Yosef, Esther, and Daniel1

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Exilic Challenges

After centuries of sovereignty on their own land, the Jews living in Babylonian Exile needed to suddenly confront being strangers and guests in a foreign country and the concomitant risks of acculturation and assimilation. For Jews who were fortunate or unfortunate enough to be thrust into the king's service or palace, the challenges were even more daunting, and this forms the shared backdrop of the exilic books of Daniel and Esther. Each depicts a protagonist who attempts to navigate the non-Jewish corridors of power and advocate for his or her nation. And in each case, the central characters need to decide whether to risk their lives in order to continue to embrace their religion, or whether to give their religious identities a lower profile in order to better comply with the cultural expectations of their society.

The Yosef Model

In attempting to find the proper approach to their situation, the Jews of Babylonia (and Persia) searched for a Biblical precedent, readily finding the prototype of Yosef. As the first of our nation to spend most of his life in exile, Yosef was a logical source to gain insight into how a Jew should behave in exile.

Yosef proved, though, to be a complex model, as the narrative of Bereshit allows for widely differing perspectives on Yosef's conduct in Egypt and his attitudes toward his Abrahamic heritage.  On the one hand, when interpreting the dreams of both the butler and baker and Paroh, Yosef consistently acknowledges that all comes from God:

EN/HEע/E
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו חֲלוֹם חָלַמְנוּ וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי. (מ':ח')
וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה.  (מ':ט"ז)

On the other hand, there are also indications that Yosef's religious identity changed during his time in Egypt. Yosef married the daughter of an Egyptian priest, and in naming his firstborn son, Menasheh, he expresses his gratitude to God for enabling him to forget his father's house ("כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי").  Yosef's erasure of his original identity is so complete that when his brothers arrive in Egypt, they are unable to recognize him as a Semite because of his Egyptian garb and language.2

Three Way Parallels

The influence of the Yosef narrative on the books of Esther and Daniel is reflected in the many similarities between the three stories. The three protagonists begin as lowly exiles, but all manage to rise in the political hierarchy,3 ultimately reaching the pinnacle of political stature within their foreign governments. Each had both a foreign and Hebrew name and is described as beautiful and charming.  Finally, it is striking that a turning point for each of these characters begins on a night when the king has trouble sleeping.4  A chart follows containing the three way parallels between the stories, but for more comprehensive comparisons of the Yosef story with each individual story, see Yosef and Megillat Esther and Yosef and Daniel.

