One of the benefits of the Jewish yearly scriptural reading cycle is that each time we read through a text we seem to always discover something new. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, almost without exception I discover something I have never seen before.
Last year this very thing happened to me and my family as we read through the book of Esther on Purim. In chapter 9 we read about the institution of the festival as a perpetual celebration throughout Israel’s generations:
The Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year. (Esther 9:27)
My wife pointed out to me the phrase “and all who joined them” and said that this seems to refer to Gentiles who have joined with the Jewish people. In other words Purim was a festival to be celebrated by both the Jewish nation and those from the nations who had cast their lot with Israel. Fascinating. I decided to dig into some commentaries and see what I could find.
The Hebrew for “all who joined them” is kal hanilvim aleihem. “Joined” is the word nilvim, plural of nilvah. Some have connected this group with people in chapter 8 who pretended to be Jews out of fear:
And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them. (Esther 8:17)
But there the word used is mityachadim (“declared themselves Jews,”) not nilvim. Others point out that nilvah is also found in Isaiah 14:1, 56:3, 6 and is “the Late Biblical Hebrew term for those who joined the Jewish community.”  So does this refer to converts or those who remain of the nations but join themselves to Israel? Let’s look at the verses in Isaiah where nilvim appears:
For the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob. (Isaiah 14:1)
In Jewish tradition the “sojourner” (ger) in this verse is interpreted as a proselyte and it is therefore they who will “join them” (nilvah). This seems to support that idea that nilvim refers to legal converts to Judaism. However, we read in the next verse:
And the peoples will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess them in the LORD’s land as male and female slaves. (Isaiah 14:2)
“Peoples” is the word ammim (“nations”), which refers to the Gentile nations. In turn, Gentiles will help with the ingathering of the Jewish people back to their land and will join Israel in the land becoming their servants. Are they the same people as those who join the house of Jacob in verse 1 or a separate group? Jewish interpretation says they are a separate entity.
Let’s now take a look at the occurrences of nilvim in Isaiah 56:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself (nilvah) to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people” … And the foreigners who join themselves (nilvim) to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant. (Isaiah 56:3, 6)
Once again Jewish interpretation views these individuals as converts. But there seems to be evidence in the next verse that those “who join themselves to the LORD” here are not proselytes but Gentiles who join in with the Jewish people in the worship of the God of Israel:
These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:7)
It is the nilvim whom God says he will bring to his holy mountain and who will worship in the Temple. If they are converts then how can the Temple be called “a house of prayer for all peoples”? That can be true only if these Gentiles remain as Gentiles. They join themselves to Israel, keep the Sabbath, and hold tight to the Torah but they do not become legally Jewish.
Taking this back into our verse in Esther 9:27, it is very possible that those “who joined them” refers not to legal converts but to God-fearers from the nations who joined Israel in the worship of the One True God. Whether or not the original writer of Esther had this intention based on Isaiah 56, I believe this passage prophetically alludes to those of us from the nations who have been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel through Messiah Yeshua. Purim is a distinctly Jewish holiday but at the same time it is also for those of us from the nations who have found Messiah and cast our lot with the Jewish people.
How important is a holiday that highlights the dangers of anti-Semitism and emphasizes that no matter how bad things look, God will come and defend his people? This is a warning to us Gentiles believers not to become arrogant against the natural branches (Romans 11:18) and also paints for us a picture of the coming kingdom. Just when things look the bleakest for Israel, Messiah Yeshua will return to gather the outcasts of Israel, defeat Israel’s enemies, and usher in the Messianic Kingdom. May it be soon and in our days! Chag sameach!
- Adele Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 91.
- However, Rabbi David Katz writes that the “foreigner” (ben hanechar) here is “a Gentile who no longer believes in idolatry but has not fully accepted the Noahide Code.” In turn, the passage refers not to a convert but to a ger toshav who joins in with the people of Israel but does not become a proselyte. See Rabbi David Katz and Rabbi Chaim Clorfene, The World of the Ger (Israel: Ger Gear, 2014), 106.