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The Book of Esther



One of the less popular books, Esther is full of implicit, historically relevant connections in the post-Exilic landscape of Jewish life.

  Table of Contents
  1. Genre
  2. Which (Arta)Xerxes?
  3. Vashti, Esther, Amestris
  4. Historical Setting
  5. Date of Composition
  6. Resources

I. Genre

What did the author of the book consider it to be? Was he writing about a lesson, portrayed by characters and a story, like a parable, couched in historical terms, like Judith or Tobit? No matter how accurate various details are, one cannot assume historical intent without knowing more about the characters. Many of Shakespeare's plays were derived from genuine historical sources such as Plutarch, but one wouldn't look to them for further factual illumination. Given that most of our knowledge of the king himself, should he be Xerxes, comes from one source, Herodotus, and mostly in anecdotal evidence outside of certain chronological events such as the war against Greece - and this only for the first 7-8 years of his reign - learning more about Esther, Mordecai, Haman, or even Xerxes and their personal lives isn't an option.

Yet, although not in the same vein as Nehemiah or Ezra, the book certainly at least tries to pretend it's connected to literal history. The origin of Purim is given an explanation that necessitates at least the basics of the story to be taken at face value: Haman intends to destroy the Jews, but they not only escape but destroy their enemies. The statistics given in 9:6, 16 are a bit pointless if the story wasn't meant to be factually biographical. The note in 10:2, reminiscent of the referals in the Books of Kings, also shows that the author considered his work historically-based.

Sometimes it's supposed that the book was intended as a novella based on for one, that Mordecai's ancestor is Kish, who is the famous father of Saul, and Haman is painted as an "Agagite" recalling the Amalekite king Agag Saul defeated, and this was a "rematch" where it went right. Why anyone would try to rehabilitate Saul's image and associate Mordecai with his failures over David is a mystery. This maybe suggests Kish was an actual relative of Mordecai's, and Haman was symbolically called an Agagite because of his actions and the connection of Saul's physical triumph. A "Kish, son of Abdi" is mentioned both at the time of David (1 Chron. 6:44) and in Hezekiah's (2 Chron. 29:12) - both singers descended from Merari; Levites in this case. There is even a "Heman" in 1 Chron. 6:33. So the name wasn't nonexistent and was a coincidence.

II. Which (Arta)Xerxes?

The Book talks about King Ahasureus. This is identified from the Persian for Xerxes alone. [Shea, p.246, n.5] But one can imagine that either the author wasn't being too literal, or there was some common name by Jews for perhaps one of the later kings, three of whom are "Artaxerxes".

In that case, there are 5 kings:

  • Xerxes I
  • Artaxerxes I
  • Xerxes II
  • Artaxerxes II
  • Artaxerxes III

We can immediately exclude Xerxes II who ruled for 45 days. It couldn't possibly be the king intended regardless of the work being fiction or not. We can also rule out Artaxerxes III, who was at war during most of the timeframe given in Esther, and would in no way be throwing lavish banquets at the end of his 7th year (early 351 BC) when he had just finished two wars (Media and against his wester Satraps) and was preparing for a massive Egyptian campaign.

Despite the letter in Ezra 4:18-22, Artaxerxes I was a friend of the Jews as Nehemiah and Ezra show. So it's not possible that Esther's king could not know who the Jews were and could be led to order their destruction in his 12th year (Esther 3:7-11), when he comissioned and lavishly endorsed Ezra to go to Jerusalem in his 7th (Ezra 7:7, 12-28). Artaxerxes II could not have held any feasts at Susa in his early years because the royal palace had burned sometime during Artaxerxes I's reign and it had been partially rebuilt by Artaxerxes II later on. His seventh year was also in the middle of a protracted war that didn't end until a few years later. In addition, Berossus notes he was an avid worshipper of Anahita and Mithra, trying to enforce it, and the one inscription at Susa found has him invoke their name alongside Ahura Mazda unlike the other monarchs. It's unlikely Mordecai would've become second after the king (10:3) under these conditions.

The best and only really suitable candidate is Xerxes I. The name can only be matched to him, and the chronology matches him much better. The end of his third year would've been cause for celebration after crushing an Egyptian and Babylonian revolt. The 180-day event probably took place in winter/spring, since that's when traveling to Susa took place most frequently (~November-May). [Hallock, p.41] Shea smartly speculates that the 7-day celebration that followed could've been the New Year, hence why the whole populace was involved. [Shea, p.236] "The Greek author Ctesias reported that 15,000 nobles regularly dined at the tables of Persian kings. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal I bragged to have entertained 69,574 guests at a ten-day feast on the dedication of his palace at Calah.” [NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible]

