This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Esther and the Essenes*

One of the many riddles that have been posed by the Dead Sea Scrolls has been the apparent absence of any complete or partial copy of the Book of Esther. The thousands of fragments in that ancient library include the oldest known texts of the Hebrew Bible, some of them (like a scroll of Isaiah) in relatively complete form, but most of them in tiny shreds and crumbs.

Only Esther is missing.

As long as a large proportion of the scrolls remained unclassified and unpublished, it was possible to argue that the anomaly was only temporary, and that Esther fragments would eventually surface among newly identified texts. However, in recent years, as the pace of publication has accelerated, the situation has not changed, and we are no closer than ever to a solution.

Unable to discover actual texts of Esther, the experts scurried to find indirect hints that the book was known and studied by the Essenes, the sect who are widely believed to have written or preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, one scholar examined the work known as the "Genesis Apocryphon," an Aramaic expansion of the lives of the Hebrew Patriarchs, and noted some similarities between its account of Sarah's sojourn in Pharaoh's palace and the Scriptural story of Esther's exploits in the court of Ahasuerus. Unfortunately, the alleged similarities were quite tenuous, and were based on a reconstruction of the original Hebrew from translations.

An apparent turning point in the discussion came in 1992 with the initial publication of a poorly preserved Aramaic text. The text's editor, J. T. Milik, was struck by remarkable similarities between certain expressions in this newly discovered work and the language and themes of Esther.

To cite some of the more salient parallels: The Qumran document relates events that took place in the Persian imperial court. King Darius is mentioned, evidently as the father of the currently reigning monarch. If the reference is to the first king to bear that name, then that would make him the father of Xerxes, who was the Ahasuerus of the Bible.

In Milik's text, as in Esther, is found an episode involving the reading before the king of a royal chronicle that speaks of the loyalty of one of the protagonists in his service of the king.

Individual phrases in the Qumran document also bear resemblances to expressions that occur in the book of Esther. "The fear of the house of the scribe fell upon him" sounds like the Esther 8:17: "the fear of the Jews fell upon them." More significantly, one of the characters identifies himself as "a man of Judah, one of the leaders of Benjam[in...] an exile," a formula that distinctly evokes the Bible's description of Mordecai as "a man of Judah, ... a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity."

Unfortunately, no actual names from the Esther story appear in the Qumran text, a fact that caused immense frustration to the editors. Prof. Milik, in his determination to establish a connection with Esther, was not above forcibly inserting appropriate names into his text. Thus, a single surviving alef in a torn passage provided him with sufficient grounds for completing the word as "Esther." In another place, a yod was read as the first letter of Jair, Mordecai's father. One of the antagonists in the Dead Sea fragment was apparently named "Hama," and Milik could not resist the temptation to equate him with the Biblical Haman. However, since Hama was spelled with a Hebrew het and Haman with a he, it became necessary to hypothesize that our Biblical text was based on a second-hand Greek translation! In a similar spirit, a word that should apparently be read as saretah, meaning a princess, was identifed by Milik as Haman's wife Zeresh.

I believe that these examples should suffice to indicate the lengths to which people were ready to go in order to find Esther at Qumran.

Several other scholars, well aware of the critical divergences between Esther and Milik's Dead Sea document, were content to lump them together with works such as Daniel or the Joseph story in Genesis, as instances of a more general "Jewish courtier in a foreign court" genre. Some, however, went so far as to claim that the Qumran fragment preserves the original "proto-Esther" out of which our beloved Biblical book evolved!

In reality, the Qumran text is most conspicuous for the number of names that it does contain that have no parallel in Esther at all. Most of these exotic names have an authentic Persian flavour to them, such as Patireza, Bagoshe or Bagasraw.

More significantly, the main antagonist in the Qumran document is designated a "Cuthite," that is, a Samaritan. Samaritans are not mentioned at all in Esther, where the villain Haman is identified as an "Agagite" (from the royal dynasty of Amalek).

I think that it is precisely this last-mentioned detail that provides us with the key to understanding the Qumran text.

The Bible records an acrimonious dispute that arose when Jewish and Samaritan delegations pleaded their respective case before the Persian government. However, this dispute is described, not in Esther, but in the book of Ezra.

