- Secrets and Lies: Secrecy Notices (Esther 2:10, 20) and Diasporic Identity in the Book of Esther
In the Hebrew and Greek canonical versions of her book, Esther, the beautiful Jewish orphan, is taken with all the beautiful young virgins into the Persian king’s harem. Mordecai, her cousin and foster father, has commanded Esther not to reveal her people and her kin, and the text assures us twice that she did not (MT/LXX 2:10, 20). Of all those taken into the harem, Esther wins the favor of the king—and only in the final scenes of the book does she reveal to him her relationship to Mordecai and that she is a Jew.
But there is another version of the story. Like the book of Tobit, the book of Esther is preserved in two different Greek versions: the widely attested LXX and a lesser-known, second Greek text, now commonly called the Alpha-Text (AT), which is attested in four medieval manuscripts.1 While similar in its main lines to the LXX and the MT, the AT does not say that Esther kept her identity secret; few scholars have observed that in the AT at least the king, if not the rest of the court, knows that she is a Jew. This difference has further implications for the AT’s rendering of the crucial episode in ch. 4, in which Mordecai tells Esther of the edict against the Jews and implores her to intervene.
In this article, I consider (1) the significance of Esther’s secret for understanding diasporic identity in each of the three versions. 2 I further consider (2) the [End Page 467] development of the secrecy motif particularly in the AT and the MT; an analysis of the AT, the MT, and the LXX may yield a diachronic reading of the construal of diasporic identity, as it relates to secrecy, in Esther.3 This diachronic reading is based on the premise that the three versions of Esther not only reflect the concerns of different communities at different times but, taken together, can indicate the story’s development over time. Scholars have long read LXX Esther as a source for later interpretation of and commentary on MT Esther. Now a body of scholarship posits that the AT may give insight into the shape of the story of Esther before the MT. Because it adumbrates an early form of Esther, the AT gives us insight into how the MT editors redacted, condensed, and embellished the depiction of Esther that they inherited.
While their plots are similar in their main lines, each version has different nuances, particularly in ch. 4. In each, when Mordecai tells Esther of the edict and asks her to intercede with the king, she initially refuses because to appear before the king unsummoned would be against palace law. In AT 4, however, neither Esther nor Mordecai is concerned that Esther will have to disclose her identity, since she has not had to keep it secret. Instead the AT frames Esther’s initial reluctance to intervene with indications of her tenuous relationship to Mordecai. Insofar as the earlier version of Esther, which we can reconstruct through the AT, considers diasporic Jewish identity, it focuses on family as the locus of the crisis. Palace law is set up against family obligations. The danger of diasporic existence, then, is the havoc that it wreaks on familial connections.
In the MT, by contrast, Esther’s secret provides another reason, in addition to upholding palace law, why Esther was not willing to go before the king: she would have to reveal her identity. Overall, Esther’s hesitance has comparatively less to do with her relationship with Mordecai than it did in the AT and more to do with her willingness to identify with her people—both to identify herself as Jewish and to identify the well-being of her people as her uppermost concern.
These, then, are the differences between the MT and the AT that result from [End Page 468] the introduction of the motif of secrecy. But it may be possible to do more than compare the two side by side. After...