Seeing Doublets: A Source-Critical Reading of Megillat Esther
Source-critical methods have given us a deeper understanding of many books of the Bible. The book of Esther, however, is often overlooked in this regard, with most scholars viewing the book as a single, cohesive novella. In this article, I will present several arguments for the composite authorship of the Megillah, based on the presence of numerous doublets that appear throughout the book.
Very few scholars have acknowledged the presence of these doublets, but I will share with you my method for discovering such patterns in the text, based on an approach first hinted at by the Ibn Ezra.
In his introduction to Deuteronomy, he states, ואם תבין סוד השנים עשר… תכיר האמת, “if you understand the secret of the twelve... you will understand the truth.” Modern Biblical scholars understand this comment to hint at the multiple authorship of the Torah. But how does one discover this secret? I believe the answer is given through the Talmudic concept of נכנס יין יצא סוד, “as one drinks wine, the secret is revealed.”
I have experimented extensively with this method of critical scholarship, and found that indeed, the more I consume, the more I see double (or, in this case, doublets).
Doublets in the Megillah
There are three types of doublets in the Megillah, which I call Repetitive Repetitions, Diverging Doublets, and Composite Characters. Each is indicative of multiple sources, which have been combined to varying degrees.
Repetitive Repetitions are words or phrases that appear twice, but are exactly the same. This can be seen in the frequent use of such phrases as:
- מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה — province and province
- עַם וָעָם — people and people
- נַעֲרָה וְנַעֲרָה — maiden and maiden
- אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי — I perish, I perish
Sometimes an attempt to preserve two almost identical verses resulted in such comically repetitive verses as 9:28, where nearly every word appears twice:
אסתר ט:כח וְהַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדוֹר, מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה, מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, וְעִיר וָעִיר.
Esth 9:28 Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city.
The identical nature of the doublets has led some scholars to argue the controversial position that the Megillah was redacted from two copies of the same document. This would be a clear indicator that the redactor was strongly influenced by Ibn Ezra’s sod.
Ha-Melech: Achashverosh or God?
Chazal already realized the Megillat Esther sometimes refers to Achashverosh as the king and sometimes God as the King, making the story very hard to follow. This may be solid evidence for two sources. Modern scholars have noted that similar doubling is found with the name Acashverosh. For example, in the very first verse of the book, Achashverosh is introduced twice:
אסתר א:א וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד־כּוּשׁ שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה
Esth 1:1 It happened in the days of Ahasuerus—that Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Nubia.
While the different authors in Genesis were kind enough to use two different names for God, Elohim and YHWH, enabling scholars to tell them apart, in this composite verse, the two authors of the Megillah both refer to the Riboinoi Shel Oilam as Achashverosh, and thus it is quite difficult to attribute authorship to the two halves of the verse.
The Diverging Doublets are particularly interesting, since we can begin to see the nature of the two original sources.
Example 1 – The Seven Advisors
The first diverging doublet comes in the two lists of names of the advisors to the king, in verses 10 and 14:
אסתר א:י בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, כְּטוֹב לֵב-הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּיִן-אָמַר לִמְהוּמָן בִּזְּתָא חַרְבוֹנָא בִּגְתָא וַאֲבַגְתָא, זֵתַר וְכַרְכַּס, שִׁבְעַת הַסָּרִיסִים, הַמְשָׁרְתִים אֶת-פְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ.
אסתר א:יד וְהַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו, כַּרְשְׁנָא שֵׁתָר אַדְמָתָא תַרְשִׁישׁ, מֶרֶס מַרְסְנָא, מְמוּכָן–שִׁבְעַת שָׂרֵי פָּרַס וּמָדַי, רֹאֵי פְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, הַיֹּשְׁבִים רִאשֹׁנָה, בַּמַּלְכוּת.
|Esth 1:10 On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Charbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus.||Esth 1:14 His closest advisers were Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memuchan, the seven ministers of Persia and Media who had access to the royal presence and occupied the first place in the kingdom.|
Although the two lists of names are different, they are somewhat similar, suggesting perhaps that they derive from a common source. In both cases, there are seven servants to the king, and both contain a set of three alliterative names: Bizta, Bigta, and Avagta in the first, and Meres, Marsna, and Memuchan in the second.
Both lists also contain one person who will be important later—Charvona and Memuchan. Interestingly, Chazal associate Memuchan, whose name means “prepared,” with Haman, while telling us to remember Charvonah, whose name means “destruction,” for good. This difference may help us to identify the schools with which the authors of each document were associated.
