Esther is not as Simple as People Think

 

                                                       Esther is not as Simple as People Think

 

The biblical book Esther, like Ruth, is one of the five Megilloth, scrolls that are read in synagogues on five different holidays during the year. Esther is read during the holiday of Purim because it tells the origin of the holiday. We no longer know who composed the book. The Babylonian Talmud[1] ascribes it to the men of the Great Assembly.[2] Rashi and others claim Mordecai composed the scroll.[3] Gersonides[4] states that the book was composed by means of the holy spirit to publicize a great miracle, how God saved Jews. Modern scholarship rejects both views and maintains that it was written by a Persian Jew or group of Jews familiar with the Persian palace practices and conditions.

Esther is the only Megillah (singular of Megillot) read twice, once in the evening synagogue service of Purim and a second time during the morning services on Purim. It is the only Megillah that is called “The Megillah,” the only one that is universally respectfully read from a parchment scroll, the only one in which the synagogue reader recites a blessing before and after reading the scroll, and the only one for which many Jewish households purchased their own parchment scroll to use in following along silently during the synagogue reading. The rabbis decreed that one does not say Hallel, the psalms of praise recited on all other holidays, on Purim because the book of Esther itself praises God.[5] Some Christians see Esther as prefiguring Jesus’ mother Mary and the gallows upon which Haman hung foreshadowing the cross.[6] In 2008, the Iranian government added the alleged tomb of Mordecai and Esther to their list of holy sites.[7] These distinctions are the result of the book’s immense popularity. Yet, the book of Esther is not simple at all.

Early rabbis, priests, and Christian ministers were dissatisfied with its content for many reasons, including God’s name being absent from the book, and there is no clear indication that Esther and Mordecai observed Jewish laws and that God assisted the Jews in stopping Haman’s evil plan to murder all the Jews.[8] There were Talmudic rabbis who felt that Esther should not be included as part of the Hebrew Bible.[9] To overcome these omissions, there are a multitude of midrashic amplifications of the story in such books as Midrash Rabba, add-on exceeding what was written for other Megilloth. Commentators have read ideas into the tale which are not explicit, additions were added into the Greek translation called “Apocryphal Additions,”[10] Josephus offered many elaborations in his book “Antiquities,” the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, has many expansions, there are two Targums (early Aramaic translations of the Hebrew text) that enlarge, distort, and transform the story, and non-Jewish commentaries on Esther are legion.

In addition:

