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Questioning Esther 4:14

December 4, 2008

Esther 4:14 is a bit of a troublesome verse. Mordecai appears to threaten and then affirm Esther in the short space of one verse – making him play good cop and bad cop in rapid succession. However, an article by John Wiebe posits that there’s an unmarked question lurking in the text.

Most translations take a similar tack with the Esther 4:14, something along the line of the following:

For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal office for such a time as this.

The Hebrew of the verse reads:

כי אם החרש תחרישי בעת הזאת רוח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר ואת ובית אביך תאבדו ומי יודע אם לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות

There are two issues here. First, most interpreters take מקום אחר (“another place”) as being some kind of veiled reference to God. In later Talmudic texts המקום (“the place”) is used as a circumlocution for God. As such, some commentators want to make it one in Esther – a book conspicuously lacking any reference to the divine. But, wouldn’t that make the phrase מקום אחר (“another place”) actually something like “another God”? Even if not, such an understanding of מקום (“place”) creates a tension between the deliverance Mordecai asks Esther to bring and the deliverance that God might bring.

The second issue is what is going on in the phrase רוח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר. As noted above, it’s usually translated as “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.” Yet there are interpretative problems understanding this as a declaration. Understanding the phrase as a declaration works cross-purposes to the story as a whole. As noted above, this “other place” can’t be a veiled reference to divine intervention; and the only source for human deliverance in the story is Esther. It’s unimaginable that Mordecai is holding out home for some other human help.

Further, if it is a statement, why is Esther’s family being singled out for retribution? As it stands, we need almost to imagine roving pacts of angry villagers with pitchforks and torches hunting down her father’s house. It makes no sense.

Wiebe holds that the phrase should be understood as a rhetorical question: “will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place?” Unmarked questions appear with more frequency in later dialects of Hebrew. I encourage you to read his evidence, but I’ll quote his conclusion:

Now the Hebrew literary dialect of the Book of Esther is quite late, and so one would expect its style to conform more closely to that of late Hebrew or even of Mishnaic Hebrew than to that of classical Biblical Hebrew. Thus, although in earlier Hebrew texts an interrogative apodosis is almost always introduced with some kind of particle, such need not necessarily be the case with respect to a late Hebrew work such as Esther. If the context calls for it, such a clause could be rendered as a question. I would submit that taking the first apodosis of Esth 4:14a as an interrogative clause does indeed fit the overall context of the Book of Esther much better than the traditional rendering.

Taking Wiebe’s lead, a better translation of v.14 would be the following:

For if you keep silent at such a time as this, will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place? Indeed, you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal office for such a time as this.

While I can’t find any translators taking Wiebe’s suggestion, I think that his idea holds merit.

Bibliography:

John M Wiebe, “Esther 4:14: `Will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place’?” CBQ 53 (1991): 409-15.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2008 2:30 am

    I expect unmarked questions, if they contain a verb, to begin with the verb.

    I don’t have Wiebe’s article handy. Does he have convincing examples of unmarked questions with fronted subject?

    For the rest, I think it is possible that Mordecai is portrayed as having faith that God will bring relief to his people from another place, by another means, if not Esther. In any case, the language cannot be pressed. This is rhetoric. The threat of retaliatory annihilation “to you and your ancestral house” (God hovers in the background of this threat) should Esther prove cowardly is also a rhetorical flourish.

    The non-mention of God in a chapter with references to mourning, fasting, and crying out, BTW, may be a paradoxical expression of piety. After all, who the unnamed addressee of said activity is, is perfectly clear.

  2. December 8, 2008 11:08 am

    John,

    I’m not sure how you’d define “convincing examples,” but they worked for me. I encourage you to get a hold of a copy of the article, I’d be interested to see your take on his Rabbinic examples.

    As for God hovering in the back of the text, I really go back and forth. Are Esther and Mordecai trying to talk about God is a cryptic manner or is this just a function of how folks talked? Esther doesn’t keep Kosher and is shacking up with a foreign ruler. Similarly, the only thing that Mordecai does which warrants a Jewish label is refusal to bow before Haman (an action that can be interpreted in numerous ways).

    Obviously, the LXX text of Esther shows that I’m not the first to have these questions.

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