Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Shiur #25: The Greatness of the King, and
the Greatness of Mordekhai (chapter 10)
By Rav Yonatan
"Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him
as befitting His manifold greatness"
The brief final chapter of Esther (three verses in all) brings the
"double writing" of the narrative to a decisive and pointed conclusion. Here,
too, the reader should not be misled by the plain message, exalting the
characters. Rather, attention should be paid to the hints that lie beneath the
words, inviting a hidden reading that stands in stark contrast to the plain
Before examining this assertion more
closely, it should be noted that the verses of chapter 10 represents a microcosm
– in terms of linguistic texture – of the previous chapter (9), in which
Esther's letters are dispatched:
Letters sent by Esther
"Queen Esther… wrote… with all
"Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil,
"And he sent letters to all of the
Jews… words of peace and truth"
"and the decree of Esther
Greatness of the King and Greatness of
"And all the acts of his vigor and of
"Are they not written in the Book of
"And great among the Jews, and accepted by
the majority of his brethren, seeking the good of his people and speaking
peace to all of his descendants"
"For Mordekhai the Jew was second-in-command
to King Achashverosh"
This parallel serves to present both leaders
of the Jewish nation – "Queen Esther" and "Mordekhai the Jew, second-in-command
to King Achashverosh" – with their faces towards the nation: Esther uses her
authority to establish the days of the festival, while Mordekhai uses his
position to "seek the good of his nation." As noted in the past, at the
beginning of the story Mordekhai is depicted as the hero, while Esther simply
performs his bidding. Later on, Esther takes the reigns and Mordekhai does "all
that Esther commanded him" (4:17). The story ends with Esther and Mordekhai
acting jointly, as two main characters of equal
As mentioned above, the reader should not be
misled by the plain reading of the text; rather, he should examine the verses
closely for the hints that they contain. In verse 1 of chapter 10 we learn that
"King Achashverosh placed a tax upon the land and upon the isles of the sea."
This is a rather strange piece of information, and many scholars have questioned
its function in and contribution to the narrative. Of what interest is it to the
reader that the king institutes a new tax law that applies "to the land and the
isles of the sea"?
An interesting possibility is raised by
Daube, who suggests that Mordekhai initiates this tax in response to the
financial loss caused to the king as a result of Haman's plan not being
realized. The kingdom never did receive the "ten thousand talents of silver"
that Haman had promised in return for license to annihilate the Jews
The problem with this hypothesis is that the
plain text would suggest that the king had already foregone this
income, and it seems unlikely that, following the
upheavals that had visited the throne, the king would remember specifically the
failure of this financial plan to be realized.
Fox suggests that the mention of the tax
imposed on the land serves to create another connection with the narratives
about Yosef, the Hebrew lad who, after rising to greatness, creates an economic
revolution in Egypt (Bereishit 47).
The narrator of Esther ends his story
in a similar way: here, too, Mordekhai becomes second-in-command to the king,
and once again there is the imposition of a tax on the citizenry.
I propose a simpler reading: by conveying
this piece of information, the narrator seeks to give expression to the kingship
of Achashverosh and its validity. The imposition of a tax represents a prime
expression of rule over a certain area (Yehoshua 16:10; 17:13; I Melakhim 9:20). The reader comes to
understand that the king rules over "the land and the isles of the
sea." This intention would seem to be supported
by the following verse: "And all of the acts of his power and his might… are
they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Mede and Persia"
(2). The continuity between these two verses renders the tax one example of "the
acts of his power and his might," and the next verse opens with the inclusive
"and all of the acts…," as if to say, "Other than the imposition of the tax, the
rest of the king's acts of power may be read about in the Book of the Chronicles
of the Kings of Mede and Persia." Thus, the story ends with a final look at the
kingdom of Achashverosh, as though it is the king who is the hero of the story
and his acts that must be summarized. This is significant: the narrative opens
with a presentation of Achashverosh and of his great and impressive empire ("the
wealth of his glorious kingdom"), and now it ends with a similar image. We
recall, too, that the general literary structure of Esther (a concentric structure) likewise
serves to bring the end of the narrative back to its beginning, thereby
highlighting the king as the hero of the story.
Needless to say, the depiction of the king
as the protagonist of the story and as a character upon whose word everything
depends is an illusion. In truth, the king is closer to the accepted definition
of an "anti-hero" than that of a hero who really influences the course of
events. Aside from this, the illustration of the grandeur of Achashverosh's
kingdom by noting the tax that he imposes on the land represents the literary
conclusion of a narrative that contains no small measure of scorn and derision.
