Author Archives: Adele Berlin

Adele Berlin

About Adele Berlin

Adele Berlin is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland.

Bathsheba

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Bathsheba, the wife of David (reigned c. 1005-965 B.C.E.) and the mother of Solomon (reigned c. 968-928 B.C.E.), is featured in each of these roles in one major narrative sequence in the David stories, and she is characterized quite differently in each.

The account in 2 Samuel 11-12 of how Bathsheba came to be David’s wife makes clear that the circumstances are morally problematic. Yet because her character is suppressed, she emerges untainted by the adultery and murder for which David receives full blame. Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite, becomes the object of David’s lustful gaze. The story implies that David should have been at the battlefield, leading his troops, but instead he is at home in Jerusalem. From his rooftop he sees a woman bathing; David has her brought to his royal residence and lies with her. Afterward she returns to her home. The adultery results in a pregnancy; this sets in motion David’s plan to pass the child off as Uriah’s and, when this fails, to legitimize the child as his own by ensuring that Uriah will be killed in battle so that David can marry the widowed Bathsheba.

Her Minimized Role

David and Bathsheba 1562 Musée du Louvre, Paris  M. DisderoBathsheba seems to know nothing of David’s plan, and, indeed, it unfolds outside her purview. Bathsheba is “on stage” in this story very infrequently and is silent except for the announcement of her pregnancy, which she does not deliver in person. No hint is given of her inner life or of her complicity with or resistance to David’s actions. We see her next after her husband, Uriah, has died, and she reacts as a proper wife would. 2 Sam 11:26 emphasizes her status as Uriah’s wife: “When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.” Immediately after the mourning period, David marries her and she bears him a son.

The child born to David and Bathsheba becomes ill and soon dies. David is portrayed as a distraught father, praying and fasting that the child might live. Of the mother we hear nothing, except that after the child has died, “Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he [or she] named him Solomon” (12:24).

Abigail

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Abigail is the wife of Nabal the Calebite from Carmel and later becomes the second wife of David. According to 1 Samuel 25, Abigail is married to Nabal, a wealthy rancher, and she is described as beautiful and intelligent. Her husband is just the opposite: mean and churlish. Despite Nabal’s shortcomings, Abigail is an ideal wife, always protecting her husband’s interests, taking the initiative when he is unable or unwilling to act, and apologizing for his rude behavior. Abigail

Prim & Proper

In her encounter with David, who is fleeing from Saul and trying to build up a following, Abigail is polite far beyond what is required. She is a woman of high socioeconomic status, by virtue of Nabal, whereas David, not yet king, is an outlaw on the run. Yet she acts toward David and addresses him as though he is the lord and she the servant.

Abigail’s good manners and diplomatic strategy succeed in protecting Nabal from David’s wrath when Nabal fails to respond to David’s request for gifts in payment for treating Nabal’s shepherds well. When Nabal learns of Abigail’s actions, after sobering up from a drunken state, “his heart died within him” (1 Sam 25:37). Shortly afterward he dies, and David loses no time in marrying Abigail. Whether it is because this bright and articulate woman catches his fancy, or, more likely, because the marriage is an astute political move calculated to win support in Judah, we cannot know for sure.

Abigail is mentioned along with Ahinoam the Jezreelite (David’s third wife) when they accompany David in seeking refuge in Philistine territory and when they are captured by Amalekites and rescued by David (1 Sam 30:3, 5, 18). Abigail again appears with Ahinoam when these two wives go with David to Hebron, where they settle and where David is anointed king (2 Sam 2:2). Abigail is the mother of David’s second son, Chileab (1 Sam 3:3; Daniel, according to 1 Chr 3:1), born in Hebron.

Esther

This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther, and is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Publication Society. Other excerpts from this article, focusing in greater detail on the comedic elements of the book, may be found in the "Holidays" section of MyJewishLearning.com, in connection with the holiday of Purim.

Why was Esther Written?

Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther in the form that we have it in the Hebrew Bible, provides the story of the origin of Purim, the blueprint for its celebration, and the authorization for its observance in perpetuity. The story itself is implausible as history and, as many scholars now agree, it is better viewed as imaginative storytelling, not unlike others that circulated in the Persian and Hellenistic periods among Jews of the Land of Israel and of the Diaspora. 

This story seems to have been known in several different versions, or to have gone through a number of different stages in its development before it was linked with Purim and incorporated into the Bible. As a Diaspora story –a story about, and presumabIy, for, Jews in the Diaspora during the Persian period–it provides an optimistic picture of Jewish survival and success in a foreign land.