If these 180 days were the beginning of preparations for the Greek invasion, which Herodotus says started being made immediately after the Egyptian (and Babylonian) revolt, the presence of military officers (1:3) makes sense. The four years he took to prepare for the Greek invasion explain the gap between the end of his 3rd year (early 482 BC) and the end of his 7th (early 478 BC). Having failed, Xerxes left Athens in early October, 480 BC, and was back in Sardis by December of the same year, no later than January of the next. [Shea, pp.237-8] Esther's beauty treatment begins around this time, 12 months prior to the 10th month of Xerxes' 7th year (=January, 478 BC). Xerxes' indifference to his wife both in Esther and Herodotus is evident. He makes advances towards the wife of his brother, Masistes, at Sardis, having just returned from Greece. Shea speculates, probably correctly, that Amestris is not at Sardis because she's not mentioned and has no response unlike the later episode with Masistes' daughter. And perhaps if she is the Vashti who irritated him, she was left at Susa unlike the wives of others who were included on the Greek expedition. [Shea, pp.238-9]

Xerxes' fickle temperament is amply recorded by Herodotus: on the way back from Greece, the captain of Xerxes' ship informs him that there are too many passengers and it'd sink. Xerxes orders some of them to be thrown overboard. He rewards the captain with a golden crown for saving his king's life, but throws him overboard for causing the death of Persians. Probably a legend (why not throw out cargo?), but his brutality in the suppression of the Egyptian and Babylonian revolts evinces his vindictive character. He also hides his embarrassment behind anger. [Herodotus, Hist. 9.111.5]

His extravagant wealth is also confirmed. After he left, Greeks finding his camp encountered couches of gold and silver, golden bowls and drinking cups, gold all over the tents, in wagons, and embroidery etc (cf. Esther 1:6-7). [Herodotus, Hist., 9.80.1] The motif of "golden and silver couches" is also spoken of Croesus (Herodotus, Hist., 1.50), so perhaps it was an expression, both by Esther and Herodotus, or it was how the Eastern monarchs liked their living room! Herodotus mentions the numerous gold and silver drinking cups Meandrius, former ruler of rich Samos, liked displaying. [Histories, 3.148] Darius' inscriptions at Susa talk of colonades of stone (alabaster - marble-like appearance).

Other support is the fact that an official named "Marduka", identical with the name "Mordecai" is found during Xerxes I's reign.

III. Vashti, Esther, Amestris

III.a. The Name

The main objection to Esther is that Xerxes' wife is Amestris, not Vashti or Esther. Given that Herodotus names six of the seven conspirators mentioned in the Behistun Inscription fairly accurately, and that the Persian names in Esther are accurate Achaemenid names [Millard, p.485], we can't pretend one of the names was mutilated over the language barriers. There may be some leeway in the Hebrew (e.g. if Hegai in 2:3, 8, 15 is Shaashgaz in 2:14 - though a "second harem", Hegai resumes all functions in v.15). For instance, the Persian names of Haman's sons show some corruption. Persian names frequently mutated from the original in the hands of the Greek writers. Shea notes the LXX of Esther's Zethar becomes Abataza and KaršenaArkesaios. [Shea, p.239] Since Greek had no equivalent sound for "sh", it could've easily been replaced by an "s" as well as the final "s" in "Amestris" which is an obvious Greek addition. [Shea, p.239] They also didn't have the letter "V", so this was dropped or replaced. For example, the LXX of Esther has "Vashti" become "Astin" (cf. another Amestris who becomes Amastrinē in Arrian 7.4.5). Also two of the co-conspirators in the Behistun Inscription, "Vindapana" and "Vidarna", become "Intaphrenes" and "Hydarnes" in Herodotus. [Hist. 3.70] The former name also has an additional "R" in the middle, just like "Amestris" vs "Vashti"; for all we know Herodotus could've conflated "Esther's" "R" in there. Greek authors frequently molded foreign names to their own language's forms, such as another of Darius' co-conspirators, Bagabukhsa, becoming "Megabyzus", and V's were replaced with M's by some cultures that didn't have the former sound [Shea, 240]:

The different initial labials can be explained without great difficulty. Since Old Persian had no W, the initial waw in Hebrew implies an original Old Persian V. [R. G. Kent, Old Persian (New Haven, 1953), pp.11-12] Furthermore, Old Persian had a V but Greek and Hebrew did not. In this case then, that original Old Persian V dissociated into different labials in Greek and Hebrew, M and W respectively, neither of which reflected precisely the consonant from which they stemmed. The same thing can be seen between Old Persian and Elamite, where the V>M shift was constant because there was no V in Elamite either. [The Old Persian V > M Elamite shift was a constant for which numerous examples might be cited; e.g., Vivana > Mimana, Varaza > Maraza, Gubaruva > Kambarma, etc. Cf. Cameron, Persepolis Treasury Tablets (Chicago, 1948), pp. 75-82, nos. 34, 72, 73, 92, 110. ]

III.b. Amestris and her Character

If anything, Herodotus or his sources could've conflated Esther and Vashti's names and characters to some degree. This might explain one of the probably legendary notices he gives us about Amestris: that she twice buried seven noble children as a sacrifice - perhaps reminiscent of the death of Haman's sons, which occurred at the instigation of Esther for a second day of empire-wide fighting (9:13-15). She also clearly didn't follow the Jewish dietary laws (2:9), so we're not talking about a Daniel, or even Mordecai, but a young girl who goes with the flow of her interests (cf. her reticence to do anything about the decree until pressed by Mordecai - 4:11). At any rate, Esther cannot be Amestris because the latter had been Xerxes' wife before he became emperor and her sons accompanied him on the Greek expedition.

