“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” — Jesus or Esther?
Esther, appraised of the danger posed to the Jews by Haman, fasts for three days and goes to speak to her husband, King Ahasuerus:
אסתר ה:א וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ בְּבֵית הַמַּלְכוּת נֹכַח פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת.
Esth 5:1 On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.
The Babylonian Talmud offers a midrashic interpretation of this royal apparel (b. Megillah 15a):
בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה! - אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא: מלמד שלבשתה רוח הקדש, כתיב הכא ותלבש וכתיב התם ורוח לבשה את עמשי.
Does it need to tell you about her royal apparel?! Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Chaninah said: “This teaches you that she donned the Holy Spirit. It says here “she put on” (Esth 5:1) and there it says “and the spirit came upon Amassai” (1Chron 12:19).”
The interpretation here is based on a gezeirah shava, a rabbinic exegetical tactic that draws meaning through the analogy of like words. Just as the root ל.ב.ש in reference to Amassai refers to the divine spirit, so too by Esther.
Although Esther enters the palace with the holy spirit, it soon disappears (b. Megillah 15b):
א"ר לוי כיון שהגיעה לבית הצלמים נסתלקה הימנה שכינה אמרה אלי אלי למה עזבתני.
Says Rabbi Levi (ca. 200, Israel): When she [Esther] came to the house of idols, the divine presence departed from her. She said: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2)
In the biblical text, Esther’s hesitation to enter the palace is clear; entering the king’s inner court uninvited is a capital offense, unless the king extends his golden scepter (Esth 4:11). The midrash, however, reads more into this dramatic moment and sees her pause as a reaction to the loss of the divine spirit, to which she responds by chanting the lament of Psalm 22. This midrash continues with Esther attempting to understand why the spirit left her:
שמא אתה דן על שוגג כמזיד ועל אונס כרצון
Perhaps you judge the unintentional like an intentional and what was done under compulsion like that done willingly?
Here Esther notes that the sin of entering the idol-laden palace is being committed under duress, and she asks God not to treat her as if she were a purposeful sinner. The midrash continues with Esther raising a second concern:
או שמא על שקראתיו כלב שנאמר הצילה מחרב נפשי מיד כלב יחידתי חזרה וקראתו אריה שנאמר הושיעני מפי אריה.
Or, perhaps, it was because I called him (Ahasuerus) a dog, as it says: “Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog” (Ps 22:21)?’ So instead she called him a lion, as it says: ‘Deliver me from the lion’s mouth; from the horns of the wild oxen rescue me’ (Ps 22:22).”
Esther’s back and forth here is based on verses in Psalm 22, underscoring how the rabbis are reading the entire lament, not just the opening verse, as Esther’s. 
The Lament of Psalm 22
Within the context of the Psalter, Psalm 22 is a typical biblical lament. After an opening superscription, to which I will return later, the poet begins with a plea for help (verse numbering follows Jewish tradition):
תהלים כב:ב אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי רָחוֹק מִישׁוּעָתִי דִּבְרֵי שַׁאֲגָתִי. כב:ג אֱלֹהַי אֶקְרָא יוֹמָם וְלֹא תַעֲנֶה וְלַיְלָה וְלֹא דוּמִיָּה לִי.
Ps 22:2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 22:3 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
The poet describes his wretched state and dire plight, how he is surrounded and mocked:
תהלים כב:יז כִּי סְבָבוּנִי כְּלָבִים עֲדַת מְרֵעִים הִקִּיפוּנִי כָּאֲרִי יָדַי וְרַגְלָי. כב:יח אֲסַפֵּר כָּל עַצְמוֹתָי הֵמָּה יַבִּיטוּ יִרְאוּ בִי.
Ps 22:17 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; 22:18 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me.
