Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

In the Persian Court: Esther

Esther is unique among the books of the Bible.  Along with Ruth (and Judith in the Apocrypha) in the male dominated Old Testament it features a central character who is a woman .  Over the centuries Esther’s status as scripture has been challenged.  It is not included in an otherwise complete 2nd century CE Christian list of the Hebrew canon and is the only Old Testament book not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Many rabbis raised objections to its status as scripture.  They didn’t like that Esther was a concubine before becoming queen by marrying a non-Jew and objected to the story’s depiction of bloodthirsty revenge (although that is hardly unique in the Bible!).  But worse of all there is no mention of God or religion, a lack someone attempted to correct in the Septuagint with some inept additions to the text which included pious prayers.  But the appeal of the story for Jews who throughout their history have repeatedly faced persecution is undeniable.  It is also a very well told tale.  

While the story’s setting is believed to be the Persian court of Xerxes I(485-464 BCE), who is called Ahasuerus in Esther (as well as in Ezra 4:6 and Daniel 9:1), there is nothing in Persian or other ancient records to support a view of Esther as a record of actual history and much to contradict that idea.  Xerxes’ queen was a Persian whose name doesn’t match with either that of Esther or the queen who proceeds her in the biblical story.  Unlike the rather bumbling king depicted in Esther, Xerxes was a powerful ruler who ruthlessly put down revolts and tried but failed to dominate Greece.  

In addition to differences with known history, it is difficult to take some of the details in the story of Esther as literal facts.  Interestingly Esther and Mordecai are not Hebrew or Persian names but are derived from the names of Babylonian deities Ishtar and Marduk who were also cousins.  I wonder if there might have been borrowings from non-Judaic myth?  

Esther is one of the five scrolls which are read at the great festivals of the Jewish year.  The Esther scroll is read during Purim and is thought to have originated as an explanation of that secular festival.  The historical origins of Purim are unknown but it apparently was first observed in Jewish communities east of Palestine from which it made its way westward to become part of Jewish tradition.  In contrast to the very solemn festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur typical of Judaism, Putin was an occasion for celebratory hilarity.  “Ancient rabbis declared it permissible to drink on Purim to the point of an inability to distinguish between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Haman’ ” (Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures, p. 504).  There were masquerades and theatricals.  In rabbinic schools revered teachers were mocked by students.  Noisemakers were brought into synagogues to add to jeers when Haman was mentioned.

The story is a fairly simple one of threatened persecution averted by the courage of Esther.  It could be told in at most a couple of chapters using the terse style typical of many biblical narratives.  But instead the very skilled narrator of Esther used ironical twists and turns to create one of the most entertaining stories in Hebrew scripture.  

The story begins by establishing its background and setting.  At the culmination of an improbably long - one hundred eighty days of celebration followed by seven days of feasting - party, Ahasuerus, his heart “merry with wine,” ordered his queen to put in an appearance “in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty” (1:10-11).  The queen refused (according to rabbinic commentary because she was required to appear nude) whereupon the enraged king consulted his counselors who warned him that there would be disaster if women throughout the Persian Empire followed the queen’s example in disobeying her husband.  So plans were made for getting a new, presumably more obedient queen (what was done with the disgraced one is left unsaid).  

All the beautiful young virgins in the kingdom were rounded up.  Mordecai, a Benjamnite relative of Saul who came to Babylon with Nebuchadnezzar’s captives (which would make him at least one hundred twenty years old), had adopted an orphaned cousin, Esther, who was taken into the king’s harem along with the other virgins.  As Mordecai was a minor royal official, perhaps a gatekeeper, he was able to check daily to “see how she fared.”  After “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments” for beautification, one at a time the young women spent a night with the king so he could decide which one would be queen.  When it came her turn “the king loved Esther more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen” (2:12,17).  She kept secret her Jewish status and relation to Mordecai.  

Mordecai overheard a plot against the king about which he told Esther who then informed the king.  The plotters were executed with Mordecai’s role in exposing them forgotten except for being recorded in “The Book of the Chronicles” of the royal court.  So the stage was set for the main part of the narrative.

Haman the Agagite, a member of the royal court, was promoted to a position “above all the princes” with the king commanding that all should bow down and do obeisance to him.  Which everyone but Mordecai did.  An added text in the Septuagint says that Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman was because he bowed only to God.  But the Hebrew text says nothing about that, only that Haman was outraged at being disrespected.  Learning that Mordecai was a Jew he determined “to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6).  He cast lots - in Akkadian pur - to set a date for the pogrom.

A note in the Oxford Annotated Bible points out a connection between Mordecai as a descendant of the family of Saul and Haman as an Agagite.  Agag was the enemy king spared by Saul against the orders of Samuel who denounced Saul’s failure and “hewed Agag to pieces before Yahve” (1 Samuel 15:33).  As a Benjaminite Mordecai would not honor an Agagite.  That an event occurring something over five hundred years before in distant Palestine should be a factor in events at the Persian court seems unlikely, and there is also 1 Samuel’s indication that all the Agagites were killed.  But it does explain why the narrator felt it necessary to describe the ancestry of Mordecai and Haman and perhaps why Haman wanted to destroy all the Jews along with Mordecai.    