Whether Esther kept the title of royal queen for long, or perhaps the book exaggerates a bit, is debatable. Concubines had as much power as the eunuchs, since Mania had to win both their favor and the men with "greatest influence at the court of Pharnabazus" to become satrap. [Xenophon, Hellenica 3.1.10] She's afraid of approaching the king despite being his favorite, main wife (4:11). But she points out the law applying to everyone and that she hadn't been summoned for 30 days. Xerxes could've been in one of his moods as far as she knew. The Persian custom was for the king to summon. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.68.2] One wonders how Esther would've escaped Vashti's wrath, but being Xerxes' favorite was enough protection, just as Amestris didn't dare do anything to Artaynte, Xerxes' mistress, but only went after her mother. Amestris/Vashti aren't killed, something both Esther and Herodotus presuppose, especially given Amestris' emboldened actions against the wife of the king's brother, causing the latter to attempt a revolt and being killed for it, but lived till near the end of Artaxerxes I's reign 40-50 years later (Ctesias, fragment 14), making her in her 80's.

Maybe the stories in Herodotus are exaggerations; after all, why Amestris would be allowed any kind of access is a question, though Esther's Vashti is still a lesser wife and queen. The fact that she blamed the mother of Xerxes' mistress means she caught wind of his actions in Sardis (Herodotus says "heard" of it - Hist. 9.110.1) and perhaps assumed that the mother instigated the daughter to replace Amestris as queen, evidenced by the robe. She couldn't do anything to the daughter or it'd be her head for sure, but the results her mother suffered would be the next best thing. Also that would eliminate the mastermind directing the daughter. It's unlikely this happened exactly like this, because it's questionable Amestris would've escaped punishment on such an unprovoked assault on the king's sister-in-law. But it may show along with Esther that there was a distance between Xerxes and the queen, and perhaps that there was a removal of her as main queen. If she's Vashti, then she was about as old as Xerxes and so he couldn't control her too much, making her denial of the simple request to be seen by his friends an example of one of those petty marital squabbles. Public displays of beauty were usually expected of concubines, not queens.

The ban in Esther 1:19 for Vashti "to come no more before" Xerxes possibly means she no longer had the privileged access to the king - "saw the face of the king" (Esther 1:14; cf. the honor of the co-conspirators to enter the king's palace unannounced - Herodotus, Hist. 3.84.2). [Shea, William H. "Esther and History", Andrews University Seminary Studies 14.1 (1976), p.242] (cf. Esther 6:12, 7:8 - the latter clearly an expression seeing 6:12). Alternatively, the king's opinion may have ameliorated to some degree, as she was the mother of the Crown Prince (Darius). That he regretted it somewhat is implied by Esther 2:1, and also the 30-day absence ("seems somewhat unusual" - NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible) from the king's presence Esther suffered later on (4:11).

More information on her character and its relation to the royal crown is from the fact that she was enraged at the death of her son caused by an Egyptian revolt, but her other son and king, Artaxerxes I, didn't allow her revenge for five years, after which she crucified the leader. This shows she had some influence, but would or could not overstep the king. This minor point somewhat ties her with the Herodotus incident and Esther's Vashti who is self-willed but only within her sphere (for example, Vashti doesn't complain or try to do anything in response to her deposition, perhaps out of fear). Judging that she didn't dare get revenge on a former rebel who killed a royal member because her son forbade her, one can see how annoyed Xerxes would've been with Vashti's refusal to merely show up (cf. Esther 5:10-11), and how annoyed she must've been with him to not do it. Compared to the later Parysatis who immediately executed Mithridates and earlier had convinced her son, Artaxerxes III, to pardon Cyrus the Younger after a failed coup (!), we see there are limits to both Amestris and Vashti's influence or daring.

Vashti didn't need to be main queen to overshadow Esther in the Greek histories if she's Amestris. In the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, a certain woman, Irdabama - evidently a relative of Darius (Hallock, p.29), unmentioned in the Greek or other sources - is allotted a lot more rations than Darius' favorite (but not main) wife, Artystone (Irtašduna), while his main wife, Atossa, is barely mentioned. Apparently Artystone threw lavish banquets, while Irdabama even moreso, reminiscent of Vashti (1:9) and Esther's banquets (5:4).

III.c. Persepolis Fortification Tablets

A tantalizing "princess Ishtin" is mentioned in PF 823. This "Ishtin" is unlikely to be the otherwise frequently mentioned "Irtashduna" (Artystone, wife of Darius), about whom is the only other reference of "princess" (dukshish), because her name is invariably Irtashduna. The Persepolis Fortification Tablets being mostly in Elamite, means we wouldn't expect to find Vashti with a "V", which letter and sound, like the Greeks, they didn't have. Although, as noted above, usually V's become M's in Elamite, sometimes the "V" was dropped (vitham (royal palace) in Old Persian → utam (Hallock, p.642, PF 2071, note d.). And as noted, the Greek in the LXX renders Vashti into Astin.

