Megillat Esther: A Godless and Assimilated Diaspora
The story of Esther has been told countless times in the course of Jewish history. Many of these tellings were never recorded in writing so they are lost to us. Many of them, however, were written down and have been preserved over the centuries. We have at least five versions from antiquity: the Hebrew version that made it in to the Hebrew Bible (composed sometime between the 5th-3rd cent. BCE): two Greek versions (probably composed around the 1st cent. BCE-1st cent. CE) and two Aramaic versions that date to the rabbinic period (3rd-6th cent. CE).
Scholarly opinions differ on the relationship of these versions to one another. Some assert that the Greek versions are translations of Hebrew versions that either pre-dated or were contemporaries of, the version that eventually became part of the Hebrew Bible. Other scholars think that the Greek versions, like the Aramaic versions, are interpretive translations/versions of the Hebrew text known to us.
In addition to these versions of Esther, we also have a paraphrase of the story by the 1stcentury CE historian Josephus and a long exposition of the text in the Babylonian Talmud as well as additional midrashic commentaries that elaborate on the Hebrew text. The list goes on. Medieval and modern Jews have composed children’s versions and performed countless versions as Purim shpiels in Jewish communities around the world. Beginning in fifteenth century Italy, the story was retold through many illustrated megillot.
The Traditional Book of Esther as an Outlier
Despite their diversity of setting, language, tone and audience, most of the extant versions of Esther agree on key points: Mordechai and Esther are the heroes; Haman is the villain and Ahasuerus is the buffoonish king. While there is dramatic tension in the middle of the story, thanks to the grace of God, the ending is a happy one. This shared storyline is summed up well in the prayer that is traditionally recited on Purim:
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרות וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעות וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמות שֶׁעָשיתָ לַאֲבותֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה… בִּימֵי מָרְדְּכַי וְאֶסְתֵּר בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה. כְּשֶׁעָמַד עֲלֵיהֶם הָמָן הָרָשָׁע. בִּקֵּשׁ לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים… וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים. הֵפַרְתָּ אֶת עֲצָתו. וְקִלְקַלְתָּ אֶת מַחֲשַׁבְתּו. וַהֲשֵׁבותָ לּו גְּמוּלו בְּראשׁו.
We thank you for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the deliverances and for the wars that you performed for our ancestors in those days at this season… In the days of Mordechai and Esther, in Shushan the capital, when the evil Haman rose up against them, he sought to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews… And You in your abundant mercy, annulled his counsel, frustrated his intention, and brought his evil plan upon his own head.
There is one significant outlier to this generalization — the book of Esther found in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Esther that, according to Rabbinic law, all Jews must hear every Purim. While it shares the happy ending of all these other versions, the Hebrew version of the book of Esther is far less enthusiastic about the “heroes” Esther and Mordechai, and far less sanguine about the inevitability of the happy ending.
Cataloguing the Differences
If you compare the Esther and Mordechai found in the Hebrew versions of Esther with their counterparts in the Greek and Aramaic versions, as well as later popular retellings, several differences emerge.
First, the Mordechai and Esther of the Greek versions are much more pious. In the Septuagint, as well as the Aramaic versions and the rabbinic midrashim, Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman for religious reasons. In both the Septuagint and Targum Sheni, Mordechai explains his refusal by stating that he only bows down to God, not to humans. According to Esther Rabbah, Haman sewed an image of an idol to his garment so bowing down to him would be an act of idolatry. In the Hebrew version, no explicit reason is given.Nevertheless, we are told that Haman and Mordechai are descended from archenemies.
In the Septuagint and other versions, Mordechai and Esther fervently pray to God for deliverance. In the rabbinic paraphrases, they are even more pious. In b. Megillah 13a- b, Esther keeps kosher while in the king’s harem and visits the mikveh, the ritual bath as required by rabbinic law. In the Hebrew version, Mordechai and Esther do not act Jewish. Their Jewishness is so unmarked, that Esther is able to hide it from Ahasuerus.
