Megillat Esther: Reversing the Legacy of King Saul
Introduction: The Nature of Megillat Esther
The Hebrew scroll of Esther is full of political intrigue set in the Persian court—attempted assassinations, private and public parties, bribes to further particular interests, and, of course, conflicts between major “players” with their own agenda—most especially Mordecai and Haman. But politics of a different sort plays a significant role in the broad narrative of the megillah (scroll).
It is impossible to pinpoint the date of the scroll’s composition, though in terms of Persian kings that it mentions, and Persian tongue-twister words that it uses (my favorite is achashdarpanim in 8:9; 9:3), it is certain that it was written in the Persian period or later, in the (early) Hellenistic period. I do not believe that we can determine exactly which Persian king the scroll is alluding to, since I believe, with most scholars, that the book as a whole, though it might embed some historical elements, is a creative work and not a historical account.
The scroll contains too many inaccuracies and improbabilities to read it as straightforward history; the suggestion that the new queen might be chosen through a Miss Persia beauty pageant is generally reflective of the “enormous amount of exaggeration and inaccuracy” found in it. It is noteworthy that contrary to the depiction of the megillah, the ancient Persians, like most ancient peoples, were typically remarkably tolerant religiously.
The scroll was written for many reasons; as Jon Levenson opens his commentary by noting “The book of Esther is many things, so many, in fact, that it would be a capital mistake to view it from only one angle.” It is surely, in part, an etiology for celebrating the festival of Purim. The megillah is inventive and funny, and expresses, among other things, Jewish anxiety about living in the diaspora, as well as the possibility of overcoming these fears.
Why a Benjaminite Protagonist?
Scholars ask different questions of creative, (largely) fictional accounts and of non-fiction. For example, a scholar examining a history of an American president cannot ask: “Why is this story set in Washington D.C.?” However, it is perfectly reasonable and appropriate to ask the author of a fictional work set in that city why he or she opted to set it there. A historian may not create a president Charles Lindbergh, though a novelist might. In other words, authors of fiction have a wider latitude of choice than authors of non-fiction, and a reader or critic might examine these decisions to understand the motivations.
With this is mind, it is important to ask: Why did the author of the megillah opt to cast Mordecai, the Benjaminite, as its protagonist? And he is not just any ole’ Benjaminite (Esth. 2:5), but from a very important family:
אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן־שִׁמְעִי בֶּן־קִישׁ אִישׁ יְמִינִי.
In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite.
This is one of the instances in the Bible in which יְהוּדִי, yehudi, means “Jew” rather than “Judean,” namely someone from the tribe of Judah. After all, he is a Benjaminite, so he cannot be from the tribe of Judah.
From the Family of King Saul
Also, as is often the case in genealogies, “son” here likely means “descendent,” and it appears that the Kish mentioned here is intended to refer to the very same Kish who is the father of the Benjaminite King Saul (1 Sam 9:1-2).
שמואל א ט:א וַיְהִי אִישׁ מבן ימין [מִבִּנְיָמִין] וּשְׁמוֹ קִישׁ בֶּן אֲבִיאֵל בֶּן צְרוֹר בֶּן בְּכוֹרַת בֶּן אֲפִיחַ בֶּן אִישׁ יְמִינִי גִּבּוֹר חָיִל. ט:ב וְלוֹ הָיָה בֵן וּשְׁמוֹ שָׁאוּל בָּחוּר וָטוֹב…
1 Sam 9:1 There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of substance. 9:2 He had a son whose name was Saul, an excellent young man…
Targum Sheni, an expansive midrashic translation of the megillah (ca. 8th cent.) makes this explicit by charting Mordecai’s lineage directly to Saul in its translation of 2:5:
מרדכי בר יאיר בר שמעי בר שמידע בר בענה בר אילה בר מיכה בר מפיבשת בר יהונתן בר שאול בר קיש…
Mordecai, son of Yair, son of Shimei, son of Shemida, son of Ba’ana, son of Ella, son of Micah, son of Mephiboshet, son of Jonathan, son of Saul, son of Kish…
Descendent of Shimei ben Gerah
It is similarly likely that the Shimei mentioned here is meant to recall the same Benjaminite character mentioned in 2 Samuel 16:5-8, who cursed David when he fled Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion:
שמואל ב טז:ה וּבָא הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד עַד בַּחוּרִים וְהִנֵּה מִשָּׁם אִישׁ יוֹצֵא מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת בֵּית שָׁאוּל וּשְׁמוֹ שִׁמְעִי בֶן גֵּרָא יֹצֵא יָצוֹא וּמְקַלֵּל. טז:ו וַיְסַקֵּל בָּאֲבָנִים אֶת דָּוִד וְאֶת כָּל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד וְכָל הָעָם וְכָל הַגִּבֹּרִים מִימִינוֹ וּמִשְּׂמֹאלוֹ.
