The Historical Context of Purim
The Book of Esther
The Book of Esther follows the historical books of the Bible and is best described as a work of historical fiction. Esther doesn’t have the genial charisma of the Book of Ruth, which also appears to have some fictional components. Esther is a far more savage story and is, in fact, the one book of the Bible where the word “G-d” does not appear.
Scholars believe the book may have been written as late as 130 B.C.E. and it contains an aura of nationalism that fits that period of time, where the Jews were finally living in an independent kingdom once again after having gone through a period of intense persecution. It can be argued that the nationalism of this story is what has made it so popular among Jews, resulting in its inclusion in the official Biblical canon.
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus…
- Esther 1:1
Ahasuerus is generally understood to be Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 - 465 B.C.E. During this period the Persian Empire was still at the peak of its power, begun during the reign of Darius, but was beginning to experience its decline. Xerxes is most commonly known through his failed invasion of Greece, most famously the Battle of Thermopylae, which catapulted the Spartans of Greece into the annals of history.
…this is Ahasuerus who reigned from India even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces.
- Esther 1:1
This describes, quite accurately, the wide extent of the territory of the Persian Empire at its peak. The verse is considered remarkable for being the one place where India is mentioned in the Bible. In fact, there is little doubt that the Hebrew word used in this context - הֹדּוּ or “Hoddu” - could mean anything other than India. Not only did Ahasuerus/Xerxes rule from Ethiopia to India, but the words “Hoddu” and “India” come from the same source.
Indian civilization dates as far back as 3300 B.C.E. according to estimates from archaeologists who unearthed large and detailed cities along the Indus river. The Indus civilization was one of the three ancient civilizations that emerged at the dawn of city construction, making it contemporaneous with the Sumerians and the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Around 1200 B.C.E. the Indus valley was invaded by a people now referred to as “Aryans,” who spoke an early form of Sanskrit. The Aryans came from what is now called Iran, west of the Indus valley. Iran is a form of the word Aryan.
The Aryan invasion came in the era in which there were vast migrations of people throughout the known world, and it was during this period of movement that both the Philistines and Hebrews made their way into Canaan. It is not known what the Indus River was called prior to the Aryan invasion, but we do know the Aryans called it “Sindhu,” which in Sanskrit means, simply, “river.” The name was applied to the region the river traversed through, and the area near the mouth of the river was still called Sindh through the last century.
Persia invaded the Indus region around 500 B.C.E. during the reign of Darius I. In the Persian tongue Sindh became “Hind” or “Hindu” and the name gradually spread from the Indus valley throughout the vast subcontinent, which became “Hindustan” (“The Land of Hind). To this day, we still refer to the natives as Hindus, the religion as Hinduism, and their chief language as Hindi.
The Jewish people adopted the Persian word and, with a little distortion, “Hindu” became “Hoddu” or הֹדּוּ. The Greeks also adopted the Persian word with their own distortion and Hindu became “Indos.” From this comes the English version of “Indus” for the river and “India” for the subcontinent, derived from the Latin.
In a small twist of historical irony, when India achieved independence in 1947, it was broken into two nations, and the area around the Indus River, the original India, lost the name and is now known as Pakistan.
The Rise of Queen Esther
The story of the Book of Esther begins in the third year of Ahasuerus’ reign (484 B.C.E.) with an elaborate feast in Shushan that lasted half a year. For historical context, this timeline coincides when Xerxes had successfully quashed rebellions in both Egypt and Babylon, and was preparing his army for his ill-fated incursion into Greece. At the end of the great feast, a more intimate, week-long feast for the officials of the kingdom took place.
In the Book of Esther, Ahasuerus’ wife is called Vashti even though, according to Herodotus, Xerxes’ wife at the time named Amestris, who was the daughter of a Persian general. However, Vashti is not a purely made-up name. Vashti was the name of an Elamite goddess from Babylonian mythology. Many of the names for the main characters in the story, with the exception of Ahasuerus, were derived from Babylonian mythology as we will see below.
Toward the end of this final feast, when Ahasuerus was quite drunk, he ordered Vashti to come before him and display her beauty. Indignant, Vashti refused, and Ahasuerus, in a fit of anger, deposed her as queen. He then ordered to have all the beautiful women in the region brought before him so he could pick a new queen.
Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordechai… who had been carried away from Jerusalem… And he brought up Hadassah, known as Esther, his uncle’s daughter.