At the outset, the king is described as being magnanimous in the extreme: he
holds a banquet for "many days" for all the princes of the provinces (1:4), then
another week for the inhabitants of Shushan (1:5), and then grants a "remission"
of taxes for the provinces in the wake of Esther's coronation (2:18). Now, at
the end of the story, the reader discovers the source of funding behind the
king's generosity: he imposes taxes on the citizenry. In other words, the king
may show generosity towards his citizens, but they are destined to
Following the description of the tax, the
text invokes a formula that is familiar to us from the Books of King and
Chronicles: "And all the acts of his power and his might, and the account of the
greatness of Mordekhai, to which the king advanced him – are they not recorded
in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Mede and Persia" (10:2). This
linguistic formula is used repeatedly at the end of the description of every
king in Melakhim and Divrei Ha-yamim, as for example: "And
the rest of the acts of Basha, and what he did, and his might – are they not
recorded in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Israel" (I Melakhim 16:5), or: "And the rest of the
acts of Yehoshafat, and his might which he performed and how he fought – are
they not recorded in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah" (I Melakhim 22:46).
For what reason does the narrator choose to
end his story with an expression so firmly identified with the kings of Israel
and of Judah? Here too, beneath the auspicious atmosphere and the words of
praise, the narrator hints at a hidden reading full of scorn, and perhaps also
criticism. On one hand, the reader attains the hoped-for calm at the end of the
story, and nothing could be more appropriate than this concluding formula with
its momentary "cut" to the broader history (of the king!). However, the reader
who recalls the kings of Israel and of Judah, in light of this expression,
cannot but dwell on the chasm separating the kingdom of Achashverosh from the
kingdom of Israel in its own land; the chasm separating the "Book of the
Chronicles of the Kings of Mede and Persia" and the "Book of the Chronicles of
the Kings of Israel/Judah." In other words, the whole story narrated in
Esther is the story of the Persians; it is the story of Achashverosh and
his kingdom! This expression is, to a large extent, a biting one specifically
because of its inclusion at the end of the story. The narrator is telling his
readers, as it were: "When all is said and done, the exile is still the same
exile; the king is the same king, and the Jews of Shushan remain where they are.
This is not really a story about the Jews. Even if they played an important role
in the plot, all in all this was nothing but an episode in the story of the
Persians, the ‘kings of Mede and Persia.'"
In this context, Gordis raises the
interesting hypothesis that Esther is
actually a part of the chronicles of the Persian kingdom, and is therefore
written in accordance with the norms of Persian historical
documentation. Indeed, this impression does arise from
several of the details in the story, and especially from this
conclusion. But is the intention of the narrator really
to recount the Persian chronicles, for the sake of Persian history? It would
seem that this is simply another mask worn by the hidden writing in the text.
Whose story is being told here? The Persian ruler may be presented as the main
focus, such that his power and the events of his rule must be recounted, but in
fact the Persian rule neither gains nor loses anything over the course of the
plot. The king undergoes no significant process in the narrative, and the same
can be said for his kingdom.
Segal adopts, to my mind, the correct
approach. He notes the manner of writing as being reminiscent of the
documentation of Persian history, but regards this as an intentional
"All of the actions in the story are
undertaken naturally, and by human beings; not by God. However, this secularity
is external and artificial. It belongs to the narrator's art of garbing his
creation in story form, as though taken from the Book of Chronicles of the Kings
of Mede and Persia (2:23; 7:1; 10:2)."
In other words, this is indeed the story of
the Jewish nation, but it is hidden behind the formal veneer of a Persian
chronicle! The Jewish story is hinted at through the Persian political history,
since the Jews are in Persian exile, and during exile the story of the Jews can
at most be glimpsed through the stories of others.
Against this background it is difficult to
treat seriously the concluding
verse of the entire Megilla: "For
Mordekhai the Jew was second-in-command to King Achashverosh, and great among
the Jews, and accepted by the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his
nation and speaking peace to all of his descendants"
Indeed, Mordekhai achieves an impressive
position in the Persian regime, and uses it for the purpose of "seeking the good
of his nation" – a description so familiar from other periods in Jewish history.
And truly, at first glance, the narrator appears to "enthuse" over Mordekhai's
greatness; the word "great" (gadol) appears three times, in relation to
Mordekhai, in these closing verses: "The account of Mordekhai's greatness
(gedulat Mordekhai) to which the king promoted him (gidelo
ha-melekh)… and great (gadol) among his brethren," and the greatness
of Mordekhai would appear to be the happy conclusion to the story. But is this
auspicious status what occupies the reader?
