Purim: Queen Esther in the Footsteps of Joseph the Wise

There are many parallels between the stories about Joseph and Megillat Esther.

The similarity emerges when one compares both stories from the viewpoints of stylistics and content. Many of the expressions and structures which are almost absent in the other books of the Bible can be found in both of these accounts. Even the life stories of Joseph, Esther and Mordecai bear an amazing resemblance.

This kind of parallel in the Bible is not exclusive to these two episodes: one can find frequent use of parallel styles and its purpose is to stress the great similarity of substance between them.

The Midrash discusses extensively any occurrence of stylistic parallels, and modern-day researchers have rediscovered their significance. The interpretation varies according to the reviewer and the audience, but they do provide a significant source for textual comprehension.

The astounding parallel between the Joseph accounts and Megillat Esther is an expression of the fact that "deeds of the fathers shall be a sign to their children".

STYLISTIC SIMILARITIES

The Midrash makes mention of the obvious stylistic similarities between the Joseph stories and Megillat Esther and the parallels between them.

One example will suffice:

"Rabbi Yohanan, on behalf of Rabbi Binyamin bar [son of] Rabbi Levi: The trials of Rachel's children are equivalent and their greatness is equivalent. Their trials are equivalent - As it is written: Genesis XXXIX, 10:

"And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her..."

and Esther III, 4:

"Now it came to pass, when they spoke daily to him, and he did not hearken to them..."

Their greatness is equivalent - As it is written: Genesis XLI, 42-43:

"And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen...and he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, "Bow the knee": and made him ruler over all the land of Egypt."

and Esther VIII, 2,6,9:

"And the King took off his ring which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman."

"for how can I endure to see the evil that shall befall my people ... the destruction of my kindred?"

"Then the king's scribes were called ....and an order was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded ..." [as interpreted in Esther Raba, Section VII, VIII and similar].

In its usual manner, the Midrash focuses primarily on the verbal similarity between the two episodes. While it is true that there is also c o n t e x t u a l similarity, it is only when the stylistic parallels are clear that we can be sure that these are objects of special emphasis. In other words, only where there is an exceptional similarity of entire expressions or structures is there definite evidence of deliberate parallels in significance between the two stories.

There are, for example, numerous descriptions of time in both: "After these things" [Genesis XL, 1 - Esther II, 1]; "And it came to pass on the third day" [XL, 20; XLII, 18 - V, 1].

There is also repeated reference to numbers: however, neither these, nor descriptions of banquets: [Genesis XL, 20: "And he held a feast for all his slaves" - Esther I, 3 and II, 18] or of mourning: ["And Jacob rent his garments and girded his loins with sackcloth" XXXVII, 34; XLIV, 13 - "And Mordecai rent his clothes and dressed in sackcloth and dust" IV, 1] or even of beauty: [XXXIX, 6 - II, 7] or again of affection [XXXVII, 3 - II, 17] are true stylistic parallels, because they are too general to prove unequivocably that there is deliberate use of language from Genesis in the Book of Esther.

In distinction to this, the repetition of an expression by one person to another daily when no-one listens does have significance. Such an expression, brought by the above Midrash, and identifying persistence in time of trial, does not occur in the same combination in any other Bible text. The same is also true for the Midrash's selection of the multitude of descriptive references to the transfer of royal power to the second to the king. These are not the only exclusive parallel references in the two accounts.

Below are two outstanding examples of identical formulations in the description of mourning as they appear in the two stories: XLIII, 14: "and if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved." IV, 16: "and if I perish, I perish."

Note that in both contexts, one person [Jacob - Esther] is prepared to sacrifice something dear for the common good: XLIV, 34:

"For how shall I go up to my father... lest I see the evil that shall come upon my father?"

VIII, 6:

" for how can I endure to see the evil that shall befall my people? ... the destruction of my kindred?"

