The Bible in and as History: Esther

Jan_Victors_-_The_Banquet_of_Esther_and_Ahasuerus_-_WGA25059The book of Esther holds several interesting notes, the first being that it forms the underpinnings for the Jewish festival of purim. It also raises some interesting questions with regards historicity; should it be read as a story occurring within a historical period, a historical fiction to demonstrate a point? Should it be seen as a literal historical description of events? Somewhere in between those two positions, or outside of them entirely?

It takes place during the years of Persian rule, during the reign of the King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus has been generally identified with Xerxes I, both names being foreign derivations of the Persian Khshayārsha, though the name has been identified with other historical kings as well. In any case, the king is holding a lavish party and in order to impress his guests orders his queen to display her beauty to his guests. Her refusal causes him to cast her out as Queen, justifying that men should be rulers in their own homes. He then starts a contest to choose the new Queen, having all the young women of the country presented to him in order that he may choose.

Esther is a Jewish Orphan, raised by her uncle Mordecai, and is one of these women. The King makes her the new Queen, though she conceals her Jewish heritage from him. Mordecai discovers a plot against the king and reveals it, his meritorious deed being then recorded.

The King appoints Haman as his prime minister, and in short, Haman and Mordecai come to fierce disagreement and Haman decides to get rid of Mordecai. He basically decides, after figuring out Mordecai is jewish, to have all Jews in the kingdom killed, and to hang Mordecai personally. The king goes along with this and the date on which this massacre will occur is drawn by lot. In short a decree that on this day, anyone can kill jews or take their stuff.

Discovering what is to happen, Mordecai convinces Esther to go to the king and try and convince him to stop the bloodshed, despite a rule that one may not go to the king save when summoned. Thus risking death she does so, but the king shows her his favour. He is invited to feast for several days, and during the night discovers the records of Mordecai’s deed.

Long story short, The Queen reveals she is Jewish, and while the King cannot annul his previous command, he permits the Jews to fight back. Various people are killed, but the Jews triumph, and on Esther’s suggestion they start a festival to recall the events in question.

That’s actually quite a truncation and there are plenty of small events and such, but to get to the point I will discuss; There are elements of history in this passage. Obviously it occurs within the frame of a certain time and place. A persian leader is named and so forth. However there are plenty of questions with regards it’s potential historicity. Aspects of it just seem questionable to begin with and it lacks context that would explain certain things; Why is Haman made prime minister? What is the political context for this? What is the political context that would encourage a king to permit the massacre of some of his subjects, and than yet change his mind on the presentation of one meritorious member of that group and his Queen being a member of that group? I don’t doubt the possibility of ethnic strife within the Persian Empire, just the particular presentation makes me believe that if something like this did happen, it was most likely much different from what is being described. There are other outright conflicts in terms of other sources or a lack there-in, and what we know of Persia from Persian and Greek sources bringing into question elements of the story.

Things often gain a ‘popular’ understanding to them as time goes on; and it may be that Purim predates this particular narrative, and that whatever it’s ‘true’ origins, the story here was developed to explain the holiday, not the other way around. Or it may be as it layed out, or something quite close; even something as peripheral as a Jewish Queen or consort getting a King to spare her people, or favour them in some conflict would explain the structure of the story.

There are plenty of other little historical tidbits I enjoy thinking about; The obvious misogyny of the books beginning in which a Queen is thrown out pretty much because she doesn’t ask how high when the king says jump. The social norms extant within the work are, of course, demonstrative of a different social order. One in which obedience is seen as the principal female virtue, along with, in Esthers case, sacrifice in the name of her people.

Next week we come to one of the oft-discussed moral tales of the bible; The Book of Job.

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