{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Esther and the Persian Court

The focus of attention in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is upon the faithful remnant of Jews who returned to Palestine in the years following the decree of Cyrus. Jewish life continued in the East, since many who thought of themselves as loyal Jews, preferred to live in their adopted country.

The incidents described in the Biblical Book of Esther indicate some of the trials and victories experienced by Jews who chose to remain in Babylon and Persia. We find ourselves in the court of Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), son and successor of Darius the Great. The king provided lavish entertainment for his nobles and, at the height of his party, sent for his queen, Vashti, and ordered her to make a lewd display of herself. When Vashti refused, the nobles suggested that Vashti be deposed lest her refusal to obey the king become an example to other wives who might not respect the word of their husbands.

It was in the third year of Xerxes (Biblical Ahasuerus) that Vashti was deposed, and four years were to pass before another queen would be chosen. These were difficult years for the Persian king who had determined to conquer Greece. In 480 B.C. Greece defeated the Persians in a naval encounter at Salamis, and the next year was one of further reverses for Persia at Plataea. Xerxes was far from achieving his goals on the field of battle.

When the king decided to find a wife to take the place of Vashti he sent to the many provinces of his empire to secure young ladies from whom the choice might be made. We might term this an ancient beauty contest. The plan was suggested by the courtiers of Xerxes and approved by the king himself.

Among the young ladies brought to Susa (Biblical Shushan), the capital of Susiana and winter palace of the Persian kings, was a Jewess named Hadassah, or Esther, the cousin of a Jew of Susa named Mordecai. Mordecai was a faithful Jew who could trace his ancestry back to Benjamin (Esther 2:5). The name of Mordecai appears in the Persian and Neo-Babylonian cuneiform literature. We know that a man named Mordecai (Marduka) was a high officer in the court of Susa during the early days of Xerxes' reign (cf. A. Ungnad, "Keilinschriftliche Beitrage zum Buch Esra und Ester," Zeitschrift fūr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, LVIII (1940-41) pp. 240-244). The German cuneiform scholar, Arthus Ungnad, asserts that this text which was discovered at Borsippa is out first and only extra-Biblical reference to the Mordecai of the Esther story. Mordecai bore a name which honored Marduk, the god of Babylon. The name was a common one, and Ungnad's identification need not be insisted on. We do know that a faithful Jew with that name was in Susa at the time.

The ancestors of Esther and Mordecai had been deported from Jerusalem with Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. (Esther 2:6). When Esther's parents died, her cousin Mordecai assumed responsibility for her. Conscious of her great beauty, Mordecai brought Esther to the court where she immediately captivated Xerxes. She may have been conscious of anti-Semitic feelings at court, for she did not reveal the fact that she was a Jewess. In the seventh year of his reign, amidst scenes of rejoicing, Xerxes married Esther (Esther 2:17-18).

Trouble came to a head for the Jews when Haman, termed "the Agagite" (after the Amalekite king defeated by Saul), was chosen as grand vizier to Xerxes (Esther 3:1). Mordecai, proud of his Jewish blood and conscious of ancient rivalries between Jews and Amalekites, refused to bow before Haman. Incensed by this lack of respect, Haman determined to have all of the Jews in Persia executed.

By casting a lot ("pur," from which the Jewish holiday Purim is named), Haman determined that the thirteenth day of Adar (February-March) was the most auspicious day for his program. He then told Xerxes of "a certain people" scattered throughout the empire who refused to obey the king's laws. Haman was so anxious to destroy these "people" that he offered to pay to the royal treasury ten thousand silver talents (about eighteen million dollars), if the king would back his project. Xerxes placed his signet ring on Haman's hand and authorized him to proceed with his plans. Orders were dispatched to the provincial governors to destory all of the Jews on the thirteenth of Adar, eleven months from the date of the edict.

Mordecai and the Jews mourned when they learned of the decree which had been devised to exterminate them. Esther, unaware of what had happened, sent for Mordecai, providing him with a suitable robe so that he might visit the palace. Mordecai refused to come, but sent Esther a copy of the decree, and urged her to intervene on behalf of her people. She, in turn, replied that she could not appear before the king unannounced. Such an act might anger the king and cause him to kill her. Mordecai warned Esther that the enforcement of the decree would bring about her death in any event (Esther 4:13) and suggested that she had "come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14). With the heroic words, "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16), Esther determined to go to the king.

