I published “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses” last week, my 26th book, the first of a series of “Unusual” books. One on Joshua and another on Judges are finished and should be published next year. I am currently working on “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.” The following is a draft of chapter one from this book.
The opulence and foolish behavior of King Ahasuerus
Scholars are convinced that the biblical book of Esther was composed in “the Greek period, and probably to the latter part of that period. Chapter one begins with a description of the greatness of King Ahasuerus and the opulent banquet that he arranged for his officials and people during the third year of his reign. This description is followed by the tale of the king’s rejection of Queen Vashti because of her refusal to appear at the male banquet as ordered by the king.
I outlined the many problems that exist in Esther in the introduction. We will now see how some commentators handled some of these problems in chapter one. More important than what the commentators say is the fact that these authors felt the need to say what they said because of the difficulties in the text.
Shortly after the writing of Esther, the book was translated into Greek, and exists today in what is called “The Apocrypha,” books accepted by Roman Catholics as part of their Holy Bible, but are not included in the Bible of Jews and Protestants. Probably concerned with the absence of piety in the book, the lack of prayers to God for divine assistance, and the failure to acknowledge divine help, six extensive additions were inserted into the Greek text “to amend the secular tone of the book.”
The first addition states that “In the second year of the reign of Artaxerxes the Great” Mordecai “had a dream. He was a Jew, and lived in the city of Susa, an important man, in attendance at the royal court; he was one of the captives that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had brought from Jerusalem, with Jeconiah, king of Judah. And this was his dream:”
Mordecai saw two dragons in his dream, much tumult, “nations made ready for war, to fight against the nation of the upright…. And the whole upright nation was troubled, fearing their own hurt, and they prepared to perish; and they cried out to God.” And as a result of their cry they were saved. “When Mordecai, who had had this dream, and had seen what God had resolved to do, awoke, he kept it in his mind, and all day sought by all means to understand it.”
The Babylonian Talmud
Megillah 10b-17a has extensive commentaries and imaginative midrashic interpretations of Esther. The following are some selections from the Talmud on chapter one:
Whenever a biblical book begins with the word wa’yehi, “And it was,” it indicates the approach of trouble. The name Ahasuerus is defined as achi shel rosh, “the brother of the head,” i.e. “the brother of Nebuchadnezzar the wicked who was called head…he persisted in his wickedness.” One sage said he was a wise king because he entertained his distant subjects first “because he could win over the inhabitants of his own city any time he wished. The one who held that he was foolish says that he ought to have entertained the inhabitants of his metropolis first, so that if the others rebelled against him, these would have supported him.”
Rabbis offered different reasons why God planned to punish the Jews. One said because “they partook of the feast of the wicked one.” Another said “because they bowed down to the image” set up by Nebuchadnezzar. If they were guilty and deserved to be exterminated, why did God change the divine decree? “They only pretended to worship, and He only pretended to exterminate them.”
How lavish was Ahasuerus’ banquet? It was so extravagant that each attendee was served wine from his own country. Why didn’t Vashti obey her husband and come to his feast as he commanded? Several answers are offered. One is that the angel “Gabriel came and fixed a tail on her.” How did she provoke his anger? She sent him an insulting reply: “Thou son of my father’s steward, my father drank wine in the presence of thousands, and did not get drunk, and that man [Ahasuerus] has become senseless with his wine.” Who was Memucan who advised Ahasuerus to try out virgins to replace Vashti? “He was Haman.”
Midrash Rabbah is one of many Midrashim. It “borrows freely from earlier works, such as the Yerushalmi [Jerusalem Talmud], Bereshith Rabbah, and Vayikra Rabbah” as well as the Babylonian Talmud. We don’t know exactly when it was composed, but it may have been written in the tenth century. The following is a selection of some of its comments on chapter one:
Ahasuerus was Artaxerxes. Rabbi Akiba was teaching his students when he saw they were falling asleep. He woke them by asking “How did Esther merit to reign over 127 provinces?” He answered his own question. “Let Esther the descendant of Sarah who lived 127 years come and reign over 127 provinces.”
