The Second Targum of Esther

“Targum” means “translation”, and often specifically a “Translation into Aramaic.” As Hebrew died in the centuries after Christ, Jews faced a dilemma: how could the liturgy (written in Hebrew) be used, while still allowing the congregation (which by now understood Aramaic but not Hebrew) to understand what was going on? The solution was translations with commentary into Aramaic, allowing the full participation of the people while the religious service itself was conducted in Hebrew.

The “Second Targum of Esther” is thus one of at least two known translations of Esther into Aramaic. It was written in last days of the classical world, before the rise of Islam. Esther, like Tobit, is a comedy. Specifically, Esther is carnivalesque. The social order is turned upside down, and the Emperor’s quest to teach women their place ends with a woman (Esther) as chief law-giver for the Empire. This narrative is intact in the targum. But the details the “translator” has added, or removed, seem meaningful.

Overview of Changes in the Targum

The changes between Esther and the Second Targum of Esther are not as great as other examples of the “rewritten bible,” like between Genesis and the Book of Jubilees or the Book of Enoch. Because Esther was written before Christ, but Second Targum of Esther was written after, the Targum is changed in ways that are a response to Christianity. These include:

  1. A general de-centering of David.

All of the synoptic Gospels refer to Christ as the “Son of David”:

Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”
Matthew 21:9

Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Mark 10:48

And He said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is the Son of David?
Luke 20:41

Therefore the Targum instead emphasizes the kings before and after David. Targum (but not Esther) has an extended introduction focusing on the messianic wonder of King Solomon. Additionally, Targum (but not Esther) is explicit that the heroes Mordecai and Esther are descendants of King Saul, who David displaced.

  1. Other Responses to Christianity

The villain Haman is expanded in the Second Targum. There is an offensive joke at the expense of Christ near the end of his life. Yet, his ancestry is given to include the persecutors of Christ Pilate and Herod. Additionally, there is a minor change in the description of the length of Esther’s fast, which appears to be aimed at removing Christian use of Hosea’s prophecy of Christ.

  1. Audience-Specific Changes

Last, there are changes which seem to be aimed at the general sensibility of the audience. The King’s party is more scandalous, and something that is arguably hinted at in Esther is made explicit in Targum. And the ending seems to give Mordecai a larger role than Esther, which takes away from the comedy of the work but fits a more conservative, and declining, Jewish society in the centuries between Christ and Muhammad.

Decentering David

King David is not mentioned in the book of Esther. Nor is his predecessor, King Saul, nor his successor, King Solomon. But the “translator” of Esther into the Second Targum of Esther nonetheless makes time to center King Solomon as a the greatest Jewish king of the old kingdom (a position Christians normally ascribe to David), as well as presenting Saul as the spiritual father of the righteous. These have the effect of de-centering the Hebrew Bible away from King David, to trivialize the Christian insistence of Christ as the rightful heir to David.

King Solomon

Esther begins with the King of the Babylonians:

Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia)…
Esther 1:1

The Targum starts similarly, but immediately diverts from the story…

And it came to pass in the days of Ahhashverosh, one of the ten kings’ who once ruled and are to rule the world in the future. And these are the ten kings. The first kingdom is that of the King of kings, the Lord of hosts, may it be speedily magnified upon us. The second is that of Nimrod, the third of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the fourth of Israel, the fifth of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the sixth of Ahhashverosh, the seventh of Greece, the eighth of Itome, the ninth of the King Messiah, the son of David, the tenth (again) of the King of kings, the Lord of hosts, may it be speedily revealed to us, and to all the inhabitants of the earth.”
The Second Targum of Esther, I

.. before beginning a length description of King Solomon.

In those days, when the king Ahhashverosh sat upon his throne, which was prepared for him in Shushan the capital. In those days, when the king Ahhashverosh sat upon his throne, which was prepared for him in Shushan the capital.
The Second Targum of Esther, II

The description of Solomon, as a historical king, appears to be patterned after that of Christ in the New Testament: His name is “God-is-with-me” (instead of Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us”), he rules the entire world, and both devils and nature obey him:

