Rahab, Jeremiah, and the Story of Purim

V0034410 Rahab hangs the scarlet cord from her window. Autotype after Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Rahab hangs the scarlet cord from her window. Autotype after F.J. Shields, 1877. 1877 By: Frederick James ShieldsPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
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Shimon Lerner

The sages were well known for their ability to encode hidden messages in seemingly innocuous statements. A prime example appears in Megillah 14b. In the middle of a discussion of the book of Esther, the Talmud states:

Eight prophets of priestly origin were descendants of Rahab the harlot: Neriah, Barukh, Seraiah, Mahseiah, Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Hanamel, and Shallum.

Three sets of questions immediately arise from this statement. First, what, if anything, is the common denominator among these eight prophets? Were they all listed just because they appear to belong to the same family? What is their relation to Rahab, and how is that relevant to their prophecies? Second, why is this statement important at all? It seems to be a completely trivial assertion devoid of any meaning or message. Why do we need to know that this family of prophets shares a common ancestry emanating from Rahab? What message are the Sages trying to convey?

Third, what is the connection between this statement and its context in Tractate Megillah, which explores Purim and the book of Esther?

Answering these questions uncovers a surprising but profound message that goes to the very heart of the Purim story.

One common denominator between all of these eight prophets is that they appear in the book of Jeremiah. Looking at the themes of Jeremiah as a whole, one of the main messages that the prophet tries to convey is not to give up hope. Even in extremely difficult and trying times, we must place our complete trust and hope in God. God is Israel’s refuge and he will not forsake us.

The theme of not giving up hope clearly reverberates throughout Jeremiah. The foremost example is the famous prophecy in Jeremiah 17:

Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord, Whose trust is the Lord alone.

O Hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake You shall be put to shame, Those in the land who turn from You Shall be doomed men, For they have forsaken the Lord, The Fount of living waters. Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; Save me, and let me be saved; For You are my glory. See, they say to me: “Where is the prediction of the Lord? Let it come to pass!” But I have not evaded Being a shepherd in your service, Nor have I longed for the fatal day. You know the utterances of my lips, They were ever before You. Do not be a cause of dismay to me; You are my refuge in a day of calamity. (17:7; 13-17)

Another classic example appears in Jeremiah 31:

And there is hope for your future—declares the LORD: Your children shall return to their country. (31:16)

Many of our eight prophets are also mentioned in the context of hope. One is Seraiah, who is charged by Jeremiah to relate his prophecy (regarding the ultimate downfall of Babylon) to the Jews as they are exiled:

The instructions that the prophet Jeremiah gave to Seraiah son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, when the latter went with King Zedekiah of Judah to Babylonia, in the fourth year of [Zedekiah’s] reign. Seraiah was quartermaster. Jeremiah wrote down in one scroll all the disaster that would come upon Babylon, all these things that are written concerning Babylon. And Jeremiah said to Seraiah, “When you get to Babylon, see that you read out all these words. And say, ‘O Lord, You Yourself have declared concerning this place that it shall be cut off, without inhabitant, man or beast; that it shall be a desolation for all time.’ And when you finish reading this scroll, tie a stone to it and hurl it into the Euphrates.” (Jeremiah 51:59-63)

This is not the only time in the book of Jeremiah where we find a daring prophecy sealed and hidden away to resurface sometime in the future. The most striking example is known as the prophecy of the Court of the Guard (Jeremiah 32). Here Jeremiah is commanded to perform the symbolic act of purchasing a plot of land from his cousin Hanamel the son of Shallum, despite the fact the city is about to be conquered by the Chaldeans. The whole episode is meant as a public demonstration of trust and hope in God’s promise. As part of the act Jeremiah is commanded to place the deed of purchase in the hands of Barukh for safeguarding:

I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, and gave the deed to Barukh son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound. In their presence I charged Barukh as follows: Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Take these documents, this deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one, and put them into an earthen jar, so that they may last a long time.” (Jeremiah 32: 11-14)

Seven out of eight of the prophets mentioned (all except Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah) appear by name in these two stories alone. There is clearly a theme of patience and perseverance through difficult times, and safeguarding a prophesy of hope for a distant, better future.

