Masking Revenge as Self-Defense: Domesticating the Book of Esther
Following Haman’s decree, Esther’s mission is to intercede with the king to save the Jews (4:8, 14). With this goal in mind, she arranges her drinking parties with Ahasuerus and Haman, and keeps Ahasuerus in suspense about a special request that he might grant her (5:8). Finally, at the second party, she dramatically expresses her plea:
אסתר ז:ג וַתַּעַן אֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וַתֹּאמַר אִם מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב תִּנָּתֶן לִי נַפְשִׁי בִּשְׁאֵלָתִי וְעַמִּי בְּבַקָּשָׁתִי. ז:ד כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד...
Esth 7:3 Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. 7:4 For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated…”
The king is then told by his servant Harbona that Haman is planning on having Mordechai, the Jew who saved the king’s life, executed this very day. Furious, the king immediately has Haman executed in Mordechai’s place, after which he calms down.
Ahasuerus Makes Mordechai the Vizier
Ahasuerus then makes it clear to Esther that Haman and his decree are in the past, and officially gives Mordechai the royal signet ring:
אסתר ח:א בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה אֶת בֵּית הָמָן צֹרֵר (היהודיים) [הַיְּהוּדִים] וּמָרְדֳּכַי בָּא לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר מַה הוּא לָהּ. ח:ב וַיָּסַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת טַבַּעְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱבִיר מֵהָמָן וַיִּתְּנָהּ לְמָרְדֳּכָי וַתָּשֶׂם אֶסְתֵּר אֶת מָרְדֳּכַי עַל בֵּית הָמָן.
Esth 8:1 That very day King Ahasuerus gave the property of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther. Mordechai presented himself to the king, for Esther had revealed how he was related to her. 8:2 The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordechai; and Esther put Mordechai in charge of Haman’s property.
This formal, ceremonial scene is interrupted abruptly when Esther falls to the ground at the king’s feet, begging for mercy for her people, the Jews:
אסתר ח:ג וַתּוֹסֶף אֶסְתֵּר וַתְּדַבֵּר לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וַתִּפֹּל לִפְנֵי רַגְלָיו וַתֵּבְךְּ וַתִּתְחַנֶּן לוֹ לְהַעֲבִיר אֶת רָעַת הָמָן הָאֲגָגִי וְאֵת מַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָשַׁב עַל הַיְּהוּדִים.
Esth 8:3 Esther spoke to the king again, falling at his feet and weeping, and beseeching him to avert the evil plotted by Haman the Agagite against the Jews.
The king, perhaps as puzzled as the reader, motions with his scepter for Esther to stand up and explain (v. 4), and she continues:
אסתר ח:ה וַתֹּאמֶר אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב וְאִם מָצָאתִי חֵן לְפָנָיו וְכָשֵׁר הַדָּבָר לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְטוֹבָה אֲנִי בְּעֵינָיו 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.
Esth 8:5 “If it please Your Majesty,” she said, “and if I have won your favor and the proposal seems right to Your Majesty, and if I am pleasing to you—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 kindred!”
The implication of Esther’s plea is that the hated decree stills stands, which is strange since Haman has been executed and Mordechai is now the vizier.
The king does not respond to Esther directly, but instead addresses Mordechai and Esther together. He first highlights that he has just given Esther Haman’s house after having executed him, but again says nothing at all about cancelling Haman’s edict, simply telling them to write whatever they wish:
אסתר ח:ז וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וּלְמָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי הִנֵּה בֵית הָמָן נָתַתִּי לְאֶסְתֵּר וְאֹתוֹ תָּלוּ עַל הָעֵץ עַל אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יָדוֹ (ביהודיים) [בַּיְּהוּדִים]. ח:ח וְאַתֶּם כִּתְבוּ עַל הַיְּהוּדִים כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְחִתְמוּ בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי כְתָב אֲשֶׁר נִכְתָּב בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְנַחְתּוֹם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין לְהָשִׁיב.
Esth 8:7 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordechai the Jew, “I have given Haman’s property to Esther, and he has been impaled on the stake for scheming against the Jews. 8:8 And you may further write with regard to the Jews as you see fit in the king’s name and seal it with the king’s signet, for an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be returned.”
What about Haman’s original decree? Why doesn’t the king respond to Esther’s request?
Royal Decrees Cannot be Annulled?
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) argues that the final phrase, that “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be returned (אֵין לְהָשִׁיב)” is Ahasuerus’ response. He was admitting that he can’t withdraw the edict as Esther requested, but instead he will allow them to write some other edict:
והנה אחשורוש אמר לו עשה כל מה שתוכל כדי למלט עמך, כי הספרים הראשונים שכתב המן ונכתבו בשמי ונחתמו בטבעתי לא אוכל להשיבם, כי כן דת מדי ופרס.