The psalmist next asks God for support:
כב:כ וְאַתָּה יְ־הוָה אַל תִּרְחָק אֱיָלוּתִי לְעֶזְרָתִי חוּשָׁה. כב:כא הַצִּילָה מֵחֶרֶב נַפְשִׁי מִיַּד כֶּלֶב יְחִידָתִי. כב:כב הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי מִפִּי אַרְיֵה וּמִקַּרְנֵי רֵמִים עֲנִיתָנִי.
22:20 But you, YHWH, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! 22:21 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 22:22 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
The poet concludes by praising God and by promising to offer sacrifices. In a simple, peshat reading, the psalm is a generic lament, with which any worshiper in straits can identify. And yet, the rabbis quoted above interpret the psalm as part of Esther’s story. In fact, Jewish tradition has so intertwined this psalm with the Purim story that it is recited in a number of liturgical traditions as the psalm of the day.
While it is true that ancient readers of the Bible were sensitive and creative, coveting every textual nugget, reading Psalm 22 as a reference to Esther seems very forced; nothing in the text suggests that the woeful lament belongs to Esther. Why demand her presence? The answer lies in the early Christian use and understanding Psalm 22.
The Crucifixion of Jesus: Christian Interpretation
Each of the four canonical gospels draws on Psalm 22 in narrating the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. In describing Jesus’ last moments, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest canonical gospel, writes:
Mark 15:34 At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (שׁבקתני) which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (NRSV)
According to this gospel, Jesus’ final words were a quote from the opening passage of Psalm 22, though in a Hebrew/Aramaic vernacular adaptation—his native language—instead of in the psalm’s Hebrew. A nearly identical account appears in Matthew 27:46, which likely used Mark as a source. But this is only the most obvious connection between Jesus’ passion and the psalm. A number of other incidents surrounding Jesus’ death use Psalm 22 as their inspiration.
Mocking—Before bringing Jesus to the place where he was to be executed, the soldiers mock him:
Mark 15:17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 15:18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 15:19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 15:20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him… (≅Matthew 27:27–31)
This torment alludes to the Psalmist’s lament,
תהלים כב:ז וְאָנֹכִי תוֹלַעַת וְלֹא אִישׁ חֶרְפַּת אָדָם וּבְזוּי עָם. כב:ח כָּל רֹאַי יַלְעִגוּ לִי יַפְטִירוּ בְשָׂפָה יָנִיעוּ רֹאשׁ.
Ps 22:7 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. 22:8 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.
Mark and Matthew allude to these verses in the passage describing passersbys insulting Jesus on the cross and shaking their heads:
Mark 15:29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 15:30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (≅Matt 27:39)
Matthew adds that the crowd continues to mock Jesus by saying:
Matt 27:43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.”
This taunt adopts and modifies the words of the Psalmist’s oppressors:
תהלים כב:ט גֹּל אֶל יְ־הוָה יְפַלְּטֵהוּ יַצִּילֵהוּ כִּי חָפֵץ בּוֹ.
Ps 22:9 Let him commit himself to YHWH; let Him rescue him, let Him save him, for He is pleased with him.
Matthew supplemented the verse to include Jesus’ claim that he is God’s son, interpreting what pleases God in Psalm 22 as Jesus’ filial relationship with Him.
Dividing Clothing—The soldiers decide that they want to keep Jesus’ clothes:
Mark 15:24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take  (≅Matt 27:35; Luke 23:34).
That this is a fulfillment of Psalm 22:19 is made explicit in the way the story is told in the Gospel of John:
John 19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 19:24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says (Ps 22:19), “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Thirst—Another possible example where the passion is understood as fulfillment of the psalm, which is understood as a prophecy, is when someone gives Jesus something to drink as he suffers on the cross:
Mark 15:36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink… (≅Matt 27:48)
The image of a thirsty Jesus may reflect the passage:
תהלים כב:טז יָבֵשׁ כַּחֶרֶשׂ כֹּחִי וּלְשׁוֹנִי מֻדְבָּק מַלְקוֹחָי וְלַעֲפַר מָוֶת תִּשְׁפְּתֵנִי.