The Elamite Ishtin was perhaps a variant of Ashtin, like similar examples:

  • Artaxerxes (Old Persian, Artaxshaca; Elamite, Irtakshasha)
  • Xerxes (Hebrew, Ahasureus; Elamite, Ikshersha) [Hallock, p.701]
  • Bardiya (Old Persian, Bardiya; Elamite, Birtiya) [Hallock, p.678]
Variants in the Fortification Tablets (PF) themselves:
  • Kurishtash [PF 1857] vs Kurishtish [PF 495, 850-3, 1663-4]
  • Za-ma-ash-ba [PF 447, 680, 1593, 1956] vs Za-ma-ish-ba [PF 731, 812, 1259]
But could this Ishtin be our Amestris? Does the chronology match? The Persepolis Fortification Tablets span 509-493 BC. Amestris' sons accompanied Xerxes in the Greek invasion in 480 BC. According to Herodotus [Hist. 1.209], they must've been older than 20 to accompany on an expedition. If we assume the eldest was ~25 years old, this would make Amestris no younger than her late 30's by 480 BC - born c.520 BC. This would make her 10-25 years old if it's her in PF 823, which is undated.

But Amestris must've been royalty if she's Ishtin, because PF 823 refers to Ishtin as a princess (dukshish), which title was used for any female member of the royal family. [Brosius, Maria. A History of Persia: The Achaemenid Empire (2020), p.102] Amestris didn't marry Xerxes until after Darius' death, so unless she was a wife of Darius or was of royal blood, the Persepolis Fortification tablet can't refer to her. If she had been a wife of Darius, Herodotus would've certainly mentioned it, so this is unlikely. Therefore, was Amestris royalty by birth?

Her father was Otanes. Her mother unknown. The Otanes, one of the seven, is not mentioned by Herodotus to have been married to any of Darius' sisters. Since Darius was born c.550 BC and Amestris c.520 BC, he could not have had daughters old enough to be her mother. Another relative of Darius is possible, but again, Herodotus' silence makes this too speculative. Nor was Otanes, the co-conspirator, a brother of Cyrus' wife, Cassadane, who was daughter of Pharnaspes, an Achaemenid (Hist. 3.2.2) and thus royalty, because the Behistun Inscription gives his father as "Thukhra".

But Amestris was the daughter of a different Otanes, brother of Darius, whose mother was also named Amestris (meaning Amestris was his eldest child or at least oldest daughter - which makes sense, as she was born no later than c.520 BC, and Darius, the eldest (Hist. 1.209.2), was born c.550, meaning Otanes his (half)-brother was not older than 30 when Amestris was born). So Amestris' grandmother, Amestris, was a different wife of Darius' father, Hystaspes. The Otanes who was her father is mentioned as a brother of the king. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.61.2; 3.62.2 is probably the same, and on that basis so should 3.82 - (half)-brother of the king] This cannot be the same as the conspirator as one of the conspirator Otanes' daughters had been married to Cambyses II, meaning he could not have been born later than 565-560 BC. This would make him too old in Xerxes' invasion, and although not impossible, it would've been noted by Herodotus. Even if this is the same Otanes, his identification as Darius' brother (=brother-in-law), would then mean he married a sister of Darius. Either way, Amestris was born of royal blood and could be Ishtin.

It may be questionable that this Ishtin is anything but a wife of Darius, making her unlikely to be Amestris due to Herodotus' omission of this. Irdabama, probably a relative of Darius' [Hallock, p.29], is never called a princess, and Artystone is called princess only once among the countless mentions of her. But if the title was used so sparingly for even Darius' favorite wife, then it was simply a rare designation in the texts. In fact, it was possibly omitted for brevity because Irdabama and Artystone are clearly well-known, similarly to legal cases where only outsiders are given an ancestry because the rest (judges, scribes) were known. [Waerzeggers, p.55] If so, then princess Ishtin could be a somewhat unknown royal woman, possibly suggesting she's not a wife of Darius, who would otherwise, like Artystone, need no introduction.

Possibly it was Amestris' grandmother that's mentioned in PF 823, as the Persepolis Fortification Tablets cover the years 509-493 BC, as she must've been born not much later than 555 BC. Either way, the same name, Vashti, would be the hypothetical original from which the Elamite "Ishtin" and Greek "Amestris/Astin" sprung. But it's unlikely the grandmother would've been referred by the title princess, as opposed to the younger, less known (10-25 year old) granddaughter. This makes sense that Amestris' mother was not related to Darius, or she probably would've been named by Herodotus.

At the very least, the Greek historians' silence on Irdabama, whose influence is clearly reflected by the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, makes relying on omissions from Herodotus and others, unfounded in the case of Esther.

IV. Historical Setting

Persian Names and Court Life

The Persian names in Esther are reliably transmitted. [Millard, pp.484-5]. Other possible connections may be if we equate Xerxes' favorite eunuch, Hermotimus of Pedasa (thoroughly Greek name) with the eunuch Harbonna in Esther. The change from "B" -> "M" in the middle of the names is not impossible. Greek historians' name changes of Persian origin frequently followed their Hellenic forms (e.g. Herodotus' "Megabyzus" [Hist. 3.70.2] from the original "Bagabukhsa"; also Esther's "Hegai" (2:3, 8, 15) is presumably the "Shaashgaz" of 2:14, as 2:15 has "Hegai" again). Harbonna perhaps has a more main and frequent role than the rest (7:9).