2 Sam. 16:5 As King David was approaching Bahurim, a member of Saul’s clan — a man named Shimei son of Gera — came out from there, hurling insults as he came. 16:6 He threw stones at David and all King David’s courtiers, while all the troops and all the warriors were at his right and his left.
Thus, the very first mention of Mordecai calls to mind the conflict between Saul the Benjaminite and David the Judean as expressed by Shimei:
שמואל ב טז:ז וְכֹה אָמַר שִׁמְעִי בְּקַלְלוֹ צֵא צֵא אִישׁ הַדָּמִים וְאִישׁ הַבְּלִיָּעַל. טז:ח הֵשִׁיב עָלֶיךָ יְ-הוָה כֹּל דְּמֵי בֵית שָׁאוּל אֲשֶׁר מָלַכְתָּ תחתו [תַּחְתָּיו] וַיִּתֵּן יְ-הוָה אֶת הַמְּלוּכָה בְּיַד אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנֶךָ וְהִנְּךָ בְּרָעָתֶךָ כִּי אִישׁ דָּמִים אָתָּה.
2 Sam. 16:7 And these are the insults that Shimei hurled: “Get out, get out, you criminal, you villain! 16:8 The LORD is paying you back for all your crimes against the family of Saul, whose throne you seized. The LORD is handing over the throne to your son Absalom; you are in trouble because you are a criminal!”
Again, Targum Sheni (2:5) makes this connection explicit:
ומה חמא מרדכי די אתקרי בר שמעי?
Why was Mordecai called “son of Shimei”?
On with the assumption that Shimei is the very person who cursed David, the midrash is implicitly asking: Why was his name placed so close to that of Mordecai, as if it were his grandfather, since he must have been a much more distant ancestor? It answers:
אלא אקיל שמעי לדוד מלכא דישראל…. וחס עלוהי דוד דלא למקטל יתיה דחמא דקימין מניה הני תרי צדיקיא ומתפרקין על ידיהון בית ישראל.
It is because Shimei cursed David, king of Israel… But David had mercy on him and did not have him killed since he saw [through prophecy] that these two righteous people (=Mordecai and Esther), through whose hands Israel would be saved, would descend from him.
Esther’s Connection to Saul
The rabbis also connected Esther and Saul (Gen. Rab. 71:5) by noting the similarity between these two verses:
|Saul (1 Sam 10:16)||
וְאֶת דְּבַר הַמְּלוּכָה לֹא הִגִּיד לוֹ
|He (Saul) did not tell him (his uncle) anything about the kingship.|
אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת עַמָּהּ
|Esther did not reveal her kindred or her people.|
The Babylonian Talmud makes the connection explicit (b. Megillah 13b):
…בשכר צניעות שהיה בו בשאול זכה ויצאת ממנו אסתר
…as a reward for the modesty shown by Saul, he merited that Esther should descend from him.
In short, unlike Samuel, in the megillah, it is the descendent of Saul who is the hero. In other words, Esther should be read, in part, as a hidden polemic that rehabilitates Saul.
Reversing Saul’s Failures and Dismissal
As a result of his failure to fulfill precisely God’s command in the battle against Amalek, the kingship is taken away from Saul and given to David; in the words of 1 Sam 15:23, reflecting God’s measure for measure punishment:
שמואל א טו:כג יַעַן מָאַסְתָּ אֶת דְּבַר יְ-הוָה וַיִּמְאָסְךָ מִמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Sam. 15:23 …Because you rejected the LORD’s command, He has rejected you as king.
The story of Mordechai and his cousin Esther—both Benjaminites—thus represents Saul’s successful second chance or comeback. As such, it contains many references to the stories concerning Saul and his family found in Samuel. For example, the dismissal of Vashti uses the same unusual language found for the dismissal of Saul:
Dismissal of Saul (1 Sam. 15:28)
Dismissal of Vashti(Esth. 1:19)
קָרַע יְ-הוָה אֶת מַמְלְכוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ הַיּוֹםוּנְתָנָהּ לְרֵעֲךָ הַטּוֹב מִמֶּךָּ.
וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה.
|The LORD has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from you and has given it to your fellow who is worthier than you.||And let Your Majesty give her royal state to her fellow who is worthier than she.|
Additional elements in the megillah bolster this reading.
Killing Haman – Descendent of Agag
In the megillah the evil protagonist is Haman, who five times is called “the Agagite,” namely the descendent of Agag (e.g. 3:1; 9:24). This term, used only here in the entire Bible, refers back to Agag, the Amalekite king, whom King Saul, the Benjaminite spared rather than proscribing or killing as he was commanded (1 Sam 15:8-9).
In the Megillah, however, Saul’s descendant leads to the death of the vile descendant of Agag, king of Amalek. And Mordecai, unlike Saul, does not even need a divine command to facilitate the death of this Amalekite—he knows to do so by himself. And while Saul had nothing to fear, Mordecai had much to fear: he endangers himself and Esther by pressuring her to speak with Ahasuerus.
Not Taking from the Booty
Saul is roundly condemned in Samuel for taking some of the Amalekite booty instead of proscribing it all as God had commanded.
שמואל א טו:ט וַיַּחְמֹל שָׁאוּל וְהָעָם עַל אֲגָג וְעַל מֵיטַב הַצֹּאן וְהַבָּקָר וְהַמִּשְׁנִים וְעַל הַכָּרִים וְעַל כָּל הַטּוֹב וְלֹא אָבוּ הַחֲרִימָם וְכָל הַמְּלָאכָה נְמִבְזָה וְנָמֵס אֹתָהּ הֶחֱרִימוּ.
1 Sam. 15:9 but Saul and the troops spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the second-born, the lambs, and all else that was of value. They would not proscribe them; they proscribed only what was cheap and worthless.
Samuel specifically notes Saul’s failure in this regard (v. 14). Saul deflects the blame on the people but Samuel was having none of it. In the megillah, even though the people are not told to avoid taking booty, they intuit not to do so, as the megillah repeats three separate times (Esth. 9:10, 15, 16):
וּבַבִּזָּה לֹא שָׁלְחוּ אֶת יָדָם.
But they did not lay hands on the spoil.
Again, the generation of Mordecai and Esther, under their leadership, undo the failure of their ancestor King Saul, and conduct the war properly.
“Deciding the Evil” (כלתה הרעה) in the Right Direction
Although Saul is supposed to be aiming his wrath against Israel’s Philistine enemies, he spends much of his time trying to kill his (perceived) competitor, David. In one scene, David asks his friend, the crown-prince, Jonathan, to find out whether his father has “decided evil” against him (1 Sam. 20:7) and Jonathan agrees to find out whether “evil has been decided” against David by his father and warns him (1 Sam 20:9).
In the megillah, Saul’s descendants are up against Israel’s real enemy, Haman the Agagite, and after Esther springs her trap, Haman realizes that “evil has been decided” against him by the king (Esth. 7:7). The phrase כלתה הרעה is extremely rare in the Bible, and its use in Esther is likely an intentional allusion to the David-Saul story.
A Kingly Mordecai
The megillah even seems to be playing with the image of Mordecai as king. For instance, when Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for a person whom the king wishes to honor, Haman suggests dressing such a person up in royal garments and driving him on the royal chariot (Esth 6:8-9), and this is what is then done for Mordecai (Esth 6:10-11). Towards the end of the megillah, after Haman is defeated, Mordecai appears as the new vizier, dressed in royalty, almost as if he becomes a king himself, like his royal ancestor, Saul:
אסתר ח:טו וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.
Esther 8:15 Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries.
Reading Esther as a rehabilitation of Saul is not novel. It builds on some hints already found in rabbinic literature, and is accepted by many scholars over the last half century. In fact, this reading is likely behind the choice of 1 Sam 15 as the haftarah for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim. Not only does the story of Saul’s destruction of the Amalekites go well with the maftir reading from Deut (25:17-19) commanding their destruction, but Saul’s failure to kill Agag and his sin of taking from the booty sets the stage for Mordechai and Esther’s “tikkun” (rehabilitation) for these sins in the megillah.
The Position of Benjamin in the Second Temple Period
But why would a story trying to rehabilitate Saul be written in the Second Temple period? This may be best explained in connection with the newer historical and archeological discoveries relating to the geographical area of Benjamin.