There are also verses dealing with the selection of the new Queen which directly recall texts in Genesis: XLI, 34-37:

"And Pharaoh appointed officers over the land, and take up ... in the seven years of plenty .... against the seven years of famine ... And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh..."

L, 3:

"for so are fulfilled the days of those who are embalmed..."

Esther: II, 3-4:

"and shall the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, to gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan the capital ... And the thing was good in the eyes of the king..."

II, 12:]

"for so are fulfilled the days of their anointing..."

The Megillah's use of language from Genesis adds a layer of decisive irony to its expression of contempt for Ahasuerus and his cronies.

Note, too, that the status of women in Ahasuerus' empire can be derived from the linguistic parallels above, such as the verb "kavats" [collected, assembled] in reference to bringing women to him.

SIMILARITIES OF SUBSTANCE

Both stories take place in a foreign country: Egypt and Persia. In both cases, a few Jews reach key positions in the foreign empire: Joseph and Esther. Both begin this path against their will: Joseph is sold in Egypt, while Esther is taken to the King's palace. Their continued ascent to power is related in most dramatic terms. When they reach the pinnacle of the empire, both help their people, Israel, and save them from destruction [famine, execution]. In addition, the non-Jewish rulers also benefit from their assistance and have their lives saved by Joseph and Mordecai [from famine, assassination]. This is the factor which contributes to the accumulation of power by the Jewish figure under the foreign regime, and he becomes second-in-power to the King [Joseph, Mordecai].

In both accounts, the ascent of the Jews in the royal court is almost parallel: both attract attention from their environment - initially because of their external appearance [their beauty]; subsequently because of their intelligence [Joseph interprets dreams, devises and implements a daring economic strategy; Esther finds an unusual way to convince the King].

The stories include both misfortune and grief [Jacob, Mordecai and the Jewish people] - and it emerges that the the elevated status of the Jew has been accorded him or her for the sole purpose of assisting his or her fellow Jews in difficult times. In both stories, the key figures have to be discreet - neither Joseph nor Esther reveal their true identity until the end.

In both, a good deed is temporarily forgotten: Joseph's interpretations of the ministers' dreams and Ahasuerus' life being saved from the would-be assassins. Through sleep [Pharaoh's dreams] or through lack of it [Ahasuerus' sleepless night], both remember the lapses. In both cases, ministers are raised in responsibility: the Minister of the Bakery and the Minister of the Cellar in Pharaoh's case; the two guards of Ahasuerus' court.

The anger of a minister and his end by hanging are an important element in both sets of events [the Minister of the Bakery; the Court guards, Haman and his sons].

In addition, both stories take a dramatic turn following a banquet permeated with tension [Esther - the King - Haman; Joseph - the Egyptians - his brothers], where those invited do not know in advance what is about to happen - while the organizer [Joseph - Esther] prepares the revelation he or she has planned for the moment.

We have seen how both episodes are similar from the point of the general direction they take in terms of the events and specific occurrences in the chain of these events. The main point, however, is that the Divine hand which guides the history of His people, Israel, is revealed in both. Providence comes not through miracles but in the way of nature; both Joseph and Esther are acting as emissaries of G-d.

In Joseph's case, the text says: [Genesis XLV, 8]

"So now it was not you that sent me here, but G-d; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt."

In the Megillah, Mordecai says to his cousin: [IV, 14]

"For if you remain silent at this time, then relief and deliverance shall come to the Jews from another place; but you and your father's house shall perish: and who knows whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this?"

The significance of both stories is identical: the revelation of Divine Providence.

Above are only some of the examples which can be found from detailed comparison of the text: have students head one sheet of paper "Esther" and another "Joseph" so that they can search the text independently in groups of two or three.






Cohen, Gavriel Haim, Dr., #4 - "Queen Esther in the Footsteps of Joseph the Wise", In: "Studies in the Five megillot: Megillat Esther", ISRAEL MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND CULTURE - DIVISION FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION, JERUSALEM 5751-1991.




 

 

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15 Jun 2005 / 8 Sivan 5765 0