Why did Vashti refuse to come to be viewed by her husband’s guests? One answer in this Midrash is that she advised her husband: if the men see how beautiful I am they will try to kill you and take me for themselves. Ahasuerus ignored her advice and focused on her refusal to comply with his order. Who were the wise men from whom Ahasuerus asked for advice? They were Jews. How come Memucan gave his opinion first? “From this we learn that an ignoramus always thrusts himself to the front. How was Vashti punished? Ahasuerus “gave the order and they brought in her head on a platter.”
Rashi (1040-1105) dates Ahasuerus to the seventy year end of the period after the destruction of the first temple. He gives no date, but this would make it 516 BCE. Ahasuerus was evil from the beginning of his reign through the end. He usurped the prior king. He arranged his celebratory banquet at the end of three years when his rebel forces overcame the military of the prior king.
The word malchut rav in verse 7 does not mean that the wine was “the best of the king, but each individual was served wine that was older than he was. The word ka’dat in verse 8 means that while the usual practice at royal banquets was for guests to drink a full cup, which would have deleterious effects on non-drinkers, Ahasuerus allowed each guest to drink whatever amount of wine he wanted to drink. While others understand “On the seventh day,” the day Ahasuerus called for Vashti to appear, as the seventh day of the party, Rashi states it was the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath. Vashti refused to obey the king’s summons because God had inflicted her with leprosy as punishment because she had made Jewish girls work on the Shabbat naked. Rashi also maintained that the king had her killed naked on Shabbat; this was divine punishment tit for tat. When verse 22 orders “every man should rule in his house and speak the language of his people,” the language decree demanded that husbands speak to their wives in the native tongue, as a result, if the wife wanted to understand her husband she needed to learn the native language.
Abraham ibn Ezra
Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) wrote two commentaries to the book of Esther, one short and the other long. The following are some of his comments:
Ibn Ezra observes that this biblical book does not mention of God. It also doesn’t say that it was God who saved the Judeans from Haman’s machinations. Some people claim that Mordecai’s warning to Esther, if you do not help, help will come “mi’makom achier,” is Mordecai informing her that God will bring salvation even if she does not act. These people argue that makom, literally “place,” is sometimes used as a synonym for God is in many verses. But, says ibn Ezra, while makom may signify God in post-biblical literature, it never does in the Bible. He explains that God is missing because Mordecai composed the book at the bequest of King Ahasuerus to be placed as an historical document in the Persian royal archive. Mordecai wanted to forestall the archive officials, who were idol worshippers, changing the divine name to the name of their idol.
Others, such as Rabeinu Bachya, disagreed. He wrote that 4: 4 is a subtle hint that God is involved in the episode. The first Hebrew letters of the Hebrew words translated “Let the king and Haman come today (to my party)” begin with the four letters of God’s name: y-h-v-h. Similarly, a rabbi in the Babylonian Talmud states that when the book of Esther mentions “king” it sometimes refers to the king of the world, God. This Talmudic view angered ibn Ezra in his commentary to 6:1, which speaks about the king being unable to sleep: does God ever sleep? This is contrary to common sense: God never sleeps.
Ibn Ezra was convinced that the Ahasuerus of Esther is the Ahasuerus II (who reigned from 464-424) and is mentioned in Ezra 4:6 and called Artaxerxes in 4:7. He was 62 years old. He made a celebration during the third year of his reign in the outside courtyard, but his wife Vashti had her celebration inside the palace because “it is not fitting that men and women should be together” at a party.
Ibn Ezra believed that astrology works. He writes that Ahasuerus consulted astrologer to determine what to do with his wife. He supposed that Haman calculated when to kill the Judeans by using astrological calculations. This is strange because the holiday is called Purim because the date was determined by casting lots.
