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Esther and Mordechai: First Cousins? Or Uncle and Niece?

There is a widespread erroneous belief that Esther and Mordechai were uncle and niece. Where does this belief come from?

Before we discuss the earliest sources for this belief, it is interesting to point out that this belief is assumed in at least two important works from modern times:

1) Louis Ginzberg, “Legends of the Jews” (multivolume work, 1909-38):

See volume IV, page 384: “In Hebrew it means ‘she who conceals,’ a fitting name for the niece of Mordechai … She herself had been kept concealed for years in the house of her uncle … ”

See volume IV, page 388, “At the advice of her uncle … ”

See also volume IV, page 387

2) Loeb Classical library edition of Josephus, commentary by Ralph Marcus: “rabbinic tradition, like Josephus, makes her his niece.” See Marcus’ comments to Antiquities 9:198. Marcus does not provide any source.

Many Jewish people in our times have surely been misled by the above two sources!

Also, the Catholic Encyclopedia, 5:556, gives the relationship as “uncle (or cousin).”

Now, let us discuss the two relevant verses in the book of Esther. At 2:7 Esther is described as “bat dodo” to Mordechai and at 2:15, Esther is described as the daughter of Avichayil, who is “dod” to Mordechai. As I will explain below, when used in the context of a family relationship, “dod” means “uncle” in Biblical Hebrew. So, we have two verses that clearly indicate that the relationship was one of first cousins. So, where does the “uncle-niece” idea come from?

The earliest source for this idea is Josephus, writing at the end of the first-century: “Now among the many who were gathered together, there was found in Babylon a girl who had lost both parents and was being brought up in the home of her uncle (θεῖος), his name being ‘Mordechai.’” See his Antiquities, 11:198. (Josephus assumes Esther was taken from Babylon, based on 2:5, which mentions an exile by Nevuchadnezzar. The destination was not stated in the verse.)

The “uncle-niece” idea is later found in the Latin translation of Tanach by the church father, Jerome (“the Vulgate”), composed in a monastery near Bethlehem, during the years 390-405 CE. It is found in his translation of 2:7 and 2:15.

The Vulgate was a translation into Latin that Jerome made, translating from the original Hebrew. (Jerome was unique in that he was a church father who knew Hebrew.) He claims that his translation was faithful to the Hebrew, but that is not always the case. At the Council of Trent in 1546, the Vulgate was declared to be the authentic Bible of the Catholic church.

Prior to Jerome, there was a translation known as the “Old Latin” translation, which was based on an older—now lost—Greek translation. The “uncle-niece” idea is found in some versions of this “Old Latin” translation. But according to the latest scholarship, it does not seem that it was in the original version of this “Old Latin” translation, which dates to 330-350 CE. See “Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 2019,” 28 (4), pages 267-89. (Perhaps, it entered later versions based on what was found in the Vulgate.)

Note that the “uncle-niece” idea is not found in the main Greek translation of Esther, the Septuagint, which dates to around 100 BCE. Nor is it found in the other main early Greek translation of Esther known to us (the “A-text”). The “uncle-niece” idea is also found in the Targum Rishon to Esther 7:6. But—in the earlier sections of this same work—at 2:7 and 2:15, the relationship is given as first cousin. The date of the Targum Rishon has been estimated to be the sixth to eighth centuries.

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Could Josephus and Jerome have been basing themselves on a midrash that is now lost? Such a midrash might have had a looser interpretation of the word דוד. Scholars, sometimes, suggest that an unusual statement by Josephus is based on a midrash that we do not have. (Josephus grew up among the first-century (CE) sages in Jerusalem.) The church father, Jerome, sometimes explicitly refers to Jewish traditions that we do not have. He was taught by Jews in Eretz Yisrael. (For some references to lost Jewish traditions in Jerome, see Jay Braverman, “Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel,” 1978.)

Let us now discuss the word דוד in Biblical Hebrew. It has two meanings. It often means “beloved.” But many times, it means “uncle.” (Even-Shoshan’s concordance, at page 258, counts 19 such times. But some can be questioned, see below.) In Aramaic, חביבא means both “beloved” and “uncle.” See Jastrow, page 418. Most likely, the “uncle” meaning is a later expansion from the “beloved” meaning, due to the important role played by the uncle as provider and helper in the family. See “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament,” volume 3, page 148. Another factor may have been that uncle-niece marriages were common.

Several times, when we can tell that the meaning is not “beloved,” there is still not enough data in the context to establish that “uncle” is the meaning. For example, the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon mentions two occasions where “kinsman” has been suggested instead of “uncle:” Amos 6:10 and Chronicles 1, 27:32. (These had been included on Even-Shoshan’s list of 19.) Soncino comments on the latter verse: “Possibly the word ‘dod’ is used loosely for a near relative.”

It is, at least, theoretically possible that the fact that Mordechai raised Esther as his daughter could have motivated a midrash to turn Mordechai and Esther into uncle and niece. The midrash could then have interpreted the two דוד words at 2:7 and 2:15 as “kinsman” or “brother.”

Admittedly, these would have been far from plain sense readings. Why would the verses use the vague word דוד, when אח could have been used? But midrashim often adopt readings that are from plain sense when motivated by some other purpose. (We can all think of examples. My favorite is Ezra 6:14 which clearly speaks of three different Persian kings. Yet, one midrashic statement reduces them to two and another reduces them to one. My first book—published in 1997—which was my MA paper at Revel, is partially about this problem!)

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Now, a few thoughts on the etymology of דוד (“beloved”):

It is possible that it is an onomatopoeic word which arose out of repetition of “da.” Words of kinship often have repetition. This occurs in many languages, e.g., “mama,” and “papa.”

Another idea is that it derives from a verbal root ידד which means “to love.” See, e.g., Mandelkern, page 457, and Brown-Driver-Briggs, page 391.

A possible relation with the דד word which appears at Mishlei 5:19 and at three occasions in Ezekiel, chapter 23 also needs to be considered. (I am not going to elaborate further on this!)

The Biblical name “David” also, probably, derives from our root. See the post at balashon.com on “dod” of 9/12/08.

“Dudaim” (mandrake flowers, Genesis 30:14 and elsewhere) are called by this name because it was believed that drinking a potion with them induced love and desire for their wives.

———

I would like to acknowledge the articles by Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky (Jewish Action, Summer 2001), Professor B. Barry Levy (thetorah.com, March 2016), and Rabbi Joshua Waxman (parshablog, November 2006) for providing much of the above material.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His uncle is Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a world-renowned speaker and author, who has been teaching at Yeshiva University for decades.

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