The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 3

December 17, 2015 at 9:06 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Someone tries to kill Joseph twice in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. When he is seventeen, his jealous older brothers throw him into a pit, then sit down and discuss killing him. This fits the first of seven themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common: Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.  (see Part 1.)

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead of murdering him, but while he is a slave in Egypt a woman tries to get him executed for a different reason. This time, the theme is:

*  The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.  *

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

And it happened after these things, then the wife of his master raised her eyes to Joseph, and she said: Lie with me.  And he mei-ein, and he said to the wife of his master: Hey, having me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and everything that belongs to him he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in his house than I am, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, since you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and transgress against God? (Genesis/Bereishit 39:7-9)

mei-ein (מֵאֵן) = refused. (In Biblical Hebrew, this is not a polite demurral, but a stubborn refusal.)

For Joseph, an ethical transgressions is a transgression against God. He refuses, even though he knows it is dangerous to anger his master’s wife. But she keeps propositioning him day after day, until one day when the house is empty,

…she grabbed him by his garment, saying: Lie with me! But he abandoned his garment in her hand and he fled outside. (Genesis 39:12)

What difference does it make that the house is empty? Potifar’s wife seems unconcerned about whether they are caught in the act, since she propositions him many times when other people are nearby. But the lack of witnesses this time gives her an opportunity to get revenge and slander Joseph. She claims he tried to rape her, and left his garment behind when (she says) she screamed.

The few examples we have of ancient Egyptian law on sexual relations indicate that rape was punished by death (though the punishment might be commuted to exile in the case of a free foreigner). Potifar is the head of the royal executioners, and Joseph is his slave. But instead of arranging a summary execution, Potifar puts Joseph in the king’s prison indefinitely. He is alive, but stuck until God rescues him.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Pharaoh sends his chief cupbearer and chief baker to the prison (see Part 2),

and they said to him: a dream we dreamed, and there is no interpreter. Then Joseph said to them: Do not interpretations belong to God? Recount [your dreams] to me, please. (Genesis 40:8)

Inspired by God, Joseph reads the dreams as prophecies that the chief cupbearer will be restored to his post in three days, but the chief baker will be beheaded. This is exactly what happens.

When Pharaoh has two dreams that his magicians cannot interpret, the chief cupbearer tells him about Joseph, and God gives Joseph the correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams.  Joseph adds some advice on what to do about it, and Pharaoh elevates Joseph from imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt.

Thus God rescues Joseph from his punishment—presumably because he did the right thing by rejecting Potifar’s wife.

*

While Joseph escapes death twice, Daniel is threatened with death only once. In his case, resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero by using his well-known religious scruples against him, immediately bringing in the theme the hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

Daniel and three other boys are taken as captives from Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the city, and spend the rest of their lives in Babylon. Daniel becomes head of the king’s wise men and dream interpreters, and his friends, Shadrach, Meyshach, and Aveid-nego, become administrators of the province of Babylon. At one point, Daniel’s three friends are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and God prevents the flames from even singeing their hair. Daniel is not mentioned in the furnace story.

Many years later, when Persia conquers Babylon, Daniel is serving as one of three governors over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The new king (whom the story identifies sometimes as Cyrus, sometimes as Darius) considers promoting Daniel to viceroy over the entire Persian empire.

Only then do resentful rivals—other high government officials—conspire to kill the hero. They know that Daniel adheres to a kosher diet and prays three times a day, bowing down in the direction of Jerusalem. There are no laws against this, so they persuade the king to decree that anyone who petitions any god or man other than the king during the next 30 days shall be thrown into a lion’s den. (See Part 1.) It does not occur to the king that this decree will affect Daniel.

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. (Daniel, 6:11-12, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

As in the book of Esther, the Persian king cannot countermand his own decree, and he cannot find any way around it. Thus the resentful rivals succeed in having Daniel punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

By the king’s order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions’ den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, ‘Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you’.  (Daniel 6:17, JPS translation)

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

The king worries all night and rushes back at dawn to unseal the den.

Daniel then talked with the king, ‘O King, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions… Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. (Daniel 6:22-24, JPS translation)

God rescues Daniel from death because of his dedication to God, expressed in his thrice-daily prayers.

*

The book of Esther also combines the themes of resentful rivals and refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

The story has two heroes, the young and beautiful Esther, and her older cousin and guardian Mordecai. When Esther becomes a captive in the king’s harem, she follows her cousin’s instruction and pretends she is not Jewish.

Mordecai, however, incites jealousy in the king’s new viceroy, Haman, by disobeying a royal order to bow down whenever Haman passes through the palace gate. (See Part 1.)

And the royal servants who were in the gate of the king said to Mordecai: Why are you oveir the command of the king? And they spoke to him day after day and he did not listen to them. Then they told Haman, to see if the matter of Mordecai would stand, for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:3-4)

oveir  (עוֹוֵר) = crossing, going through.

The Bible does not say that Mordecai refused (mei-ein) the king’s command, but rather that he ploughed right across it as if it did not exist. When his fellow royal servants in the gate question him, he says he ignores the order to bow to Haman because he is a Jew.

Nothing in the Bible forbids Jews to bow down to human beings. Esther Rabbah (a collection of midrash from 500-1050 C.E.) claimed Haman must have sewn a picture of a god on his clothing, so Mordecai was really refusing to bow down to an image of an alien god. Other commentary suggests that Mordecai would not bow because Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (so identified in Esther 3:1), and the Torah calls for eternal enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites. But the text of Esther does not explain.

Mordecai never bows to Haman

Mordecai never bows to Haman

And Haman saw that Mordecai never knelt or bowed down to him, and Haman filled up with rage. And it seemed too contemptible in his eyes to send a hand against Mordecai alone, because they had told him the people of Mordecai, and Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews who were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh, all the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5-6)

Haman talks the king into issuing an irrevocable decree that on a certain date (the 13th of Adar, now the holiday of Purim) every province of the Persian Empire must kill all its Jews. Haman personally erects a tall stake on which to impale Mordecai.

Does God rescue Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia? Not really. Esther reveals that she and Mordecai are Jews, and Haman has arranged their death. She persuades the king to write a second decree (since the first one cannot be revoked) that on the 13th of Adar all Jews may strike down all their enemies, and on the big day nobody touches the Jews. The king impales Haman and promotes Mordecai to viceroy. But God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the book of Esther.

*

Joseph risks death for a moral principle, and God rescues him. Daniel risks death for the right to pray, and God rescues him. Mordecai risks death to make a point about being Jewish, and Esther rescues him.

What are your religious scruples?  Which ones would you refuse to cross, even at the risk of losing your job? Or even at the risk of death?

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 2

December 13, 2015 at 8:13 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 3 Comments
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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.*

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

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.

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

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).

map Persian Empire

Esther is taken to the harem of King Achashveirosh (Xerxes?) in Shushan

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.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

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)

Esther Present to Ahasuerus. detail by Rembrandt

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!

 

 

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