Two more themes shared by the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are: “The hero is taken away from home and held captive” and “A court eunuch admires and helps the hero”.
*The hero is taken away from home and held captive.*
In the first Torah portion devoted to Joseph, Vayeishev, Joseph’s ten older brothers can hardly stand him. (See The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 1.) They take the family flocks to Dotan, about a hundred miles away from their home in Hebron, and their father sends Joseph to check on them. When he arrives, his brothers throw him into an empty cistern and conspire to kill him.
But Judah said to his brothers: What profit [is there] if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites… So they pulled Joseph and they brought him up from the pit. Then they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:26-28)
The brothers believe Joseph will never return from slavery in Egypt.
While Joseph is singled out by his brothers, Daniel and Esther are removed from their homes merely because they happen to meet the criteria for a category of people the king summons.
The book of Daniel opens when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem. The king orders his chief eunuch to transport some young Israelite boys to Babylon. The boys must be:
…from Israel and descended from the royalty and the nobility; boys who have no blemishes, and are tovey mareh, and understand all wisdom, and have practical knowledge and some understanding of academic knowledge, and who have the ability to serve in the palace of the king, and to learn the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)
tovey mareh (טוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (masculine form).
The boys will be educated for three years, and then will serve Nebuchadnezzar in some capacity. Young Daniel is taken away from home and transported to a foreign court merely because he fits the king’s description.
Similarly, in the book of Esther the king of Persia orders a certain class of girls to be rounded up and brought to the royal residence in Shushan. King Achashveirosh wants a new wife, and his advisors respond:
Let the king appoint appointees in every province of his kingdom, and let them gather all the virgin girls tovat mareh to the citadel at Shushan, to the house of the women, to the hand of Heigai, the chief eunuch of the king, guard over the women… And the girl who is good in the eyes of the king will become queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:3-4)
tovat mareh (טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (feminine form).
Esther happens to live in Shushan with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, but she is taken out of her home and put under guard in the “house of the women”, i.e. the harem, simply because she fits the description:
…and the girl was beautiful in shape and tovat mareh… (Esther 2:7)
Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all good-looking adolescents when their stories begin. All three live in comfort, Joseph with his doting father, Daniel in the royal court of Jerusalem, and Esther with her fond and wealthy cousin Mordecai. Then the earth shifts under their feet. Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. Daniel is deported for re-education in Babylon. Esther becomes a captive in the Persian king’s harem.
Yet all three heroes rise from the fall in their fortunes—with some assistance from a eunuch in the royal court.
*A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.*
And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt; and Potifar, a saris of Pharaoh, the sar of the tabachim, acquired him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (Genesis 39:1)
saris (סָרִיס) = eunuch; court official. Plural=sarisim. (From the Assyrian title sa resi = royal official. In Assyria, as in many ancient Near Eastern empires, employees in the king’s house were often eunuchs, so later in the Bible saris came to mean any eunuch.)
sar (שַׂר) = head, chief, official in charge. (From the Assyrian sarru = king, chieftain, captain.)
tabachim (טַבָּחִים) = meat-handlers (butchers, meat cooks, and meat servers); executioners.
Joseph’s new master, Potifar, owns an estate and reports directly to the Pharaoh as the head of a group of servants. He is also in charge of the prison where men are detained until their trials.
Since the Torah refers to Potifar as both a saris and a sar, the additional title of saris probably means “eunuch” rather than a repetition of “court official”—even though he is married. Traditional commentary speculates that Potifar was castrated at some point after his marriage.
And his master [Potifar] saw that God was with him [Joseph], and everything that he did, God made a success. And Joseph found favor in his eyes, and he became his attendant. Then he [Potifar] appointed him over his household, and he gave everything he owned into his hand. (Genesis 39:3-4)
When Potifar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, Potifar has to take action to preserve her honor. Normally a slave would be executed for such an attempt, but Potifar appreciates Joseph so much, he imprisons him instead—in the prison for the king’s detainees, which Potifar manages.
