Purim in the Bible – The Book of Esther

1024px-Homemade_hamantaschen2A friend once told me that all the good holidays in Judaism fall into the same mold: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” And while that may be true for a few holidays, it is never truer than on Purim, the holiday which celebrates the Jews’s escape from a Persian genocide thanks to the attractiveness and intelligence of a secret Jew, Esther, the queen of Persia. Esther’s story is told in the Book of Esther, one of the last books to be added to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Especially in Israel, Purim has become something like Halloween mixed with Saint Patrick’s Day. Children wear costumes and eat special cookies– my wife makes amazing hamentaschen– while religiously observant men are commanded to get so drunk that they cannot even “distinguish between ‘[…] Haman’ and ‘[…] Mordecai.'”, the antagonist and protagonist of the Esther story.  I did not believe that when I was told, but yes– it’s in the Talmud (Tractate Megillah, Ch. 1, 7b).

In this post, we will be introduced to the world of the Persian Jews, a competition to become queen, and finally the decree of the king of Persia to massacre all of the Jews in his kingdom.  Spoiler alert: the Jews survive. Read on for this fantastic story.

About the Book of Esther

A scroll of the Book of Esther (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A scroll of the Book of Esther (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Jewish ordering of the books, Esther is placed in the final section of the Hebrew Bible, with the “Writings” rather than the histories. Esther takes place well after the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jews had been captured by Babylon and then Babylon itself had been conquered by the Persians. The book feels much later than the other Hebrew books. It even includes one of the first uses of the term “Jew” to describe the Jewish people, rather then using “Hebrew”.

Esther is also a very special book. Because of the key role of a woman in the story– as well as the text’s habit of making a mockery of powerful men– it is the only scroll of the Hebrew Bible which may be copied by a female scribe. All other ceremonial scrolls may only be copied by men– although this position is being increasingly challenged within the Orthodox Jewish community. Perhaps because of its unusual tone, it also has the distinction of being the only book of the Hebrew Bible not to have been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every other book– including many that some Christians believe but Jews no longer believe– was found at least in fragmentary form. Esther was absent. Whether the Jews at Qumran did not consider Esther part of their canon, or whether it was just bad luck, we may never know.

It Starts With A Party

A coin from the Persian Empire, possibly depicting King Ahasuerus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A coin from the Persian Empire, possibly depicting King Ahasuerus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Our story begins in the distant kingdom of Persia and Media. Like so many good stories, it starts with a raucous party:

This is what happened during the time of [Ahasuerus], the  [Ahasuerus] who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King [Ahasuerus] reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.
Esther 1:1-3

This introduction paints Esther into a historical context. Ahasuerus is generally believed to be the Hebrew version of Xerxes, the name of two rulers of the Achaemenid (also known as the Persian) Empire, around the fifth century BCE. This is a time when Persia did control much of the eastern world and the description of “India to Cush” is not far off from our historical understanding. Many bibles use the name Xerxes instead of Ahasuerus, including the NIV which I am using for quotations, however I have elected to keep to the Hebrew name. This name is more familiar to most Jewish readers, while also putting some distance between the historical figure and the man who appears in this story.

A Map of the Persian Empire. The biblical account includes additional territory. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A Map of the Persian Empire. The biblical account includes additional territory. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To demonstrate the great wealth and power of the Persian Empire, King Ahasuerus led his nation through half a year of copious displays of wealth, followed by a seven day party in his capital, Susa. On the very last day of the party, after everyone was good and thoroughly drunk, he commanded his wife to appear so that his nobles could admire her beauty:

On the seventh day, when King [Ahasuerus] was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
Esther 1:10-12

The queen during this time had been hosting her own party. While I cannot speak to the cultural norms of ancient Persia, we can make some educated guesses as to why Queen Vashti would have refused her husband’s request. The text implies that men and women were expected to  celebrate separately, perhaps for reasons of modesty. Was Ahasuerus shattering his wife’s modesty? Or perhaps, as the host of a gathering of her own, she felt that her place was with her guests. Rabbinical commentators often interpret the note that she was to be “wearing her royal crown” as a sign that in fact she was to wear only her royal crown– i.e. be naked. In any event, the punishment may not have fit the crime. Vashti was to be banished.