The court dynamic in Esther is also accurate. Eunuchs have influence and power and access to the king. [Herodotus, Histories, 3.77.2] These were trusted and powerful and carried messages from and to the king and queen (Esther 4:5). Also the seven experts of the law Xerxes consults is a typical number such as in court cases in Babylonia [Waerzeggers, p.55] (cf. Ezra 7:14). Mordecai unable to enter the Gate is reflected by Darius' comment that he and his co-conspirators' high noble status would prevent the guards from questioning/barring them (though the eunuchs do) (Hist. 3.72.2-3). Darius' fear of discovery of their plot if they don't act immediately reminds one of Mordecai's report of the conspiring eunuchs [Herodotus, Hist. 3.71.4-5] (Esther 2:21-23).

Mordecai's rise is plausible. He must've been some kind of official to be able to sit at the Gate. Starting with the later years of Nebuchadnezzar, many foreigners gained high positions some of NorthWest Semitic provenance [Waerzeggers, p.27] (1 Samuel 2:8). He also commands her to speak to the king (4:8; compare the opposite by Esther in 7:3), though he realizes that ultimately he can't force her (4:13-14). This is similar to Otanes telling his daughter (by messenger), who had been a royal queen for years, that she had to obey him because he was her father on a task that could cost her life. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.69.2, 4] As Esther's legal guardian, Mordecai was able to apply the same expectations.

The scepter is visible in many Persian reliefs - painted red in the Khorsabad reliefs, denoting gold. The king had to invite someone, even a noble, for them to see him. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.68.2] Anyone could be put to death otherwise, as can be expected from a Persian monarch. Hence Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, hadn't seen the false Smerdies for seven months when she and the other wives were ordered to their room. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.68.5] This makes Esther's courage to approach Xerxes after a month of not having seen him admirable (compare her resolve in 4:16). It probably was more of Xerxes than Persian policy with the scepter (cf. 8:3-4), perhaps the coolness toward Esther developed after the incident with Vashti.

The white and blue/velvet linen hangings in the garden (Esther 1:6) and Mordecai's blue and white robe (8:15) were favorite Persian colors: Artaxerxes II's Shahur palace had wall paintings of life-sized human heads of red, carmine, blue, and white, "...also the colors in evidence at Pasargadae and at Persepolis." [A. Labrousse and R. Boucharlat, “La fouille du palais du Chaour à Suse en 1970 et 1971,” CDAFI 2, 1974, pp. 61-167] [R. Boucharlat and A. Labrousse, “Le palais d’Artaxerxès II sur la rive droite du Chaour à Suse,” CDAFI 10, 1979, pp. 21-136.]

After Haman's fall, his property is confiscated. Though expected, the same happened to all Babylonian merchants and citizens after their revolt against Xerxes in 484 BC. [A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948), Chicago, p.237] That Haman's sons shared their father's fate (Esther 9:10; hanging, most likely meaning impalement) is a common result at the time. They were most likely presumed to have plotted with their father (cf. Esther 5:10, 14; 9:13-14). Artaxerxes I killed Artabanus, the conspirator, along with his entire household. Artaxerxes III went after the rebel Artabazus and his two brothers, implying he was targeting the whole family. [Ruzicka, Stephen (2012). Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525–332 BC. Oxford University Press. p.155] Masistes and his sons are also killed by Xerxes. [Herodotus, Hist. 9.108-113]

127 Provinces

The kingdom had 20 or so satrapies (perhaps as many as 31). But Esther is speaking of 127 provinces, not satrapies: a term the author knew as he uses it for the "satraps, governors, and nobles". The book clearly considers each ethnic group its own province, separated by language and ethnicity (Esther 4:9b). Satraps, governors, and nobles are mentioned in a way that implies this (3:12, 9:3). The Persians themselves had a word for different ethnic regions or "countries" under their sway - Dahyu (singular; dahyāva pl.). On a statue of Darius from Susa, there are 24 different groups depicted. The Daiva Inscription mentions 28. On the soldier list at Xerxes' Naqsh-e Rostam tomb there are 30. And these are not exhaustive. Jews are unmentioned, for example, nor in Herodotus' list of nations' soldiers in the Greek invasion.

Other cultures also provide similar examples. Ancient and medieval lists of Indian classical pre-Mauryan/pre-Nanda kingdoms (janapadas) contain various extremes, some listing 16 major janapadas, others over 200 with the smaller ones. Or the Roman province of Judea itself comprised of Samaria and Idumea, ethnically different, and easily depicted as separate "regions" by a less formal count. One could further break it up into officially recognized tetrarchies or also regions like Galilee, the Decapolis, Perea, etc.

