Jewish Not Judean: The Diaspora in the Book of Esther
The book of Esther opens with King Ahasuerus’ parties and his conflict with Queen Vashti. No mention of Jews appears until Mordechai is introduced in the second chapter:
אסתר ב:ה אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן שִׁמְעִי בֶּן קִישׁ אִישׁ יְמִינִי.
Esth 2:5 In the fortress Shushan lived a Yehudi by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite.
The term Yehudi, in the singular, is rare in the Bible. The word appears eight times in the book of Esther, but only twice more elsewhere, in Jeremiah 34:9 and Zechariah 8:23. While the plural version of this term is more common, appearing 65 times in the Bible, 44 of these appearances are in the book of Esther. In general, the texts that use this term are mostly late, but none use it more persistently than the book of Esther. Clearly the term is central to the discourse in this book, but what does it mean that Mordechai is both a Yehudi (Judahite?) and a Benjaminite. Aren’t these two different tribes?
The Talmud’s Four Solutions
The problem is already noted in the Talmud (b. Megillah 12b):
קרי ליה יהודי אלמא מיהודה קאתי וקרי ליה ימיני אלמא מבנימין קאתי
It calls him a Yehudi, implying he is from [the tribe of] Judah; and it calls him a Yemini, implying he is from [the tribe of] Benjamin.
The Talmud suggests four solutions to this problem:
1. Honorary title
אמר רב נחמן מרדכי מוכתר בנימוסו היה
Rav Nahman said: “Mordechai was crowned with religious honorifics.”
According to this, Yehudi is not meant here as a tribal designation but as an honorific title.
2. Parents from different tribes
אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר' יהושע בן לוי אביו מבנימין ואמו מיהודה
Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: “His father was from Benjamin and his mother from Judah.”
This is, perhaps, the most obvious solution, but the Bible doesn’t generally take the mother’s tribe into account when describing a person’s tribal affiliation.
3. Tribes competed for him
ורבנן אמרי משפחות מתגרות זו בזו משפחת יהודה אומרת אנא גרים דמתיליד מרדכי דלא קטליה דוד לשמעי בן גרא ומשפחת בנימין אמרה מינאי קאתי
The rabbis say: “The families were competing with each other. The clan of Judah said: ‘We brought it about that Mordechai was born, since David (the Judahite) did not kill Shimei ben Gera (Mordechai’s ancestor).” The clan of Benjamin said: “He is one of us.”
The reference here is to a story in which a Benjaminite kinsman of Saul curses David (2 Sam 16:5–8, 13), and instead of having him killed, David tells his men to stand down (2 Sam 16:9–12), and promises not to take revenge on him (2 Sam 19:19–21). The Talmud assumes that the Shimei who appears in the list of Mordechai’s is this same person, and that had David killed him on the spot, Mordechai’s line would have been cut off and he would never have been born.
4. Not an idol worshiper
רבי יוחנן אמר לעולם מבנימן קאתי ואמאי קרי ליה יהודי על שום שכפר בע"ז שכל הכופר בע"ז נקרא יהודי כדכתיב איתי גוברין יהודאין וגו'
Rabbi Yohanan said: “Really, he is from Benjamin. So why does it call him a Yehudi? Because he rejected idol worship, for anyone who rejects idol worship is called a Yehudi, as it says (Dan 3:12): “There are certain Yehudim…”
This latter view is developed at greater length in Midrash Esther Rabbah (6:2), and derives from the midrashic depiction of Mordechai refusing to bow to Haman because he has an idol on his chest.
וכי קנתרן היה ועובר על גזירת המלך? אלא כשצוה אחשורוש להשתחוות להמן חקק ע"ז על לבו ונתכוון כדי שישתחוו לע"ז, וכשהיה רואה המן שאין מרדכי משתחוה לו נתמלא חֵמה.
Was he just confrontational, violating the king’s decree? Rather, when Ahasuerus commanded [his people] to bow to Haman, [Haman] placed an idol on his heart, and intended that people would be bowing to the idol. When Haman saw that Mordechai would not bow, he was filled with anger.
