Joseph and Esther: Life Among the Other and Assimilation
By Joyce Lee
The Bible is full of common themes, yet there one prominent underlying thread that runs constant throughout is that in order to be influential, people are placed in positions where they are able to assimilate to the common culture, but are still set apart from other ordinary people. Assimilation is defined as the process where a group adopts the customs of the prevailing culture, whereas consecration refers to someone who is set apart as sacred. Due to the apparently conflicting definitions, it seems as though the two cannot coexist with one another. In fact, they even appear to be paradoxical, however, both ingredients are necessary in order for people to influence the lives of many more. Conformity in culture and divine consecration are in reality exclusively dependent on each other for a person to be influential and this is displayed by two prime examples of the Old Testament: Joseph and Esther.
After Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and is introduced to its culture, he loses his Jewish identity and becomes completely transformed from a measly shepherd boy to an Egyptian official. When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream, the Pharaoh is pleased with him and Joseph is given a new name: “Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, as his wife. Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41.45). The fact that he is given a new forename has much significance because it implies his life’s specific calling. The people are given new names in the Bible because in this way, God reveals his intended purpose for their lives. Prior to the story of Joseph, this same alteration of names is seen in his forefathers, including Abram switching to Abraham; Sarai to Sarah; and Jacob to Israel. In each of these biblical characters, the change of names gives them a new sense of self. Joseph is also given an Egyptian wife, Potiphera. This intercultural marriage affirms that Joseph’s descendents will now become Egyptian not only by title, but by blood, furthering his identity as an Egyptian. An additional argument that supports his full assimilation is the tremendous authority that is given to him—the whole country of Egypt. Because he becomes the second highest ruler in the land, the remaining pieces of his Jewish identity are swept away. Even the language that he learns becomes so infused in him that he uses a translator, although he does not need one: “They did not know that Joseph understood them, since he spoke with them through an interpreter” (Genesis 42.23). One of the most major traits that show how much Joseph has assimilated to the Egyptian culture is found in the last sentence of Genesis: “And Joseph died… he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50.24). Embalmment was not a Jewish custom and Joseph requests that he does not be buried in Egypt. He wants his bones to instead be carried from Egypt back to where his forefathers were buried in, the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, but his wish is not granted.
Also seen in the Old Testament, Esther parallels Joseph by assimilating from being a passive commoner to a queen, the highest royal position for a woman. Her life entirely changes when she marries King Ahasuerus of Persia. She now respectively adapts to the Persian culture, which is demonstrated by the change of her dress: “Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace” (Esther 5.1). Her garb has conformed from being ordinary to model royalty. She also conforms to the people’s expectations by wearing the royal crown, the exact one that Vashti refused to wear for the king’s guests. She does everything to fulfill her expectations as Queen and as a Persian woman.
While it seems as though there is no difference between these two particular characters and the other citizens of their respective countries, Joseph and Esther are undoubtedly consecrated to fulfill a greater destiny. Joseph’s fate is to rule Egypt justly and to attribute his successes and his power to the God of Israel. He has known from a young age that he would be used in a mightily way that was revealed to him through prophetic dreams: “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf…Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Gen 37.7, 9). These dreams are what cause jealousy amidst Joseph’s brothers. After they sell him, Joseph continues to stand out while he works under Potiphar, as he is incarcerated in jail, and while he governs for the Pharaoh: “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39.3, 5). Joseph is not an ordinary man. He is anointed to glorify God by fulfilling his ultimate calling with his high status in Egypt.
Esther seems to be the female representation of Joseph in that she, too, is consecrated for an extraordinary responsibility. The readers’ first impression of Esther is one that portrays her as a passive, simple woman who is fortunate enough to become a queen through her loveliness, yet when the readers dig deeper into her portrait, this physical beauty sets her apart from all of the other hundreds of women that King Ahaseurus sees. Esther’s attractiveness that far surpasses that of the other women in the land catches the king’s attention because her beauty is almost that of deity: “The king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown n her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2.17). Although “God” is not deliberately mentioned in this book of the Bible, there are hidden implications that her beauty was God-given—the extremity of Esther’s physical splendor is shown to exceed humanly beauty. In the first chapter of Esther, it is mentioned that the king wanted to how off Queen Vashti’s beauty for “she was fair to behold” (Esther 1.11). Queen Vashti’s beauty seems insignificant compared to Queen Esther’s physical appearance. Correlated with this divine gift of good looks, she is set apart because of her identity as a Jewish woman. With her beauty, she receives the king’s favor and this consequently allows her to be the very instrument that is used to save the lives of her people from Haman. She is given the unique position of a high official and this privilege of being set apart for a high purpose is verbalized when Mordecai reminds her reason why she has been chosen to be queen: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews…Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4.13-14). As Joseph’s destiny was revealed to him in his dreams, Esther’s destiny is disclosed by the words of her relative.
The unique identity that both Joseph and Esther have is that they live amongst society, yet are not of it due to their given destiny. There were living contradictions that God chooses to use in a significant way. This principle that they lived out is so important, that it is even echoed in the New Testament with the teachings of Jesus. Centuries following the life of Joseph and Esther, this principle continues to resonate as Jesus commands: “Do not be conformed to this world… (Romans 12:2). You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15.19). Demonstrating these commands in their lives, it is unmistakable that Joseph and Esther would not have been the influential people that they became, if they had failed to possess either of the two qualities mentioned.
© Joyce Lee