  1. The secular nature of the book prompted some rabbis to insist that Esther should not be included in the Bible.[11] No scrap of the book Esther was found at Qumran among the many Dead Sea fragments despite this religious community, which existed until around 68 CE, leaving fragments of all other biblical books. Did they reject the idea that Esther was a holy book?
  2. The names in the book raise problems: We know of no Persian king called Ahasuerus. Modern scholars identify him as Xerxes I (485-464 BCE). His Persian name was Khshayarsha, meaning “venerable king,” which the Greeks rendered Xerxes. Ahasuerus is not very similar to Khshayarsha.[12] Xerxes was the son of Darius Hystaspes and succeeded him to the Persian throne in 486 BCE. His mother was the daughter of Cyrus. He was murdered by two courtiers and was succeeded to the throne by his son Artaxerxes Longimanus. His murder by two courtiers resembles the episode in Esther where Mordecai discloses an attempt by two courtiers to murder Ahasuerus, but in Esther they are not successful.
  3. While the names Mordecai and Esther are “Hebrew names” today because they were the names of the heroes in this biblical book, they are actually Babylonian names, variations of the names of the great god of the Babylonian pantheon Marduk and the principal female deity in the Babylonian fertility and death cults Ishtar. Does the use of Babylonian names as well as the lack of indication that the two observed Jewish laws, Esther’s willingness to live as a wife of a pagan king, and live in a pagan non-kosher environment indicate they were assimilated Jews? Or, is the situation similar to Jews today using non-Jewish names?[13]
  4. Haman’s and Vashti’s names are similar to the names of Elamite gods, Humman and Mashti. “Accordingly numerous scholars have postulated that Esther was a narrative which turned legends about the battles between gods and about the victory of the Babylonian gods over the Elamite gods into historical human events, thereby historicizing the legends.”[14]
  5. The holiday that developed from the drama, Purim, is called by the non-Hebrew word pur, which the book defined as a lottery. Is this indicative as some scholars think that the holiday was originally a Persian festival?[15] Does the carnival nature of the holiday add evidence that it began as a secular celebration?
  6. Esther fasted for three days[16] as a preparation to her meeting with Ahasuerus when she hoped to persuade the king to save the Jews from Haman. Wouldn’t a person who fasted for three days look terrible to the hedonistic king and wouldn’t she be too weak to lead a discussion about life and death and be persuasive? Esther fasted in the spring, but Judaism instituted a fast on 13 Adar, the day before the holiday of Purim, as the “Fast of Esther” for one day to commemorate her fast. Why only one day if it remembers and honors Esther’s three day fast and why was it moved to the day before Purim? 13 Adar was previously celebrated as Nicanor’s Day, after the Syrian general who threatened Jewish survival by attacking Jews on the Sabbath. He was killed by Judah Maccabee in 160 BCE.[17] Why was Nicanor’s day replaced by the Fast of Esther?
  7. The book mentions many matters that do not conform to history as we know it. There is no historical evidence that there ever was an attempt to annihilate Jews in Persia. Xerxes wife until he died was not named Esther or Vashti but Amestris. Under Persian law, only a woman of noble descent could be queen, which would disqualify Esther. Haman could not have become second to the king, because by Persian law, this role was only filled by a Persian or a Mede. Verse 10:1 indicates that Ahasuerus’s kingdom included islands, but history indicates that the Persian king did not rule over islands in the days of Xerxes.[18] There is no reference in Persian sources of the irrevocability of decrees, which is a key element of the plot in Esther.[19]
  8. It is highly unlikely that a celebration which included continuous drinking would last for six months, 180 days, or that the kings entire army, nobles, princes, and servants could attend during the entire period of 180 days with officials being absent from their posts for so long a period and soldiers being inebriated and failing to protect the country.[20]
  9. There are many obscurities. Why did Ahasuerus wait until the third year of his reign to start his celebration? What was he celebrating? “Despite scholarly speculation, no satisfactory explanation exists for the particular number of 126 provinces.”[21] What prompted him to order his wife Vashti to appear before the revelers? When the text states she should come “with the royal crown”[22] does this mean that she should be naked[23] and only wear her crown, or is “crown” a synecdoche (a figure of speech where a part of something refers to the whole of something) for royal clothes? Why did she refuse the king’s order? Was it because, like her husband, she was drunk and did not realize she was making a fatal mistake, or was she insisting on the observance of Persian law that wives should not show their faces to strangers? Why didn’t the king observe this law? Chapter one mentions seven sarisim to bring Vashti to him and, after her refusal, seven “wise men who knew the times” for advice on how to react to Vashti’s refusal to obey him.[24] Does sarisim mean eunuchs or chamberlains?[25] Does “wise men who know the times” mean astrologers[26] or wise men who understand and can interpret events? Why after Haman was elevated are these assistants and advisors no longer mentioned? Why was Haman elevated to a high governmental position? Who was he? What happened to Vashti? Why did the king have to send seven men to bring her to him?[27] Was she killed, exiled, or simply ignored? What does the final part of Ahasuerus’s order “every man should rule in his own house and speak according to the language of his people”[28] mean? If it requires wives to speak the language of their husbands, what is the relevance of this command to the story; why did the king command it? Why did Vashti have a separate party for women; history reveals that Persian men and women ate and drank together at banquets? Why did Mordecai refuse to bow before Haman as all other people did? Why did Haman dislike Mordecai? Why did he take out his anger by planning to murder all Jews? When the book of Esther calls Mordecai and his coreligionists Yehudi (Yehudim is plural) does the word mean “Jew” or “Judean”?[29] Why does Haman’s wife say to him near the end of the book,[30] if Mordecai is Jewish “you will not get the better of him; he will be your utter downfall”? This seems to indicate that neither Haman nor his wife knew that Mordecai was Jewish; yet the plot of the tale is built on Haman wanting to kill Mordecai because he was Jewish? Why does the book sanction cruelty against the non-Jews? Why was there a need to kill non-Jews in Shushan an extra day? Is the objective of this book to teach that Jews should be confident that they will prevail against their enemies?
  10. One of the obscurities may be the result of a mistake. Verse 1:8 states that Ahasuerus made abundant food and drink available to his guests at his banquets. “And the drinking was according to law; none did compel; for the king had appointed to all the officers of his house that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.” The problem is that the first phrase seems to say there were restrictions in the drinking (“according to law”) while the rest of the verse states there were no restrictions. Some scholars suggest that the word “not” was unintentionally deleted from the first phrase and it should read, as the Greek Septuagint, “not according to law.” [31] Similarly, the words “decorated with” are missing in the beginning of verse and are added in the Septuagint translation.
  11. The book is filled with irony. Vashti is ordered to appear before Ahasuerus while, later, Esther states the king has not called her to come to him in a long time. Ahasuerus becomes angry because he does not want to allow his wife to tell him what to do, but later Esther succeeds in persuading the king to accept her view. Vashti disobeys the king’s command to come to him and is punished, while Esther disobeys his command to stay away and stirs him to act mercifully. The book begins with the king having two banquets and end with Esther arranging two banquets for him and Haman. Haman’s one mishap after another, such as being hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai and his trip to the king for permission to hang Mordecai ending with him having to show Mordecai honor, are ironic.
  12. The numbers 3, 7, and 10 (a combination of 3 and 7) appear frequently. Is this an indication that the story is fabricated—these numbers abound in fairy tales? There was a banquet of seven days (1:5), Ahasuerus called Vashti on the seventh day (1:10), there were seven chamberlains and seven wise men (1:10 and 1:14). Esther had seven maidens (2:9), Esther was chosen as queen in the seventh year of Ahasuerus’s reign (2:16), The banquet was celebrated in the third year of the king’s reign (1:3), Esther demanded that the people fast for 3 days (4:16), Esther approached the king on the third day (5:1), the king’s servants read about Mordecai saving the king to the king on the 23rd day of the third month (8:9), 300 non-Jews were killed in Shushan (9:15), Esther was taken to the king in the 10th month (2:16), Haman bribed the king with 10,000 shekels (3:9), and Haman had 10 sons (9:10).