Now Ahasuerus said to him (=Mordechai): “Do what you can so that your people may escape destruction, for the copies of the first edit, which Haman wrote, and which were written in my name and sealed with my ring, cannot be returned, for that is the law of Media and Persia.
However, if the text wanted to present Ahasuerus as telling Esther that he cannot rescind Haman’s edict, that should have been presented earlier, as part of an apology. In context, Ahasuerus seems to be assuring them that the new edict that Mordechai and Esther write, when stamped with the royal seal, will not be “returned,” i.e., “disregarded.” Thus, R. Isaiah di Trani the Elder (Rid, c. 1180 – c. 1250) interpreted the phrase:
אין תושבי הממלכה רשאים להמנע מלקיימו.
The inhabitants of the kingdom are not free to refrain from carrying it out.
This is also how it the Vetus Latina version renders the message:
Esther VL 180 (=8:8) Write, then, letters in my name as it pleases you and Mordechai! And seal (them) with my ring! Everything written by command of the king and sealed—those things are not defied.”
A passage in Isaiah that uses the same term about YHWH’s “edicts” supports this interpretation:
ישעיה יד:כז כִּי יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יָעָץ וּמִי יָפֵר וְיָדוֹ הַנְּטוּיָה וּמִי יְשִׁיבֶנָּה.
Isa 14:27 For YHWH of Hosts has planned, who then can foil it? It is His arm that is poised, and who can turn it back?
Others cannot turn back (or reverse) God’s purposes. God, however, can have a change of heart, if God so chooses.
In sum, the simple meaning of the claim that a royal edict אֵין לְהָשִׁיב “cannot be returned” is that an order sent with the king’s seal must be obeyed. Yet it is still strange that Ahasuerus does not address Esther’s plea directly. Moreover, given that Ahasuerus has already entrusted Mordechai with the ring, why is Esther so concerned that the decree will not be annulled?
A Later Supplement Reframing Ahasuerus’ Statement
Both problems are solved if the scene with Esther’s second plea (vv. 3–6) is a later supplement. The passage (vv. 1–2, 7–8) opens with Ahasuerus giving Haman’s property to Esther (v. 1), and Ahasuerus refers to this in his statement (v. 7). Esther presents Mordechai before the king (v. 1), so the king responds by addressing them both (v. 7). Ahasuerus gives Mordechai his ring (v. 2), and explains what Mordechai is to do with this new power (v. 8). The text originally read:
אסתר ח:א בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה אֶת בֵּית הָמָן צֹרֵר (היהודיים) [הַיְּהוּדִים] וּמָרְדֳּכַי בָּא לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר מַה הוּא לָהּ. ח:ב וַיָּסַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת טַבַּעְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱבִיר מֵהָמָן וַיִּתְּנָהּ לְמָרְדֳּכָי וַתָּשֶׂם אֶסְתֵּר אֶת מָרְדֳּכַי עַל בֵּית הָמָן. // ח:ז וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וּלְמָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי הִנֵּה בֵית הָמָן נָתַתִּי לְאֶסְתֵּר וְאֹתוֹ תָּלוּ עַל הָעֵץ עַל אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יָדוֹ (ביהודיים) [בַּיְּהוּדִים]. ח:ח וְאַתֶּם כִּתְבוּ עַל הַיְּהוּדִים כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְחִתְמוּ בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי כְתָב אֲשֶׁר נִכְתָּב בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ וְנַחְתּוֹם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין לְהָשִׁיב.
Esth 8:1 That very day King Ahasuerus gave the property of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther. Mordechai presented himself to the king, for Esther had revealed how he was related to her. 8:2 The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordechai; and Esther put Mordechai in charge of Haman’s property. // 8:7 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordechai the Jew, “I have given Haman’s property to Esther, and he has been impaled on the stake for scheming against the Jews. 8:8 And you may further write with regard to the Jews as you see fit in the king’s name and seal it with the king’s signet, for an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be disregarded.”
In this version, Ahasuerus gives Mordechai the signet ring with a clear purpose, so that Mordechai and Esther can write whatever they please on behalf of the Jews. Adding the scene with Esther pleading for her people, however, implies that, if Esther hadn’t pleaded, Ahasuerus would not have given them permission to write a new decree about the Jews. If so, then in verse 2, Ahasuerus is giving Mordechai his signet ring with no specific purpose in mind, and only after Esther makes her plea, does Ahasuerus note that fortuitously, he has already given Mordechai his ring to stamp edicts with royal authority.
