israel’s need to defend itself against this, is framed as a divine war which will last throughout all of history.
Our author frames this in terms of another biblical narrative of the Amalek-Israel conflict namely that of King Saul, the King of Israel, in his battle with King Agog, the King of Amalek. The author creates the frame by associating Mordechai and Esther with the family of Saul, and Haman with the family of Agog. Just as in the passage of Exodus, Haman’s hatred of Mordechai has no good rational explanation. The hint in the text is that his extreme pathological hatred arises because Mordechai is a Jew. Thus, Haman cannot be satisfied with merely killing Mordechai as a political rival, but Haman needs to fulfill his destiny as an Amalekite by destroying all of Israel, men, women, and children. The figure of Saul is represented by Esther, who is by adoption Mordechai’s daughter, and from the family of Saul’s father Kish. The inter-textual hint that Haman represents Amalek is in his appellation as “Agagi”, that is, an offspring of Agag. Furthermore, the author adds a clear hint to this inter-textual reference by using the same phrase of transferring the power of kingship which was taken from Saul in Samuel 19, and has the same phrase referring to the transfer of queenly power to Esther. Thus, the stage is set for another violent encounter between Amalek and Israel.
Perhaps, the book is a manual for self preservation for Jewish communities in the diaspora. Get close to the king, and manipulate him in order to overcome enemies. True, the book of Esther includes the arming of Jewish communities who are given kingly permission to kill those who attack them, but perhaps that is just a wishful thought on the part of the author. The solution of return to rebuild the land of Israel is not even implied.
The prophetic approach, e.g. Moses, is that one brings God’s plan forward by positive action to strengthen ones own internal freedom and spiritual strength. That needs space, so that time can be made meaningful in and on our own terms. Control of space is important, so that time can be sanctified out of freedom. The prophets see the spiritual strengthenihng of Israel in its own land as the key to having all nations worship the Lord in Jerusalem, a vision which would clearly obviate the need for Jews to kill enemies. That prophetic vision is only hinted at in Esther, truly in remez (hint). Or, is the author of Esther subtly establishing his polemic for Jews who know the connection to Joseph. Esther ends with Mordecai’s establishment and fear of the Jews. But, was that not the ending of the book of Genesis, was that not what we thought when we finished the Joseph tale? But, we all know what happened after Joseph died, and new kings came to power. It is part of our Passover ritual to remember and mark it. Is it possible that the whole structure of Esther as Joseph II is to subtly build a polemic for Jews saying, the advice of this book is not a binding pledge to always be saved, unless you want to totally rely on intelligent Jews who know how to manipulate the powers that be, and weird improbable coincidences, in short “who knows?”. Indeed, by adding the dimension of the eternal thought of destroying all Jews represented by Amalek, and stressing that the commands of the Torah imply that one cannot merely rely on God to do that, but one must choose soldiers to do battle with Amalek, the author has added a specific ideological, theological and political slant on things. Perhaps it is an early Zionist polemic, brilliantly linked to the first one of the Joseph narrative.
Chart of linguistic similarities between Joseph and Esther narratives
|1. 41 33“Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. 35Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities. 36Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.” 37The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers.||2 2The king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for Your Majesty. 3Let Your Majesty appoint officers in every province of your realm to assemble all the beautiful young virgins at the fortress Shushan, in the harem under the supervision of Hege, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women. Let them be provided with their cosmetics. 4And let the maiden who pleases Your Majesty be queen instead of Vashti.” The proposal pleased the king, and he acted upon it.|
|2. 39 6He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was well built and handsome.||2 7He was foster father to Hadassah—that is, Esther—his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.|
|3. 40 Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt gave offense to their lord the king of Egypt. 2Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3and put them in custody, in the house of the chief steward, in the same prison house where Joseph was confined. 4The chief steward assigned Joseph to them, and he attended them.||2 21At that time, when Mordecai was sitting in the palace gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, became angry, and plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. 22Mordecai learned of it and told it to Queen Esther, and Esther reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. 23The matter was investigated and found to be so, and the two were impaled on stakes. This was recorded in the book of annals at the instance of the king.|
|4. 39 7After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. 9He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” 10And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her.||3 2All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. 3Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 4When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.|
|5. 41 42And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. 43He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt.||3 10Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of the Jews. 11And the king said, “The money and the people are yours to do with as you see fit.”
8 2The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai; and Esther put Mordecai in charge of Haman’s property.
|6. 43 14And may El Shaddai dispose the man to mercy toward you, that he may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved.”