Ps 22:16 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
Luke lacks this anecdote, but John again makes the fulfillment of scripture explicit:
John 19:28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said—in order to fulfill the scripture—"I am thirsty." 19:29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
The pervasiveness of allusions to this psalm leaves no doubt that the Mark, followed by the other gospel authors, constructed the passion narrative with Psalm 22 in mind.
Further Development in Early Christian Sources
Many leaders of the early church further developed this prophetic Jesus-centered reading of Psalm 22. In his defense of Christianity written for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Justin Martyr (100–168 C.E.) not only cites Psalm 22 as proof Jesus’ crucifixion, but also draws particular attention to a detail in the Septuagint (LXX) version of the psalm that the gospel narratives did not employ:
And again in other words He says through another prophet: “They pierced my hands and my feet, and cast lots for my clothing” (22:17c, 19b.) And indeed David, the king and prophet, who said this, suffered none of these things; but Jesus Christ had His hands stretched out.... The expression, “They pierced my hands and my feet” was an announcement of the nails that were fastened in His hands and feet on the Cross (First Apology, 35).
The word כָּאֲרִי comes from either כ.ו.ר, meaning “to round” or כ.ר.י/ה. “to dig or gouge,” yielding “my hands and feet are gouged/pierced/shriveled.” Such a reading connects with the next phrase, אֲסַפֵּר כָּל עַצְמוֹתָי, “I can count my bones.” The speaker here describes his body as a wreck, probably as a result of starvation and extreme poverty.
The Hebrew text which the Septuagint translated into Greek likely read כארו, a perfect verb in the 3rd person plural, as opposed to MT’s כארי (yod and vav look very similar). This is why Justin understands the phrase as “they pierced,” which connects with the previous phrase, עֲדַת מְרֵעִים הִקִּיפוּנִי “a company of evil doers encircles me.” Justin argues that since nobody pierced the hands and feet of David the psalm must be voiced by Jesus, who was pierced (=crucified) by Roman soldiers.
Jesus as the Proper Interpretation
Early Christian authors saw Jesus as the primary interpretive possibility for the troubled voice within Psalm 22, and in some Christian circles, the psalm became the centerpiece of liturgy on Good Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.
This understanding of Psalm 22 became so entrenched that Jerome (349–407), a central church father who authored the standard Christian translation of the Bible into Latin known as the Vulgate, chastised anyone who would read the psalm as pertaining to a figure other than Christ:
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Impious are those who think the psalm was voiced in the persona of David or Esther or Mordecai, for by the very testimony of the evangelist, passages from it are understood to be about the savior: “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots,” “They have pierced my hands and feet” (Commentary on Matthew 4.27.46, completed on March 398).
While understanding the psalm as voiced in the persona of David would have been natural for anyone, Christian or Jew, who considered David to be the author of the psalm, Jerome’s comment about Esther and Mordechai is aimed specifically at Jews, and is important early evidence for the Jewish use of Psalm 22 in relation to the main characters of the Esther scroll.
And Jerome knew much about Jews and Judaism. Over the course of his life, he studied with many Jewish teachers. He lived in Bethlehem and took much delight in his part-scholastic and part-pugilistic interactions with Jews and their traditions. It was the Jews who “impiously” understood Psalm 22 in light of Esther and the Purim narrative. And, indeed, Rabbi Levi, cited above in b. Megillah 15b, lived in Israel about a century before Jerome. Perhaps exegetical comments similar to that of R. Levi’s reached Jerome’s ears?
Jewish Polemical Response
While Jerome is responding to the Jewish interpretation of Psalm 22, which clearly existed already in the 4th century, this Jewish interpretation was likely a response to the Christian reading of the psalm as having been recited by Jesus during the passion. The need to respond to the Christian reading of Psalm 22 likely spurred Jewish interpreters to find an alternative reading, which they did by associating the psalm with the Purim story.