ומרדכי אומר לו: יש אדון המתגאה על כל גאים, היאך אני מניחו ואשתחוה לע"ז? ולפי שייחד שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא נקרא יהודי לומר יהודי: יחידי.
So Mordechai said to him: “There is a master whose pride is beyond all of the proud. How can I abandon him and bow to an idol?” Since he unified the name of the Holy One, he was called Yehudi, meaning Yechidi (unique).
According to this, Mordechai isn’t a Yehudi (Judahite) but a Yechidi (unique) in that he his refusal made God’s name unified (yachid) in the world. This play on words worked better in rabbinic times, when all guttural sounds, such as chet and heh, were pronounced similarly.
The Talmud’s opening assumption is that the simple meaning of Yehudi is Judahite, i.e., from the tribe of Judah, but this is not the case in late biblical texts.
The Province of Judah
Already in the First Temple period, Judah is the name of the entire southern Israelite polity, comprised of more than one tribe, and this name, with slight variation (Yehud instead of Yehudah), is the name of the Persian province in the Second Temple period. It continued in slightly different form into the Greek (Ioudaia) and Roman (Iudæa) periods.
Thus, it is possible that the book of Esther is using the term Yehudi to describe someone from Judea, i.e., it is the person’s political or national identity. This fits with the description of Mordechai as an exile from Judea/Jerusalem in the verse immediately following his introduction:
אסתר ב:ו אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה מִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִם הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל.
Esth 2:6 He had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exiles that were carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
Indeed, in some biblical contexts the word Yehudi does seem to refer to citizens of the polity of Judah. For example,
מלכים ב טז:ו בָּעֵת הַהִיא הֵשִׁיב רְצִין מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם אֶת אֵילַת לַאֲרָם וַיְנַשֵּׁל אֶת הַיְהוּדִים מֵאֵילוֹת (וארמים) [וַאֲדוֹמִים] בָּאוּ אֵילַת וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
2 Kgs 16:6 At that time King Rezin of Aram recovered Eilat for Aram; he drove out the Yehudim from Eilat, and Edomites came to Eilat and settled there, as is still the case.
The terms here focus on national-political identities. The king of Aram takes Eilat away from Judah, removes the Judeans who lived there, allowing Edomites, i.e., people from Edom, northeast of Eilat, to take their place.
If this is the meaning of the term in the book of Esther, then we would have to translate the phrase Mordechai HaYehudi as Mordechai the Judean. But this seems unlikely. The book of Esther describes Ahasuerus as king of 127 provinces, but never mentions the province of Yehud (Judea) by name. Instead, the book of Esther describes Yehudim as a group living throughout the Persian Empire. Clearly many Yehudim lived in Yehud, but this group is not the focus of the book.
Yehudim Living in the Persian Empire: Jews
When Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, the latter decides he will retaliate against all the Yehudim that live throughout the empire:
אסתר ג:ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו לִשְׁלֹח יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ כִּי הִגִּידוּ לוֹ אֶת עַם מָרְדֳּכָי וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ עַם מָרְדֳּכָי.
Esther 3:6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone, having been told who Mordechai’s people were. So Haman plotted to do away with all the Yehudim throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus, Mordechai's people.
Haman does not imagine destroying Judea, Mordechai’s ancestral homeland, but Yehudim throughout the empire. He is thinking of them as a people as opposed to a nation. This is also evident in his description to Ahasuerus of the enemy people (Esth 3:8): יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ, “here is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm.”
The statement seems oblivious to, or at least uninterested in, the fact that these people have a province in Ahasuerus’ empire. Rather, they are seen as a distinct group of people who live scattered throughout the Persian empire. In other words, the book of Esther means something like “Jews,” not “Judeans,” with this term.
