Purim is coming on March 21 this year, which is also the Christian Good Friday. Purim (POOHR-im) means lots as in the ancient custom of casting lots (almost like dice) either as a game or to divine the future. It is about a pogrom that was planned in Persia, a day of destruction decreed for the Jewish people, whose date was decided by the casting of lots.
Purim is all about the story of Esther and Mordecai and King Xerxes (Ahasuerus). If you’ve never read the biblical Esther, you’ve been missing out on one of the earliest comedies in literary history. Who would have guessed that God would include comedy as a genre in his sacred writings.
In this post, I want to introduce you to a few differences between the biblical Esther (Hebrew) and a later Greek version which is included in the Apocrypha. This is part of a series on this blog about Second Temple writings and the Apocrypha. To read more on this subject, look on the right margin under categories and click “Second Temple Lit.”
In the Hebrew scriptures, Esther is one of the five megillot, the scrolls read for the holidays. Thus, when we read Esther at Purim we speak of reading the “whole megillah.” Esther is famous for not mentioning God even once, though the plan of God I clearly seen running between the lines of the story.
In the Greek scriptures, the LXX or Septuagint, Esther is considerably longer because of many additions that were made by the translator(s). The general trend seems to have been to try and make Esther a more religious book. Esther was controversial in the formative period of the Hebrew Bible because it did not mention God or his covenant with Israel. The Greek Esther seems to have been an attempt to correct what seemed an irreverent, godless telling of the story.
Of course, the genius of the biblical Esther is precisely that it tells the story without mentioning God all the while showing, rather than telling, of his divine power and protection of Israel. Sadly, the Apocryphal Esther loses this in its attempt to make it more religious.
The Apocryphal Esther has three main differences from the biblical Esther. First, it is in Greek instead of Hebrew. Second, it has six additional sections, which I will summarize below. Third, in the story, which parallels the biblical Esther, there are many words and phrases added. What is the main word that Apocryphal Esther adds? You guessed it: God.
The six additions to Esther are:
1. Mordecai’s dream about the two eunuchs who want to kill Xerxes.
2. The text of Xerxes edict to destroy the Jews.
3. The prayers of Mordecai and Esther.
4. A longer version of Esther approaching Xerxes.
5. The text of the edict overturning the first one.
6. The interpretation of Mordecai’s dream.
Here are some brief examples of these additions:
1. “…And this was his dream: Noises and confusion, thunder and earthquakes, tumult on the earth! Then two dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly…and the whole righteous nation was troubled…Then they cried out to God…”.
2. “…Therefore we have decreed that those indicated to you in the letters written by Haman, who is in charge of all affairs and is our second father, shall all–wives and children included–be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies…”.
3. From Mordecai’s prayer: “O Lord, Lord, you rule as king over all things, for the universe is in your power and there is no one who can oppose you when it is your will to save Israel…Hear my prayer, and have mercy upon your inheritance; turn our mourning into feasting, that we may live and sing and praise your name, O Lord. Do not destroy the lips that praise you.”
4. “On the third day, when she [Esther] ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshipped, and arrayed herself in splendid attire. Then, majestically adorned, after invoking the aid of the all-seeing God and Savior, she took two maids with her…”.
5. “…Many people, the more they are honored with the most generous kindness of their benefactors, the more proud do they become, and not only seek to injure our subjects, but in their inability to stand prosperity, they even undertake to scheme against their own benefactors. They not only take away thankfulness from others, but, carried away by the boasts of those who know nothing of goodness, they even assume they will escape the evil-hating justice of God…”.
6. “And Mordecai said, ‘These things have come from God; for I remember the dream I had concerning these matters…”.
Apocryphal Esther has its own charm and wisdom. It is a piece of religious, devotional literature worthy of reading.
Yet it misses the genius of the biblical book of Esther. In seeking to be pious and to frequently reference God in the retelling of the Esther story, the writer(s) of the Greek Esther have failed to understand why the original does not mention God explicitly.
The biblical Esther mirrors our own experience. God is hidden. We do not hear his voice or see directly what he is doing. God is always at work behind the scenes and only the prophets can tell us what God is saying and doing. Esther is God’s people being saved by the invisible hand of God.