A careful reading of the biblical texts concerning the exiles of Judah by the Babylonians, culminating with the exile and destruction of the First Temple in 586, suggests that Benjamin was spared much of the devastation that befell Jerusalem and Judah. This explains why Jeremiah flees Jerusalem to Benjamin during a lull in the siege of Jerusalem:
ירמיה לז:יא וְהָיָה בְּהֵעָלוֹת חֵיל הַכַּשְׂדִּים מֵעַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם מִפְּנֵי חֵיל פַּרְעֹה. לז:יב וַיֵּצֵא יִרְמְיָהוּ מִירוּשָׁלִַם לָלֶכֶת אֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן לַחֲלִק מִשָּׁם בְּתוֹךְ הָעָם.
Jer. 37:11 When the army of the Chaldeans raised the siege of Jerusalem on account of the army of Pharaoh, 37:12 Jeremiah was going to leave Jerusalem and go to the territory of Benjamin to share in some property there among the people.
It also explains why after the conquest, Gedaliah served as the appointed high official of the Babylonians in Mizpah, in Benjamin (2 Kings 25:23), and why Jeremiah himself settled in that town (Jer 40:6). As noted by the Tel Aviv University Archeologist Oded Lipshits, the archeological record confirms that the territory of Benjamin fared much better, and was more extensively settled, than that of Judah at the time of the exile, in the exilic period, through the early post-exilic period.
A careful reading of early post-exilic and later biblical texts also shows the importance of Benjaminite identity in this period—they were not swallowed up by Judean identity. For example, they are noted separately in Ezra-Nehemiah: 
וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ צָרֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִנְיָמִן כִּי בְנֵי הַגּוֹלָה בּוֹנִים הֵיכָל לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
|When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD God of Israel…|
וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם יָשְׁבוּ מִבְּנֵי יְהוּדָה וּמִבְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן…
|And in Jerusalem some of the Judahites and some of the Benjaminites lived…|
Thus, Benjaminites were thriving in the post-exilic period.
The Hopeful Genealogy of Saul in Chronicles
It is likely that the Benjaminites had alternative traditions that did not make it into the book of Samuel about their great king Saul—traditions that were much more positive than those that found their way into the canonical text. The book of Chronicles, likely a fourth century work, contains a long genealogy of the descendants of Saul; such a list would have only been preserved by people who viewed Saul positively, and were even possibly waiting for a time when his line could be reestablished.
A Prominent Benjaminite in the New Testament
A pro-Benjaminite camp existed through the end of the Second Temple period and beyond. This is reflected, e.g., in the following two epistles in the New Testament:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself [Paul] am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.
Positive Depictions of Saul in Rabbinic Literature
It is even possible that various other late Second Temple authors and rabbinic texts that depict Saul positively reflect traditions kept alive among the Benjaminites. The rewriting of the image in b. Yoma 22b offers one such example of the rabbinic reevaluation of King Saul:
וירב בנחל, אמר רבי מני: על עסקי נחל. בשעה שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לשאול לך והכית את עמלק, אמר: ומה נפש אחת אמרה תורה הבא עגלה ערופה, כל הנפשות הללו על אחת כמה וכמה! ואם אדם חטא – בהמה מה חטאה? ואם גדולים חטאו – קטנים מה חטאו? יצאה בת קול ואמרה לו אל תהי צדיק הרבה.
“And lay wait in the valley” – R. Mani said: Because of what happens ‘in the valley’: When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Saul: Now go and smite Amalek, he said: If on account of one person the Torah said: Perform the ceremony of the heifer whose neck is to be broken, how much more [ought consideration to be given] to all these persons! And if human beings sinned, what has the cattle committed; and if the adults have sinned, what have the little ones done? A divine voice came forth and said: Be not righteous overmuch. (Soncino trans.)
The Revenge of King Saul’s Descendants
I do not want to reduce the entire scroll of Esther to a pro-Benjaminte polemic—as noted above, it is a very rich text, conveying a set of complex ideas. But I do want to join together the biblical scholars who have observed the pro-Benjaminite stance of the megillah with those who have studied Benjamin in the post-exilic period, noting that their observations are mutually reinforcing.
I might not go as far as the British biblical scholar Philip Davies in declaring that, “Benjamin holds the key to the basic questions of how and why the biblical historiographical enterprise was initiated.” I would, however, suggest that understanding the broader historical context in which the megillah was written does enrich our understanding of it in a significant fashion. Stated differently, the book of Esther is about reversals of all types. A final reversal that deserves serious consideration for understanding the book is the reversal of the fate of the house of Saul, whose descendent saves the Jews—a reversal fostered by the new power Benjamin attained after 586.
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March 5, 2017
November 24, 2020
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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