Haman’s Edict: No Longer in Effect
Mordechai’s new decree did not produce a situation in which the two edicts, his and Haman’s, stood side by side, each authorizing the killing of the other group. Rather, Mordechai’s edict cancelled Haman’s and was alone in effect on the 13th of Adar. This is clear from the parallel description of how they were propagated:
אסתר ג:יד פַּתְשֶׁגֶן הַכְּתָב לְהִנָּתֵן דָּת בְּכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה גָּלוּי לְכָל הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת עֲתִדִים לַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
אסתר ח:יג פַּתְשֶׁגֶן הַכְּתָב לְהִנָּתֵן דָּת בְּכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה גָּלוּי לְכָל הָעַמִּים וְלִהְיוֹת (היהודיים עתודים) [הַיְּהוּדִים עֲתִידִים] לַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהִנָּקֵם מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם.
Esth 3:14 The text of the document was to the effect that a law should be proclaimed in every single province; it was to be publicly displayed to all the peoples, so that they might be ready for that day.
Esth 8:13 The text of the document was to be issued as a law in every single province: it was to be publicly displayed to all the peoples, so that the Jews should be ready for that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.
Just as the first edict was displayed to allow the citizens to be “ready for that day” when they would be obligated to kill the Jews, the second edict implies that all the citizens and authorities were now under orders to stand back and allow the Jews to slaughter their enemies. Significantly, nowhere does the book of Esther mention that gentiles attacked the Jews on the 13th of Adar. Instead,
אסתר ט:ה וַיַּכּוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּכָל אֹיְבֵיהֶם מַכַּת חֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם.
Esther 9:5 So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.
If the Jews were simultaneously being attacked in an empire-wide civil war, we would expect to hear something about that, including the miraculous circumstance that none of the masses of Jews were killed!
Executing Haman is a De Facto Cancellation
Without the addition of Esther’s plea, the clear implication of Ahasuerus executing Haman and bringing on Mordechai as his replacement is that the decree is a dead letter. This is illustrated nicely in a Greek translation/retelling of the book of Esther called the Alpha Text, which includes a letter from Mordechai, in which he writes:
Esther AT 8:36 “Haman has sent to you letters as follows: ‘Hasten with all speed to send to destruction on my behalf the disobedient race of the Jews.’ 8:37 But I, Mordechai, advise you that the man who did this has been hung at the gates of Susa, and his family has been slain. 8:38 For he planned to kill us on the thirteenth day of the month which is Adar.”
The added scene of Esther pleading a second time (Esth 8:3–6), however, creates the impression that the decree still stands. The author of this supplement foregrounds the ambiguity in Ahasuerus’ phrasing (“cannot be returned”), thereby reinterpreting it to mean that the king cannot cancel Haman’s decree, but will allow Mordechai to write another, conflicting, one.  I suggest that the supplementer wished to reframe the story, recasting the Jewish slaughter of their enemies at the end of the story as an act of self-defense.
Turning the Slaughter into Self-Defense
Mordechai’s edict allows the Jews to slaughter their enemies wholesale, including women and children:
אסתר ח:יא אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל עִיר וָעִיר לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת כָּל חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם טַף וְנָשִׁים וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז.
Esth 8:11 That the king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate the armed force of any enemies together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.
This implication disturbed the Israeli biblical scholar, Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963), who argues that the war account describes a defensive action, since Haman’s original decree (Esth 3:9), allowing the Jews’ enemies to slaughter them on the 13th of Adar, was still in effect. To support this reading, Kaufmann notes that the phrases “fight for their lives” and “enemies” implies the Jews were under attack:
…Esther seeks only the annulment of Haman’s firman of destruction (8:3–6), and not license also to take vengeance. In the story, the bloody finale is the consequence of the necessity of a countermand, in order that the Jews might fight their enemies (8:7 f.).
The Jews are permitted “to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life,” to slay those “that would assault them” (8:11). The two firmans, both officially valid, counter one another and the result is civil turmoil. The enemies of the Jews act on the basis of the earlier command, which cannot be annulled, and the Jews strike back by reason of the second command.
Throughout the empire they “gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives… and slew of them that hated them” (9:16). Theirs was essentially a defensive action which turned into a war of revenge.
Many modern interpreters to one degree or another adopt this interpretation. It is strange, however, that the Jews would need an official edict to permit them to defend themselves from attackers. Would the Jews have passively submitted themselves and their families to slaughter if not for the permission granted by the edict? Moreover, the narrative itself implies the opposite.
The Reaction to the Decree
The joyous reaction of the Jews to Mordechai’s decree coupled the Persian people’s newfound fear of the Jews, makes it clear that, contrary to Kaufmann’s suggestion, the Jews were going to go on the offensive:
אסתר ח:יז וּבְכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל עִיר וָעִיר מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ מַגִּיעַ שִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן לַיְּהוּדִים מִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי נָפַל פַּחַד הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם.
