What does the Bible really say about Esther?

Since the holiday of Purim occurs soon, I thought you might be interested in reading the introduction I wrote to my analysis of the book of Esther in my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.”

                                                                                  Introduction

                                                       Esther Is Not as Simple as People Think

The biblical book Esther, like Ruth, is one of the five Megillot, 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 ascribes it to the men of the Great Assembly.[1] Rashi and others claim Mordecai composed the scroll.[2] Gersonides states that the book was composed by means of divine inspiration, to publicize the great miracle of how God saved Jews.[3] 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 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.[4] Some Christians see Esther as prefiguring Jesus’ mother Mary and the gallows upon which Haman hung foreshadowing the cross.[5] In 2008, the Iranian government added the alleged tomb of Mordecai and Esther to their list of holy sites.[6] These distinctions are the result of the book’s immense popularity.

Esther is the “best known of all the books of the Bible. Many circumstances have combined to make it so: it’s simple, popular, yet dramatic and even an exciting story, with its clearly drawn heroine, hero and villain.”[7]

This is the view of many people but, as we will see, the book of Esther is not simple at all.

Early rabbis, priests, and Christian ministers were dissatisfied with the book’s content for many reasons, including the absence of God’s name from the book, and because there is no clear indication that Esther and Mordecai observed Jewish laws or 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] No scrap of the book of Esther was found at Qumran among the many Dead Sea fragments, despite the fact that this religious community, which existed until around 68 CE, left fragments of all other biblical books. This may indicate that they rejected the idea that Esther was a holy book.

To compensate for the book’s omission of God and the Torah, there are a multitude of midrashic amplifications of the story in such books as Ruth Rabba, add-ons exceeding what was written for other Megillot. Commentators have read ideas into the tale that are not explicit; additions were added into the Greek translation called Apocryphal Additions;[10] Josephus offered many elaborations in his Antiquities; the Babylonian Talmud, tractate 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.

And yet, these commentaries only highlight the lack of religious content in the book itself. The following are additional points that reveal the book’s secular nature:

  1. While the names Mordecaiand 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. In addition to the fact that the two used Babylonian names, there is no indication that they observed Jewish laws. On the contrary, Esther was willing to live as a wife of a pagan king, in a nonkosher environment. Does this indicate that they were assimilated Jews? Or, is the situation similar to Jews today using non-Jewish names?[11]
  2. The holiday that developed from the drama, Purim, is named after 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?[12] Does the carnival nature of the holiday add evidence that it began as a secular celebration?

Aside from the secular nature of Esther, details provided in the book are at variance with what we know about Persia, and at times run counter to common sense. This calls into question the book’s historical accuracy, as can be seen from the following points:

  1. The names in the book raise problems: We know of no Persian king called Ahasuerus. Modern scholars identify him as XerxesI (485–464 BCE). His Persian name was Khshayarsha, meaning “venerable king,” which the Greeks rendered Xerxes. Ahasuerus is not very similar to Khshayarsha.[13] 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.
  2. 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]
  3. Esther fasted for three days[15] 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 successfully lead a discussion about life and death?
  4. 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. Hamancould 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.[16] There is no reference in Persian sources to the irrevocability of decrees, which is a key element of the plot in Esther.[17]
  5. It is highly unlikely that a celebration that included continuous drinking would last for six months (180 days), or that the king’s 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 and soldiers being inebriated and failing to protect the country.[18]
  6. The numbers 3, 7, and 10 (the sum of 3 and 7) appear frequently. Is this an indication that the story is fabricated, given that these numbers abound in fairy tales? The banquet was celebrated in the third year of the king’s reign (1:3), Esther demanded that the people fast for three days (4:16), Esther approached the king on the third day (5:1), the king was unable to sleep on the twenty-third day of the third month (8:9), and three hundred non-Jews were killed in Shushan(9:15). 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), and Esther was chosen as queen in the seventh year of Ahasuerus’s reign (2:16).  Esther was taken to the king in the tenth month (2:16), Haman bribed the king with ten thousand shekels (3:9), and Haman had ten sons (9:10).