But in a sign of the kind of man that Ahasuerus was, he could not leave it at that. No, it was not good enough that his wife be banished. Rather, he wanted all the women of his kingdom to remember that they were subservient to their men:

He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.
Esther 1:22

In this of course, Persian society was not much different from how the bible describes Jewish societies. After all Genesis 3:6 is clear that men “rule over” their wives ever since the Garden of Eden. But it is impossible to not feel here that Vashti is being wronged, that he husband was temperamental and reactionary. Although not clear from the passages that I cite here, he also felt compelled to follow what his advisors told him were the rules. Weak willed and quick of temper, Ahasuerus still needed to find himself another bride.

The Bachelor, Persian Style

Queen Esther, by Andrea del Castagno (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Queen Esther, by Andrea del Castagno (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To replace his now banished bride, Ahasuerus embarked on a empire-wide search for the most beautiful– and virginal– women of the world. All the most beautiful were brought to the capital to compete for the king’s affections in something akin to an ancient version of The Bachelor. Each woman would be given twelve months of luxury and beauty treatments before they could appear before the king so that he could make his choice.

Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them.Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.
Esther 2:2-4

Of the many women who applied at the king’s gates, one was a young Jewish girl named Esther, the cousin and adopted daughter of Mordecai:

Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish […] Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
Esther 2:5-7

In the grand tradition of Sarah and Rebekah– and a problem I know from personal experience– the beauty of a nice Jewish girl can be utterly irresistible. After her twelve months of initiation, when Esther appeared in front of Ahasuerus for the first time, he was knocked off his feet. He was in lust.

Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.
Esther 2:17-18

Despite her immense beauty and her new marriage, Esther was encouraged by Mordecai to keep her family history a secret. She had to hide her Judaism. Did she celebrate Passover in secret during her early years in the palace? Or was she a “secular Jew”, as we might say today? Either way, if she had told him, it would have been a much shorter story.

A Foiled Assassination

An inscription in Persian cuneiform from around the time of Xerxes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
An inscription in Persian cuneiform from around the time of Xerxes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, outside the palace, Mordecai continued his habit of sitting near the king’s gate, perhaps to catch a glimpse or a word with his daughter. One day, he overheard a plot to assassinate the king and had a choice: should he report the incident, or not? Maybe he was only concerned with the “devil you know” or perhaps he feared for Esther’s life in a palace coup. Or, as many commentators suggest, Mordecai may actually have been a good Persian in addition to a good Jew: he was legitimately loyal to his countrymen. Whatever the reason, Mordecai reported the incident and saved the king’s life.

During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King [Ahasuerus]. But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.
Esther 2:21-23

Foreshadowing! This mini-story also introduces two new elements to the tale. First, that Persians are obsessive record-keepers. This is as true in real life as in this story and it is one of the reasons we know so much about this empire. Second, we also discover the kingdom’s favorite method of execution: being impaled on a pole. Ouch.

Haman Plots Genocide

Modern Jews hanging Haman in effigy. You should be able to guess how this story is going to go. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Modern Jews hanging Haman in effigy. You should be able to guess how this story is going to go. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Five years later, a new villain enters our story: Haman, son of Hammedatha. Although the text does not say what he did, Haman had become something of a hero in the kingdom. Whoever he was and whatever he did, Mordecai wanted to have none of it.

After these events, King [Ahasuerus] honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:1-2

We do not know why Mordecai does not pay honor to Haman, but it is clear that he was making the right choice. Haman was a beast of a man. When Mordecai refuses, Haman wants him to be punished. Banishment, Queen Vashti’s punishment, was not enough. Nor was simple execution. Haman had a much better idea: let’s not only kill Mordecai, but all of the Jews in Persia.

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews,throughout the whole kingdom of [Ahasuerus].
Esther 3:5-6

This section is baffling to me, in large part because it makes very little sense to me that all Jews should be killed. There are other places in the Hebrew Bible where genocide is considered “good” and the Persians may have had similar (incorrect) beliefs. One commonly cited reason was that Haman was asking to be worshipped, Mordecai refused because Jews do not worship other gods, and therefore all Jews would not worship Haman and all Jews deserved to be killed. However this view does not line up with what we known of Persia’s religion of that time, Zoroastrianism, nor does it make sense that Haman would be seen as godlike if the king were not.

In either case, Haman took his case to the king:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.” So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.”
Esther 3:8-11

Is it worse for a man to offer tons of silver in exchange for a genocide? Or that the king decided he would do it for free? I am not certain. In either event, the Jews were in for a boat load of trouble very soon.

And with that, I will end Part One of the Esther story. Will the Jews be saved? Come back for the next exciting chapter in the story of Purim, in just a few days.

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