Joseph is sold as a slave and becomes the viceroy of Egypt. Daniel is a war captive and becomes the viceroy of Persia. Esther is imprisoned in a harem and becomes the queen of Persia, while her cousin Mordecai escapes impalement and becomes the empire’s viceroy.
Each of these three rags-to-riches stories has a different plot and different characters. But many of the same themes emerge, appearing in a new light in each story.
The story of Joseph begins in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“and he stayed”), and continues through three more weekly portions. So this month I am writing a series of posts comparing seven dramatic themes in Joseph’s story, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther:
Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.
The hero is taken away from home and held captive.
A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.
The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.
The hero gets a foreign name.
The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead.
Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land.
Vayeishev, the first Torah portion in the Joseph story, introduces the first theme:
*Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.*
Joseph’s story in Genesis/Bereishit begins with jealousy.
Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a child of old age to him, and he made him a special long-sleeved tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)
Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers (symbolized first by sheaves of grain, then by stars) are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them his dreams.
…we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey! My sheaf stood up and actually stayed [upright], and hey! Your sheaves circled around vatishtachavena my sheaf. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:6-7)
vatishtachavena (וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ) = and prostrated themselves to, bowed down to the ground toward.
After hearing that, his brothers hate him even more.
When the ten older brothers take the family’s flocks far to the north, their father Israel (also known as Jacob) sends Joseph out to find his brothers and report back.
They saw him from afar, before he reached them, and they plotted against him, to kill him. And they said to each other: Hey! The master of dreams is coming! Now let’s go and kill him, and we will throw him down into one of the pits, and we will say a wild beast ate him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! (Genesis 37:18-20)
They do throw Joseph into an empty cistern, though instead of killing him they sell him as a slave to a caravan heading for Egypt. Their intense jealousy causes Joseph’s downfall—down into a pit, down into slavery, and down to Egypt.
Daniel, on the other hand, rises from being a foreign captive to being the viceroy of the Babylonian empire without offending anyone’s pride. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Daniel his chief magician. A later Babylonian king, Belshazzar, appoints Daniel as one of three administrators over all the provinces in the empire. When Darius conquers the empire, he appoints the same three administrators as supervisors over the 120 district managers.
This man Daniel surpassed the other ministers and satraps by virtue of his extraordinary spirit, and the king considered setting him over the whole kingdom. The administrators and managers looked for some fault in Daniel’s conduct in matters of state, but they could find neither fault nor corruption…
Then those men said: We are not going to find any fault with this Daniel unless we find something against him in connection with the laws of his god. (Daniel 6:4-6)
Daniel’s fellow administrators and managers are determined to bring him down. Like Joseph’s brothers, their resentment is so extreme, they want him dead. So they persuade King Darius to issue an edict that for the next 30 days, anyone who petitions any man or god other than Darius will be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel continues to kneel and pray to God three times a day in front of his windows. His rivals rush into his room, then go and inform the king, who reluctantly obeys his own written edict and throws Daniel into the lions’ den, placing a rock over the mouth of the cave so Daniel must spend the night inside.
The book of Esther has two Jewish heroes: Esther, and her cousin and guardian Mordecai. King Achashveirosh makes Esther his queen; Mordecai merely becomes one of the elders who sits in the gate of Shushan and judges minor cases. Meanwhile the king promotes Haman, one of his advisors, to viceroy.
And all the servants of the king who were in the gate of the king were kneeling umishtachavim to Haman, because that was what the king ordered. But Mordecai would not kneel and lo yishtachaveh. …Haman saw that Mordecai was not kneeling umishtachaveh to him, and Haman filled up with rage. (Esther 3:2, 3:5)
umishtachavim (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = (plural) and bowing down to the ground.
lo yishtachaveh (לֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = he would not bow down to the ground.
umishtachaveh (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = (singular) and bowing down to the ground.
Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing because he is a Jew. Commentators generally conclude that he refuses to bow—either because Haman expects the kind of full bow (kneeling, then touching one’s head to the ground) that is reserved for God; or because Haman is a descendant of Amalek, God’s enemy in every generation.
…Then Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews that were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh—Mordecai’s people. (Esther 3:6)
He persuades Achashveirosh that “a certain people” in his empire do not obey the king’s laws, and should therefore be eliminated. The king (who is fairly brainless throughout the story, perhaps because of all his drinking feasts) does not question Haman, but immediately gives him permission to issue a royal edict.
So thanks to jealousy and wounded pride, Joseph is thrown into a pit, Daniel is sealed into a lions’ den, and all the Jews in Persia are threatened by an edict of destruction.
Is this theme a warning on the part of the Biblical authors that it is dangerous, even deadly, to threaten the pride of others?
If so, the Joseph story offers a lesson, since Joseph wounds his brothers’ pride further by telling them his dreams of overlordship. If he had considered his brothers’ feelings and kept silent, he would not have been enslaved—but his brothers would still have held a grudge against him because of their father’s favoritism.
In the Daniel story, Daniel is promoted only because of his own excellent work, not because he is lording it over anyone. Although he is caught praying and thrown into the lions’ den, he does not brag about his god, or try to convert anyone else. Sometimes nothing can be done about the jealousy and pride of others.
In the book of Esther, all the Jews in Persia are put under a death sentence because Mordecai insists on following a religious scruple to the letter. Haman is clearly the villain, yet Mordecai is also responsible for the threat to his people. Perhaps Mordecai is emulating Daniel, whose prayers affect only his own fate. He fails to take into account that when one member of a group offends a prideful person, that person is likely to consider everyone in the group offensive. Prejudice is always dangerous.
Sometimes it is better to be silent in the face of enemies. Sometimes it is even better to bow when everyone else is bowing.
The danger of wounding someone’s pride is only one of the themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common. Watch for my upcoming blogs on the twists and turns of other themes!