50 18His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? 20Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. 21And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
|4 13Mordecai had this message delivered to
Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. 14On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” 15Then Esther sent back this answer to Mordecai: 16“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” 17So Mordecai went about [the city] and did just as Esther had commanded him.
|7. 43 30With that, Joseph hurried out, for
he was overcome with feeling toward his
brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. 31Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Serve the meal.”
|5 10Nevertheless, Haman controlled himself and went home. He sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh|
|8. 41 4and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. And Pharaoh awoke.||6 1That night, sleep deserted the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals, to be brought; and it was read to the king.|
|9. 44 34For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”||8 6For how can I bear to see the disaster which will befall my people! And how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred!”|
|10. Exodus 17 8Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9Moses said to Joshua, “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.” 10Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up
to the top of the hill. 11Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. 13And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword. 14Then the Lord said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” 15And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. 16He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the Lord!’ The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”
Deuteronomy 25 17Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—18how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
I Samuel 15 8and he captured King Agag of Amalek alive. He proscribed all the people, putting them to the sword; 18and the Lord sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and proscribe the sinful Amalekites; make
war on them until you have exterminated
them.’ 19Why did you disobey the Lord and
swoop down on the spoil in defiance of the
Lord’s will?” 20Saul said to Samuel, “But I did obey the Lord! I performed the mission on which the Lord sent me: I captured King Agag of Amalek, and I proscribed Amalek 27As Samuel turned to leave, Saul seized the
corner of his robe, and it tore. 28And Samuel
said to him, “The Lord has this day torn the
kingship over Israel away from you and has
given it to another who is worthier than you. 29Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind.”
|2 5In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the
name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. 6[Kish] had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.—7He was foster father to Hadassah—that is, Esther—his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.
3 1Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. 2All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. 5When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. 6But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
10Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of the Jews.
1 19“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she.
[i] Aside from Esther, the only other case I know is that of Jacob. In Gen. 29:20 the text says that the seven years he worked for Rachel were like “a few days in his eyes because of his love for her”. Indeed, some darshanim questioned this psychology, and ask why the seven years didn’t seem longer, rather than shorter, because of his anticipation to marry his beloved.
[ii] 2. Cf. L. A. Rosenthal, in ZAW, 1895; Kaufman, Toldot…vol. 8, p. 439 ff.; Moshe Gan, in Tarbiz, 31, 1962, p. 144-149 These articles, particularly Gan make a thoroughly convincing case for the dependence of Esther on Joseph. In particular, the language is so evocotive of Joseph that all other aspects referred to in this paper seem obvious.
[iii] See Gen. 50 end of Joseph
[iv] I see this statement of Joseph’s as his sudden realization and interpretation of the meaning of his dreams in Genesis chap. 37. Note that Joseph, the great interpreter of dreams, does not comment on his own dreams. Rather his brothers interpret them: that he will rule over them, and that Jacob and Rahel and they will bow down to him. Their understanding causes more enmity against Joseph. What is strange is that the pair of Joseph’s dreams are unlike the other two pairs of dreams in the story. All the pairs deal with the same thing, they are essentially one dream about one subject. They are all based on some concrete aspect of reality in the dreamer’s life, with the dreamer appearing in them doing what he normally does. But, as Rashi says every dream has some nonsense in it. The two servants of Pharoah see themselves doing their jobs. Pharoah sees himself doing his job. Around these realities of their lives are other, symbolic elements, which Joseph interprets as the “meaning” of the dreams.
Joseph’s dreams are unusual, in that they do not reflect the reality of his, or his brothers, lives. Jacob and his sons are herders, indeed, that is their claim to fame in Egypt. They are not agriculturists. Yet Joseph dreams that they are binding sheaves in a field! His second dream seems totally unrealistic, as Sun, moon and stars bow to Joseph. Indeed, the fact that the official and ‘correct’ interpretation of each pair is left up to Joseph, leads us to discount the brothers interpretation as wrong prima facie. But when does Joseph interpret his own dreams?
I suggest that it is only at the end of the story, when he realizes that his job as the mashbir, the provider of wheat to all the world, is what is fortold in his dream of the sheaves. And, as to the second, he realizes that God sent him to save Israel, the stars, ala God’s promise to Abraham (cf. Gen. 15:5-6). Thus, the fact that the whole constellation of sun, moon and stars is present signifies that Joseph is destined to save Israel. He will be the one, through his saving of the grain of Egypt, to enable Israel to physically survive, that is, the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will continue because of God’s sending Joseph to Egypt.
[v] My friend David Loewenstein of Kibbutz Sheluhot, finds another hint at God. He points out that the characters in the book come in pairs, one being “good” and the other “bad”, in the sense that one character fulfills their duties well and the other is negligent. Vashti is the “bad” queen, i.e. not doing the kings’ commands, and Esther is the “good” queen. Haman is the “bad” minister, thinking of himself and not the king’s interests, and Mordecai is the “good” minister. Ahasuerus is the “bad” king, in that he does not rule, does not fulfill kingly duties. He makes no decisions, and seems to be unconcerned with what happens in his kingdom. Where is his partner, the “good” king who does rule? This role is absent in the book, and visible only in the coincidences, i.e. God
[vi] The day changes as sundown, so Haman’s forgetting the feast has delayed its start till after sundown. Thus, the feast actually takes place on the 21st of Nisan.
[vii] For the parallels with Joseph, see Moshe Gan, cited above
[viii] It is also the month when King Asa of Israel enacted a kind of renewal of the covenant with God, cleansing Israel of idols (2 Chronicles 15:10)
[ix] Of course we are using midrash here, but that is the point