The expression "great among the Jews" occurs
only twice in all the Bible, both times in Esther. The first appearance was in the
description of the Jews when they heard of Haman's decree: "And in every
province and place where the king's word and decree came, there was great
mourning among the Jews (evel gadol la-Yehudim), and fasting, and
weeping, and lamentation; sackcloth and ashes were spread for the multitude
(la-rabim)" (4:3). There, we recall, Mordekhai was not able to
approach the king's palace owing to his garb: "For none might enter the king's
gate dressed in sackcloth" (4:2). The second appearance of the expression is in
the final chapter: "For Mordekhai the Jew was second-in-command to King
Achashverosh and great among the Jews (gadol la-Yehudim) and
accepted by the multitude (le-rov) of his brethren." If this connection is intended – an
admittedly doubtful possibility - then we must consider its contribution to the
conclusion of the story. We may, of course, regard it benignly as yet another
expression of the reversal that takes place in the narrative: at first there was
great mourning for many Jews, and at the end of the story Mordekhai is great
among many Jews. However, my impression is that by means of this link the
narrator seeks to express disdain for Mordekhai's greatness, so long as it is
conferred upon him by the king. This greatness is not essentially different from
the "mourning" in which he was immersed in the first part of the story. It makes
no great difference, in Achashverosh's whimsical kingdom, whether "sackcloth and
ashes are spread for the multitudes," or the second-in-command to the king is
"accepted by the multitude of his brethren." The position of the regime may
change in an instant – as the Esther narrative so clearly proves. This
fickleness is hinted at by means of a further comparison, too. The description
of Mordekhai's greatness recalls Haman's bragging to his cronies about his own
"Haman told them of the glory of his riches,
and the multitude of his children, and all of how the king had promoted
"…And great among the Jews and accepted
among the multitude of his brethren… and the account of Mordekhai's greatness to
which the king had promoted him…"
The expression, "To which the king had
promoted him," appears nowhere else in all the Bible, and it seems that the
narrator seeks to create a link in the reader's mind between the two appearances
in our text. Once again, the connection may be meant merely to highlight the
reversal in the fate of the king's two ministers, as a continuation of the
description in chapter 8. However, it seems to me that had the purpose of this
connection been merely to mold the principle of the reversal, it would have been
integrated at an earlier stage of the narrative (perhaps alongside the
description of Mordekhai's greatness in chapter 8), rather than in the very last
verse of the entire narrative. It seems that here, the intention of the parallel
is to indicate the narrator's reservations with regard to Mordekhai's greatness:
indeed, Mordekhai attained greatness – but it is the same greatness that was
enjoyed by Haman! And just as Haman lost his status in an instant, the same may
happen to Mordekhai.
In light of this we may wonder whether the
expression, "Accepted amongst the multitude of his brethren," likewise conveys a
certain degree of ambiguity. The simple meaning of the word "rov" is
"many," as we read concerning Haman, in the corresponding verse cited above -
"The glory of his riches and the multitude of his children" (5:11) – as well as
in many other places. In other words – Mordekhai was accepted by his many
brethren. However, the Sages adopt an alternative reading of this expression, as
a relative term indicating "a majority" rather than "all": "'Most of his
brethren,' but not 'all of his brethren'; this tells us that some members of the
Sanhedrin (High Court) disagreed with him" (Megilla 16b; cited also by Rashi ad
loc.) The commentator Ibn Ezra, of the peshat school, likewise leans towards
this reading (in his commentary ad loc.): "'Accepted by most of his brethren' –
since a person is not able to please everyone, because of fraternal jealousy."
It is difficult to accept this as the only possible reading of the verse, since
the usual meaning of the word "rov" in the Bible is "many." However, it
is possible (and this may be what the Sages were hinting at) that by selecting
this expression, the narrator means to allow for the alternative reading. On the
surface, Mordekhai is accepted by the multitude of his brethren; the veiled hint
is that he is accepted by most of them, but not by all.
Here again, then, at the conclusion of the
story, we discern a discrepancy between the plain reading of the text and the
message that lurks beneath the surface. On the plain level, the "greatness" and
success of Mordekhai stand out prominently. Covertly, the reader senses the
narrator's disappointment at Mordekhai's integration into the Persian regime and
the continued existence of the Jews in Persia.
The Yosef Narratives and Megillat
To my mind, the above message represents the
essence of the extensive parallels between the story of Esther and the stories
of Yosef. The connection itself (both linguistically and in terms of substance)
is widely acknowledged and much has been written about it, but its significance
has been interpreted in different ways.
