Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Esther in and out of the Megillah

Posted on: March 5, 2020

Shabbat Zachor

The shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, which means ‘Remember’. We read a short extract from Deuteronomy 25:17- 19:

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.

The traditional Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor is 1 Samuel 15, which tells a tragic story of Saul losing God’s favour. It is part of a bridge extending from the Amalek references in Exodus and Deuteronomy to Megillat Esther, which also concerns the ongoing battle with Amalek.

A close reading of the book of Esther shows that there are several allusions to the episode during Saul’s kingship as described in 1 Samuel.

When Mordechai is introduced to the reader, we are told the following:

Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordechai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite;

 Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.

 And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter: for she had neither father nor mother.

Esther 2:5

Mordechai is of the tribe of Benjamin, like Saul, and the names of his grandfather and great-grandfather are familiar because they occur in Saul’s family too.

When Haman first appears in chapter 3 of Esther, we are told that he is an Agagite, thus a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites.

Aramaic translations called targums to the book of Esther state explicitly that Mordechai is descended from Saul, Benjamin and Jacob while Haman is the descendant of Agag and Amalek, a grandson of Esau. The precise dates of the two targumim to Esther are disputed, possibly from the Talmudic period and some say later, early middle ages. The genealogies provided in the targumim are consistent with midrashim on Esther, some of which occur in the Babylonian Talmud, not later than 600 CE.

The story in the book of Samuel is as follows.

 Samuel the prophet tells King Saul to go into battle with the Amalekites and to kill them all along with their livestock. The Hebrew word for that kind of war is a herem . You might know another usage of the word when someone is excluded – excommunicated some would say – from the Jewish community.

Saul doesn’t obey instructions but keeps the Amalekite king, Agag, alive and saves the best of the flocks of sheep as booty. Compare this verse from Esther, where they abstain from taking spoil:

The remainder of the Jews in the king’s provinces gathered together and protected their lives, had rest from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of their enemies; but they did not lay a hand on the plunder.

Esther 9:16

Samuel appears and is incandescent about Saul’s disobedience. He despatches Agag himself, by the sword, but midrash tells us that Agag’s wife conceived a child by Agag the night before, hence the continuing line culminating in Haman the Agagite. Samuel, who has already anointed David on the quiet, but is not the most discreet of the prophets, tells Saul:

The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.

1 Samuel 15:28

There is an echo of this language in Esther, when Memucan says fatefully to King Ahasuerus:

 That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.

Esther 1:19

Whereas David was more deserving of kingship than Saul according to 1 Samuel, Esther is more deserving of the queen’s crown than Vashti, her predecessor.

Coincidence? Not where the authors of midrash were concerned. They were alert to all kinds of allusion, echo and intertextual reference. The emphasis on Mordechai and Esther being descendants of Saul as well as Haman being a descendant of Agag shows that they had 1 Samuel 15 firmly in mind.

Who was this powerful character Memucan? In one midrash, he is identified with Daniel, who was carried away to Babylon and ended up in the Persian court in the time of the Achaemenid Empire and the dynasty of more than one king called Xerxes. In this interpretation, Memucan is seen as a benign figure who clears the way for Esther. There is also a midrash which tells that Memucan was Haman, wanting Vashti out of the way so that he could see his own daughter married to Ahasuerus, AKA Xerxes.

Other versions of Esther

 Among all the scrolls discovered in the caves of Qumran in 1947, leading to decades of study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book of Esther has not surfaced, in any clearly identifiable form. There is a view that the book of Esther was rejected by the pious Essenes of the Dead Sea community.  It does not mention God, the Temple or Jerusalem, is raunchy in places and it holds out the possibility of material advancement in the galut, the diaspora.

However, another version of Esther is found in a collection of books called the Apocrypha, which includes books which didn’t make it into the canon of the bible, among them Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus and Maccabees. For Catholics, the Apocryphal books are included in biblical scripture and sometimes called the deuterocanonical books. Esther in the Apocrypha is not the book of Esther as we know it in the hagiographa, the Ketuvim of Tanakh. It begins with a dream of Mordechai, in which he and Haman are dragons fighting each other. Israel, a word absent from our Megillat Esther, is mentioned in the dream. There is a much more detailed account of Esther approaching the King to avert Haman’s plans. Vashti is not mentioned; neither are the various banquets we read of in Esther.

