Esther's Echo to the Past

May 9, 2009

8 min read


Fascinating connections between Esther and the biblical figures of Sarah, Joseph and Saul.

What an unusual book Megillat Esther is. On the surface, it's a story of great intrigue and drama, set amidst wine parties at a foreign palace. Yet beneath the surface, there is a deliberate connection between the Megillah and earlier Torah sections. Specific phrases and events allow us to draw fascinating connections between Esther and the biblical figures of Sarah, Joseph and Saul.

Sarah and Esther

The link between Esther and Sarah begins with the very first sentence of the Megillah, which includes the apparently superfluous information that Achashverosh ruled over 127 provinces. The Midrash describes Rabbi Akiva as asking, "How did Esther merit to rule over 127 provinces?" He answered, "Let [Esther,] the descendant of Sarah who lived 127 years, come and rule over 127 provinces."

As described in Genesis 23:1, Sarah's 127 years are famous for having been used to their full potential. Every moment was purposeful and meaningful. Every year of fullness built yet another province, another domain, which her descendent Esther would inherit.

Another connection: Most of the stories related about Sarah and Abraham take place in the Land of Israel, and God's presence and angels' appearance are regular aspects of the narrative. By contrast, Esther's story takes place in exile, and God's name is not mentioned even once in Megillat Esther. The connection teaches us that even we, in a situation of exile and God's hidden presence, are in continuity with the times of our ancestors. Indeed, the name Esther derives from the same root as hester, hidden.

Another aspect of this connection is that Sarah was the first Jewish woman; Esther is the last Jewish woman described in the Bible. Sarah worked as a team with Abraham to spread knowledge of God, and Esther worked together with Mordechai to save the Jewish people. Both were prophets, and the Talmud says that Sarah's prophetic abilities were greater than Abraham's.

Sarah and Esther were both kind women whose "cruel" acts preserved the Jews and their heritage.

Both were exceedingly kind women who were forced to perform uncharacteristically "cruel" acts to preserve the Jews and their heritage. Sarah told Abraham to drive away Hagar and Yishmael, because she feared Yishmael's influence on Isaac. Esther was the one to "point the finger" at Haman and cause his death. From here we learn that although mercy is a fundamental characteristic of Jews, it is sometimes necessary to stop a relentless foe, such as Haman, the descendant of Amalek.

Sarah and Esther are both described as "beautiful" in the Scriptures, and are included in the Talmud's listing of the four most beautiful women. An interesting lesson can be learned from Megillat Esther about the Jewish view of beauty. Vashti, Achashverosh's first wife, is defined by her physical beauty and is summoned by Achashverosh to his party to show everyone her beauty. Yet while Esther is described in Megillat Esther as being beautiful (in even stronger terms than Vashti!), the people do not characterize Esther by physical beauty, but rather by her grace and kindness (chein v'chesed). Esther's beauty was only one facet, which allowed her deeper inner qualities to show through.

In the 1970s, at a time of activist feminism, a number of articles appeared identifying Vashti as the true Purim heroine, for her rebellion against Achashverosh, while dramatizing Esther as using feminine wiles to effect change. This view of Vashti as heroine goes against the Jewish view. The Talmud describes Vashti as tremendously wicked -- enslaving girls and trying to destroy the Jewish people. This view also denies Esther's multidimensionality, for in fact she was able to use all her characteristics -- beauty as well as intellect -- to achieve greatness, in even the most dismal of settings.

Saul's connection to Esther and Mordechai

Esther and Mordechai, as well as Saul, the first king of Israel, were all from the tribe of Benjamin (and were more closely related by a common ancestor, Kish). Saul's removal as King of Israel was directly related to his behavior in a confrontation with Agag, the king of Amalek.

The prophet Samuel had told Saul to kill Agag and all his people, with the understanding that Amalek is an implacable foe. The people were to take no spoils. When Saul is victorious over Amalek, all the Amalekites are killed except Agag the king. Saul also saved some choice sheep and cattle for sacrifices to God. Samuel confronts Saul with his disobedience to God's will, and Samuel kills Agag -- but not before Agag impregnates a woman to continue the line of Amalek. The kingdom is stripped from Saul and his tribe, and subsequently given over to David and the tribe of Judah.

Esther and Mordechai redeem their tribe from the error of ancestor Saul.

Generations later, Esther and Mordechai confront Haman, a direct descendent of the very same Agag. One of the climactic moments in Megillat Esther, both in content and in cantillation, is the speech which Mordechai delivers to persuade Esther to risk her life for her people: "Do not imagine that you [Esther] will be able to escape in the king's palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained royalty" (Esther 4:13-14).

This statement resonates with the story of Saul and his lack of proper action. Esther gets the message and immediately takes action. So besides the opportunity to save the Jewish people, Esther and Mordechai are able to redeem their tribe from the error of ancestor Saul.

Joseph, Ruler of Egypt

Two of the Twelve Tribes descend from Rachel -- Joseph and Benjamin. As Esther and Mordechai descend from Benjamin, this is a common thread between Joseph and the Purim story. Further, both Joseph and Esther are Jewish heroes who rise to great power in a foreign kingdom, despite initial humble circumstances.

In both stories, a turning point occurs as a result of sleep or a lack of it: Joseph comes into the picture as the interpreter of Pharaoh's dream, while Achashverosh's lack of sleep leads to his discovery that Mordechai saved his life and was never repaid. Amazingly, both Joseph and Esther reveal their true identities as Jews at a small banquet.

Further, similar phrases are used in both stories. For example, Haman's insistence that Mordechai bow down is expressed as "And it was when they said this to him day after day, and he did not heed them" (Esther 3:4). This is almost identical to Potiphar's wife's attempted seduction of Joseph, "And it was when she spoke to Joseph day after day, and he did not heed her" (Genesis 39:10).

Joseph's rise to power follows the same progression as Mordechai's rise to power.

There are numerous other parallels. The gathering of women to be considered for the position of queen is described as, "And let the King appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather together every beautiful young maiden..." (Esther 2:3). Compare this to the description of Joseph's gathering of grain for the future years of famine: "And let him (Pharaoh) appoint commissioners on the land... that they may gather together all the food..." (Genesis 41:34).

Further, Joseph's rise to power -- receiving the king's ring, dressing in royal garments, being escorted through the capital, etc. -- follows the same progression as Mordechai's own rise to power.

What is the main lesson from the connections between Megillat Esther and earlier biblical portions? God is with His people here as He was in the past, and will redeem us as He has done in the past. This is reflected in Jewish law as well. In a Jewish leap year, in which there are two months of Adar, Purim is always celebrated in the second Adar. The Talmud explains that this placement is in order to juxtapose one redemption -- in the time of Esther and Mordechai, to another redemption -- the Exodus from Egypt celebrated in the next month, Nissan.

Just as we were redeemed at the time of the formation of the Jewish nation, so we were redeemed in the time of Esther. And by implication, so we will be redeemed in the future. May it be soon in our days.

Dedicated in memory of my father, Moshe Avraham ben Yosef Tzvi, on his yahrtzeit Adar 28.

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