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:
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"א:ט"ז)
They said to him, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it.” Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell it to me.” (40:8)
Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me. God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” (42:16)
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.
|(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 הָאֱ-לֹהִים 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 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:
- Dual Name – Yosef, Daniel, and Esther all have both a Jewish and foreign name, but while both Yosef and Daniel are given their new names by the royal sovereign, Esther seems to have been known by her Persian name even before entering the palace. In addition, while the narrative continues to refer to both Yosef and Daniel by their Hebrew names,6 Esther's Hebrew name, Hadassah, is used only once to introduce her, and then quickly forgotten, literarily demonstrating a sense of removal from her heritage.7
- Religious identity – Daniel explicitly displays his Jewish ties through his defiant observance of the Torah laws. Yosef is more ambiguous. On one hand, he is referred to by Mrs. Potiphar as an "אִישׁ עִבְרִי", but he later appears to sever ties with his past and forget his father's house. Once promoted, it seems that he fully adopted the lifestyle of his host – eating the food, dressing the dress, and generally doing nothing to betray his Jewish identity. Esther goes one step further, hiding her Jewish identity entirely. Interestingly, though, Mordechai seems to share his roots and the other courtiers are all cognizant of the fact that he is a Jew.
- Observance – While Daniel refuses the royal food of Nebuchadnezzar, under the fear of becoming "defiled",8 nothing of the sort is ever said about either Yosef or Esther.
- Active defiance – Both Mordechai and Daniel actively defy the king's orders to identify with their religion. Mordechai refuses to bow "because he was a Jew",9 and Daniel openly prays against the king's command as well as opposes the royal diet the king prescribed for him. Yosef and Esther, in contrast, nowhere act against a king's order in order to maintain a Jewish lifestyle.
- Attribution to God – While both Yosef and Daniel continuously acknowledge Hashem, and attribute their interpretive powers to Him,10 neither Esther nor Mordechai ever mention God or attribute any events to His hand.
- Prayer – Prayer is glaringly absent from the Esther narrative; even when faced with potential annihilation, neither protagonist turns to beseech God for help.11 Yosef, too, never explicitly prays, but he at least is continuously conscious of the Divine. Daniel, in contrast, insists on praying three times a day – at the window, no less, without any attempt at secrecy – despite the death sentence imposed on anyone who would pray at all.12
- Impact on king - While both Yosef and Daniel get their kings to acknowledge Hashem, Daniel's impact is much greater. His active speech to the king about the power of God leads Nebuchadnezzar to draw far-reaching religious that Daniel's god must be "the God of gods".13 Paroh, in contrast, mainly concludes that "There is no one as wise" as Yosef.14 Esther, meanwhile, makes no attempt to get Achashverosh to recognize God, and he never does.
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.