When she entered the forbidden inner court, Esther was graciously received by the king. Instead of stating her request she invited Xerxes and his vizier, Haman, to dinner (Esther 5:1-4). When the wine was served at the end of the meal she invited them to a second banquet the next day. Haman, overjoyed at the deference paid him by the queen, was later annoyed as he passed Mordecai (Esther 5:9). Determining to rid himself of this hated Jew he erected a gallows over 83 feet high on which to hang his imagined foe (Esther 5:14).

That night when Xerxes had difficulty sleeping he ordered the royal chronicles read to him (Esther 6:1-3). When the account of Mordecai's act in saving the king from a conspiracy on his life (Esther 2:21-23) was reached, Xerxes insisted that some suitable reward should be provided for his faithful courtier. Haman came early to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could make known his request, the king asked him to suggest a means of honoring a particularly faithful subject. Haman, thinking that he was the one to be honored, suggested that the man be led through the streets on horseback, attired in royal garments and preceded by a herald proclaiming the meaning of the honor. Crestfallen when he learned that Mordecai was the man to be honored, Haman nevertheless carried out his own recommendation (Esther 6:4-11). Returning home he found his wife and friends pessimistic about his contest with Mordecai. While they were talking, the king's chamberlain came to take Haman to the queen's banquet (Esther 6:12-14).

At the end of the meal, Esther, at the king's request, presented her petition (Esther 7:3-4). She asked that she and her people be spared from the destruction which had been determined. Wondering who had plotted such evil, Xerxes was told that it was none other than his grand vizier, Haman. While the king, in great agitation, walked in the garden, Haman approached Esther to plead for his life. Returning, however, the king saw Haman with the queen and suspected him of assaulting her. Xerxes ordered that Haman be executed on the gallows that had been built for Mordecai (Esther 7:5-10).

Unable to revoke the edict of Haman, the king authorized Mordecai, his new grand vizier, to issue a decree permitting the Jews to massacre and despoil all who would attack them on the fateful thirteenth of Adar (Esther 8:8-14). The Jews rejoiced at this new decree and many of their neighbors professed to become Jews to avoid the retribution which they feared the Jews would take upon their enemies (Esther 8:16-17). (Cyrus Gordon interprets this as an example of the doctrine of kitman or dissimulation which permits one to deny his religion and pose as a member of another religion to avoid danger. He points out that Esther hid her Jewish affiliation (Esther 2:10) before the Iranian gentiles pretended to be Jews (Esther 8:17). Cf. Cyrus H. Gordon, The World of the Old Testament, pp. 283-284.)

On the thirteenth of Adar the two decrees went into effect. Because of the influence of Mordecai, the provincial rulers sided with the Jews in their conflict with their enemies. In Susa the Jews slew five hundred men in addition to the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:1-11). The king acceded to Esther's request that the Jews be granted a second day to take vengeance on their enemies, and on the fourteenth of Adar they slew three hundred more (Esther 9:13-16). In the provinces the Jews had slain 75,000 of their enemies on the thirteenth of Adar, and celebrated a joyous festival on the fourteenth (Esther 9:16-17). The Septuagint gives the number killed as 15,000. In Susa the Jews celebrated their victory on the fifteenth of Adar. Mordecai and Esther wrote letters instructing the Jews to celebrate Purim both on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar by "feasting and gladness, sending portions (of food) one to another, and gifts to the poor."

Among the unusual characteristics of the Book of Esther is the total absence of the word God. Although we read of fasting, there is no mention of prayer. Mordecai and Esther both appear as godly Jews, however. In the dire need which faced them following Haman's decree, Mordecai suggested that if Esther did not go to the king deliverance might come "from another place" (Esther 4:14), an expression which implies the intervention of God. Although far from the land of Palestine, the Persian Jews knew that their God ever stood "within the shadows keeping watch above His own."

Nehemiah the Builder < | Esther and the Persian Court | > The Emergence of Judaism

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