- Esther 2:5-7
The name Mordechai is not Hebrew, and seems suspiciously similar to that of the chief god of the Babylonians, Marduk, or Merodach, in the Hebrew form. As for Esther (her official throne name), the name is very similar to Ishtar, the chief Babylonian goddess. The Aramaic version of Ishtar is, indeed, Esther. The name Haddassah, Esther’s original family name, is closely related to the Babylonian word for “bride,” which was used as a title for Ishtar. Additionally, in Babylonian mythology, Ishtar and Marduk are cousins, as are Mordechai and Esther.
Esther was included among the maidens brought before Ahasuerus and the king chose her to become his new queen. Esther became queen in 480 B.C.E., the year of the battle of Salamis. At the advice of her cousin Mordechai Esther did not tell the king that she was Jewish. Mordechai would correspond with Esther in secret, to conceal her Jewish identity, and when he discovered a plot against Ahasuerus within the palace, he informed Esther, who in turn warned the king. The plotters were hanged and Morechai earned an official commendation in the royal records.
And now the main villain enters the scene.
After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advance him… above all the princes.
- Esther 3:11
Haman is made the equivalent of a prime minister. Considering how close this role was to Ahasuerus (Xerxes) it could be expected that the Greeks would have known who he was. However, there is no mention of Haman in Herodotus or any other Greek historian, nor is anyone found with a similar name. There is, on the other hand, a chief male deity of the Elamites named Hamman.
This gives rise to some interesting historical speculation. Babylonia replaced Elam in the city of Susa during the final decades of the Assyrian Empire, resulting in the Babylonian gods replacing the Elamite gods. The chief Babylonian god, Marduk, replaced the chief Elamite god, Hamman, and the chief Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, replaced the Elamite goddess, Vashti. In the Book of Esther, Vashti is replaced by Esther and, by the end of the story, Mordecai replaces Haman as the prime minister.
Haman’s hatred of the Jews is incited when Mordechai refuses to bow before him. The reason for Mordechai’s refusal to bow is not given in the story but the explanation usually given is that he was unwilling to give a mere person the reverence that was reserved for G-d. Haman became determined to massacre the Jews as recompense.
Haman turned to a ritualistic device in order to determine the date for his massacre of the Jewish people:
… in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot…
- Esther 3:7
In other words, the Book of Esther equates “Pur” (“Purim” in the plural) with lots, possibly like the Urim and Thummim used in ancient Yahvistic rituals. This event would go on to be commemorated as the name of the holiday we celebrate. In truth, it is not certain that Purim means “lots” or what the origin of the festival might be. There are suggestions that Purim may be a Babylonian spring festival that involved a mythic tale of the seasons involving Marduk and Ishtar that was later adopted by the Jews in Babylon. It may have been the purpose of the author of the Book of Esther to revise the Babylonian myth into Jewish history to convert a pagan festival into a patriotic Jewish observance.
Haman convinces Ahauerus that the Jews would never consider themselves bound by the king’s laws and are therefore a threat to the king. With Ahasuerus’ blessing, Haman is granted permission to eradicate the Jewish people in a day of reckoning.
Mordechai appeals to Esther immediately to use her influence with Ahasuerus to nullify the decree. Esther plans a banquet and asks Ahasuerus and Haman to attend. Both agree and Haman in particular is pleased with this mark of royal favor.
The night before the banquet, the king finds himself unable to sleep. He asks to have the royal records read to him and learns of Mordechai’s role in quelching the plot to assassinate the king back when Esther first became queen. Ahasuerus calls in Haman to ask his advice on a method for honoring a man who deserved great gratitude from the king. Haman assumes the honor is for himself and advises an elaborate ceremony, which is then, to Haman’s infinite chagrin, applied to Mordechai.
Later, during the banquet, Esther reveals herself to be Jewish and demands the life of Haman. Ahasuerus grants her request and Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had designed for Mordechai, who in turn is raised to prime minister in Haman’s place.
The decree that the Jews were to be slaughtered could not be rescinded because the laws of the Medes and Persians could not be altered. However, the Jews were allowed to defend themselves and there is a kind of civil war where the Jews emerge victorious.
The Rest of Esther
The Book of Esther was troubling to some because there was no reference to G-d. A number of additions were made to account for this, together with circumstantial quotes from supposed documents. These quotations were so unrealistic that they only further detract from the historicity of the book.
Jewish scholars did not accept these additions but they do appear in the Septuagint. These additions were called “The Rest of Esther’ by the translators of the King James Version and make up a part of the Apocrypha.
The Rest of Esther mentions Mordechai’s dreams and provides details on the plot against the king that Mordechai would foil. Mordechai and Esther’s prayers are quoted, which is where Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman is elaborated.
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