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Esther. Is History Simply Repeating Itself?

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Adar 2 5765/March 2005

All the books of the TeNaCh are inspired, written with ruach ha kodesh.  They were read by people who were familiar with the text of the TeNaCh.  Authors of the texts would therefore use episodes and expressions that echoed other parts of the TeNaCh and, by means of this literary device, they would encourage the reader to compare and contrast texts and draw meaningful conclusions. The Book of Esther makes considerable use of this device.  It is a late text, probably as late as the 5th or 4th century BCE.

The turning point in the story of Esther comes when the queen courageously goes to Ahasuerus, having in mind the plight of the Jews, her people.  She was, Rav Duvdevani thought, probably not more that 18 or 19 years old at the time.  To someone familiar with the Bible, the story calls to mind comparable situations.  One is the episode of Bath Sheba going to the dying King David to plead for her son, Solomon (1 Kings ch.1). Another is the case of the woman from Takoah sent to King David by his general Yoav to plead for the return of the king’s son, Absalom (2 Samuel ch.14).

There are a number of similarities between the stories of Esther and that of Bath Sheba.  Adoniyah is proclaiming himself heir and king and Bath Sheba needs to make David remember the promise he had made her that her son Solomon would succeed him on the throne.  Nathan the prophet sends Bath Sheba to David and supports her plea:

"Now David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he got no heat.  Wherefore the servants said to him: ‘let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin; and let her stand before the king… so they sought for a fair damsel throughout the coasts of Israel and found Abishag the Shunamite, and brought her to the king… Then Adoniyah, the son of Haggith, exalted himself, saying ‘I will be king’… And Adonyah slew sheep and oxen and fat cattle by the stone of Zoheleth, which is by Enrogel and called all his brethren, the king’s sons and all the men of Judah, the king’s servants. But Nathan the prophet and Benaiah and the mighty men and Solomon his brother, he called not.  Wherefore Nathan spoke to Bath-Sheba the mother of Solomon, saying… Go and get thee unto king David and say to him ‘Did you not, my lord king, swear to your handmaid saying, surely Solomon your son shall reign after me and he shall sit on my throne.  Why then does Adonyah reign?’… And Bath Sheba went to the king… And Bath Sheba bowed down and did obeisance to the king.  And the king said ‘What wouldst thou?’

The parallels are clear.  In each story there is a king, a queen who needs to ask a most important favour of the king, a wicked character, - Haman and Adoniyah – whose desire for power endangers the people’s future, and a wise adviser – Mordechai and the prophet Nathan – who suggests to the queen that she go to the king and beg for his help, so that the people can be saved from the evil or the wrong that is about to happen.  The women in each story face risks in their initiative – Esther has not been called to the King for thirty days and no one goes to the king without being called; Bath Sheba risks a refusal and if Adoniyah becomes king, is most likely to lose her life.

As Rav Duvdevani pointed out, the differences between the two women teach us the messages the two texts convey.  The episode with Bath Sheba, as indeed the one of the woman from Tekoah, is there as an episode in the life of king David.  In the case of Esther, the text shows the episode of her approach to king Ahasuerus as a turning point in the story and in Esther’s life.  Until that point, the fortunes of Haman have been in the ascent and the plight of the Jews ever more dire.  In the ‘miracle’ of Purim whereby all this is reversed, the fate of the Jews of Persia is given into the hands of Esther.  At the beginning of the story, when Esther simply does as Mordechai tells her, the young girl would not have been equal to the task.  Now she has understood the gravity of the situation and has taken the decision to make her request in spite of the risk involved: Esther ch. 4, 16 "Go gather together all the Jews present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, day and night; I also and my maidens will fast likewise and so I will go the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish (u ka asher avadeti avadeti)".  And now it is Mordechai who does as Esther commands: "So Mordechai… did according to all that Esther had commanded him".  Esther’s willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of the people allows the reader to see the change of Ahasuerus’s decree not simply as an event, but as deserving of the seemingly hidden help of the Almighty to save the Jews from persecution.