Greek Versions of Esther

Same story, different perspective

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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.

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Adele Berlin

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