In this it resembles other Diaspora stories such as the biblical Book of Daniel (chapters 1‑6) and the apocryphal books of Judith and Tobit.  But unlike those books, Esther lacks overtly pious characters and does not model a religious lifestyle. Esther is the most "secular" of the biblical books, making no reference to God‘s name, to the Temple, to prayer, or to distinctive Jewish practices such as kashrut.

Yet Esther, of all the biblical books outside of the Torah, is the only one that addresses the origin of a new festival. For this reason, if for no other, Esther should be considered a "religious" book. Its main concern, the very reason for its existence, is to establish Purim as a Jewish holiday, for all generations.

How Esther Establishes the Holiday of Purim

Josephus’s Version of Esther

Excerpted with permission from The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Josephus‘s paraphrase of the Esther story in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book II Chapter 6, also in Greek, may be considered a third Greek account, or interpretation, written somewhat later (in the first century CE, about a century after the Septuagint–a Greek translation of the Bible–and the third version, a shorter narrative known as the Alpha- text).

Drawing on the Septuagint and on the Jewish exegetical works of his time (probably the Targum), Josephus retells the story in a way that served his own agenda. As L. Feldman points out, in The Antiquities Josephus tries to show the biblical precursors of the themes and personalities that he discussed in his Jewish War.

As a Jewish apologist, he sought to make Jewish values appear congruous with Greco-Roman values. He was especially concerned with combating the anti-Jewish stereotypes of his time and showing the Jews as tolerant of other religions. He therefore omits or minimizes details in the story that might make the Jews seem misanthropic or intolerant. For instance, he makes a strong point of identifying Haman as an Amalekite (the term is not used in the Masoretic Text or in the Septuagint) so that he can attribute Haman’s hatred of the Jews to a family feud or personal grudge, rather than to the Jews’ distinctiveness or misanthropy or to an eternal Jewish-gentile conflict.

Josephus’s concern for law and order is manifest in his portrayal of Ahasuerus (who is in general more positive than in the Masoretic Text) as extremely law-abiding. Ahasuerus could not take Vashti back because the law forbade it. Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king is attributed to a law that forbade women to be seen by strangers. Mordecai refused to bow to Haman because the laws of his own people forbade it.

In other words, the motif of the Persian legal system, which in the Masoretic Text takes on elements of parody, is used and amplified by Josephus in a more serious and positive manner so as to conform with the Greco-Roman esteem for law and legal systems.

The Book of Esther

Excerpted with permission from The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther in the form that we have it in the Hebrew Bible, provides the story of the origin of Purim, the blueprint for its celebration, and the authorization for its observance in perpetuity. 

The story itself is implausible as history and, as many scholars now agree, it is better viewed as imaginative storytelling, not unlike others that circulated in the Persian and Hellenistic periods among Jews of the Land of Israel and of the Diaspora. This story seems to have been known in several different versions, or to have gone through a number of different stages in its development, before it was linked with Purim and incorporated into the Bible.

Diaspora Story

As a Diaspora story–a story about, and presumably for, Jews in the Diaspora during the Persian period–it provides an optimistic picture of Jewish survival and success in a foreign land. In this it resembles other Diaspora stories such as the biblical Book of Daniel (chapters 1-6) and the apocryphal books of Judith and Tobit. But unlike those books, Esther lacks overtly pious characters and does not model a religious lifestyle.

 

Megillat Esther tells the story of Esther and her relative Mordechai.

Esther and Mordechai, by Aert de Gelder, 1685

Esther is the most “secular” of the biblical books, making no reference to God’s name, to the Temple, to prayer, or to distinctive Jewish practices such as kashrut [keeping kosher]. Yet Esther, of all the biblical books outside of the Torah, is the only one that addresses the origin of a new festival. For this reason, if for no other, Esther should be considered a “religious” book. Its main concern, the very reason for its existence, is to establish Purim as a Jewish holiday for all generations.

Legitimizing Purim

Megillat Esther establishes the Jewishness of the holiday by providing a “historical” event of Jewish deliverance to be commemorated and an authorization, through the letter of Mordecai, for the continued commemoration of the event. Just as the more ancient festivals are historicized and their observance is mandated by the Torah, so Purim is historicized and its observance is mandated by the Megillah.