At the outset it must be emphasized that
both Mordekhai and Esther are compared to Yosef. Thus, for example, the
description of Mordekhai's greatness - "The king removed his ring, which he had
taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordekhai… and Mordekhai emerged from before
the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown" (Esther 8:2,15) – echoes the description
of Yosef's greatness in Egypt: "Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and
placed it upon Yosef's hand, and he had him clothed in garments of fine linen,
and he placed the golden chain around his neck" (Bereishit 41:42). At the same time, the
description of the selection of Esther – "Let the king place officers in all the
provinces of his kingdom, and let them gather together all the fair virgins to
Shushan, the capital, to the house of the women, to the custody of Hege, the
king's chamberlain, guardian of the women, and let their ointments be given to
them… and the thing was good in the eyes of the king, and he did so" (2:3-4),
parallels Yosef's words to Pharaoh: "Let Pharaoh act and let him appoint
officers over the land, and take a fifth of the land of Egypt during the years
of plenty. And let them gather together all of the food of those good years that
are to come… and the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of
all of his servants" (Bereishit
41:34-37). The exchanging of the character who is compared to Yosef corresponds,
apparently, to the change in the main character of the narrative, as well as the broad literary model of the
"changing analogy," which we shall address below.
What is the significance of this broad
connection, which no reader could fail to register?
There are several approaches in this regard.
Some opinions have regarded the entire system of parallels to the story of Yosef
as nothing more than an artistic device. In other words, Esther assumes a special esthetic value
when the reader feels that he is encountering expressions that are familiar to
him from Bereishit, and this in
itself contributes towards the enjoyment of his reading experience. A different
version of the same idea contends that the narrator seeks to lend Esther the feeling of an ancient
biblical book, and therefore borrows expressions from Bereishit. However, it is difficult to accept that
such a broad and consistent connection, sustained throughout the story, is not
intended to make any significant contribution to the story or to the message
that it is meant to convey.
Cohen proposes the following: "It is
possible that the author of the Megilla seeks to highlight the fact that the
story recounted in the Megilla is not a one-time event, but rather a narrative
of a super-historical nature. Jewish history repeats itself, as it were, with
the hand of Divine Providence continually guiding it."
Expanding on this idea we may add that the
narrator of Esther hints to his
readers that they should extrapolate from that which is explicit in the story of
Yosef to that which is absent, at least superficially, from Megillat Esther – the hand of
Providence. The rise of a Hebrew youth to the position of second-in-command to
the king is understood, in the story of Yosef, as testimony to the hand of God.
As Yosef tells his brothers, "It was to preserve life that God sent me before
you" (Bereishit 45:5). Thus, the
story of Yosef becomes the classic literary model for the "dual causality"
argument: an event has two causes – (revealed) human activity, and (hidden)
No such assertion appears explicitly in Esther, but it is hinted at in various
ways, and it is possible that through the comparison to the story of Yosef, the
narrator seeks to hint at the same perception in Esther, too.
Aside from this, I believe that the link is
also of significance as criticism. The story of Esther describes the salvation of
Mordekhai and Esther in a foreign land – just like the deliverance of Yosef in
Egypt. The reader, however, familiar with the continuation of Yosef's story,
knows that his success was a temporary period of grace for the Israelites, while
the beginning of the book of Shemot
already paints a different reality: "A new king arose over Egypt who had not
known Yosef. And he said to his people, Behold, the nation of the children of
Israel is greater and mightier than we. Let us deal wisely with them… therefore
they set taskmasters (sarei missim) over them, to afflict them with their
burdens" (1:8-11). Yosef's fame passed away, and the children of Israel – now
well settled in Egypt – enter a long period of suffering and subjugation. Esther ends on the same note as the book
of Bereishit: the gentile regime
includes a Jewish representative who seeks the good of his people (as Fox notes
– at the expense of the other citizens of the country, who suffer his economic
decrees). However, the reader who is familiar with the continuation of the story
of Israel in Egypt, as recounted in Shemot, sees a premonition of what may
happen to the Jews of Shushan. The hint at this reading lies in the detail
mentioned in chapter 10, which we have discussed above: "King Achashverosh laid
a tax upon the land and the isles of the sea." A king who imposes a tax on his
citizens appears in several other biblical narratives. However, the expression
"to place a tax" or "placing a tribute" appears only in Esther and at the beginning of Shemot: "They set taskmasters over them"
("va-yasimu alav sarei missim") (1:11). The reader is thereby referred to the
continuation of the story (even though it lies outside the scope of the Megilla), which may turn out in the same
way as the continuation of Yosef's story, as recounted at the beginning of Shemot.
Thus, while on the surface the Megilla concludes on a joyful note and
with a "happy ending," beneath the surface there is an "end" that comes later,
after the end of the story. This hidden conclusion hints at the changes and
reversals that may happen at any moment, and which cloud the joy of the end of
With this we conclude our chronological
study of the verses. In the final two shiurim we shall trace some of the
central motifs of the story, and try to clarify the lesson that arises from
Translated by Kaeren