They called him Ethi-el, “God is with me,” because the Word of God was his assistance. And so it is written: “He was wiser than all men.” He was called Yaka (commander of obedience) because he was lord and ruler over all the kings of the earth, east and west. And so it is written: “Solomon sat upon the throne of his father David.” All the kingdoms feared him, nations and languages were obedient to him; devils, demons,’ and ferocious beasts, evil spirits and accidents, were delivered into his hands. Imps brought him all kinds of fish from the sea, and the fowls of heaven, together with the cattle and wild animals, came of their own accord to his slaughter-house to be slaughtered for his banquet. He was rich and powerful in the possession of much silver and gold. He explained parables, solved hidden problems, and made known mysteries without end. His enemies and adversaries became his friends, and all the kings obeyed him. All came to see his face, and longed to hear words of his knowledge. The High One elevated and exalted him for the sake of David His servant. His fame was spread among the kings, and his power among the wise. He was perfect and true, shunned evil, understood the mysteries of heaven, and was wise in divine things. His kingdom was more powerful than all the kingdoms, and his understanding was greater than that of all the children of Mahhol (the globe). They heard everywhere of his fame and of his wise sayings, and all came to salute him.
Second Targum of Esther, II

Solomon’s total knowledge of all systems of communication is interesting, because when similar attributes are given to Christ (as in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew), these are implied as evidence of not even being human. The Scriptural passage of Solomon speaking about trees, animals, and birds…

Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish.
1 Kings 4:33

is transformed by the Second Targum into Solomon speaking to the trees, animals, and birds:

When he opened his mouth, he spake like a trumpet the praise to the Most High King. To him was given a large key whereby to open the gates of wisdom and understanding of the heart. He understood the languages of birds and of animals, stags and rams ran at his command, lions and tigers seized weapons before him. He understood languages better than all nations, he instructed all schools, all kings and queens trembled before him. All rulers were seized with terror, to him was given the crown of victory, he subdued all men, he was the head of all kings, and (through his influence) no kingdom could take up weapons against another.” All kings shook before him, all countries revealed mysteries to him, so that he knew all the secrets of men; because he did works of righteousness and charity, he was from the beginning worthy to be king in this world, and he shall be worthy in the world to come.”
Second Targum of Esther, II

The Solomonic introduction creates a contrast, where Solomon (merry with wine) nonetheless uses his great observation to notice a single bird missing, and his great knowledge to interrogate the tardy avian:

And, further merry with wine, he commanded the wild beasts, the birds, the reptiles, the devils, demons, and spirits to be brought, that they should dance before him, to show his greatness to the kings who were staying with him. The royal scribes called them all by their names, and they came together with out being bound or forced, and without even a man leading them. At that time, the cock of the wood was missed among the fowls, and was not found. Then the king commanded in anger that he should appear before him, or else he would destroy him.
Second Targum of Esther, IV

From the bird Solomon learns of the Queen of Sheba, in an Edenic landscape:

Then the cock of the wood answered and said to King Solomon: “O lord of the earth, incline thine ears and hear my words. Are there not three months since thou hast put counsel in my heart and words of truth upon my tongue Since then I have not eaten any food, nor drank any water, and have flown all over the world and made an inspection. I thought, Is there a country or a kingdom which is not subject to my lord the king : Then I saw a certain country, the name of whose fortified town is Kitor,’ whose dust is more precious than gold, and where silver lies about like dung in the streets. Trees also are there standing from primeval times, and are watered from the garden of Eden. Great crowds of people are there from the garden of Eden, having crowns upon their heads, who know nothing of warfare, nor can they draw the bow. For, indeed, I have seen one woman who rules over them all, and her name is Queen of Saba.
Second Targum of Esther, IV

The next section is architypal in its description of light and water. The Queen of Sheba is the pinnacle of femininity, a beautiful woman worshiping the sea, and simply reading Solomon’s announcement causes the Queen of Sheba to tear off her clothes!

Toward morning the queen went out to worship the sea, when the birds obscured the sunlight, so that the queen out of astonishment took hold of her clothes and tore them in pieces.
Second Targum of Esther, IV

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s story ends, as a happy romance:

Thereupon he brought her into the tribunal’ (or an apartment) of the royal palace. Now, when the Queen of Saba saw his greatness and glory, she praised the Creator, and said: “Blessed be the Lord thy God, whom it has pleased to set thee upon the throne of the kingdom to do justice and right.” She then gave the king plenty of gold and silver, and he gave her what she desired.
Second Targum of Esther, IV

King Saul

This theme is extended in a second introduction, in which the Benjaminite connection to a previous victory by a righteous man is emphasized:

And when the enemies of Israel filled up the measure of their guilt (or when Israel were guilty), the prophet” Jeremiah uttered many prophecies to them; and as they did not listen to him, the Holy Spirit persuaded him, and led him away into the land of the tribe of Benjamin. Thus it is written:

“Then Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin.”

But so long as Jeremiah was in Jerusalem he prayed to the heavenly Father, and the city was not delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans, and they did not destroy it. But when he went into the land of Benjamin, then came up Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and destroyed the land of Israel, plundered the city of Jerusalem, and burned the temple with fire.
Second Targum of Esther, V

In Second Targum of Esther, but not Esther, Mordecai and Esther are themselves descendants of King Saul.