Example 2: Esther’s “Interview”
The story of Esther’s interview for the role of Persia’s Top Virgin appears twice in the text, with notable differences in the characters involved and in Esther’s loyalties. In the first version, starting with v. 2:8, Esther spends a year preparing, and follows only the instructions of Hegai (2:15). During this time, Mordechai is lurking outside the women’s quarters (2:11).
In verse 2:18, Esther is named queen, but then in 2:19, there is again a gathering of virgins. This reflects a clear disconnect in the text, indicating that two disparate sources have been combined. It could be that the king just liked to gather virgins, but more likely, this is the start of the second version of the contest narrative. In this version, Mordechai is not at the women’s quarters but rather in the courtyard of the king—a more fitting location—and Esther’s loyalties lie with Mordechai (2:20), rather than Hegai. Again, it is likely that the two contrasting portrayals of Mordechai hint at the political alliances of the authors of each document.
Example 3: Esther’s Parties
Twice Esther requests a party with the King and Haman and twice she has one. The doublet is cleverly concealed by a redactional gloss having Esther ask for the second party (5:8b) while at the first party (5:8a).
The two stories end very differently, which will be the key to unravelling the two strands. At the end of the first party, Haman goes home happy, and his wife suggests he hang Mordechai (5:14). The original ending of this story has been lost, but we can presume that it ended with the hanging of Mordechai and the destruction of the Persian Jews. A remnant of this tradition can be seen in the Talmud, which does not appear to know of the tradition of Haman’s sons being killed, and indicates that Haman’s descendants learned Torah in Bnei Brak. Fittingly, in this version, it was the descendants of Mordechai who were forced to work and support Haman’s descendants through the Adopt-A-Kollel program.
The other version ends with Esther accusing Haman of trying to kill her, and the death of Haman. This version of the story also involves Haman consulting with his wife Zeresh. However, in this version, Zeresh tells Haman that he will not be able to defeat Mordechai, and will himself be defeated (6:13).
The Megillah is such a composite text that the redactor had no choice, in some cases, but to create a single character by combining two different originally independent characters. The most explicit case of this is Vashti, where the redactor left us a remez (hint) or two. First, her very name means “And Two,” meaning she is really two people. Moreover, the text makes this clear by stating, גַּם וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה, עָשְׂתָה מִשְׁתֵּה נָשִׁים, “Also, the Queen ‘And Two’ was made from two women.” In our current text, the word (משתי (=משתה is misspelled; this was a likely due to a scribal error from a scribe who was drinking at the time.
The Two Sources of the Megillah
A- Arur Haman & B – Baruch Mordechai
Considering the large amount of doublets demonstrated above, historical-critical scholars believe the Megillah is a composite work created by a redactor who spliced together two similar but distinct documents. The documents reflect the biases of their respective authors, who hailed from the competing schools of Haman and Mordechai, whose perspectives on the events under consideration differ considerably. In academic discourse, the Haman text is known as A (=Arur Haman) and the Mordechai text, B (=Baruch Mordechai).
Although sometimes, as was true with the parties, one can easily distinguish between the Hamanite and Mordecite versions, at other times it is difficult to distinguish between them, especially once we are deeply immersed in the realm of the סוד.
Esther the Redactor: RABBA
We can trace the two sources and outline their conflicting ideology, but who compiled or redacted them together to form the Megillah? The answer to this question was already suggested by Chazal two millennia ago. it seems likely that Esther herself was responsible for the redaction of the Megillah as we have it, making her the only female redactress in biblical literature. Due to the extraordinary complexity of what she accomplished, she is sometimes referred to in scholarly literature with the acronym RABBA (=Redactress of A with B and B with A).
Now that we have reviewed the conclusive evidence for multiple authorship of Esther, the question you may be asking is: how does this impact our celebration of Purim? Funny you should ask. In my view, a deeper and more inebriated understanding of the origins of the Megillah should not detract in any way from our enjoyment of the holiday. On the contrary, it should give us twice as many reasons to celebrate, and a perfectly scholarly reason to drink twice as much this Purim. May the sod of the Ibn Ezra—as interpreted here—continue to reveal the secrets of the Bible to us for many years to come. L’chaim!
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Dr. Rabbi Asher Tov-Lev is the Baron and Baroness Herzog professor of Ancient Near Eastern Oenology at the University of Napa Valley. He is the author of several books on the intersection of Biblical studies and mind-altering substances, including Saqol Yisaqel: A Stoner’s Guide to Biblical Law, and Ad Matai Ashanta Bitfillat Amecha (Psalm 80:5): What Were They Smoking in the Temple? His monograph on biblical drinking songs, tentatively titled Vatitpalel Chanah, will be coming out whenever he gets around to it.
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