In short, this Jewish interpretation was not born in a vacuum. Jews and early Christians were neighbors; they did business together and even attended the same entertaining events. Justin, who we met above, was a native of Neapolis (Shechem). Origen, another great Church Father, lived in Caesarea – the hometown of many Jews and even some great rabbinic figures like Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Hoshaya.
Jews and Christians were both curious neighbors and sparring partners. Jews and Christians frequently – and publicly – debated with one another about the truth of their religion. As Psalm 22 was a mainstay in the Christian arsenal, it was bound to come up in any inter-religious dispute.
Esther as “the Deer of the Dawn”: The End of Miracles
Once Jewish exegesis established Esther as the protagonist of Psalm 22, the rest of that psalm could be read against the backdrop of the Esther story. Although this does not mean that every such Jewish homily is a polemic against Jesus, we find a likely example of another such polemic in one of the many interpretations of the psalm’s enigmatic superscription, לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל אַיֶּלֶת הַשַּׁחַר “To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn” in b. Yoma 29a.
The term “deer of the dawn” and its connection to the opening verse is obscure. This phrase may indicate that the musical accompaniment to the psalm should be played on an instrument called ayelet hashaḥar, or played to the tune of a well-known song starting with these words (similar to: sing to the tune of Yankee Doodle). The Talmud prefers to search for a meaning that connects the enigmatic phrase “Deer of Dawn” to Esther.
Among the many voices on display is that of R. Assi:
א"ר אסי למה נמשלה אסתר לשחר לומר לך מה שחר סוף כל הלילה אף אסתר סוף כל הנסים
Rabbi Assi said: “Why is Esther compared to the morning (shaḥar)? To tell you that just as the morning is the end of the night, so too Esther is the end of all miracles.”
The logic of his homily is difficult to understand: Why is Esther’s story the end of all miracles? R. Assi’s comment best makes sense if we read it against the background of anti-Christian Purim parody. Esther, who suffered for her people and triumphed, invalidates Jesus’ miracles and authoritative claims.
Responding to the Miracles Following Jesus’ Death
The strange association of miracles with night and the conclusion of miracles with day is a result of R. Assi borrowing and undermining a New Testament passion account motif. According to the Synoptic Gospels, during the passion, “from noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Matt 27:45; cf. Mark 15:33 and Luke 23:44). At that point, at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt 27:45; cf. Mark 15:34; Luke 23:45), “while the sun’s light failed, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…” (Matt 27:51 cf. Mark 15:38 and Luke 23:45).
Matthew, the most popular gospel during Late Antiquity, contains additional miracles:
Matt 27:51 …The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 27:52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
These accounts end with the centurion witnessing the miracles and, as a consequence, confirming the divinity (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39) or innocence (Luke 23:47) of Jesus. For Jews, Esther—not Jesus—stands at the liminal moment between darkness and light, between authority providing miracles and the end of miracles.
Esther in Place of Jesus
The interpretation of Psalm 22 in Late Antiquity provides a window into the perennial war of words between Jews and Christians. The psalm – a standard poem of lament – became a locus of heated controversy. Christians understood the poem as a prophetic pronouncement of Jesus’ crucifixion and used their reading as evidence for the truth of their religion.
Jews countered with their own reading of the psalm: They linked it with the Purim narrative and argued that the suffering voice in the psalm does not belong to Jesus, but to Esther. Esther stands in place of Jesus as the Jewish Christ, invalidating other later Christ-type figures – including Jesus.
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March 3, 2020
January 10, 2021
Dr. AJ Berkovitz received his Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University for his dissertation, The Life of Psalms in Late Antiquity. He the co-editor of Rethinking ‘Authority’ in Late Antiquity: Authorship, Law, and Transmission in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Routledge, 2018), and the author of several articles. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR in New York.
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