In Shushan the citadel there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been captured with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. And Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman was lovely and beautiful. When her father and mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
Esther 2:5-7

There lived a Jewish man in the capital Sushan, and his name was Mordecai. But why was he called a Jewish man? Because he feared to commit sin. Concerning him David prophesied when he said, “Shall there die on this day a man of Israel?” And from that man descended the man Mordecai, son of Yair, son of Shimei, son of Shmida, son of Banah, son of Elah, son of Micah, son of Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, son of Saul, son of Kish, son of Abiel, son of Zeor, son of Becorath, son of Aphia, son of Shehharim, son of Uziah, son of Sheshak, son of Mica, son of Elyael, son of Amihud, son of Shephatyah, son of Pethuel, son of Pithon, son of Malich, son of Yerubaal, son of Yeruhham, son of Hhanayah, son of Zabdi, son of Elpaal, son of Shimuri, son of Zecharyah, son of Merimoth, son of Hhushim, son of Shehhorab, son of Gazah, son of Azah, son of Gera, son of Bela, son of Benjamin, son of Jacob, who was also called Israel.
Second Targum of Esther, VII

It’s too bad this emphasis on Saul is done merely as an alternative to David, and not as a man. Saul perhaps is the closest approximation in the Hebrew Bible to a Greek tragic hero. So much was taken from him, even by his defenders.

Other Responses to Christianity

A Joke

Right before his death, the villain Haman has an odd speech in front of a tree:

So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s wrath subsided.
Esther 7:10

Then Haman saw that his words were not heeded, he lamented bitterly in the midst of the palace garden, and cried: “Harken unto me, ye trees and plants which I have planted of old, when I, the son of Hamdatha, wanted to go to the lecture room of Bar-Panthera! Assemble yourselves together and take counsel, if any of you has fifty cubits in height, upon it Haman’s head shall be hanged.”
Second Targum of Esther, X

This is a hidden, but pointed, joke at the expense of Christ. Yeshu ben Panthera is an encoded way of speaking of Jesus. The joke is that Haman wanted to follow Christ, and would not be following him in hanging on a tree.

The New Pilate

The antagonist of Esther is Haman, a court official who is hostile to the Jews. In the Scripture he is briefly introduced

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him.
Esther 3:1

The targum is more explicit on genealogy, even at the clear price of historical sense:

After these events, King Ahhashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdatha the Agagite, son of Stench, son of Robbery, son of Pilate, son of Lysius, son of Flous, son of Fadus, son of Flaccus, son of Antipater, son of Herod, son of Refuse, son of Decay, son of Parmashta, son of Vajastaha, son of Agag, son of the Red, son of Amalek, son of the concubine of Eliphaz, the eldest son of Esau.
Second Targum of Esther, VIII

The Third Day

A traditional Jewish criticism of Christianity is that the timeline of the burial of Christ does not amount to three full days. Rabbi Stuart Federow made the same critique in his contrast of Judaism and Christianity. Given the Christian importance of three days comes from Old Testament prophecy:

Come, and let us return to the Lord;
For He has torn, but He will heal us;
He has stricken, but He will bind us up.

After two days He will revive us;
On the third day He will raise us up,
That we may live in His sight.
Hosea 6:1-2

Yet Jewish thinkers have traditionally viewed “three days” the same way – the end of the first day, one full day, and the beginning of a third day. In Esther this occurs on the 14th, 15th, and 16th days of Nisan… the eve and first two days of Passover

Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”

So Mordecai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him…

Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house. So it was, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter.

And the king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you—up to half the kingdom!”

So Esther answered, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.”

Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, that he may do as Esther has said.” So the king and Haman went to the banquet that Esther had prepared.

Esther 4:15-5:5

The targum elides the detail of what fasting for three days means. The change removes the ability for Christians to state that Esther calculates time in the same way that the Gospel does. This is all the more remarkable because in most places the Second Targum of Esther has more detail than Esther, not less.

