Friday, November 17, 2006

Was Mordechai Esther's Uncle? Or First Cousin?

The popular conception is that he is her uncle. Yet this appears at first glance to be contradicted explicitly by two pesukim. In Esther 2:7:

ז וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת. 7 And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.
and a bit later in Esther 2:15:
טו וּבְהַגִּיעַ תֹּר-אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-אֲבִיחַיִל דֹּד מָרְדֳּכַי אֲשֶׁר לָקַח-לוֹ לְבַת לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ, לֹא בִקְשָׁה דָּבָר--כִּי אִם אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר הֵגַי סְרִיס-הַמֶּלֶךְ, שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים; וַתְּהִי אֶסְתֵּר נֹשֵׂאת חֵן, בְּעֵינֵי כָּל-רֹאֶיהָ. 15 Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her for his daughter, was come to go in unto the king, she required nothing but what Hegai the king's chamberlain, the keeper of the women, appointed. And Esther obtained favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her.
As Dr. Ari Zivotofsky explains quite nicely in this essay, the sources that claim she was was his niece are:
a) Josephus who states this explicitly as their sole relation
b) Targum Rishon to Esther 7:6 where she speaks of Mordechai my father's brother (though by these two aforementioned pesukim Targum Rishon gives the relationship of first cousins)
c) "the 3rd-5th century Latin translation (Vetus Latina) and the Vulgate (dating to 390-405 C.E.). The Vulgate, chapter 2, verse 7, says that Mordecai raised the daughter of his brother (fratis), and in the same chapter, verse 15, Esther is identified as the daughter of Abihail, Mordecai’s brother."

In his essay, he considers the Vulgate to be based on an error, perhaps from the Septuagint.

However, we must also consider the possibility that this was no accident but deliberate. Joesphus often makes use of midrashic material, and perhaps he was basing himself on a midrash unknown to us, which the Targum Rishon was also citing.

Which brings us to the following question: Do the pesukim actually contradict the suggestion that Mordechai was Esther's uncle? I would say: Not at all.

A general rule: If you see a midrash (though this is not necessarily a midrash) which is contradicted by a pasuk, this does not mean that whoever framed the midrash was unaware of the pasuk. It is quite possible that the midrashist read that very pasuk and had his own midrashic interpretation of it, and that is the very basis for his midrash. This is the point I made a while back to a question R' Gil Student had.

Does the pasuk state that Esther was the daughter of Mordechai's uncle? No. It states that Esther was the daughter of Mordechai's dod.

What is a dod? Vulgate and the Latin translation, and apparently Josephus or Josephus' basis, translate it as brother. Meanwhile, King James Version of the Bible translates it uncle. Can we really ask based on translations into English?

But in general, we know that dod means uncle! Yes, but how do we know this? It is true that at the beginning of sefer Bereishit, there is a list of words and their definitions in English?! Of course not! Rather, we try using etymology and try to get a sense by how it is used in various contexts in Tanach.

Dod means friend, or beloved, and was applied to close relatives, namely aunt (doda) and uncle (dod). But we know this from verses which use these words to have this meaning.

But what if I could show you a pasuk where dod means brother rather than uncle? Let us contrast 2 Kings 24:17 with 2 Chronicles 36:10.

In 2 Kings 24:17:

יז וַיַּמְלֵךְ מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל אֶת-מַתַּנְיָה דֹדוֹ, תַּחְתָּיו; וַיַּסֵּב אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, צִדְקִיָּהוּ. {פ} 17 And the king of Babylon made Mattaniah his father's brother king in his stead, and changed his name to Zedekiah. {P}
In context, it would seem that Zedekiah was Jehoiachin's uncle.

Meanwhile, in 2 Chronicles 36:10:
י וְלִתְשׁוּבַת הַשָּׁנָה, שָׁלַח הַמֶּלֶךְ נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר, וַיְבִאֵהוּ בָבֶלָה, עִם-כְּלֵי חֶמְדַּת בֵּית-יְהוָה; וַיַּמְלֵךְ אֶת-צִדְקִיָּהוּ אָחִיו, עַל-יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם. {פ} 10 And at the return of the year king Nebuchadnezzar sent, and brought him to Babylon, with the goodly vessels of the house of the LORD, and made Zedekiah his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem. {P}
In this verse, Zedekiah is Jehoiachin's brother.

Now, there are various ways of resolving this. For example, perhaps two were appointed, a brother and an uncle. Thus, in 1 Chronicles 3:15-16:
טו וּבְנֵי, יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ--הַבְּכוֹר יוֹחָנָן, הַשֵּׁנִי יְהוֹיָקִים; הַשְּׁלִשִׁי, צִדְקִיָּהוּ, הָרְבִיעִי, שַׁלּוּם. 15 And the sons of Josiah: the firstborn Johanan, the second Jehoiakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Shallum.
טז וּבְנֵי, יְהוֹיָקִים--יְכָנְיָה בְנוֹ, צִדְקִיָּה בְנוֹ. 16 And the sons of Jehoiakim: Jeconiah his son, Zedekiah his son.
Though there are many ways of parsing this, and I don't want to get into it here. Alternatively, אָחִיו means uncle, just as Lot is both described both as achiv and ben achiv to Avraham.