Where does this apocryphal account come from and what language was it written in?

Like the rest of the Apocrypha, it was Greek.

In the third to second century BCE, when there was a powerful Greek presence in the Middle East in the wake of Alexander the Great, the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, commissioned a translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek. In this version of Esther, we find the story known to us from the bible combined with the less familiar additions also seen in the Apocrypha. It appears to be the source for Esther in the Apocrypha. As for the Hebrew text which was used for the Greek translation, it is no longer extant.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the mid twentieth century, many of the texts were found to match the Septuagint, where this differed from the post-Talmudic Masoretic text (the Hebrew version of Tanakh with vowels and cantillation marks). As we have seen, Esther was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls so its original provenance is not known.

Another source on Esther is midrash, which extends the narrative and makes connections between Megillat Esther and verses from elsewhere in the bible. It is believed (Strack and Stemberger) to date from no earlier than about 500 CE. There is also later material from the twelfth or thirteenth century. Some midrashim are surprisingly late.

The Septuagint version is known to some of the midrashic authors.

The Mishnah, completed in written form around 200 CE,  has a tractate Megillah, looking at halachah relating to Purim. The commentary in the Gemara also includes some midrashic narratives about the principal characters of Megillat Esther, not found in the bible itself, so all this extra material on Esther appears over a period of a thousand years, from various sources. Perhaps the strangest addition to the story is that Haman was a barber before rising to a position of power at the court of King Ahasuerus.

When Mordechai was about to be honoured by the king, Haman was obliged to give him a haircut.

Haman said to him: The man whom the king had once regarded above all his other ministers is now made a bathhouse attendant [balanei] and a barber. Mordecai said to him: Wicked man, were you not once the barber of the village of Kartzum? If so, why do you sigh? You have merely returned to the occupation of your youth. It was taught in a baraita: Haman was the barber of the village of Kartzum for twenty-two years.

Talmud Bavli, Megillah 16a

One of the early rewritings of Esther comes from Josephus, a Jewish author writing in the Greek language in the city of Rome, after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. Josephus’s version includes some passages from the Septuagint and is otherwise a fairly faithful paraphrase of the book of Esther as we know it.

Mesopotamian influence

The book of Esther owes something to Mesopotamian myth, the names Esther and Mordechai seeming to be variants of Astarte and Marduk, gods of the Babylonians. In the Sumerian creation story, Enuma Elish, written in cuneiform,  Marduk slays the older generation of gods, just as Zeus in Greek mythology defeats his father Cronos, who had castrated his own father Ouranos. While Megillat Esther may have borrowed names, it steers clear of the Sumerian and Greek family dysfunction.

5 Marduk, you are the most honoured among the great gods,
6   Your destiny is unequalled, your command is like Anu’s.
7   Henceforth your order will not be annulled,
8   It is in your power to exalt and abase.
9   Your utterance is sure, your command cannot be rebelled against,
10   None of the gods will transgress the line you draw.

(Emuna Elish Tablet 4:5 – 10)

At the conclusion of the book of Esther, Mordechai too is exalted.

 And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea.

 And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai, whereunto the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?

 For Mordechai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed.

Esther 10:1 – 3

The festival of Purim is explained in Chapter 9 of Megillat Esther as being instituted by Esther in celebration of the Jews’ delivery from Haman’s plot. Did Purim exist as a festival before Megillat Esther was written? There is an opinion that it was a Babylonian or Persian festival well known to the Jews of Persia and that the story of Esther enabled it to be adapted for Jewish observance.


One aspect of Esther which seems altogether Hebraic is Esther’s real name, Hadassah. Whereas the name Esther may be related to Ishtar and Astarte or derived from the Hebrew word for hiding (because she kept her Jewish identity hidden), Hadass is a Hebrew word meaning myrtle tree and it appears just a few times in the bible, in Isaiah, Zechariah and Nehemiah. It has a connection with another festival, Sukkot, as the myrtle branch is one of the species included in the lulav.

Isaiah said:

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, And instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle tree; And it shall be to the Lord for a name, For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 55: 13

This links us to another festival, Rosh Hashanah, as it is included in the segment of Isaiah 55 which is the haftarah for that day.

Esther is a diaspora queen at the court of a Persian emperor, in a story which may be derived from non-Hebrew sources but her real name reminds us that she is our diaspora queen.


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