The book of Esther in the Bible was composed to explain the origin of the Jewish feast of Purim. Its historical account is, however, unreliable and it contains mythological elements incompatible with the Jewish religion. The latter aspect as well as the absence of any reference in the book to the tribal deity Yahweh is, moreover, extraordinary and requires a reasonable explanation.
The book of Esther in the Old Testament is unique in a number of ways. One is that it is the only book in the Bible that refers to India (see Esther 1:1). More important is that it does not contain the name “God” (or any similar name) in the original text. Because of this, one finds that certain dishonest translators of the Bible try to make the story more acceptable to theists by inserting references to the deity in their translations. In the case of the Afrikaans Bible translation of 1983 a whole sentence has been fabricated to create the impression that the book is divinely inspired. According to these translators the last sentence of Esther 9:31 is supposed to read as follows: “There were also instructions how they should fast and call to God for help.” This sentence appears in neither the Afrikaans translation of 1933 nor any of the English translations that I have consulted. The Catholics go even further. In their Bible, known as the Vulgate, a whole apocryphal section has been added to the book in which the name “God” appears.
There is no shortage of explanations from theists why the name “God” is nowhere to be found in a book that is allegedly divinely inspired. We are for instance informed by the anonymous author of the article on Esther in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (ed.) John Bowker (P. 320) that the name means in Hebrew “I will hide” and that it refers to the absence of God in the text.(On the basis of this explanation we are also told, apparently with a straight face, that Esther had no sexual relations with her husband Ahasuerus because God hid her and “… sent a spirit looking exactly like her to replace her on those occasions.”) While there is indeed a word in Hebrew which sounds like the name Esther and does have that meaning, it also means “star” in Persian and is open to another, far more interesting interpretation to which I shall come shortly. But before doing that, it is necessary to summarise the facts of book briefly for the benefit of those who may have forgotten the story.
It is set in the time when the ancient Israelites lived in exile in Persia during the reign of a king called Ahasuerus who was married to queen Vashti. At some stage Ahasuerus entertained guests at his palace in the city of Susa. The reception, which was attended by a number of eminent persons, was a merry one and lasted for several days. Wine flowed freely. The women who accompanied their husbands were separately entertained by Queen Vashti. On the seventh day Ahasuerus sent seven of his servants to fetch Vashti. She, however, flatly refused to comply with the command of the king. The king was furious. The seven princes of Persia and Media who advised him, recommended that he get rid of the queen because it was feared that her example could make all husbands contemptible in the eyes of their wives.
After having accepted the advice, Ahassuerus stripped Vashti of her position. His choice for a new queen fell eventually on a beautiful Jewess named Esther who, as an orphan, lived with her cousin called Mordecai. She was married to Ahasuerus in the seventh year of his reign. On the instructions of Mordecai Esther kept her ethnicity a secret from the king.
Around the same time when Esther was crowned as queen Mordecai discovered a plot to murder the king. He informed Esther and she in turn conveyed it to her husband. On his instructions the guilty were duly apprehended and eventually hanged while Mordecai’s service to the king was recorded.
Not long afterwards Ahasuerus appointed a man by the name of Haman as head of all the officials and commanded them to show him honour and respect by bowing down to him. Mordecai, however, openly refused to do so, something that enraged Haman. Because he knew that Mordecai was a Jew, he decided to take revenge against all Jews in the kingdom and have them killed. He persuaded Ahasuerus to give his consent for his plan and issue a royal decree to the effect. The date on which the genocide was to take place was determined by casting lots (“purim”). When Mordecai learned of this, he requested Esther to intercede with the king. Although she could not approach Ahasuerus unless summoned, Esther mustered all the courage that she could and entered the presence of the king unannounced. So beautiful was she that Ahasuerus immediately forgave her for her indiscretion and accepted her invitation to a banquet which would also be attended by Haman. Haman, meanwhile, had of his own accord a gallows built to hang Mordecai.
One night before the banquet Ahasuerus could not sleep and had the royal annals read to him. He was reminded of the service that Mordecai had rendered but also discovered that he had never been rewarded. While he was pondering what to do, Haman appeared to request the king’s permission to hang Mordecai. Before he could do so, Ahasuerus asked him what should be done for a man that the king wished to honour. Assuming that the king had him in mind, Haman replied that the man should be dressed in the King’s robes and led around on the royal horse while a herald calls: “See how the king honours a man he wishes to reward!” To Haman’s shock and horror the king then instructed him to do so to Mordecai.
That was not the end of Haman’s bad luck. At Esther’s banquet the king promised to grant her any request that she may have. After revealing her Jewishness, she requested that her people be saved. After listening to her story, Ahasuerus ordered that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai. The king also gave Haman’s seal ring to Mordecai so that he took over Haman’s duties for all practical purposes. According to Ahasuerus, however, he was unable to repeal the royal decree ordering the slaughter of the Jews. He nevertheless came to their aid by issuing a second decree permitting them to defend themselves against any attacks on them. The Jews subsequently vanquished their enemies which included killing the 10 sons of Haman. To commemorate the event, an annual feast was instituted by Esther and Mordecai called Purim (lots).