Babylonia was originally one huge satrapy when Cyrus conquered the Babylonian empire (the whole Fertile Crescent basically). Under Darius, the western and eastern halves were split, but the eastern governor in Babylonia continued to rule both because the western governor answered to him. [Dandamaev, M. A. A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire (1989), p.185] After two revolts, Xerxes permanently divided the two and incorporated the eastern one into the newly-made satrapy of Assyria. [ibid.] Assyria itself had provinces, such as Arrapha, conquered in the 6th century BC by the Median king, Cyaxares. Can anyone colloquially call Assyria and Babylonia the same province even if they were the same satrapy? The western satrapy after the Babylonian split had many groups - Phoenicians, Syrians, Jews, etc: all one satrapy, but no one in their right mind would've called it one province, and by the author of Esther's day, the term "satrapy" may have lost its relevance anyway, leading him to prefer to count the understandable regions instead. So it's very subjective exactly how many "provinces". Xenophon speaks of a satrap of multiple provinces [Hellenica 3.1.4] He refers to Caria [Hellenica, 3.4.12] and Phrygia [Hellenica, 3.4.26] as provinces, yet for Herodotus they along with other regions are part of their own satrapies. [Hist. 3.90] In fact, the six-to-one ratio of provinces to satrapies is more or less the idea we get from Herodotus. [Hist. 3.90-94] When one considers that Herodotus' fifth satrapy included the whole region between Cilicia and Egypt (Syria, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Palestine) [Hist. 3.91.1], there can be no doubt that Esther did not intend to count the 20 satrapies.

180-Day Banquet

Celebrations thrown after the quelling of one Egyptian and two Babylonian revolts (484 BC), this was for the preparation of the invasion of Greece, which Herodotus says began immediately after. The six month period would've begun after the crushing of the second Babylonian revolt (October, 484 BC). Although 484-3 BC would be Xerxes' second year, the 180 days spanned into his third. Alternatively, it may have been until the fall of 483 BC that he was able to return and organize everything. This coincides with the months most often spent at Susa (roughly November-May, due to the summer heat - [Hallock, 41]). Seeing the huge quantities of grain and wine and other rations and animals/works allotted by the king in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets means the feasting of the whole city and endless wine mentioned (Esther 1:5, 7-8) should not be doubted (for example, in PF 702 the king provides enough flour to feed 11,886 persons [Hallock, p.24]). Ctesias claims 15,000 nobles regularly dined at the tables of Persian kings. The Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal I, bragged to have entertained 69,574 guests at a ten-day feast on the dedication of his palace at Calah. If he can be believed, John Stevens writes that Tamerlane spent nine months at Samarkand celebrating and preparing to invade Mongolia and China. [Stevens, John. The History of Persia (1715)]

Such banquets were typical for the king's wives to also throw (Vashti - 1:9, Esther - 5:8, 12; 6:14). Allotments in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets for Artystone, Darius I's wife, show she frequently made imposing banquets, sometimes together with her son, Arsames. [PF 733, 734, 2035]

The amount of officials does not mean the empire's (or Susa's) functions were paralyzed for 6 months - which would've collapsed the empire - but is in fact an accurate reflection, beginning with Darius' reign when he completely rebuilt and expanded Susa, of a constant flow of officials from all over the empire.

As Waerzeggers and Seire say regarding Babylonia in the context of the revolt in Xerxes' reign:

Many other dignitaries visited Susa in the course of Darius' reign...The regularity of these gatherings created a stable and predictable context in which highly placed officials from all over Babylonia could meet, get to know each other, and exchange ideas. Several of these people were also in touch with each other back home in Babylonia, but the court ceremonials at Susa provided a more concentrated occasion for interaction on a larger scale...The regular gatherings at the palace of Susa initiated by Darius I could well have played a role in bringing people from all over Babylonia together and in supplying them with a reliable and predictable meeting schedule. [Waerzeggers, Caroline and Maarja Seire (eds.), Xerxes and Babylonia: The Cuneiform Evidence (Peeters, 2018), pp.113-4]

Shea supposes the prolonged beauty treatment may have been because Xerxes did not plan to return to Susa until after the Greek invasion. [Shea, p.238] Either way, Xerxes had other duties and preoccupations, and Esther was still one out of many young girls.

How economically likely is it the king would remit taxes throughout the entire empire on Esther's banquet (2:18)? Yet the false Smerdis did the same for three years by decree, seven months in practice until he was deposed. [Herodotus, Hist., 3.67] It was apparently not ruinous to the empire, and in Esther we're not told for how long. In fact, Sparta had a similar custom of forgiving public and private debts at the beginning of a king's reign. [Herodotus, Hist. 6.59]

The Decree

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible points out, “Ancient Persia was a patriarchal society, and women in general were expected not only to honor their husbands, but to obey them as well. Nevertheless, we should not conclude that women were held in general subservience to men. The Persepolis Fortification Tablets reveal that women often worked as managers or directors of various businesses and sometimes supervised men. So while men might be urged to rule their homes, women were not generally oppressed.”