Dat: Religious Conflict
Jews in the book of Esther are defined through their cultural norms, as seen in Haman’s complaint about the Jews spread throughout Persian territory:
אסתר ג:ח ...וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין שֹׁוֶה לְהַנִּיחָם.
Esth 3:8 …Their laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.
While Haman may have in mind Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him as the king commanded, the statement is made broadly about Jews and is an early example of the stereotype of the disloyal Jew (still around today). The claim is based upon the ostensibly observable difference between the way Jews act in comparison to their neighbors. They have their own rules.
The term Haman uses for “rules” here, dat, is a Persian loanword dāta, which appears upwards of 20 times in the Megillah and which can mean “law, rule, practice, or custom.” Ahasuerus is described as someone very concerned about dat. Thus, the claim that a people exists who do not follow the king’s laws would make such a monarch feel threatened, especially since these people are not located in one province but scattered throughout the empire. Indeed, this distinction is critical for understanding the undercurrent of the Megillah that outsiders find Jews threatening.
Multi-Culturalism in the Provinces, but not Scattered Throughout
The book of Esther is keenly aware of the multi-cultural makeup of the Persian Empire. In the decree against Vashti, letters were written in (apparently) 127 different languages, giving men in each province the right to speak their own language in their homes.
אסתר א:כב וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל כָּל מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה כִּכְתָבָהּ וְאֶל עַם וָעָם כִּלְשׁוֹנוֹ לִהְיוֹת כָּל אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ וּמְדַבֵּר כִּלְשׁוֹן עַמּוֹ.
Esth 1:22 Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language, that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people.
The letter Esther and Mordechai draft about the right of Jews to defend themselves reflects this same multiculturalism:
אסתר ח:ט ...וַיִּכָּתֵב כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מָרְדֳּכַי אֶל הַיְּהוּדִים וְאֶל הָאֲחַשְׁדַּרְפְּנִים וְהַפַּחוֹת וְשָׂרֵי הַמְּדִינוֹת אֲשֶׁר מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד כּוּשׁ שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה כִּכְתָבָהּ וְעַם וָעָם כִּלְשֹׁנוֹ וְאֶל הַיְּהוּדִים כִּכְתָבָם וְכִלְשׁוֹנָם.
Esth 8:9 … and letters were written, at Mordechai’s dictation, to the Jews and to the satraps, the governors and the officials of the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia: to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language.
Every province from India to Ethiopia is informed that the local Jews have a right to defend themselves. This implies that all—or at least many—of these provinces have Jews. The Jews spread throughout the empire, therefore, represent something very different than the Judeans of Judah: they don’t live in the province of their origin, but they still follow their own laws.
The distinct behavior and identity of Jews in Persia is clear from the tactic many of the Persians use to avoid becoming collateral damage in the war between the now crown-supported Jews and their enemies:
אסתר ח:יז ...וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי נָפַל פַּחַד הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם.
Esth 8:17 … And many of the people of the land Jewified themselves, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
The verb מִתְיַהֲדִים, which I have rendered “Jewified” is strange. The traditional understanding, following both Targums, is מִתְגַיְירִין, “converted”; the LXX goes so far as to translate the verb as “became circumcised” (περιετέμοντο). An alternative interpretation is that they pretended to become Jews. Either way, the point would be that they start behaving like Jews, and that such behavior would clarify to the Jews and their supporters that they were “one of them.”
More than Just a Culture
At the same time, the Megillah is not presenting Jews as simply a culture. As noted above, the Megillah informs us at his first appearance that Mordechai was exiled from Judah. Moreover, when Haman informs his wife and his advisors that he has been forced to parade Mordechai around the city, their response notes Mordechai’s ethnicity:
אסתר ו:יג ...וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ חֲכָמָיו וְזֶרֶשׁ אִשְׁתּוֹ אִם מִזֶּרַע הַיְּהוּדִים מָרְדֳּכַי אֲשֶׁר הַחִלּוֹתָ לִנְפֹּל לְפָנָיו לֹא תוּכַל לוֹ כִּי נָפוֹל תִּפּוֹל לְפָנָיו.
