With the festival of Purim having just passed, it is important to remember Esther and the role she played in saving the Jewish people under the Persian Empire. So important was Esther’s saving work, in fact, that the biblical writers patterned her salvific success on another figure in Israel’s history: Joseph. Esther rises to prominence in much the same way as Joseph, and they both struggle against adversity to become saviors of humanity.
The stories of Joseph and Esther share thematic resonance insofar as both protagonists win the favor of the royal officials in a foreign land. According to Genesis, Joseph began to ascend to a position of authority in Egypt when “Joseph found grace” (וימצא יוסף חן; vayimtsa Yosef hen) in the eyes of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard (Gen 39:4). Similarly, the first step that Esther takes toward becoming Queen in Persia come when she pleased the king’s eunuch, Hegai, and “garnered fidelity before him (ותשׂא חסד לפניו; vatisa hesed l’phanav)” (Est 2:9).
After this initial similarity, though, Esther’s story starts to look like a perverse version of Joseph’s experience. To mark Joseph’s authoritative position, “Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand (ויסר פרעה את טבעתו מעל ידו; vayasar paroh et-tabato me’al yado) and put it on Joseph’s hand” (Gen 41:42). The author of Esther uses the exact same Hebrew language to describe the Persian king giving authority to Haman: “The king took his signet ring from his hand (ויסר המלך את טבעתו מעל ידו; vayasar ha’melekh et-tabato me’al yado) and gave it to Haman” (Est 3:10). The astute reader of Genesis knows that something has gone terribly wrong in Esther’s day: whereas God allowed Joseph to become a Hebrew authority under Egypt’s king, now Haman — “the enemy of the Jews” (Est 3:10) — wields violent authority against God’s people!
Thus, the book of Esther draws on the story of Joseph in order to build suspense for readers who are familiar with Genesis. Yet, since such readers already know that Joseph ends up saving the people living in and around Egypt through a famine, the readers of Esther have hope that the Jews in Persia will also be saved – but such salvation will need to wait for Part II of our teaching on Esther and Joseph! To be continued….