In the Septuagint and the rabbinic paraphrases, the happy ending of the story is revealed from the start. In the Septuagint, Mordechai has a dream, which symbolically reveals the endangerment of the Jews and their eventual triumph. In this version, the suspense comes from wondering how, not whether, Haman’s plot will be foiled. The Hebrew version contains no such foreshadowing or indication that the triumph is destined or foreordained.
Perhaps most saliently, God, who is conspicuously absent from the Hebrew version of Esther, is explicitly and robustly present in the other ancient and subsequent Jewish versions.
Why is this Esther different from all other Esthers?
The fact that the Hebrew version differs from the “traditional version” in key respects invites us to ask whether it might be telling a different story. What might have been the message of a “godless” story in which highly assimilated Jewish characters set into motion a chain of events that initially threaten the Jewish people and, at the last minute, result in their triumph? Is this Esther a story that expressed confidence in God’s steadfast allegiance to the Jews and investment in their survival?
I propose that the Hebrew version of Esther is a cautionary tale about life in the diaspora. In many key ways, Esther’s diaspora is radically different from life in the land of Israel as portrayed by other biblical texts. In these texts, the law of the land originates with God and legislates crucial issues in personal and civic life. In Esther’s Persia, law is an expression of the whims of the king and affects matters as trivial as the amount guests are to drink at a feast and as important as whether the Jews will live or die.
In biblical narratives that describe life in the land of Israel, there is never a doubt about who is, or isn’t an Israelite or Judean. In Esther’s diaspora, Esther can “pass” by merely refraining from saying she is Jewish.
Most crucially, the biblical texts that narrate the experience of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah insist that God determines the destiny of the kingdoms according to clear and consistent criteria. If the kings obey the will of God, the nations will flourish. If not, they will be destroyed. In Esther, the fate of the Jews is not determined by God. Rather, their ultimate triumph is the result of a precarious series of coincidences: Esther is chosen as queen; Mordechai overhears the plot to assassinate the king; Ahasuerus returns to the feast at just the moment that Haman is begins Esther for his life. If any one of these events had not happened, Haman’s plot might not have failed. The Hebrew version of Esther suggests that Jewish life in the diaspora is fragile and unstable, unanchored by the stabilizing structures of covenant and divine presence that other biblical stories identify as key features of life in the land of Israel.
Will the Real Esther Please Stand Up?
Since antiquity then, there have been two types of Esther stories. Our most authoritative version tells one story; all the others tell another. The more widespread version, represented by the ancient Greek and Aramaic versions, the rabbinic material, as well as many subsequent renditions, tell a Purim story that celebrates Mordechai and Esther as heroes and celebrates the happy ending as a sign of God’s commitment to Jewish survival, even in situations where God seems absent.
The version in the Hebrew Bible however tells a different story: In this version, Mordechai and Esther are the stuff of assimilationist nightmares: Jewish residents of diaspora who follow no particularist Jewish practices and are, subsequently, unidentifiable as Jews. In the world of these characters, God is not an actor (visible or not) who guides the destiny of the Jews. Rather, their destiny depends on a fragile series of consequences, unguided by any divine hand.
Defying the Plain Sense of the Megillah
The co-existence of these two Esther stories alerts us that conversation that seems very modern about assimilation, diaspora living and the forces that control history, are not so new. It also reminds us that coincidence and destiny are a matter of perspective, not of fact. In one strand of Esther a chain of events are inevitable expressions of divine will. In another, they are precarious coincidence. Finally, the persistence of these two stories reminds us that, for much of Jewish history, Jews have defied the plain sense meaning of the biblical book of Esther and asserted that God is as present in Shushan as in Jerusalem.
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March 11, 2014
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Dr. Elsie R. Stern is Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She received her B.A. from Yale University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Stern is the author of From Rebuke to Consolation: Exegesis and Theology in the Liturgical Anthology of the Ninth of Av Season. Her current research focuses on the performance and inscription of torah in the rabbinic period.
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