The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 3

December 17, 2015 at 9:06 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Someone tries to kill Joseph twice in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. When he is seventeen, his jealous older brothers throw him into a pit, then sit down and discuss killing him. This fits the first of seven themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common: Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.  (see Part 1.)

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead of murdering him, but while he is a slave in Egypt a woman tries to get him executed for a different reason. This time, the theme is:

*  The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.  *

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

And it happened after these things, then the wife of his master raised her eyes to Joseph, and she said: Lie with me.  And he mei-ein, and he said to the wife of his master: Hey, having me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and everything that belongs to him he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in his house than I am, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, since you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and transgress against God? (Genesis/Bereishit 39:7-9)

mei-ein (מֵאֵן) = refused. (In Biblical Hebrew, this is not a polite demurral, but a stubborn refusal.)

For Joseph, an ethical transgressions is a transgression against God. He refuses, even though he knows it is dangerous to anger his master’s wife. But she keeps propositioning him day after day, until one day when the house is empty,

…she grabbed him by his garment, saying: Lie with me! But he abandoned his garment in her hand and he fled outside. (Genesis 39:12)

What difference does it make that the house is empty? Potifar’s wife seems unconcerned about whether they are caught in the act, since she propositions him many times when other people are nearby. But the lack of witnesses this time gives her an opportunity to get revenge and slander Joseph. She claims he tried to rape her, and left his garment behind when (she says) she screamed.

The few examples we have of ancient Egyptian law on sexual relations indicate that rape was punished by death (though the punishment might be commuted to exile in the case of a free foreigner). Potifar is the head of the royal executioners, and Joseph is his slave. But instead of arranging a summary execution, Potifar puts Joseph in the king’s prison indefinitely. He is alive, but stuck until God rescues him.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Pharaoh sends his chief cupbearer and chief baker to the prison (see Part 2),

and they said to him: a dream we dreamed, and there is no interpreter. Then Joseph said to them: Do not interpretations belong to God? Recount [your dreams] to me, please. (Genesis 40:8)

Inspired by God, Joseph reads the dreams as prophecies that the chief cupbearer will be restored to his post in three days, but the chief baker will be beheaded. This is exactly what happens.

When Pharaoh has two dreams that his magicians cannot interpret, the chief cupbearer tells him about Joseph, and God gives Joseph the correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams.  Joseph adds some advice on what to do about it, and Pharaoh elevates Joseph from imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt.

Thus God rescues Joseph from his punishment—presumably because he did the right thing by rejecting Potifar’s wife.

*

While Joseph escapes death twice, Daniel is threatened with death only once. In his case, resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero by using his well-known religious scruples against him, immediately bringing in the theme the hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

Daniel and three other boys are taken as captives from Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the city, and spend the rest of their lives in Babylon. Daniel becomes head of the king’s wise men and dream interpreters, and his friends, Shadrach, Meyshach, and Aveid-nego, become administrators of the province of Babylon. At one point, Daniel’s three friends are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and God prevents the flames from even singeing their hair. Daniel is not mentioned in the furnace story.

Many years later, when Persia conquers Babylon, Daniel is serving as one of three governors over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The new king (whom the story identifies sometimes as Cyrus, sometimes as Darius) considers promoting Daniel to viceroy over the entire Persian empire.

Only then do resentful rivals—other high government officials—conspire to kill the hero. They know that Daniel adheres to a kosher diet and prays three times a day, bowing down in the direction of Jerusalem. There are no laws against this, so they persuade the king to decree that anyone who petitions any god or man other than the king during the next 30 days shall be thrown into a lion’s den. (See Part 1.) It does not occur to the king that this decree will affect Daniel.

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. (Daniel, 6:11-12, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

As in the book of Esther, the Persian king cannot countermand his own decree, and he cannot find any way around it. Thus the resentful rivals succeed in having Daniel punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

By the king’s order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions’ den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, ‘Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you’.  (Daniel 6:17, JPS translation)

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

The king worries all night and rushes back at dawn to unseal the den.

Daniel then talked with the king, ‘O King, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions… Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. (Daniel 6:22-24, JPS translation)

God rescues Daniel from death because of his dedication to God, expressed in his thrice-daily prayers.

*

The book of Esther also combines the themes of resentful rivals and refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

The story has two heroes, the young and beautiful Esther, and her older cousin and guardian Mordecai. When Esther becomes a captive in the king’s harem, she follows her cousin’s instruction and pretends she is not Jewish.

Mordecai, however, incites jealousy in the king’s new viceroy, Haman, by disobeying a royal order to bow down whenever Haman passes through the palace gate. (See Part 1.)

And the royal servants who were in the gate of the king said to Mordecai: Why are you oveir the command of the king? And they spoke to him day after day and he did not listen to them. Then they told Haman, to see if the matter of Mordecai would stand, for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:3-4)

oveir  (עוֹוֵר) = crossing, going through.

The Bible does not say that Mordecai refused (mei-ein) the king’s command, but rather that he ploughed right across it as if it did not exist. When his fellow royal servants in the gate question him, he says he ignores the order to bow to Haman because he is a Jew.

Nothing in the Bible forbids Jews to bow down to human beings. Esther Rabbah (a collection of midrash from 500-1050 C.E.) claimed Haman must have sewn a picture of a god on his clothing, so Mordecai was really refusing to bow down to an image of an alien god. Other commentary suggests that Mordecai would not bow because Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (so identified in Esther 3:1), and the Torah calls for eternal enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites. But the text of Esther does not explain.

Mordecai never bows to Haman

Mordecai never bows to Haman

And Haman saw that Mordecai never knelt or bowed down to him, and Haman filled up with rage. And it seemed too contemptible in his eyes to send a hand against Mordecai alone, because they had told him the people of Mordecai, and Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews who were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh, all the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5-6)

Haman talks the king into issuing an irrevocable decree that on a certain date (the 13th of Adar, now the holiday of Purim) every province of the Persian Empire must kill all its Jews. Haman personally erects a tall stake on which to impale Mordecai.

Does God rescue Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia? Not really. Esther reveals that she and Mordecai are Jews, and Haman has arranged their death. She persuades the king to write a second decree (since the first one cannot be revoked) that on the 13th of Adar all Jews may strike down all their enemies, and on the big day nobody touches the Jews. The king impales Haman and promotes Mordecai to viceroy. But God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the book of Esther.

*

Joseph risks death for a moral principle, and God rescues him. Daniel risks death for the right to pray, and God rescues him. Mordecai risks death to make a point about being Jewish, and Esther rescues him.

What are your religious scruples?  Which ones would you refuse to cross, even at the risk of losing your job? Or even at the risk of death?

 

 

 

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  1. […] When he is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in the Torah Portion Mikeitz (see Part 3), he is still the Hebrew slave Joseph. When he leaves Pharaoh, he is the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat […]

  2. […] for the post of viceroy set him up so that he will be sealed overnight into a den of lions. (See Part 3.)  Daniel survives, thanks to a divine […]


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