Esther in Legends

For the last few days, because of the approach of Purim, I have been posting chapters from my recent book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith,” in which among a lot of other things, I showed that Judith, in the apocrypha, the book Jewish ancestors decided not to include in the Bible, was more observant of Jewish practices than Ruth and Esther. The rabbis did not see this in this way and even invented many tales to show how righteous Ruth and Esther were. Here is a chapter from the book about Esther.

 

                                                                                       Esther in the Legends

 

People invented many legends, called Midrashim, about the story of Esther. This is not surprising. The biblical tale raises a host of questions about the people in the book, their intentions and actions. The following legends were taken from Louis Ginzberg’s masterful seven-volume “The Legends of the Jews.”[1] Ginzberg devotes 83 pages to Esther, more pages than the original biblical version. These ancient tales will disturb many people because they depict biblical figures in a strange often bizarre manner. But most of these tales are found in the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. They were prepared as parables and were not designed to relate facts, but to teach significant moral lessons.

Esther was given the name that means Venus, the morning-star because “the deeds of Queen Esther cast a ray of light (and optimism) forward into Israel’s history at its darkest.”[2]

King Ahasuerus celebrated with a huge feast because he hated Jews and felt that the year of his feast proved that the Jewish prophet Jeremiah erred when he predicted that Jews would return to Judea from their Babylonian exile after seventy years. This was the seventieth year since the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and the Jews didn’t return. He was wrong; the seventy-year count began when the temple was destroyed in 586 BCE.

Ahasuerus displayed enormous wealth at this celebratory party, but every valuable item he flaunted was stolen from the Judean Temple, even the robes he wore at his party had belonged to the Judean high priest. Queen, Vashti also dressed in the high priest’s garments.

Vashti was summoned by the king so that he could show the nobles that his wife was more beautiful than their wives. But God placed a leprous spot on her face and she was ashamed to appear to the nobles. Ahasuerus sentenced her to death. God arranged that she was killed on a Saturday, the Shabbat, as punishment because she forced Jewish girls to work on Shabbat. She had also advised her husband King Ahasuerus to forbid the Judeans to return to Judea to rebuild the temple. Esther and Ahasuerus’s son, King Darius later permitted the Judeans to return to Judea and rebuild the temple.[3]

Ahasuerus was a fool. After he killed Vashti, God caused him to write to his subjects ordering wives to obey their husbands. His people laughed at his decree. “We already know that a man is the master of his house.” This made them recognize that their king was a fool, and they were prepared to ignore his decree to kill the Jews when it came.

When Ahasuerus ordered that all beautiful women in his kingdom be brought to him so that he could select a new queen, Mordecai concealed Esther in a chamber for four years. He was forced to reveal her when the king decreed that hidden woman would be killed.

Esther was not beautiful. “The beholder was bewitched by her grace and her charm, and that in despite of her somewhat sallow (a yellowish sickly color), myrtle-like (greenish) complexion.” She “was seventy-five years old.”

Esther was a vegetarian in the palace, so as to keep the kosher food laws. She arranged that as queen she only had Jewish female attendants. She gave each a name, and called the seventh Rego’ita, which means “rest,” so that when Rego’ita attended her, she knew it was the Sabbath.

Mordecai was Esther’s uncle and had raised her since she was born, for her mother died in childbirth and her father died before her birth. When Esther grew up, Mordecai married her. Esther never committed adultery by having sex with Ahasuerus because “God had sent down a female spirit in the guise of Esther to take her place with the king.”

One of the reasons why Mordecai told Esther not to reveal her identity was his modesty: “He thought the king, if he heard from Esther that she had been raised by him, might offer to install him in some high office.” Mordecai was happy running a yeshiva, a house of study of Torah.

Nevertheless, Esther advised her husband to have a Jewish advisor, just as Nebuchadnezzar had Daniel as an advisor. Ahasuerus heeded her advice and appointed Mordecai to the position previously held by Bigthan and Teresh. The two were furious and decided to kill the king. Mordecai overheard their plot because he could speak seventy languages. He revealed their plan to the king. The two plotters were told what Mordecai did and removed the poison from the cup they intended to offer the king. A poison-free cup would prove Mordecai was lying. However, God placed the poison back into the cup.

Ahasuerus liked Haman because he was the second richest man who ever lived. The first was Korach, a relative of Moses who rebelled against Moses, and God killed him. Ahasuerus ordered everyone to bow before Haman. Mordecai refused to do so because Haman, perhaps because he was religious, had fastened an idol to his clothes “so that whoever bowed down before him, worshipped an idol at the same time.” Mordecai refused to prostrate himself before an idol despite the entreaties of his fellow Jews. He also felt it improper to bow to Haman because once when Haman needed money he sold himself the Mordecai as a slave, and Mordecai had not set him free. Just as Haman was unfaithful to his owner, Mordecai, Haman’s wife was not faithful to him: whenever he left his house, she rushed to a paramour.

Haman at first only focused on Mordecai, but his hatred grew and he soon sought to kill every Jew. Thus, arguably, Mordecai caused Haman’s plot to murder Jews.

When Esther went to Ahasuerus to beg him to stop Haman from exterminating her people, she was accompanied by the holy spirit. When she entered the king’s chamber, the room was filled with idols, “the holy spirit departed from her, and she cried out in great distress, Eli, Eli, lamah azabtani!”[4] God dispatched three angels to encourage and help her. The first enveloped her in grace. The second forced the reluctant king him to stretch out his scepter to grant her entrance. The third pushed king’s face toward her when he turned from her, and he was “conquered by her seductive charm.”   

Esther didn’t try to persuade the king immediately because she wanted “to lead her fellow Jews to fix their hope on God and not on her.”

When Esther revealed to her husband that Haman intended to kill her people, God wanting to infuriate him still more, God sent ten angels in the guise of Haman’s ten sons, to cut down the trees in the royal park. Enraged by the destruction, he rushed back to his wife and Haman. The angel Gabriel pushed Haman on top of Esther which seemed as if Haman meant to kill her. This was the final straw. Ahasuerus ordered Haman killed.

 

[1] The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946. Book 4 has the Esther legends. The set has an extensive index and many notes indicating multiple sources. Readers can find the sources for the tales told here in Ginzberg’s books.

[2] As Ginzberg notes there are other etymologies of Esther’s name. Scholars, for example see the name being derived from the pagan goddess Astarte, just as Mordecai’s name is a version of the name of the god Marduk. As is well known, many Jews adopted the names of the people among whom they lived.

[3] There are many Midrashim that contradict other Midrashim. For example, there are Midrashim that state that Esther never had sex with Ahasuerus and others that she did but used birth control.

[4][4] The words are an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 quote Jesus making this exclamation while on a cross.

Do You Want To Be Notified of New Blog Posts?

Email:

Categories

Archives