He recognized that there is an unsupported tradition that Memucan who advised Ahasuerus to dispose of Vashti was Haman. He writes that the rabbis may be highlighting an irony that evil Haman created his own downfall, for Vashti’s successor was Esther who brought about his death.
Verse 1:23 states that Ahasuerus ordered two things: men should rule their homes and speak according to the language of their people. Ibn Ezra suggests that Ahasuerus added the second order, which had nothing to do with Vashti, so that he wouldn’t appear ridiculous to his people: that he only issued the decree because his wife failed to obey him.
In the next chapter I will give another example of how the ancients expanded the tale of Esther. We will examine some legends.
 This would date Esther after 320 BCE, probably around 250 BCE. Lewis Bayles Paton, The International Critical Commentary, The Book of Esther, Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1908, page v. This is one of the best critical commentaries on Esther and is quoted in many subsequent scholarly commentaries.
 Many scholars date the Greek version as 114 BCE. Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, An American Translation, Random House, 1959, page 165.
 Goodspeed, ibid.
 The following is from Edgar J. Goodspeed, pages 165-175.
 It should be noted that the dates do not match – Artaxerxes I ruled from 464-424 BCE and Artaxerxes II from 405-359 (we don’t know which Artaxerxes is meant), but King Jeconiah of Judea was exiled in 597 BCE. The same problem exists if Ahasuerus was Xerxes who reigned 519-465. Many commentators explain the Hebrew text to mean he was a descendant of those Judeans who were exiled with Jeconiah, but not all commentators. Some even insist that Mordecai was a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem before the exile of Jeconiah. Beside the problem of the dates, this is an anachronism; the name Sanhedrin is Greek and the institution did not exist before the Greek period which began around 320 BCE. It should also be noted that according to the Septuagint, Mordecai was a court official before Vashti was killed.
 Quotes are from the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, IV, edited by I. Epstein, The Soncino Press 1938.
 This tradition is an overstatement and sermonic. Genesis chapter one uses wa’yehi frequently to describe God’s creation and states they were good.
 There is no historical evidence that this was so. The rabbinical statement should be understood as a sermon not a fact.
 Presumably the rabbi is saying they ate non-kosher food.
 It should be noted that the rabbis who made these remarks about God believed that God is involved in human affairs and sometimes acts favorably and at other times not favorably, God is vindictive, will sometimes pretend to do things, and will change the divine mind. These are ideas that are rejected by rational thinkers.
 The rabbi who said this assumed that Vashti was the daughter of King Belshazzar, the father of Vashti.
 Maurice Simon, translator, Midrash Rabbah, The Soncino Press, 1983.
 This is, of course, a non-sequetor, and it is likely that Rabbi Akiba was just joking to arouse his class. However his comment reflects his belief in the concept of zechut avot, “merit of the fathers, that the good deeds of a person can be stored up, like a bank account, and used by others in later generations to aid them by getting God to “pay” them for their another person’s good deed. This concept was held by many but not all Jews. It is a variation, actually the opposite, of the concept of “original sin,” developed by the Christian priest in the fourth century, and is not a Jewish concept.
 Thus he was neither Xerxes nor Artaxerxes, as maintained by others.
 Rashi, like others, believed that God manipulates human behavior, a notion which negates the idea of free will.
 The following interpretations of ibn Ezra and others are in Megillat Esther im Perushei Harishonim, Mossad HaRav Kook, 2006.
 This is certainly clever but, asks Isaac ben Moses Arama (1420-1494), the author of the commentary Akedat Yitzchak, if there was such a fear, why was God’s name not deleted from the biblical books Daniel and Ezra.
 Megillah 15b. The idea is also in Midrash Rabbah and elsewhere.
 The Septuagint, Josephus, and Rashi also accept this dating.
 This is contrary to Herodotus who tells us in his History that Persian men and women celebrated together.
 The Jews were called Judeans at that time because they came from Judea which was named after the tribe of Judah. Later, Judean was shortened to Jew.
 In Megillah 12b.