Then Potifar appoints Joseph to wait on two detainees with high court positions.
Pharaoh became angry at two of his sarisim, the sar of the cup-bearers, and the sar of the bakers. And he placed them in the custody of the sar of the tabachim [Potifar], in the house of the round prison, the place where Joseph was imprisoned. Then the sar of the tabachim appointed Joseph to be with them, and he waited on them… (Genesis 40:2-4)
Like Potifar, these court officials are called both sar (chief official) and saris (eunuch). Joseph correctly interprets their dreams, and in the Torah portion Mikeitz, the head cup-bearer mentions Joseph when the Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. Pharaoh calls for him at once, and Joseph’s career takes off.
Thus Joseph is helped along by two different eunuchs, the king’s head executioner and the king’s head cup-bearer.
In the book of Daniel, a Babylonian officer named Ashpenaz is called both the high saris, and the sar of the sarisim. I think the title sar covers his position as a captain, so the word saris gives the additional information that he and those he supervises are eunuchs. After Ashpenaz’s boss, King Nebuchadnezzar, has conquered Jerusalem, he sends his high-ranking eunuch on a mission.
The king said to Ashpenaz, his high saris: Bring some sons of Israel, descendants of the royalty and the nobility. (Daniel 1:3)
Nebuchadnezzar orders Ashpenaz to educate these foreign boys for three years and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine. But Daniel and his three companions from Jerusalem object to eating anything that is not kosher.
Daniel silently vowed that he would not make himself impure with the king’s fine food or with the wine he drank, and he sought to obtain [permission] from the sar of the sarisim that he need not make himself impure. And God disposed the sar of the sarisim to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. And the sar of the sarisim said to Daniel: As for me, I am afraid of my master, the king, who allotted your food and your drink; what if your faces look pitiful compared to the other boys your age, and they forfeit my head to the king? (Daniel 1:8-10)
Daniel proposes a ten-day trial during which he and the other three boys from Jerusalem will eat seeds or legumes and drink water. At the end of ten days, they look healthier than the others. So the chief eunuch lets them continue their religious dietary restrictions. When he brings them to the king at the end of their three years of training, Nebuchadnezzar is pleased with them and appoints them to entry-level jobs among his “wise men”.
In the book of Esther, the head eunuch, Heigai, is the guard over King Achashveirosh’s “house of women” or harem. Esther is delivered to him along with the other beautiful young virgins rounded up for the king.
And she was good in his eyes, and she inspired kindness in him, and he was quick to give her her massage ointments and her rations and the seven girls who were her due from the king’s house. And he moved her and her girls to a better [room] in the house of women. (Esther 2:9)
Each virgin is kept in the harem for one year while she gets beauty treatments, then taken to spend a night with the king. The virgin of the night is allowed any clothes and cosmetics she requests. When it is Esther’s turn,
… she did not seek to obtain anything except what Heigai, saris of the king, guard of the women, said. And it was Esther who inspired favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. The king loved Esther more than all the other women… And he put a crown of royalty on her head, and he made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:15, 2:17)
The court eunuchs who help Joseph appreciate his competence. According to the Torah, God makes all Joseph’s work successful and gives him dream interpretations that are true prophecies.
The court eunuch who helps Daniel admires his fortitude and his adherence to his religion. Probably due to these qualities, the God of Israel later rescues him from lions and gives him his own dream interpretations and prophecies.
The court eunuch who helps Esther probably appreciates her respect for his advice. He responds by making her life more comfortable and advising her well.
All three young heroes accept their sudden enslavement without complaining, withdrawing, or rebelling. They do their work and treat the eunuchs overseeing them with respect, making the best of it. Because of their good attitudes, the eunuchs help them to appear in a favorable light before the king.
May we all be blessed with the ability to ride out our misfortunes with realism, patience, and respect!