Esth 8:17 And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
If Haman’s edict was still in place, and their enemies also had months to prepare for the war, why were the Jews so joyous? Similarly, why would so many “peoples of the land” choose to become (or: pose as) Jews if the Jews were only going to act in self-defense, and kill people who attacked them? Instead, I suggest that “enemies” in the verse refers to people who would have harmed Jews as a result of Haman’s decree, if it hadn’t been nullified.
The natural implication of the edict, which allows the Jews to kill their oppressors, along with their women and children, and to take their property as their personal plunder (8:11), strongly implies an offensive war. Killing women and children and taking booty is not defensive but retributive: Haman’s edict had ordered the killing of the Jews, including women and children, and the plundering of their possessions (3:13). Retributive justice requires that the same fate be visited upon the enemies of the Jews, the supporters of Haman throughout the empire.
An Act of Retribution and Vengeance
The edict of Mordechai speaks of לְהִנָּקֵם “executing vengeance” (8:13), a term that refers to punishment for previous grievances, often to a disproportionate degree. So, on the thirteenth of Adar, on the very same day the Jew-haters planned to attack the Jews and slaughter thousands of them, the Jews will do this to them and then some:
אסתר ט:טז וּשְׁאָר הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בִּמְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ נִקְהֲלוּ וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם וְנוֹחַ מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהָרֹג בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם חֲמִשָּׁה וְשִׁבְעִים אָלֶף וּבַבִּזָּה לֹא שָׁלְחוּ אֶת יָדָם.
Esth 9:16 The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; though they did not lay hands on the spoil.
Further evidence that the Jews were engaged in an offensive attack comes from Esther’s request of Ahasuerus, at the end of the 13th of Adar, to have the day’s edict extended to the morrow:
אסתר ט:יג וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב יִנָּתֵן גַּם מָחָר לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּשׁוּשָׁן לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּדָת הַיּוֹם וְאֵת עֲשֶׂרֶת בְּנֵי הָמָן יִתְלוּ עַל הָעֵץ.
Esth 9:13 Esther said, “If it please Your Majesty, let the Jews in Shushan be permitted to act tomorrow also as they did today; and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on the stake.”
If Mordechai’s edict merely allowed the Jews to defend themselves, there would be no reason to extend it, as Haman’s edict was limited to the 13th of Adar. Presenting the killings on the 14th as an extension of Mordechai’s edict shows that it was concerned with retribution, not self-defense. Certainly Esther’s second request, which was to impale the bodies of Haman’s—already killed!—ten sons as a display, cannot be characterized as an act of self-defense.
Standing Up to Long-Time Enemies
In sum, Mordechai’s edict (Esth 8:23) allows the Jews, on the 13th of Adar, to slaughter their longtime enemies, those הַצָּרִים אֹתָם, who have been “harassing the Jews” (8:11) on a continual basis. This, in turn, is the meaning of Ahasuerus allowing the Jews to “stand up for their lives.” In the outlook of the narrative, excessive punitive measures against hostile populations ensure the future security of the Jewish communities, as the “terror of the Jews” falls upon everyone. In this broad sense, the killings of the enemies are rhetorically presented as “defensive,” but the edict itself allows for a one-sided, straightforward attack of the Jews against their enemies.
Uncomfortable with this, the supplementer added Esther’s second plea so as to reinterpret Ahasuerus’ words to mean that he could not retract Haman’s decree, thereby reframing the story from one of vengeance to one of genuine self-defense. This editorial addition could not completely remove the theme of vengeance, which strongly dominated the earlier form of the text, but it did create the impression that the Jews slaughtering their enemies was an urgent and unavoidable necessity.
Facing the Slaughter in Esther Honestly
For many readers of the book of Esther, the mass killings at the end of the book are morally offensive, even reprehensible. Not surprisingly, Christian scholars, especially those of earlier generations, have been particularly vocal in their critique of the story. The following evaluation of Lewis Bayles Paton, writing for the International Critical Commentary on Esther in 1908, is characteristic of this attitude:
[Esther] secures not merely that the Jews escape from danger, but that they fall upon their enemies, slay their wives and children, and plunder their property (8:11; 9:2–10). Not satisfied with this slaughter, she asks that Haman’s ten sons may be hanged, and that the Jews may be allowed another day for killing their enemies in Susa (9:13–15).
Not infrequently, these critiques take on a distinctly antisemitic tone. In response, many Jewish scholars have countered by promoting apologetic interpretations that mitigate the ethically difficult issues. Yet, an overly defensive exegetical approach runs the risk of preventing us from understanding the text properly, and seeing its problems.
We should not fear to acknowledge that parts of our heritage are flawed. Indeed, an honest confrontation with the “dark side” of our tradition can help us come to terms with our own dark sides, both as individuals and as a people.
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March 6, 2023
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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