[1]    Bava Batra 15a.

[2]    We know close to nothing about the men of the Great Assembly, mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers 1:1 and elsewhere. They may have been a council of sages convened by Ezra or shortly thereafter during the Second Temple period, perhaps around 350 BCE, and who functioned for a short period of time.

[3]    Based on 9:20 and 32.

[4]    Gersonides, Perushei Hamigilot, A. Chacham, Mossad HaRav Kook, 2003, page 134. See also Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15a.

[5]    Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a.

[6]    W. J. Fuerst, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press, 1975, page 38.

[7]    Israel National News, March 10, 2009.

[8]    We can only guess why the omissions exist. Some scholars suggest that the author realized that the book would be read during the annual merrymaking of Purim and it would be inappropriate to mention God’s name when it might be profaned or since the book mentions the victory of Jews over non-Jews, non-Jews might treat the book and God’s name inappropriately (Cohen, page 194).

[9]    Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 100a.

[10]   Apocrypha is derived from the Greek term apókryphos meaning “hidden, unknown, spurious.” Apocrypha was the name of a group of 14 books originally included in the third century BCE Greek translation called Septuagint.

[11]   Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7a.

[12]   Xerxes was the Persian king who famously attacked Greece in the fifth year of his reign. The Greek Herodotus describes him in his History of the Persian War VII-IX, as a foolish and vain man who was hot-tempered and capricious. This description fits Ahasuerus in Esther. “Ahasuerus may have been a title meaning ‘the chief of rulers’ and had been applied to other persons known to the author” Fuerst, page 44.

[13]   Fuerst, page 38.

[14]   Fuerst, ibid. Elam was a pre-Iranic civilization located in far west and southwest of modern Iran. Its capital was Susa. It was captured and fragmented in 640 BCE by Assyrians.

[15]   Fuerst, page 36.

[16]   4:16.

[17]   Fuerst, page 37; 2 Maccabees 15:1-37.

[18]   Y, Klein, Megilloth, Olam Hatankh, Divrei Hayamim, 1999, page 215.

[19]   Fuerst, page 50.

[20]   Verse 1:4. It is more likely that the book means that there were a series of celebrations with different people attending each one during a six month period. A feast of 120 days is mentioned in Judith 1:16.

[21]   Carey A. Moore, The Anchor Bible Esther, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971, page4.

[22]   Verse 1:13.

[23]   As maintained by one view in the Talmud.

[24]   Verses 1:10 and 1:13. The wise men were called those “who saw the king’s face” in verse 14, suggesting that they could come and see the king when they wanted to do so, a power that the Queen and other people lacked.

[25]   The word means both.

[26]   As interpreted by Abraham ibn Ezra and others.

[27]   Verse 1:11.

[28]   Verse 1:22.

[29]   Yehudi originally meant Judean, i.e. a member of the tribe of Judah. When the ten tribes in the northern land of Israel were driven from their land, only the southern kingdom of Judah remained in existence and its inhabitants were called Judeans. Later all the people were called Judeans no matter from which tribe they were descendant. Judean soon morphed into a shortened version “Jew.” Since Yehudi can be translated as Judean or Jew, which is the more appropriate translation in Esther?

[30]   In 6:13.

[31]   Fuerst, page 45.

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