Purim: Esther and Joseph – Two Models of Exilic Jews

The story of Esther presents a situation previously unknown in the biblical period. Never before had an independent community of Jews existed, willingly, outside the Land of Israel, at the time that there was a formal Jewish community there. What sources could such a community draw on to give its existence a positive and legitimate image? Not surprisingly, the Megilah story shows many similarities to the story of Joseph, the catalyst of the events that led to the first exile, in Egypt.

Significantly, both stories are driven by human desire ignited by physical beauty. Joseph might have lived out his days as a servant to Potifar if not for his good looks. True to biblical form, in both stories human beauty works against its “bearer.” A figure of authority and power, Potifar’s wife desires Joseph because of his fine form. His refusal lands him in prison, a treatment apparently reserved for high ranking officials (others were probably beheaded.) From the prison Joseph rises to high rank in the palace, second to the Pharaoh. In the story of Esther it is the king’s desire for a beautiful queen that gives her a ticket into the harem, a gilded prison for the many women being considered and tested for the job. But Esther is chosen and replaces Vashti in the palace. [source 1]

As soon as they enter the palace both Joseph and Esther ‘lose’ the name that identifies them with the Jewish/Israelite People. While Joseph’s Egyptian name and dress are given to him by Pharaoh, Esther arrives with her non-Jewish name (a variation of the goddess Ishtar.) From this point on she will no longer maintain her Jewish name – Hadassah. Here we see a difference between the stories. Joseph was an immigrant, and remains known among his brothers and future generations by his Hebrew name. [source 2] Mordecai and Esther seem to have borne “outside” names as part of their basic identity. Name and clothing are the first, and essential, identifying marks a person has. [source 3] The Jewish community that chose to live in Shushan apparently integrated quite well into the general culture. Most of the plot of the Megilah happens before Ahasuerus discovers Esther’s national/religious identity.

Why did Esther have to conceal her identity? Mordecai does not explain further, but the story of Joseph and history teach us that a foreigner is safe as long as he is an asset, preferably an economic one. As long as Joseph was needed to get Egypt safely through the famine he was able to bring his family in front of Pharaoh and have them resettled in Egypt. Seventeen years later, when Jacob dies, Joseph had to forward his request to go to Canaan to bury his father through the servants of the king. When his time came, about sixty years later, he can only request that his descendants take his bones along when God redeems them. Joseph’s preferred status seems to be gone. In the story of Esther safety is only fully achieved once Mordecai is installed as the second to the king. The closing lines of the Megilah (chapter 10) should probably be read as the success of Mordecai’s economic plan as second to the king, including the taxes levied on the land. Joseph did the same for Pharaoh. (Cf. Genesis 47:13-26.)

Despite the many similarities in the stories, there are some glaring differences. Perhaps the greatest is God’s presence or absence. Joseph is constantly mentioning God. His entire advice to Pharaoh is not presented as his own but rather as God’s decree, and Pharaoh recognizes this. God’s name is not mentioned in any form in the Megilah; no prayers are mentioned, no crying to God because of Haman’s decree. We can appreciate that part of the concealment that Mordecai and Esther practice is also on the religious level. Mentioning Hashem, God of the Jews, would reveal their identity. The midrashic tradition sought to fill the gap. God’s guiding hand was obvious to the rabbis, and so they suggested reading at least some mentions of the word “king” (Melekh) as both king Ahasuerus and The King of the Universe. [source 4]

Unlike the story of Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt, the story of Esther is a story of survival, not of redemption. The community is not interested in being taken out of its current state; it wishes only to be restored to safety. At no point is there a consideration of returning to the Land of Israel where the early Second Temple period is underway. A new pattern has been created for the Jewish People. While there is a Jewish community in the Land of Israel, there will be a strong parallel community outside the land. This community will at times be big and influential. Among its leaders will be people with strong ties to the government that will be used to safeguard the Jews. In the story of Esther the Diaspora was born.