Sunday, February 18, 2018

Esther Pays An Old Debt

Esther crowned as Queen
I always thought of the Purim story as a Jewish girl who rescued the Jewish nation. One reason that Esther became queen of Persia was apparently to save the Jewish people from destruction by Haman the Agagite. "And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” - Esther 4:14. And to this day, Jews celebrate the day known as Purim.

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But, Rabbi David Fohrman AlephBeta [] points out that Esther and Mordecai were not Jews ethnically. They were descended from Benjamin. It's right there in the text, I just never noticed. "Now there was at the citadel in Susa a Jew whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite" - Esther 2:5. Well wait, it says Mordecai was a Jew, then it says he was a Benjamite. Which is it? Both actually. The kingdom of Judah, also known as the southern kingdom, was actually three tribes that banded together, Judah, Levi, and Benjamin, Judah being the most prominent and the royal line. The word Jew comes from the name Judah (Yehudi) and meant either an ethnic Judahite OR a resident of the kingdom of Judah. Verse 6 shows Mordecai was taken from Jerusalem into captivity, so he was a resident of Judah and could be called a Jew.

Big deal, so he and Hadasseh (Esther) were Benjamites. So what? There is language used in this story which draws us back to the story of Joseph in Egypt. Esther's story echoes Joseph's story when his brothers sold him to Midianites, and eventually Egypt. Note that this was Judah's idea.

Joseph sold by his brothers
Genesis 37:26  Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? “Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.
Esther 7:4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.

Both passages talk about someone being sold for slavery versus sold for destruction. The words "sell" and "sold" are spelled the same in both verses (nmkrnu, Hebrew Torah scrolls are written without vowels).

But that story is about Joseph, not Benjamin. And Esther's rescue of the Jews is not over. When Esther appeared before the king, she succeeded in eliminating Haman, but Haman's decree to kill all the Jews was still in effect, and Esther had to approach the king a second time to ask for the decree to be rescinded. Again, it went well.

Esther pleads for the Jews
Esther 8:3 Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4 The king extended the golden scepter to Esther. So Esther arose and stood before the king. 5 Then she said, “If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces. 6 “For how can I endure to see the calamity which will befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?”

Esther's plea echoes Judah's plea centuries before in Egypt, when he pleaded to trade places with Benjamin. Joseph tricked his brothers into bringing Benjamin to Egypt. Joseph was powerful in Egypt when his brothers came to buy food, but they did not recognize him. When the brothers were going home, Joseph planted his goblet in Benjamin's pack so Benjamin would look guilty of theft. Judah steps up and offers to trade himself as a slave in Benjamin's place. He could have gone back to his father Jacob and said there was nothing he could do, after all, the goblet was in Benjamin's pack. But in spite of Leah and her children (including Judah) being second class citizens in Jacob's eyes (note in the passage below that Jacob only refers to the two sons of Rachel), Judah's plea was based on how much sorrow it would cause his father to lose both sons of Rachel.

Judah pleads for Benjamin
Genesis 44:27 “Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28 and the one went out from me, and I said, “Surely he is torn in pieces,” and I have not seen him since. 29 ‘If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.’ 30 “Now, therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad’s life, 31 when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die. Thus your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow. 32 “For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ 33 “Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. 34 “For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me—for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?” 

Let me narrow in on Gen 44:34 and Ester 8:6.

Gen 44:34 Lest I see the evil that will come on my father
Esther 8:6 For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people?

In Hebrew, the phrase "evil that will come on my father/people" differs by one letter.

Gen 44:34 ra asher yim'tza et-aviy (father)
Esther 8:6 ra asher yim'tza et-amiy (people)
Esther used the exact same words as Judah. She must have known her history. Judah offered himself to save Benjamin. Esther, a Benjaminite, offered herself to save Judah, ie. the ethnic Jews in Persia. The family breach that started when the sons of Leah sold Joseph into slavery was restored by Hadasseh (Esther). And both stories have a happy ending for the sons of Jacob.

Judah saved Benjamin

Benjamin saved Judah

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That was fascinating! Thanks for sharing, John.