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Joseph and Esther: Some Parallels and a New Midrash

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 65, Numbers 1-2, Fall-Winter 2013-2014
pp. 95-106 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0048

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During Purim this past year it dawned on me that there are several parallels between the story in the Scroll of Esther and the story of Joseph. It’s hard to say how long this observation has been marinating in my brain, but suddenly this year it leaped forth nearly fully formed into consciousness. (No, I was totally sober . . . so don’t be thinking in terms of ad lo yada.)

Let me just mention ten narrative aspects that now seem obvious to me. Some are fairly strong parallels; a few others, somewhat less so—and some, I later learned, have been noted over many years. Several striking linguistic parallels between the two texts (which I do not discuss here) have also been noted, and these have led some observers to the reasonable conclusion that whoever wrote Megillat Esther consciously modeled aspects of it after the Joseph-in-Egypt story. But some other parallels appear to be original and, in that spirit, let me then end with a modern midrash, if I may, just for fun.

First: the protagonists in both narratives are away from home, and they are away from home involuntarily. Joseph is stolen away from eretz yisrael, sold by his jealous brothers to a caravan of traders headed down into Egypt. Mordechai is descended from the captives of Nebuchadnezzar; he is identified as being from the tribe of Benjamin: “the son of Yair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with King Jeconiah” by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 b.c.e. (Esther 2:5–6). That means, according to the most plausible reading, that he was a child of the fourth generation removed from the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

Second: the protagonists in both cases are “sold” into slavery. This term is used regarding Joseph in Genesis (37:37, makh’ru); in Esther 7:4 we read: “for we are sold (nimkarnu), I and my people, to be destroyed.” It is the same root (m-kh-r) in Hebrew, and in no other passage in the Hebrew Bible is a major figure “sold” or described with that language.

Third: both Joseph and Esther are propelled along in their stories because they are physically attractive. This gets Joseph into trouble because he declines Potiphar’s wife’s repeated advances; but had he never been tossed into prison, the rest of the story could not have happened as it did. Esther’s beauty results in her being chosen as queen. Aside from the story of Samson and perhaps Jacob’s love for Rachel, there are no other cases in Scripture where physical attractiveness plays such a significant role in the unfolding of a story. In Samson’s case it is a distracting and unimportant aspect of the story; in Rachel’s case, too, it hardly figures at all in the ensuing narrative. But in the case of both Joseph and Esther, the narrative unfolds as it does precisely because of the physical attributes of the protagonists.

Fourth: both Jacob’s family, led by Joseph, and the Jews of Persia, led by Mordechai and Esther, have a chance at the end of their respective stories to leave exile and return to the land of Israel, but they do not do so. In the case of Joseph, we know from the text that it was supposed to be a seven-year famine, five years of which were left at the time of the story. Joseph was 44 when the famine ended and 110 when he died, so there was plenty of time for him to have returned to Israel, had he so desired. Indeed, he did return very temporarily—to bury his father Jacob—but he then turned around and went back to Egypt. At the end of Esther’s story, the triumphant Jews could also have chosen to return to the land of Israel, had they wanted to. The time would have been at least mildly propitious. But they did not; there is not so much as even a proto-Zionist hint in Megillat Esther. In any event, in both cases—Egypt and...

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