The translation of such a widespread decree would've been done like any official order: translation into the main languages of each satrapy, who would then delegate the task to local officials who would've certainly been bilingual. Inscriptions were frequently trilingual (Behistun, Van), and would typically be in the language of the area unless there was a reason such as a show of superiority (e.g. Van) [Dusinberre, Elspeth R. M. (2013). Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1107577152. p.52]

Herodotus tells us it was the biggest insult in Persia to be called "worse than a woman". [Hist. 9.107.1] This would then explain Xerxes' "fury" at Vashti's refusal as perfectly within his character given by Herodotus, who has him replace embarrassment with anger. For example, when he had to give Mastises' wife to Amestris, he goes to his brother Masistes, pleading he take one of his daughters as a new wife. After Masistes quite respectfully and reasonably declines, Xerxes gets angry and orders him to leave his wife and now the option of taking the king's daughter is denied - "this way you will learn to accept that which is offered you." [Herodotus, Hist. 9.111.5] Even a generally "likeable" despot like Napoleon instilled enough fear in his court that people were afraid to even beat him at chess!

Xerxes' revenge on Vashti is the next best punishment short of death or prison. Artaxerxes II's mother, Parysatis, hated his wife Stateira, whom she eventually murdered, and encouraged him to take a concubine to insult her. The same possibility ticks off Amestris as we know from Herodotus' mutilation episode.

Mordecai's Age

To suppose the author of Esther intended Mordecai, and not his ancestor Kish, to be the one taken by Nebuchadnezzar, would be an insult to someone who must've known Xerxes and Nebuchadnezzar's reign were at least several generations apart. Seeing that he is familiar enough with Persia to have accurate Persian names [Millard, pp.484-5], he must've known of Cyrus and Darius and that the latter's reign was decades. And even if we suppose he thought Cyrus appeared sometime shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, he couldn't have been ignorant of the fact that between Jerusalem's fall and Xerxes there were at least 50 years. If Mordecai was taken young, in theory, this could still allow a 55-60 year old uncle of a teenage girl. But, since the number of persons between Mordecai and Kish corresponds to the ~100-110 years between the events, there's no reason to suppose Mordecai was intended as the Babylonian captive. At any rate, the Hebrew allows for Kish to be the captive. [Shea, p.245] At any rate, Mordecai lives for at least a decade or more after his introduction, so it's highly unlikely the author intended him to be the Babylonian captive.

Seven Royal Families Wife

According to Herodotus [Hist. 3.84.2], from Darius on, the Persian kings were only to take wives from one of the seven nobles' families who overthrew the false Smerdis. However, although Amestris is the daughter of Otanes, this is not the same Otanes from the Magnificent Seven, but is a brother of the king. [Herodotus, 3.82] Either way, two of Darius' wives were daughters of Cyrus (Atossa, the main wife, and Artystone). Artaxerxes I had several Babylonian wives. Perhaps the author exaggerates, or Esther replaced Vashti for a short time, and then simply is a favorite wife (hence her fear of approaching the scepter? - Esther 4:11). The same situation is found with Darius, whose main wife Atossa is barely mentioned in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, compared with his apparently favorite second wife, Artystone.

The Genocide

Some reject the possibility of an empire-wide Jewish persecution based on Haman's grudge. But Haman's reasons, while personal, are officially given based on Jewish seclusion and offers to pay a large amount for expenses and likely borderline bribery of the king (Esther 3:8-9). This same cultural cohesion is what irritated the Romans, since its religious origin was the cause of the numerous problems they had there, and Haman likely hinted at the Jewish revolts which would also cause tribute loss (cf. Ezra 4:12-16, based on similar personal misgivings).

Yet the Magi, an ethnic group, were actively persecuted after the fall of the false Smerdis. They were hunted by the populace on that day till nightfall, and afterwards a festival was established during which no Magi could go outside. [Herodotus, Hist. 3.79.1-3] This is very similar to the fighting at Susa, where 500 are killed (Esther 9:6). There wasn't fighting in the palace, but the "fortress of Susa" (i.e. city), or possibly the citadel (9:6), a separate place located in the west (Diodorus 2.22.3 apud Ctesias) - overlooking the city, even the palace. [Iranica: "Susa - the Achaemenid Period"] This is shown from Esther 9:12 which uses the same word, but clearly Haman's 10 sons didn't reside in the palace.

Trusting Haman, Xerxes would've eagerly welcomed and supported the destruction of potentially rebellious subjects. Ezra 4:6 in connection with the letter in Ezra 4:18ff implies as much. Xerxes brutally repressed an Egyptian rebellion and two Babylonian in 484 BC. Hence he didn't even want Haman's money (Esther 3:11; 4:7 just has Mordecai reporting the sum Haman intended), which would probably have been paid over generations (perhaps from the loot of his Jewish victims).