What is one to make of this story? The first is that it seems strange that Christians should include this book in their Bible which, after all, has absolutely nothing to do with their religion. One reason may simply be that it appears in the Jewish scriptures. (How it came to be included there is something we shall consider later). To a certain extent, however, it does indeed belong among the other religious books for the tale of Esther is clearly mythical and contains elements found elsewhere in the Bible. One finds for instance repeated reference to the number 7 in the narrative. The number 7 was regarded as sacred by the ancient Israelites and they used it to give religious credibility and legitimacy to the tales that they told in their scriptures. (See Isaac Asimov Asimov’s Guide to the Bible P. 1197 – 1198). Hence we are informed by the author that Ahasuerus sent 7 of his servants to fetch Vashti on the 7th day of the royal feast, that he consulted 7 princes and that he and Esther were married in the 7th year of his reign.
But apart from its mythical nature, the Biblical account has a credibility problem. We are expected to believe that Ahasuerus, who is portrayed as a puppet in the hands of first Haman and later Esther, could not repeal his decree authorising the Jewish genocide when he heard what the real reason for the pogrom was. While it is true that so-called laws of Medes and Persians were generally regarded as unalterable (see Esther 1:19 and Daniel 6:8-12), it is hardly likely that an absolute despot like Ahasuerus with unlimited power would have been unable to repeal his own laws. It was, moreover, imperative that he did so in this particular instance, for issuing a second decree that was in direct conflict with the first had the potential to create great instability within his kingdom and might well have endangered his throne. That is usually the last thing that a ruler wants.
How much of the story is otherwise true? As it turns out, very little. We know for a fact that the Jews were exiled to Persia (modern day Iran) during the so-called Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE, and that they celebrate Purim to this day. (It usually happens somewhere in March every year, but the date varies due to the nature of the Jewish calendar.) What is also known that there was indeed a city called Susa situated in the south west of Persia. Beyond this, everything becomes murky.
It is not even certain who king Ahasuerus was and whether he ever existed. At one stage experts argued that the name refers to either Artaxerxes Ⅰ (465 – 424 BCE) or Artaxerxes Ⅱ. (404 – 358 BCE.) Nowadays it is commonly accepted that the anonymous writer must have had in mind the Persian king Xerxes Ⅰ. But there are insurmountable problems if one assumes that he is the king referred to in the book of Esther. One is that Ahasuerus is identified in Daniel 9:1 as someone completely different namely the father of King Darius Ⅰ. (His name was actually, according to Wikipedia, Vishtaspa (Hystaspes in Greek), governor of Bactria.) Xerxes, on the other hand, succeeded Darius as king and ruled from 485 – 465 BCE. Secondly, the exile ended in 537 BCE. That is 52 years before Xerxes was crowned. However, according to Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7 Mordecai returned with the exiles and could accordingly not have been in Persia during the reign of Xerxes. Then there is the question of the age of Mordecai. We know from extra-Biblical and archaeological evidence that the exile commenced in 597 BCE. (There are contradictions in the Bible as to who the king of Judah was at the time – whether it was Jehoiachin as is stated in 2 Kings 24:6-16 or Jeconiah mentioned in Ester 2:5-6.) What is important though, is that Mordecai was, according to the Esther 2:5-6, carried off into exile at the time. Calculations by William Harwood have shown that even if he was an infant when this happened, he must have been between 118 and 123 years old at the time of Esther’s marriage to Xerxes. (See William Harwood Mythology’s Last Gods P. 229 – 230). Esther could not have been much younger. Not only did people who lived in those days not have such a long life expectancy, but it also makes one wonder how Ahasuerus could have found the decrepit Esther irresistibly beautiful. Lastly, apart from the fact that no extra-Biblical sources confirm the claim that Xerxes divorced his wife to marry an exile belonging to the Jewish faith, his queen was not called Vashti. According to the Greek historian Herodotus she was known as Amestris, the daughter of a Persian general.
Nevertheless, the name Vashti is not a made up one. Isaac Asimov points out on page 467 of his Guide to the Bible that Vashti is the name of a goddess who was part of the Neo-Elamite pantheon of deities. She was also known as Mashti. The reference to Babylonian mythology in the book of Esther does not end there. On the contrary, a surprising number of characters in the book are mythological. According to Asimov (P. 467 – 8), the name Mordecai is not Hebrew but sounds suspiciously like the chief god of the Babylonians, Marduk. Harwood, moreover, transliterates the name Mordecai in his book (on pages 229 -230) to Mardukay, which resembles the name Marduk to an even larger extent. Esther too is clearly a variation of the name of the well-known chief goddess of the Babylonians called Ishtar. In fact, according to Harwood P.229 the name Ishtar is an alternative transcription of the same Hebrew letters used to spell Esther. (The translators of the English Bible may have used the Aramaic form of the name Ishtar which is indeed Esther). The biblical Esther’s name when she was younger was, according to Esther 2:7, Hadassah, a word closely related to the Babylonian for “bride.” That, Asimov says, was the title commonly used for the goddess Ishtar. And just as Esther and Mordecai were cousins, so were Ishtar and Marduk in Babylonian mythology.