Despite the fact that we do not know anything about the content of the prophecies of Hilkiah, Mahseiah, and Neriah,we can learn much about their character just by looking at their names. Names signify essence, and all three of these names conform to the same theme of trust and hope in God:

  • Hilkiah – God is my portion. This connects directly to the theme as clearly expressed in the words of Jeremiah himself, whom Hazal credit with authorship of Eikhah:

But this do I call to mind, Therefore I have hope.

“The Lord is my portion,” I say with full heart; Therefore will I hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who trust in Him, To the one who seeks Him; It is good to wait patiently Till rescue comes from the Lord.

Let him sit alone and be patient, When He has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth to the dust— There may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:21, 24-6, 28-9)

  • Mahseiah – God is my refuge. In many of the cases where hope and trust in God is mentioned, we also find the theme of God being a source of refuge. This was mentioned above (Jeremiah 17:17) and appears often in Psalms. Take, among others, Psalms 91 (verses 2 and 9), as well as Psalms 18 verses 3 and 31:

I will say of the Lord, my refuge and stronghold, my God, in whom I trust.

Because you took the Lord—my refuge, the Most High—as your haven.

O LORD, my crag, my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge, my shield, my mighty champion, my haven.

The way of God is perfect; the word of the LORD is pure; He is a shield to all who seek refuge in Him.

  • Neriah – God is my candle – the one who provides light in dark times. This expression also appears in Psalms 18 referring to one who puts their trust in God:

For Thou dost light my lamp; the Lord my God doth lighten my darkness. (18:29)

Even the name Jeremiah evokes images of hope and trust in God. The literal meaning of the name Jeremiah is “God will lift me up.” This calls to mind the first verse in Hannah’s prayer of thanks:

And Hannah prayed: My heart exults in the Lord; I have triumphed [ramah karni] through the Lord. I gloat over my enemies; I rejoice in Your deliverance. (I Samuel 2:1)

Additionally, it echoes verses of trust and hope from Psalms:

From the end of the earth I call to You; when my heart is faint, You lead me to a rock that is high above me [yarum]. For You have been my refuge, a tower of strength against the enemy. (61:3-4)

Finally, as mentioned above the name Barukh also comes up in these contexts. This name, which means “blessed,” brings to mind the verse, “Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord, Whose trust is the Lord alone.”

The combination of all three meanings, lifting up-blessing–protecting, also appears in the very same chapter of Psalms mentioned above.

The Lord lives! Blessed is my rock! Exalted [yarum] be God, my deliverer. (18:50)

All eight prophets thus connect to prophecies relating to the central theme of hope, be it through the direct content of their prophecies (Jeremiah), the active part which they take in the two stories of safeguarded prophecies (Barukh, Seraiah, Hanamel), their names being mentioned in these stories (Neriah, Mahseiah, Shallum), or just through the meaning of their names themselves (Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Neriah,  Barukh, Mahseiah).

The final incontrovertible proof that hope is indeed the common denominator comes from the continuation of the very same Gemara in Megillah 14b:

Rabbi Judah says, Huldah the prophetess was also a descendant of Rahab. It says here (in the book of Kings) “the son of Tikvah,” and it says there (in the book of Joshua), “thou shalt bind this line (tikvah) of scarlet thread.”

From this last sentence it is almost explicit that one of the key words in understanding the connection between the prophets is the word tikvah (hope). This keyword also helps us understand why it is that the Talmud traces the origin of these prophets specifically to Rahab. If we look in the story of Rahab one of the striking features that we see is the complete despair i.e. the total absence of all hope, amongst the nations of the land:

When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below. (Joshua 2:11)

Rahab was saved from this state of despair by turning to help the nation of God. Rahab learned that the source of all hope can only be found in God, and thus merited to bring forth a chain of prophets who would expound this virtue of hope and trust in God.