And it was on the third day, after Esther had three successive fasts, she arose from the earth where she was sitting, bowed down in dust and ashes, not having changed her raiment, and she put on royal apparel, which was embroidered with gold of Ophir, adorned herself with a fine silk dress wrought with diamonds and pearls that were brought from Africa,’ and put the golden crown upon her head, and shoes of pure refined gold upon her feet.
Second Targum of Esther, IX

Audience Specific Changes

The New scandal

The dramatic action in Esther begins with the Queen refusing to obey and order from the King. The nature of that order goes from “PG” in Esther:

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
Esther 1:10-12

to a hard “R” in The Second Targum of Esther:

On the seventh day, when the king and the hundred and twenty-seven crowned princes who were with him were merry with wine, a dispute arose among them about indecent things. The kings of the West said, Our women are the handsomest. The others said the same of their women. Ahhashverosh also took part in the dispute, and in his drunken freak said: “There are no more beautiful in the world than the Babylonian; but if you will not believe me, I shall send for the Babylonian wife which I have in the palace, and you shall see that she surpasses in beauty all your wives.” Immediately King Ahhashverosh sent seven eunuchs to the queen. He said: “Go and say to Queen Vashti: Arise from thy royal throne, strip thyself naked,” put the crown upon thy head, take a golden cup in thy right hand and another in thy left, and thus appear before me and the hundred and twenty-seven crowned kings, that they may see that thou art the fairest of all women.” She refused. Vashti answered to the seven eunuchs: “O shame. Go and tell your master, the fool you also are fools like him, I, Queen Washti, am the daughter of Babylonian kings of more ancient times. My ancestor Belshazzar drank as much wine as a thousand persons, and yet the wine never made him so silly as to utter such improper words as thou hast to me.” Then they went and told the king the reply of Queen Washti. And when he heard it, his anger was kindled, and he again sent the seven eunuchs, saying to them : “Go and say to her, If thou dost not hearken to me, and dost not appear before me and before these kings, I shall cause thee to be slain, and thy beauty will perish.” The nobles came to her with the message, and she did not honor them, but said: “Go and tell the foolish king, whose counsel is as much folly as his command is unjust, I am Queen Vashti, the daughter of Evil-Merodach and granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Ever since I was born no man has seen my body except thou alone, and if I now appear before thee and before the hundred and twenty-seven crowned kings, the end will be, they will slay thee and marry me.” Now a noble Persian lady said to Queen Vashti: “Even if the king should kill thee, and cause thy beauty to perish, thou must by no means dishonor the name of thy ancestors, and thou must not show thy body to any man, except to the king alone.” At the same time the nobles told the king that Vashti refused to obey the command which he sent to her by the eunuchs, and his wrath quite overpowered him.
Second Targum of Esther, VI

The New Ending

The endings of both the Second Targum of Esther and Esther are similar, but the targum is wordier.

The joke of the story is that the foreign king, who tried to teach women their place, has now placed a woman with full authority to write laws:

Then Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter about Purim.
Esther 9:29

I don’t know if the use of “and” instead of “with” in the Targum downplays Esther’s work, or is just an imprecise way of translating the Hebrew word wa:

Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihhail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote with all authority, to confirm for the second time the ordinance of Purim ; and they ordained that in a leap year the scroll (of Esther) should not be read in the first, but in the second Adar.
Second Targum of Esther, XI

Both text’s end with Mordecai the Jew – this Hebrew with a non-Hebrew name – as respected among the foreigners:

For Mordecai the Jew was viceroy of King Ahhashverosh, president and elder among the Jews, and supreme over all the nations. His fame was from one end of the world to the other. All kings were afraid of him, and trembled when they saw him. This is that Mordecai who is like the star Noga that glitters among the stars, and like the dawn of the morning. He was the Master of the Jews, who had pleasure in the greatness of his brethren, who sought the good of his people, and spoke peace to all his seed.
Second Targum of Esther, XI

The Biblical text is similar, but more concise:

For Mordecai the Jew was second to King Ahasuerus, and was great among the Jews and well received by the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his countrymen.
Esther 10:1-3

Final Thoughts

The Second Targum of Esther is a dramatization of the already comic story of Esther, written for a Jewish audience in an increasingly Christian world. The text de-centers David in favor of Saul and Solomon, reducing the impact of the Christian claim to follow the “son of David.” There are other responses to Christianity in the text, from a hurtful joke to removal of material that supported the Gospel’s reckoning of a “third day.” The generally fun translation also modifies some material for a general audience, including a racier party and a more male-dominated conclusion.

Especially alongside The Book of Jubilees and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, The Second Targum of Esther is a window to the Qur’an. It shows how the rewritten Bible was a popular genre, encompassing the totality of the Biblical text, and how the Scriptures were used and modified for entertainment and instruction.

I read “The Second Targum of Esther” as included in An Explanatory Commentary on Esther, with Four Appendices, consisting of The Second Targum Translated from the Aramaic with Notes, Mithra,, the Winged Bulls of Persepolis, and Zoroaster, by Paul Cassel, translated by Rev., Aaron Bernstein, in the Google Play Books edition.

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