Esth 6:13 His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin.”
The word zeraʿ means “seed,” and is generally used in the Bible for biological descendants or to emphasize familial connections. Thus, the Megillah is relates to the Jews in a complex way. They are originally from Judah, but many of them no longer live there and are now a distinct cultural entity in the Persian Empire. The majority of them are born Jewish, but outsiders can join by taking up Jewish practices.
The Jews of the Diaspora
In sharp distinction to works like Ezra-Nehemiah or Chronicles, Esther ignores the status of Judea in the Persian Empire to focus on the position of Jews living outside of Judea vis-à-vis their non-Jewish neighbors. The reality of living in exile as a minority group invites a conscious grappling with issues of identity and the sharp distinctions between “us” and “them.”
Thus, the Megillah’s concern is about Yehudim, “Jews,” being perceived as outsiders, different, even a fifth column. It reflects the anxieties and fears of a culturally and religiously distinct minority grappling with their place – and their future – in the larger gentile society in which they were a minority. This struggle began 2500 years ago but remains fresh until the present day.
What About Esther’s Moledet?
In her request that Ahasuerus cancel Haman’s decree, Esther seems to be referring to her homeland of Judea:
אסתר ח:ה ... יִכָּתֵב לְהָשִׁיב אֶת הַסְּפָרִים מַחֲשֶׁבֶת הָמָן בֶּן הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב לְאַבֵּד אֶת הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ. ח:ו כִּי אֵיכָכָה אוּכַל וְרָאִיתִי בָּרָעָה אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת עַמִּי וְאֵיכָכָה אוּכַל וְרָאִיתִי בְּאָבְדַן מוֹלַדְתִּי.
Esther 8:5 …let dispatches be written countermanding those which were written by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, embodying his plot to annihilate the Jews throughout the king's provinces. 8:6 For how can I bear to see the disaster which will befall my people! And how can I bear to see the destruction of my moledet!
The final term in the verse, moledet, generally means “homeland.” Indeed, the Greek translation here reads τῆς πατρίδος μου, “my fatherland.” This would be a sudden turn to Judea in a book which otherwise ignores it. But this may not be the term’s meaning here.
Following the poetic structure of the verse, moledet is parallel to the term ʿam, “nation/people,” and should mean something similar. For this reason, most translators and commentators, ancient and modern, assume that the term refers to Esther’s people.
Thus, the Targum Esther translates גְנִיסַת יַלְדוּתִי “the family of my birth,” Targum Sheni translates תולדותי “my kin,” the Peshitta translates שרבתי (ܫܪܒܬܝ) “my family,” and the Vulgate translates interfectionem populi mei, “the murder of my people”—translating destruction as “murder” makes it especially clear that the Vulgate understands moledet as “people” and not “polity.”
Among the commentators, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1085–1158) explains the term as:
באבוד אותם בני אדם של מולדתי.
With the destruction of those people who are of my homeland.
Rashbam’s contemporary, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) interprets the phrase this way as well, in his first commentary on Esther, באבדן נפשות מולדתי “with the loss of the people of my homeland,” and the modern commentator, R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi (Tedeschi, 1812–1898), simply reads the term as exactly parallel to ʿam (Hoil Moshe, ad loc.):
מולדתי – עם שנולדתי מאחד מהם.
My moledet—the people of whom one gave birth to me.
This is also the interpretation of many English translations, traditional and modern; thus, KJV, NJPS, and NRSV all translate “my kindred,” and Robert Alter “birth-kin.” The reason for this broad consensus is that Esther mentioning her concern for Judea here would be out of place, given how Yehudim are described throughout the story.
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Ophir Yarden is a senior lecturer at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center. He earned M.A. degrees at the University of Chicago and the Schechter Institute – J.T.S. Ophir is author of Judaism: A First Encounter (forthcoming) and is the ADAShA Program Director at the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue.
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