It is thus clear that we have found a common denominator, connecting these eight prophets to one another, to Huldah, and even to Rahab their ancestress. But why is this passage inserted in the Talmud in the middle of a discussion regarding the story of Esther? What is the connection between this and the story of Purim?

There is one more instance where the prophet Jeremiah mentions hope: the very prophecy that is the backdrop to our story at the outset of Megillat Esther:

For thus said the Lord: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor—to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29: 10)

This is the prophecy that had King Achashverosh worried (Megillah 11b). According to the sages, the very reason behind his party was his calculation that the seventy years had expired, but later on he was concerned about the lack of any indication of its immanent fulfillment.

The centrality of this prophecy of Jeremiah and its connection to Mordekhai is again underscored by yet another statement a few lines later, in the continuation of the same discussion in the Gemara:

Barukh the son of Neriah, Seraiah the son of Mahseiah, Daniel, Mordekhai, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malakhi all prophesied during the second year of Darius.(Megillah 15a)

What is so significant about the “second year of Darius?” Why is it significant that so many prophets were around at the time? Can it be merely of historical interest? And aren’t many of these prophets already past their primes? After all, it is long after the previous stories relating to Barukh and Seraiah, and even some years after the conclusion of the story of the Megillah.

This “second year of Darius” is precisely the seventieth year in which Jeremiah’s original prophecy is to come to complete fulfillment. It is then that the Jews are to resume the building of the Temple as urged by Haggai, Zechariah, and Malakhi. It is therefore extremely significant that Barukh, Seraiah, and Mordekhai are tied to this specific year as well, because, like Jeremiah, they too always had this exact endgame in mind in all of their prophecies, and their hope and trust in the Temples ultimate rebuilding was the impetus behind many of their actions.

Thirteen years earlier, while Ahashveirosh is out celebrating the apparent abandonment of Israel based on his calculation of the seventy years, Mordekhai knows the next verse in the original prophecy which relates to our theme of hope:

For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you—declares the Lord—plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

In other words, despite whatever you (Israel) may think and the appearance that I (God) am not concerned about your plight, in truth you must never lose hope.

This is the secret to Mordekhai’s strength. It is not in vain that he sits every day in front of the gates of the palace, ostensibly doing nothing. He knows for certain that the moment will come when he will be called to rise to action, and he is ready. Mordekhai’s royal blue, about which we sing in Shoshanat Ya’akov, is the very knowledge that:

“You [God] have been their eternal salvation, their hope in every generation.”

It is now clear what the Sages were trying to convey in the simple statement of the Gemara. There are in fact not one but two profound applications conveyed and hidden within.

The first relates to the immediate context of the Gemara. On the previous page (Megillah 14a), the Gemara quoted a source counting forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses. When clarifying the criteria necessary to be included in this list, the Gemara implies that only prophets whose prophecies are timeless and relevant for future generations can be counted. Why then were many of the above-mentioned prophets counted (Neriah, Barukh, Seraiah, Mahseiah, and even Huldah), despite the fact that we do not have any record of any prophecy from them which is still relevant to our own times?

The answer to this question is that these eight prophets, together with Huldah, imparted a legacy of hope. Since this legacy is indeed timeless, many of them are counted among the forty-eight plus seven prophets.

The second application of our Gemara relates to the Purim story. The lesson of Purim is to hold on and never lose hope. No matter where we are and what our circumstances indicate, we must, like Mordekhai, know for certain that “relief and salvation will arise for the Jews.” It may come “from another place,” and it may come in a long time; we may not even merit to see it with our own eyes. Nevertheless, eventually, come it will.

Shimon Lerner teaches physics at the JCT Lev Academic Center. He received his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the field of condensed matter physics, under the supervision of Professor Yuri Feldman. During his formative years he studied Torah under Rabbi Natan Bar Haim of JCT and under Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory. Residing in Jerusalem with his wife and children, he sees it as both a mission and a privilege to impart to his students the methods of critical scientific thinking.