One final possibility is that dodo in וַיַּמְלֵךְ מֶלֶךְ-בָּבֶל אֶת-מַתַּנְיָה דֹדוֹ, תַּחְתָּיו means his brother, not his uncle. The way we know meanings of words is by context, and here we see dodo in one place paralleling achiv in another place.

Especially given that {Update: brain-slip! I meant to say: Now, we only} know of Zedekiah son of Josiah (not son of Johoaikim) as king from, e.g. Jeremiah 37:1. This would mean that Zedekiah must be the uncle, and dodo means uncle. Unless, we say benei banim harei hem kevanim, so a grandson can be called a son.

However, as said above, we can just say that dod in this case means brother.

And this meaning of dodo may well be the basis of the translation in the Vulgate and in the Latin translation, and the basis of the midrash which may have serves as a basis for Josephus and the Targum Rishon.

And so, we need not say that this is a mistake, so much as a dispute. We may choose to disagree with this translation, of course, and many sources in fact do.

Update: Besides the update above fixing my slip regarding Zedekiah as son of Josiah, I also intend, bli neder, to check what the Vulgate has for other instances of dod.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting! How many other times is "dod" used in tanach? Certainly in Shir HaShirim it means neither uncle nor brother, but friend. Are there other places where it clearly means uncle?

joshwaxman said...

I don't know offhand. I'd have to check a concordance. One famous one that comes to mind is Yocheved the aunt (dodato) of Amram whom he married. However, I've spoken in the past about a midrashic reinterpretation of that one.

I'll see what my concordance says.

nachman levine said...

ֹOf course, the cool part about Ester being בַּת אֲבִיחַיִל דֹּד מָרְדֳּכַיand בַּת דֹּדו is that they are thus both descended from Shaul, so that as she becomes queen

לא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מֽוֹלַדְתָּהּ כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר לא תַגִּיד
and אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת מֽוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת עַמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ מָרְדֳּכָי

which plays off and reverses Shaul in Shmuel Alef (9:15-16) who does not tell his uncle he has become king -because Shmuel told him not to.

וַיּאמֶר דּוֹד שָׁאוּל הַגִּידָה נָּא לִי מָה אָמַר לָכֶם שְׁמוּאֵל
וַיּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל דּוֹדוֹ הַגֵּד הִגִּיד לָנוּ כִּי נִמְצְאוּ הָֽאֲתֹנוֹת וְאֶת דְּבַר הַמְּלוּכָה לא הִגִּיד לוֹ אֲשֶׁר אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל

The joke over there of course is that Shaul doesn’t tell (לא הִגִּיד) his uncle he has been annointed as the נָגִיד (9:15, 13:1).
Nachman Levine

In the Midrash, Mordechai tells Esther not to tell she is descended from Shaul HaMelech

Anonymous said...

I read this post with interest, but still fail to see why there is any doubt as to the meaning of the word "dod." it is hardly ambiguous and there is no suggestion anywhere that I can find that dod mean any familial relationship other than uncle. In some languages, eg aramaic, there is no word for uncle and thus targum is forced to translate it as the 2 words: father's brother. this is what can lead to the error that I suggest if the word father's were accidentaly skipped over.
furthermore, there is no midrash that I am aware of that suggests an uncle-niece relationship. A midrash can explain or add to pshat, such as saying that Mordechai and Esther were also married, but it cannot contradict a pasuk.
it thus seems to me that your thesis is a forced attempt to maintain a misconception that many of us have since childhood, rather simply reading the psukim as stated.
Ari Zivotofsky

joshwaxman said...

perhaps it is a bit forced. but my point is that interpretation may sometimes be viewed as contradiction. perhaps in this case it was not an interpretation, but it still is something to consider. thus, in more extreme cases, I have seen people state that the midrash that Bat Pharaoh's hand extended to take Moshe contradicts the explicit pasuk that states that she sent her maidservant, rather than stating that the midrash interprets "Amata" differently.

the same "error" appears to crop up in distinct sources, with no borrowing. that is, we need say that two words would have been used in each of these sources, and in each case in error, the same word was skipped over. this is possible, but less likely than a single error.

Can we really say this for the Latin Vulgate? In two instances of translating "dod," we have "patruus." We do have "filius patrui," so I can see it.

I can see this for Tg in Esther, where the translation of דוד is אחבוי, which is a contraction of אחי אבוי, and we can simply say that the ב was accidentally omitted.

I can also see other possibilities. For example, in pasuk 7, if dod means uncle, perhaps bat-dod is to be viewed as a unit reversing the direction, thus niece, rather than independently "the daughter of the uncle," but rather the quote unquote "daughter" in the uncle familial relationship. Much harder to say on a peshat level on pasuk 15, but perhaps forcible. And thus it can be interpretation rather than contradiction.

Also, midrashim need not be harmonious, and even if the midrashic Tg Rishon earlier stated the relationship as first-cousins, perhaps the later reference is drawing from an separate midrashic source, as you mention (reflecting a different tradition).

Tg Rishon, puts words into Esther's mouth not found explicitly in the text, so this is certainly would be considered a midrash.

There is also the strong possibility of scribal error, several times, but my general attitude is to take great care, for quite often people perceive even clear midrashim as contradicting a pasuk.

joshwaxman said...

also, חביב or חביבא is the Aramaic single word for uncle, which it could have used. Of course, one can argue that this still was not what it would have used but rather אחבוי or אחי אבוי.

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