Haman (alternatively spelled Hu(m)ban), another ahistorical figure in the book of Esther, turns out to be the name of the chief male god of the Elamites. Elam was an empire that fought numerous wars against the Assyrians (a Babylonian people). When Elam was conquered, their gods, Haman and Vashti, were replaced by their Babylonian counterparts Marduk and Ishtar. This is also what happened in the book of Esther when Esther took over as queen from Vashti and Mordecai ousted Haman as the prime minister of Ahasuerus (P.469). This interpretation of Asimov, is shared by Harwood and the German orientalist and religious historian Walter Beltz in his book God and the Gods. Beltz is furthermore of the view that “King Ahasuerus must have been a symbol for the land of Babylonia-Assyria-Media, which Marduk had sought to win.” (P.207). To my mind he is correct. It is not necessary to think that Ahasuerus was a historical person.
Another interesting phenomenon is that Haman is described in Esther 3:1 as “…the son of Hammedatha the Agagite…”. An ethnic group by the name of the Agagites, however, never existed in history. But what is known, is that one of the kings of the Amalikites (who were the arch enemies of Israel) was called Agag. After being captured in battle by King Saul, he was killed by Samuel who “…hewed Agag in pieces…” (1 Samuel 15:33). Mordecai, on the other hand, is identified in Ester 2:5 as, among other things, a son of Kish, a Benjamite. He accordingly descended from King Saul whose father was named Kish and was also a Benjamite. (See 1 Samuel 9:1-2). As Asimov accordingly remarks “…the conflict in the book of Esther (thus echoes) the conflict in the first book of Samuel”. (P. 469).
The last aspect to which I wish to refer, concerns the word “pur”. We are told in Esther 3:7 that it means “the lot”. Both Asimov and Tim Callahan in his book Secret Origin of the Bible pages 417-8 point out that the word was also connected with feasts dating from antiquity. According to Callahan “pur” is the Akkadian word for “lot”. At the time when Xerxes Ⅰ was king of Persia, though, Akkadian had not been the official language of the empire for 131 years. It had been replaced by Persian and Aramaic. That shows, says Callahan, that the events described in the book of Esther were supposed to have taken place during an earlier epoch, namely the Babylonian empire. (This is of course further support for the argument that the king Ahasuerus cannot possibly be Xerxes Ⅰ ). During that time a feast was held called Zagmuku. The members of the community exchanged roles with servants being masters and masters being servants. Even the king was replaced by a mock king called Zoganes. He was a condemned prisoner who was allowed to wear the king’s crown, sceptre etc. and until he was eventually stripped of the royal robes, scourged and put to death. But the reversal of roles was unique to that period. The idea that someone who had performed a service to the king would be allowed to wear his crown and robes (Esther 6:6-9) was, according to Callahan, alien to the Persian empire.
In the book of Esther such a reversal of roles did indeed take place with Esther who replaced Vashti and Mordecai who assumed Haman’s post as prime minister after his execution. During the traditional Jewish feast of Purim roles are similarly swapped. Costumes are worn and women are for instance allowed to open the windows of the synagogue and look in – something that is ordinarily forbidden. Callahan is of the view that the book of Esther is primarily a rationalization for incorporating a pagan festival into the Jewish faith (P. 418).
It seems to me that he is probably correct. That, however, still leaves the question unanswered why the Jews included this particular book into their canon – a fable or allegory if you like but also a panegyric to heathen deities. One reason may be that the story is dated long after the events it purports to describe. Even if one accepts that it was written just before the Greek conquests of Alexander the Great from 333 to 331 BCE in Persia and the Levant, it means that more than 200 years would have elapsed since the end of the Exile. No one was accordingly alive to dispute anything contained in the book. Another is that at the time the book was composed, the Jews were already celebrating Purim but probably had a very hazy notion what its origin was. One assumes that they, and particularly the religious authorities, were anxious to have an explanation and only too glad to get one. The priests presumably did not know that king Ahasuerus was a fictitious person and that the cast of characters in the drama are in fact so-called heathen “idols”. And if they realized that the name of their own deity, Yahweh, appears nowhere in the book, they probably allowed themselves to be persuaded that it is acceptable because, as mentioned earlier, the name Esther means in Hebrew “I will hide”. The really interesting question is who the author of Esther is and why he wrote the fictitious account and presented it to the authorities as the truth. No one seems to know. I like to think, though, that the author was a religious sceptic who wanted to poke fun at the Jewish clergy by exploiting their gullibility and ignorance of foreign religions and cultures. Such a scenario would account for all the facts. This, I admit, is only a possibility but it is nevertheless an intriguing one that provides plenty of food for thought.