14 Adar 5783
6-7 March 2023
How does Esther’s story end? A look at Joseph’s story
A characteristic of biblical narratives is to evoke other stories of the canon indirectly through the repetition of common words, expressions, and themes. Through the identification of similarities on the surface, this literary technique invites the reader to put the stories into dialogue, making it possible to unveil new layers of meaning for both.
The Meguilat Esther is a masterful example of this resource. Throughout its 10 chapters, the attentive reader can hear the echoes of Joseph’s story both in the general characteristics of the narrative arc and in the use of specific expressions present in the two stories.
Esther’s and Joseph’s stories take place in the diaspora – in Persia and Egypt, respectively – and describe the dangers of a minority living under a foreign power. For many, the stories describe “success” in the diaspora. Joseph is a “self-made man“, a slave who has greyhounded to the top of Egyptian political power. Mordechai and Esther carry out similar deeds, leaving potential victims of genocide to occupy the most important political positions in Persia.
Another fact that draws attention is that God does not act in the unfolding of the events of history nor is he mentioned in both narratives. In a canon like the Hebrew Bible in which God makes a point of coming out of His cosmic inertia to interact with humanity, this is not a despicable datum.
What is the literary meaning of God’s absence in these narratives? Now, if God is not explicitly in control of history, as in the book of Exodus, who is? The two texts suggest that, in the absence of God, the fate of humanity is at the mercy of the fears, ambitions and extravagances of political and economic power concentrated in the hands of the few. With a lot of luck, insight and strategy it is possible to survive this reality.
Kings are, in this context, the lords of the world. At the beginning of Esther’s narrative, Achashverosh is introduced as king of 127 nations, possibly king of the entire known world, who, amid abundant banquets and his permanent drunkenness, decides on the future of humanity. The Achashverosh of Joseph’s story is Pharaoh, a despot whose unceasing anguish that takes away his sleep is the loss of his monarchical power (Gen 41:8).
The two rulers are different. Achashverosh lives in his own reality, within the walls of the palace, while decisions about the fate of the kingdom are made by others. The surprise he demonstrates by taking notice of the content of the royal edict to exterminate the Jews, which he himself authorized (Esther 7:5), highlights his alienation from fundamental questions of the kingdom. Pharaoh, on the other hand, is an example of a ruler who does not trust his surroundings and needs control. The dreams that plague him reveal his Achilles’ heel: the fear of losing control over one of the most important riches of the ancient world, food. Not by chance, he executes his minister of agriculture, aka baker, whom he does not trust.
These differences account for how the unexpected heroes of the stories ascend to their positions of power. Joseph, intuiting Pharaoh’s fear of weakening as monarch by a severe economic/food crisis, offers the interpretation of the dream that addresses this fear. Not only that, but he also immediately offers the solution that appeases the restlessness of the Egyptian monarch. Achashverosh, on the other hand, alienates himself from the life of the reign and is inaccessible even to members of the court who could not have contact with him, under penalty of death (Esther 4:11). Therefore, Esther and Mordechai must act clandestinely, without communicating directly, without revealing their relationship and their true identities. In the end, the two narratives use the royal gesture of passage of the ring to demonstrate the importance of Joseph and Mordechai as right arms and number two in the hierarchy of power of the respective monarchs.
The two stories celebrate, in a first glance, the survivability of the Jewish people in a hostile diaspora, which involves the need to integrate with local political power. Undoubtedly, this is a fundamental message of the text. However, it is not the only one. In Joseph’s story, he can protect his family and feed them during hunger. However, the text becomes critical of him, as the Egyptian population was impoverished by transferring all their wealth – money, cattle, land, and eventually themselves, selling themselves as slaves – to Pharaoh. Joseph is an instrument for Pharaoh to accumulate more power. His safety and that of his family depend on his ability to maintain Pharaoh’s power. Joseph’s power is fragile, as the continuation of the story suggests: “A new king was enthroned in Egypt who did not know Joseph […]” (Ex 1:8).
Esther’s book ends, apparently, more optimistically. The Jews can withstand the outbursts of violence against their communities and Mordechai, like Joseph, rises to the number two position of the empire. Except for a little expression that leads us back to the story of oppression best known in the Hebrew Bible. The Meguilat Esther says in the last chapter that Achashverosh imposed taxes on his dominion on earth and islands (Esther 10:1), echoing, almost literally, the beginning of the repression of the Israelites in Egypt (Ex 1:11). Although we do not have the continuation of this story, its author seems to say that he does not need to write it because it was already written in Exodus.
Thus, the two stories that celebrate our survival success end with a clear warning: in a society where too much power is given to a few individuals, without control mechanisms, a slight change in political mood can have catastrophic consequences. Therefore, the Jewish tradition does not celebrate power or its rulers. But he constantly recalls his stories as a religious act of vigil.
Rabbi Lucca Myara
Congregação Israelita Mineira
Belo Horizonte – Brazil