The Jews who returned from Babylonia to Zion, in response to Cyrus' proclamation, set to work rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, but under the reign of Xerxes they suffered a major setback. The hostile Samaritans issued a protest to the Persian governor, resulting in the suspension of construction for the duration of Xerxes' reign. The intrigues depicted in the Dead Sea document make much more sense when viewed against that background.

There is nevertheless an indirect connection to Esther. The two episodes occurred at the same time, and the same Xerxes-Ahasuerus was involved in both. This point was given special emphasis in the talmudic and midrashic traditions, where the postponement of the Temple's reconstruction occupied a central place in the rabbis' retelling of the Esther story. A popular legend identified "Shimshai the scribe," one of the leading instigators of the Samaritan opposition, as the son of the wicked Haman.

In spite of our scepticism regarding some of these scholarly arguments, there are enough Esther-like phrases scattered among the Dead Sea scrolls to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the Essenes were familiar with its contents. If this is true, then it only serves to heighten the mystery of its absence from the Qumran library.

Upon reflection, however, we can appreciate that the austere Essenes would have looked askance at many aspects of the Megillah. Taken at face value, Esther appears to be a disturbingly secular--or even profane--story, in which God's name is never invoked, and the salvation of the Jews is achieved through a combination of shrewd scheming, personal courage and coincidence. For the fatalistic folk at Qumran, who believed that human destiny is meticulously predetermined by the Almighty, this was not an acceptable message.

The folks at Qumran would also have been uneasy about the cosmopolitan ambience that pervades the Esther story. Not only do the Jews of Shushan mingle freely in the Persian court and partake in the (apparently non-kosher) feasting and drinking, but the heroine, with scarcely a thought about the halakhic implications, takes the unthinkable step of marrying the heathen monarch. This would have caused serious discomfort to the insular and xenophobic Essenes whose universe was neatly divided between the Children of Light (that is, themselves) and the Children of Darkness (everybody else).

Furthermore, The central role assigned to Esther in the Megillah would have grated on Essene sensibilities. Josephus Flavius reports that women were excluded from their community on account of their low opinion of female moral standards.

The folks at Qumran would also have been uneasy about the cosmopolitan ambience that pervades the Esther story. Not only do the Jews of Shushan mingle freely in the Persian court and partake in the (apparently non-kosher) feasting and drinking, but the heroine, with scarcely a thought about the halakhic implications, takes the unthinkable step of marrying the heathen monarch. This would have caused serious discomfort to the insular and xenophobic Essenes whose universe was neatly divided between the Children of Light (that is, themselves) and the Children of Darkness (everybody else).

Furthermore, The central role assigned to Esther in the Megillah would have grated on Essene sensibilities. Josephus Flavius reports that women were excluded from their community on account of their low opinion of female moral standards.

Under the circumstances, it might not really be so difficult to account for the absence of Esther from the Qumran library.

It is perfectly consistent with their general attitude that Esther should be heard ...but not Essene.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • JFPMarch 8, 2001, pp. 12-13.

  • Bibliography:
    • Ben-Dov, Jonathan. 1999. A Presumed Citation of Esther 3:7 in 4QDb. Dead Sea Discoveries 6:282:84.
    • Crawford, Sidnie White. 1996. Has Esther Been Found at Qumran? 4QProto-Esther and the Esther Corpus. Revue de Qumran 17:307-25.
    • De Troyer, Kristin. "Once More, the So-Called Esther Fragments of Cave 4." Revue de Qumran 19, no. 3 (2000): 401-422.
    • Eisenman, Robert H., and Michael Owen Wise. 1992. The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered. Shaftesbury: Element.
    • Finkel, J. 1961. The Author of the Genesis Apocryphon Knew the Book of Esther. In Essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Memory of E. L. Sukenik, edited by C. Rabin and Y. Yadin. Jerusalem: Hekhal Ha-Sefer.
    • Milik, J. T. 1992. Les Modèles Araméens du Livre d'Esther dans la Grotte 4 de Qumran. Revue de Qumran 15:321-406.
    • Talmon, Shemaryahu. 1995. Was the Book of Esther Known at Qumran? Dead Sea Discoveries 2 (249-68).