Lastly, a few points about the book’s writing style:

  1. The book of Esther contains many obscurities, and the first chapter is an excellent example of this: Why did Ahasueruswait 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 127 provinces.”[19] What prompted the king to order his wife Vashti to appear before the revelers? When the text states she should come “with the royal crown”[20] does this mean that she should be naked[21] 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 Vashti 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 1 mentions seven sarisim who were charged with bringing Vashti to the king and, after her refusal, seven “wise men who knew the times” for advice on how to react to Vashti’s refusal to obey the king.[22] Does sarisim mean eunuchs or chamberlains?[23] Does “wise men who know the times” mean astrologers[24] or wise men who understand and can interpret events? Why are these assistants and advisors no longer mentioned after Haman is elevated? 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?[25] Was she killed, exiled, or simply ignored? What is the meaning of the final part of Ahasuerus’s order – “every man should rule in his own house and speak according to the language of his people”[26]? 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, given that history reveals that Persian men and women ate and drank together at banquets?
  2. When we move on to subsequent chapters, the obscurities continue: Why did Mordecairefuse 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”?[27] Why does Haman’s wife say to him near the end of the book that if Mordecai is Jewish, “you will not get the better of him; he will be your utter downfall”?[28] 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?
  3. One of the obscurities may be the result of a mistake. Verse 1:8 states that Ahasuerusmade 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 first phrase seems to say that 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 Septuagint, “not according to law.”[29] Similarly, the words “decorated with” are missing in the beginning of verse 6, which has a list of items but does not say what they were for; these words are added in the Septuagint translation.
  4. The book is filled with irony. Vashtiis ordered to appear before Ahasuerus while, later, Esther states that 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 ends with Esther arranging two banquets for him and Haman. Haman has ironic mishaps: he is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, and his trip to the king for permission to hang Mordecai ends with him having to show Mordecai honor.
  5. Many of the words in Esther are disputed. For example, the words bira in verse 1:2 and cheil Paras u’Madai in verse 3 are generally translated “capital” (of Shushan) and “army of Persia and Media.” However, Y. Klein points out that bira here means “fortress,” and one of the translations of cheil is “people,” which he feels is more appropriate here.[30] The capital city of Shushan was situated alongside the fortress of Shushan. Like Rashi, Klein defines hapartemim (verse 1:3) as a general noun describing all the king’s officials. He notes that the word dat appears in Esther twenty times and in Ezra 8:36 once, but nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Its origin is the Persian data, which means “law,” “statute,” “decree”; modern Hebrew retains these definitions and adds the additional meaning of “religion.”[31] The term maamar in verses 1:15, 2:20, and 9:32 appears in the Torah only in Esther and means “command”; this is in contrast to “word,” the meaning it carries in Avot 5:1 (“God created the world with five maamarot”).[32]

I will be addressing most of these matters in the upcoming chapters.

 

[1] Bava Batra 15a. We know close to nothing about the men of the Great Assembly, mentioned in Avot 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. It appears that they functioned for a short period of time.

[2] Based on 9:20 and 32.

[3] Gersonides, Peirushei Ralbag al Hamegillot, ed. Yaakov Levi (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2003); Feivel Meltzer, Commentary to Esther, Chameish Megillot, Daat Mikra (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1973). See also Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15a.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a.

[5] Fuerst, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 38.

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

[7] Cohen, Five Megilloth, 193.

[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. Alternatively, scholars suggest that since the book mentions the victory of Jews over non-Jews, non-Jews might treat the book and God’s name inappropriately (ibid., 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 fourteen books originally included in the third century BCE Greek translation called the Septuagint.

[11] Fuerst, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 38.

[12] Ibid., 36.

[13] 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, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 44).

[14] Ibid. Elam was a pre-Iranic civilization located in far west and southwest of modern Iran. Its capital was Susa (Shushan). It was captured and fragmented in 640 BCE by the Assyrians.

[15] 4:16.

[16] Klein, Olam Hatanakh, 215.

[17] Fuerst, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 50.

[18] 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.

[19] Carey A. Moore, Esther, Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1971), 4.

[20] Verse 1:13.

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

[22] 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.

[23] The word carries both meanings.

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

[25] 1:11.

[26] 1:22.

[27] 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?

[28] 6:13.

[29] Fuerst, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 45.

[30] Klein, Olam Hatanakh, 228. Also Moore, Esther, Anchor Bible, 5.

[31] However the concept of “religion” does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.

[32] Similarly, John 1 should not be translated as “in the beginning was the word [logos],” but “in the beginning was wisdom.” Logos, like memra in the Aramaic Targums (memra is a variation of maamar), could mean “word,” but it also means “wisdom.” This is the understanding of Proverbs, in which Wisdom affirms (in the seventh and eighth chapters) that she was present at creation and assisted in it. Similarly, Psalm 104:24 avows: “How great are your works Lord; you made them all with wisdom.” The Neophyti, an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, begins: “In the beginning with wisdom the word of the Lord created and perfected the heaven and the earth.” Genesis Rabba 1:4 identifies the Torah with wisdom and testifies that God created the world with the Torah. John was articulating this long-held Jewish view.

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