Esther and Benjaminite Royalty: A Study in Inner-Biblical Allusion

By Berger, Yitzhak | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Esther and Benjaminite Royalty: A Study in Inner-Biblical Allusion


Berger, Yitzhak, Journal of Biblical Literature


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Allusions in the book of Esther to other biblical texts have long drawn the attention of readers. Scholars have catalogued highly suggestive links between the Esther story and a range of earlier material, most prominently the Joseph narrative in Genesis, the account of Saul's kingship in Samuel, several texts relating to Amalek, and two events that frame the book of Kings-Solomon's rise in the face of Adonijah's challenge (1 Kings 1) and the exile of Jehoiachin and his subsequent return to favor in Babylonia (2 Kings 24-25).1

In one form or another, most of these connections have been said to serve a particular ideological purpose: redeeming the Benjaminite line from its association with the inadequacies of Saul-particularly in fighting Amalek-and the unraveling of Saulide kingship in favor of David.2 In the Diaspora, leadership emerges not from the line of the rehabilitated Davidic king Jehoiachin. Rather, following the example of Joseph in the Egyptian exile, it arises in the form of non- Judeans, who offset the flaws of their tribesman Saul in the context of the continued struggle against the progeny of Amalek.3

This approach favors certain methodological assumptions that warrant explicit mention: (1) Allusions may be seen not only to contribute to meaning but also to provide the context for a central ideological objective. (2) In alluding to a wide array of texts, an author might link a single character to multiple earlier figures.4 (3) Multiple sets of parallels, even when distributed erratically through a narrative, may be designed to produce meaningful comparisons or contrasts. I have endorsed this kind of approach in two recent studies on the book of Ruth, embracing the view that the author sought to cast a favorable portrait of the Davidic ancestry, and interpreting several newly identified inner-biblical connections in line with this authorial goal.5 Indeed, the presence and meaningfulness of a complex web of allusions, I argued, become decidedly more probable if the putative allusions might be shown to complement one another in the service of one theme.6

With this in mind, I wish to make the case for a number of notable parallels between the books of Esther and Samuel that have not been identified in prior scholarship-parallels that enhance the argument that the author of Esther is fundamentally concerned with the reputation of Benjaminite leadership, and that yield new and important expansions of that argument. In doing so I shall make the following specific claims: (1) Queen Esther-and not Mordechai as commonly thought-is tightly linked to Saul.7 It will be seen that Esther's selection for royalty shows striking parallels to that of Saul, and that, in the context of the struggle against Amalek, her success in overcoming the drawbacks of a reticent personality offsets the pivotal failure of Saul to do the same.8 (2) The initiatives taken by Esther and the Jews, to an even greater extent than has been appreciated, stand as reactions to unfavorable depictions of Saul; and, in the process, they counteract a running theme of Davidic moral superiority in the realm of justice and retribution.9 In this connection, I will argue that key events in Esther show contrasts to Saul's vindictiveness at the New Moon feast (1 Samuel 20), as well as to the demise and impalement of Saul and his progeny that punctuate the fall of his kingship. Additionally, I will argue that the themes of reversal and retribution in Esther-and some key terminology that underscores them-call attention to a small group of contexts where David displays vengeance against fellow Israelites, specifically the stories of Nabal (1 Samuel 25) and of the transfer of kingship to Solomon (1 Kings 1-2). In this way, the revenge taken by Benjaminites against the enemies of the Jews in Esther stands in favorable contrast to the deeds of David, whose qualities in this respect are otherwise portrayed in Samuel as exemplary-at the expense of the character of Saul. …

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