Haman, not mentioning Mordecai, warned the king that there was a group of people in his kingdom who posed a threat as they had their own laws which differed from those of the king.  So a decree was issued throughout the Persian Empire declaring that the Jews were to be destroyed and their possessions plundered on the date set by Haman’s casting of pur.  (It is difficult to image that any group of people would simply wait to be destroyed on a set date or that someone intent on exterminating them would publicly set a future date to begin the slaughter).

Upon learning of the decree Mordecai went into mourning as did all of the Jews.  Inside the palace Esther apparently didn’t know about the edict but upon learning of her cousin’s mourning sent a messenger to ask him what was wrong.  Mordecai sent a message back describing the situation for the Jews and asking her to intervene with the king.  Esther reminded him that was forbidden on pain of death to approach the king without being invited to do so.  Mordecai pointed out that she would die along with the rest of “your father’s house” if the decree was carried out.  Esther agreed to risk an appeal to the king and “If I perish, I perish.”  Mordecai gathered all the capital city’s Jews to fast for three days which Esther and her attendants also did (the nearest the story comes to something explicitly religious)

“On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace. . . . And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight and he held out to Esther the golden specter that was in his hand.  Then Esther approached and touched the top of the specter.  And the king said to her, ‘What is it, Queen Esther?  What is your request?  It shall be given to you even to the half of my kingdom’ ” (5:1-3).

Then came the first of several unexpected twists in the story.  Rather than pleading for the lives of herself, her cousin, and people, Esther invited the king and Haman to an intimate dinner with just the three of them.  At the dinner the king again told Esther to make a request to which she responded by inviting the king and Haman to a second dinner.

Haman left his dinner with the royal couple “joyful and glad of heart” to be so honored and went home to brag about it to his friends and wife.  But on leaving the palace he had encountered Mordecai who did not bow to him, rather spoiling things.  When he told this to his wife and friends, they told him he should have a gallows built on which to hang Mordecai, which he did (apparently immediately).

That night the king could not sleep and ordered that the “Book of Memorable Deeds” be read to him.  In the book was the record of how Mordecai had prevented the plot against the king.  Upon being informed that there had been no reward given to Mordecai the king decided the slight should be immediately rectified.  At that moment Haman arrived intending to tell the king about the gallows erected for Mordecai.  But before he could say anything the king asked him what should be done “for the man whom the king delights to honor.  And Haman said to himself, ‘Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?’ ”  So he replied that the man should be clothed in royal robes with a royal crown on his head and put on a royal horse to ride through the city with a herald proclaiming his honor.  Much to his horror Haman was commanded to do just that for “Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate.  Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”  Haman did as he was ordered, and went home “mourning and with his head covered” (6:6-7, 10, 12).  He wife and friends now told him that he would not prevail against Mordecai.  As they were talking the king’s attendants arrived to convey Haman to the second dinner with Ahasuerus and Esther.  

Again the king asked Esther to petition him.  Much to the startled king’s surprise she asked that her life and the lives of her people be spared.  The king asked who would presume to do such a thing whereupon Esther denounced Haman.  (Apparently the king hadn’t paid much attention to the edict requested by Haman).   Overcome with anger, the king went out into the garden to recover.  

Haman fell down before the couch on which Esther was reclining (as was the custom for dining in the ancient Near East) to beg for his life where the returning king found him and accused him of trying to “assault the queen in my presence, in my own house” (6:8).  One of the attendants said that the gallows prepared for Mordecai was standing ready at Haman’s house and Haman was taken away to be hanged on it.

Mordecai was given the Haman’s position.  Esther begged the king to undo the edict against the Jews.  As in the book of Daniel (6:12) the decree of a Persian king could not be revoked, not even by the king himself.  But royal permission was granted for Esther and Mordecai to “write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king” (8:8).  So a proclamation went out giving the Jews permission on the day that Haman’s casting of pur (“lots” in Akkadian) had designated for the destruction of the Jews “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people . . . that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods” (8:11).

Jews throughout the Persian empire rejoiced.  Out of fear other people declared themselves allies of the Jews.  “The very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to get the mastery over them . . . had been changed to a day when the Jews should get the mastery over their foes. . . . So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword slaughtering, and destroying them and did as they pleased with those who hated them” (9:1, 5).  Not content with the slaughter Esther asked that the ten sons of Haman be hanged, which they were.  But in another nod to 1 Samuel’s story of Saul and King Agag where Israelite plunder of their enemies drew the prophet’s wrath, the Jews took nothing of their slain enemies’ goods.

The book of Esther ends with an explanation of the relationship of the story to the festival of Purim, which the queen decreed should be observed by all Jews, followed by praise for King Ahasuerus and Mordecai whose acts were “written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia” (10:2).

The Greek additions to Esther which are included in the Apocrypha expand the story a bit.  Mordecai has a dream of impending danger and deliverance.  Haman is not an Agagite but Macedonian enemy of Persia; it is implied that he had some involvement with the plot against the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman not because of his ancestry but because he only bows to God (nothing is  said of what he does about bowing to the king).  Mordecai and Esther are given lengthy prayers.  In her prayer Esther says that she abhors her position as queen, likening her crown to “a menstruous rag.”  She is so afraid in approaching the king that she faints which changes his anger at her presumption into kind concern and a willingness to grant her anything.  A note by the translator dates the Greek translation and additions to the later part of the second century BCE.  The Hebrew book itself likely was written sometime during the latter part of the Persian era.

© 2021 James Moyers


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