EN/HEע/E
אסתר יוסף דניאל
(ב:ז) וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה... (לט:ו) וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה.
(מא:ב) שֶׁבַע פָּרוֹת יְפוֹת מַרְאֶה וּבְרִיאֹת בָּשָׂר וַתִּרְעֶינָה בָּאָחוּ.
(א:טו) וּמִקְצָת יָמִים עֲשָׂרָה נִרְאָה מַרְאֵיהֶם טוֹב וּבְרִיאֵי בָּשָׂר מִן כָּל הַיְלָדִים הָאֹכְלִים אֵת פַּתְבַּג הַמֶּלֶךְ.
(ב:יז) וַיֶּאֱהַב הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת אֶסְתֵּר מִכָּל הַנָּשִׁים וַתִּשָּׂא חֵן וָחֶסֶד לְפָנָיו... (לט:כא) וַיְהִי ה' אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֵּט אֵלָיו חָסֶד וַיִּתֵּן חִנּוֹ בְּעֵינֵי שַׂר בֵּית הַסֹּהַר. (א:ט) וַיִּתֵּן הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת דָּנִיֵּאל לְחֶסֶד וּלְרַחֲמִים לִפְנֵי שַׂר הַסָּרִיסִים.
(ו:א) בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא נָדְדָה שְׁנַת הַמֶּלֶךְ... (מא:ח) וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וַתִּפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ... (ב:א) וּבִשְׁנַת שְׁתַּיִם לְמַלְכוּת נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חָלַם נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חֲלֹמוֹת וַתִּתְפָּעֶם רוּחוֹ וּשְׁנָתוֹ נִהְיְתָה עָלָיו.
(א:יג) וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לַחֲכָמִים יֹדְעֵי הָעִתִּים כִּי כֵן דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ לִפְנֵי כָּל יֹדְעֵי דָּת וָדִין. (מא:ח) וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיִּקְרָא אֶת כָּל חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת כָּל חֲכָמֶיהָ וַיְסַפֵּר פַּרְעֹה לָהֶם אֶת חֲלֹמוֹ וְאֵין פּוֹתֵר אוֹתָם לְפַרְעֹה. (ד:ג) וּמִנִּי שִׂים טְעֵם לְהַנְעָלָה קָדָמַי לְכֹל חַכִּימֵי בָבֶל דִּי פְשַׁר חֶלְמָא יְהוֹדְעֻנַּנִי.
(ג:ד) כִּי הִגִּיד לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא יְהוּדִי. (מא:יב) וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים וַנְּסַפֶּר לוֹ וַיִּפְתָּר לָנוּ אֶת חֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ פָּתָר. (ב:כה) אֱדַיִן אַרְיוֹךְ בְּהִתְבְּהָלָה הַנְעֵל לְדָנִיֵּאל קֳדָם מַלְכָּא וְכֵן אֲמַר לֵהּ דִּי הַשְׁכַּחַת גְּבַר מִן בְּנֵי גָלוּתָא דִּי יְהוּד דִּי פִשְׁרָא לְמַלְכָּא יְהוֹדַע.
(ו:יא) וַיִּקַּח הָמָן אֶת הַלְּבוּשׁ וְאֶת הַסּוּס וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֶת מָרְדֳּכָי וַיַּרְכִּיבֵהוּ בִּרְחוֹב הָעִיר וַיִּקְרָא לְפָנָיו כָּכָה יֵעָשֶׂה לָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הַמֶּלֶךְ חָפֵץ בִּיקָרוֹ.
(ח:טו) וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן...
(מא:מב) וַיָּסַר פַּרְעֹה אֶת טַבַּעְתּוֹ מֵעַל יָדוֹ וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ עַל יַד יוֹסֵף וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ בִּגְדֵי שֵׁשׁ וַיָּשֶׂם רְבִד הַזָּהָב עַל צַוָּארוֹ. (מג) וַיַּרְכֵּב אֹתוֹ בְּמִרְכֶּבֶת הַמִּשְׁנֶה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְפָנָיו אַבְרֵךְ וְנָתוֹן אֹתוֹ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. (ה:כט) בֵּאדַיִן אֲמַר בֵּלְשַׁאצַּר וְהַלְבִּישׁוּ לְדָנִיֵּאל אַרְגְּוָנָא [וְהַמְנִיכָא] דִי דַהֲבָא עַל צַוְּארֵהּ וְהַכְרִזוּ עֲלוֹהִי דִּי לֶהֱוֵא שַׁלִּיט תַּלְתָּא בְּמַלְכוּתָא.
(ב:ז) וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת הֲדַסָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת דֹּדוֹ... (מא:מה) וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. (א:ז) וַיָּשֶׂם לָהֶם שַׂר הַסָּרִיסִים שֵׁמוֹת וַיָּשֶׂם לְדָנִיֵּאל בֵּלְטְשַׁאצַּר וְלַחֲנַנְיָה שַׁדְרַךְ וּלְמִישָׁאֵל מֵישַׁךְ וְלַעֲזַרְיָה עֲבֵד נְגוֹ.
(י:ג) כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל זַרְעוֹ. (מה:כו) וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ לֵאמֹר עוֹד יוֹסֵף חַי וְכִי הוּא מֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ כִּי לֹא הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם. (ב:מח) אֱדַיִן מַלְכָּא לְדָנִיֵּאל רַבִּי וּמַתְּנָן רַבְרְבָן שַׂגִּיאָן יְהַב לֵהּ וְהַשְׁלְטֵהּ עַל כָּל מְדִינַת בָּבֶל וְרַב סִגְנִין עַל כָּל חַכִּימֵי בָבֶל.
Esther Yosef Daniel
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

Esther vs. Daniel

The similar plot line and rise to power of each of these exilic leaders naturally begs for a comparison of their religious choices along that path.  Although, at points, both Daniel and Esther seem to echo the Yosef narrative, their choices often diverge from his.  Daniel becomes the example of courtier who proudly displays his Jewish religion, willing to self-sacrifice in the name of his Judaism, while Esther hides her identity, and does not overtly act to maintain a Jewish lifestyle.5  This can be seen through a more detailed comparison:

Conclusion

In sum, the controversial character of Yosef tempted and challenged Diaspora Jews centuries after his own story was written.  Was he a model to be followed?  How much of an overt Jewish identity could one shed in order to be in a position to utilize power on behalf of the Jews?  Esther gives up quite a lot; Daniel, throughout his book, does not give a single inch.  Should the goal of Jewish life in the Diaspora be survival, as exemplified by Yosef and celebrated by Esther? Or should Jews be more ambitious, and attempt to demonstrate the power and beauty of the Jewish religion to others, as practiced by Daniel?15

No easy answers to these questions were, or are, available.  In the Persian period of Jewish history, nearly 2500 years ago, Jews in the Diaspora searched through their sacred scriptures and histories searching for precedents for their own lives which could provide guidance.  When they found suitable models, these could be pressed into service.  When they did not, the traditions had to be rewritten in a way that would better serve the goals of the writers.  What these writers shared was an insistence on the relevance of the Jewish past for present questions of identity and culture.  In this regard, they can well serve as models in our own quests.

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