Greek Versions of Esther

This article is excerpted from a longer, footnoted item. It is reprinted with permission from The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Esther presents us with an unusual opportunity to study the early growth and interpretation of a biblical story. In addition to the Masoretic Text (the accepted Hebrew text of the Bible), two Greek versions of the story survive: the version preserved in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Bible), also known as the B-text, and a shorter Greek version, known as the Alpha-text or A-text (sometimes referred to as the Lucianic recension, or L).

Current scholarly interest in Jewish literature of the Greco-Roman period and in the history of biblical interpretation has spurred a number of recent studies of the Greek versions and comparisons of the two Greek versions with each other and with the Masoretic Text. These studies shed light on what the basic outlines of the earliest form of the story might have been before it reached the form in which we have it in the Masoretic Text, and how the story was reshaped in its different textual versions.

Textual Development

The complicated textual development that produced the three extant versions need not occupy us here. Our concern is the Masoretic Text, so we need to understand that this text was probably based on a Hebrew story that has not been preserved but that was similar to our Hebrew Esther. In its pre-Masoretic form, it was not the story of the origin of Purim; the emphasis on Purim was added by the author of the Masoretic Text, who reshaped the story as an etiology (story of origins) for Purim.

We do not know whether the original Hebrew story contained religious language. Some people think that it did, and that the author of the Masoretic Text took out the references to God and religious observance. Others think that the original story lacked religious language and that it was added only later, by the author of the Septuagint. In either case, the absence of religious language in the Masoretic Text is completely appropriate, if not absolutely necessary, given that it is a farce associated with a carnivalesque occasion.

How the Greek Versions Differ

The major differences between the Masoretic Text and the Greek versions are the six Additions. These Additions were once an integral part of the Septuagint, but when Jerome (fourth century CE) translated the Greek Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), he observed that these passages had no equivalent in the Hebrew text of his time. Doubting their authenticity as divinely inspired scripture, he relegated them to the end of his translation. They remain canonical for the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Protestants declared them uncanonical and placed them in the Apocrypha, under the title "Additions to Esther." The Additions make little sense at the end of the book since they are out of context, so some modern Christian Bibles have reinstated them into their appropriate positions within the story.

Addition A, which stands at the beginning of the story, contains a dream of Mordecai foreshadowing destruction, and Mordecai’s discovery of a plot against the king. Addition B, which follows 3:13, contains the wording of the edict against the Jews. Addition C, which follows 4:17, is the prayer of Mordecai and the prayer of Esther, asking for deliverance. Addition D, which follows Addition C, is an account of Esther’s appearance before the king. It is longer and more dramatic than the account in the Masoretic Text. Addition E, which follows 8:12, gives the contents of the edict on behalf of the Jews. Addition F, which comes at the end of the story, after 10:3, is the interpretation of Mordecai’s dream, relating it to the events of the story.

The Greek versions also include the religious elements so obviously absent in the Masoretic Text–the name of God and prayer. The name of God occurs not only in the Additions, but at several other points in the story. There are a number of other differences in the details of the story and in the way the story is told. For instance, Haman is not an Agagite, Purim does not receive as much emphasis, and Esther is characterized differently.

Making Esther More Biblical

The Greek versions, especially the Septuagint, have a different tone and reflect a different view of the Jewish characters from the Masoretic Text. David Clines (The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story), who believes that the religious elements were originally absent and were added in the Septuagint, has perceptively argued that the Septuagint added the religious dimension in order to "assimilate the Book of Esther to a scriptural norm."

That is, the Septuagint sought to make the book sound more biblical, more like the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, where God’s presence is felt in the events that unfold and where the characters engage in religious activities (praying and invoking God’s name). Mordecai’s dream and its interpretation is also similar to what we find in Daniel. And thirdly, the inclusion of the contents of the edicts also resembles the practice in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, which include what purports to be verbatim copies of Persian documents. We have discussed above how the Masoretic Text of Esther sought to fashion itself, in part, on the model of earlier biblical writings, now we see that principle carried further, for different effect, in the Septuagint.

A Different Worldview

But "assimilation to a scriptural norm" does not account for all the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. There are other differences that reflect the Septuagint’s Hellenistic worldview as opposed to the earlier worldview of the Masoretic Text. The Hellenistic world was one in which, according to R. Frye (Minorities in the History of the Near East), religious identity had replaced ethnic identity. That may explain even further why the Jewish characters are more religious, for it is religious practice that defines one as a Jew.

Take the practice of circumcision. No mention is made of it in the Masoretic Text of Esther, but in the Septuagint at the end of chapter eight we read, "And many of the Gentiles were circumcised and became Jews." Circumcision is an ancient biblical practice, and was practiced by other peoples beside Israel, but in the Hellenistic world, circumcision was taken to be the distinctive sign of (male) Jewish identity. It was, along with the observance of the Sabbath and kashrut (especially the prohibition on the eating of pork), the most outstanding mark of the Jew in relation to other religions or nationalities.

In the same vein, we find Esther, in her prayer in Addition C, saying, "I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien," and that "Your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honored the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations." The Septuagint has made Esther into a pious Jewess of the Hellenistic (early rabbinic) period, who disdains marriage with a non-Jew, eats only kosher food, and does not drink wine used for libations to pagan gods (yein nesekh).

Greek Romance Style

The Septuagint reflects Hellenistic times in another way–in its literary style and tone. On occasion, it seems to move in the direction of the style of the later Greek novels, with emotional and psychological dimensions that are absent in the Masoretic Text. This is most obvious in Addition D, when Esther goes to the king uninvited. She entered, adorned with majesty, leaning on the arms of her two maids. Her heart was frozen with fear, and the bedazzling sight of the king, in full array, covered with gold and precious stones, was terrifying. Then:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he looked at her in fierce anger. The queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words.

This is the stuff of Greek romances (and modern ones, too), and it is in utter contrast to the sparseness of the Masoretic Text at this point in the story. So, we may conclude that the Septuagint is, on one hand, more biblical than the Masoretic Text, but on the other hand it is more Hellenistic, both in respect to Jewish identity and practice and in respect to Hellenistic storytelling.

This description of how the Septuagint reshaped the story should make clear that it is a form of early biblical interpretation. The relationship between it and the Masoretic Text is not simply that of an original Hebrew text and its translation, although even a translation is a form of interpretation, since the translator must decide on the meanings of words and verses in order to translate them.

But besides that, the Septuagint’s translation of Esther has the added complication of diverging rather more from the Masoretic Text than do its translations of other biblical books. Of the 270 verses in the Septuagint, 107 find no parallel in the Masoretic Text. The Greek translation, and presumably the Hebrew that lay behind it (which must have been different to some extent from the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text), shows that the form of the story of Esther was once more fluid, and the possibilities for interpreting it were correspondingly more flexible, than had been previously realized.

As more and more scholars are coming to see, the early fluidity of the Hebrew text and the variety of ways that the story was retold, in Hebrew or other languages, belong to the history of early Jewish biblical interpretation. The Septuagint is a window onto how Greek-speaking Jews of the early pre-Christian centuries read and understood the story of Esther.

Esther as Comedy

Despite the recognition of Esther’s comic nature by many scholars, some readers may be surprised or even shocked by this idea. That is because the inclusion of a book in the biblical canon affects the way we perceive the book, or certainly the way it was perceived in premodern times and may still be perceived in traditional circles.

The very fact that Esther is part of the Bible–a holy book with religious authority and religious teachings–forces us to make it fit the expectations we have about what the Bible is and what kinds of writing it contains. We expect a biblical book to be serious and its message to be congruent with the messages of other biblical books as they have been interpreted by the tradition.

 

The comic aspects of the book are not incidental, merely to provide comic relief; they are the essence of the book. They define the genre of the book, and thus set the parameters according to which we should read it. We cannot appreciate the story fully unless we realize that it is meant to be funny.

Defining Humor

To be sure, it is not always easy to agree on what is funny, especially in an ancient or foreign work. Nonetheless, humor of various types is well-documented in ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Bible. Most readers recognize the humor in Esther 6, when Haman realizes that he must honor the very person whom he wishes to disgrace, and in Esther 7, when the king reacts to seeing Haman fallen on Esther’s couch. These scenes are not isolated touches of humor, but are among the most obvious in a book where comedy is the dominant tone.

Since we have no theoretical writings from ancient Israel about comedy, or about any type of literature, we must call upon later literary theory and apply it to the Bible as best we can. (Already I have taken the liberty of applying comedy to narrative, whereas in its narrowest definition it is limited to drama. This and related terms can be used for all forms of literature.)

Several modern terms associated with the comic may be usefully applied to Esther. They are not meant to serve as absolute definitions of Esther’s genre or subgenre, and since their definitions grew out of very different literatures (ancient Greek and medieval and modem European and American literatures), we cannot expect a perfect fit with Esther.