There may actually be archaeological confirmation of the fighting against Jews. The book of Esther tells us that the governors protected the Jews (9:3-4), but that wouldn't have been the case in Judea where the local officials were Samaritan opposition as Ezra and Nehemiah tell us. So we shouldn't be surprised if that's the one place where both sides would've fought fiercely. At Samaria, the occupation simply disappears. But Shechem was destroyed. [Shea, pp.243-4]. Jerusalem was also attacked and burned around this time, by surrounding nations. This is unlikely to have happened during the Egyptian revolt as Xerxes would've interpreted the action as his Syrian satrap being part of the revolt; and he would've needed money and soldiers, so this fighting must've occurred later on. It's unlikely the area revolted along with Egypt or it wouldn't have been just Jerusalem (and Shechem) destroyed, and Artaxerxes I wouldn't have allowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls. The city is also standing in Xerxes' reign in Ezra 4, and the officials Rehum and Shimshai, whose names are known from Xerxes' reign, wouldn't speak of a standing city. They're clearly instigating and the later destruction was probably precipitated by them. [Julian Morgenstern (1938). "A Chapter in the History of the High-Priesthood (Concluded)". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures. The University of Chicago Press. 55 (October 1938) (4): 360–77]: "...there is a great mass of evidence scattered throughout biblical literature that at some time very soon after the accession of Xerxes to the Persian throne in 485 B.C. Jerusalem was besieged and captured by a coalition of hostile neighboring states, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Philistia. Its walls were torn down, its buildings razed, the Temple itself burned and destroyed, at least in part, and the great mass of the people scattered..."] The fighting in the other provinces could easily escape the notice of historians since it was spread out. For example, the royal palace at Susa burned during the reign of Artaxerxes I, but only an inscription by Artaxerxes II mentions it.

Purim, the Persian plural "lots", from the casting of lots which was commonly used at the time as Herodotus and Xenophon inform. Mordecai's nepotism (10:3) is perfectly consistent when it comes to offices. [Waerzeggers, p.45] Mordecai helping his family (allegiance of this sort rewarded - [Waerzeggers, p.185]).

Immutable Persian Law

Perhaps the decree wasn't immutable so much as logistically impossible to rescind in time. Possibly also it was embarrassing to revise it. Hence, Mordecai isn't punished for "disobeying the king's commands" (Esther 3:2-5), and presumes Esther would also be spared even if discovered to be a Jew (4:13). A possible example of this is the king's inability to refuse to Amestris his brother's wife. [Herodotus, Hist. 9.110] Also, under Persian law, the king had to choose a successor before going on a dangerous expedition. This complexity may be reflected by the threat to social structure or possible revolt that rescinding such high commands on an empire-wide level may have had. For example, in ancient Athens, someone proposing a new law had a noose around his neck and he was to be hung if the law didn't pass. Also, Charondas established a law that no one was to enter the voting assembly armed on pain of death. During a crisis (war), he accidentally went in there with his sword to defend, and upon remembering the law threw himself on his own sword to preserve the laws that defended democracy (compare Napoleon's "election" when his soldiers entered the French Senate).

The fact that Haman couldn't get Mordecai punished for disobeying the king's decree to bow is perhaps also evidence the book is overstating the law's inflexibility for dramatic effect. Xerxes is probably unaware of the issue between Haman and Mordecai, explaining why he has the latter led around on a horse by the former (chapter 6). Haman wasn't afraid to do this as Mordecai wasn't in Xerxes' favor for having exposed a plot yet.

The fact that the king's scepter can counter the "law" that an uninvited approaching him must be killed (Esther 4:11), shows that we're dealing with a policy out of convenience and personal preference, rather than an irreversible course of action. Hence Mordecai can create the same decrees with the ring (8:8), but hardly would that make him more powerful than the king. Another example is that Haman does not immediately try to punish Mordecai for violating the king's law (3:2). Esther 3:5 does say that he wanted to take his anger out on all Jews, but in 5:13 he acts as if he's completely impotent against Mordecai whom he clearly would like to see dead, so it's a wonder why it takes the advice of others (5:14) for him to do this. They probably gave him specific advice as to how to ask this, but again, this shows that the king's command wasn't so irrevocable, as Haman is there asking something of the king due to his status, not because Mordecai broke the law.

Other Notices

One can wonder some things about the story. Why does Mordecai have an issue bowing to Haman? Without a doubt he would've had to bow and do "obeisance" to Haman, the highest official, especially at the Palace Gate if one had to do this on the road. [Herodotus, Hist. 1.134.1] The fact that Mordecai was a Jew, would've infuriated Haman even more not because of the alleged Amalekite-Jewish hatred, but because the farther one lived from the Persians (e.g. distant Judea), the less respected their rank was. [Herodotus, Hist. 1.134.2] Yet only the king could physically harm nobles (and probably officials). [Herodotus, Hist. 3.155.2] (which would have to be justifiable, seeing Zopyrus' desertion was believed; also Masistes over his wife's mutilation) Mordecai's reason is given based on his ethnicity, so he must've interpreted the bow as sacrilegious, just as the Greeks did, even if it may not have had such implications. The problem is he would've certainly had to do this for the king after he becomes his highest official. Perhaps there was something in Haman's attitude he didn't agree with. The book spares curious details like this sometimes (e.g. how Haman overheard the eunuchs' plot).

Also, Esther is completely unaware of the decree that Mordecai has to mention to her (chapter 4). But as an official, he would've been a lot more in-tune to political and other affairs of state. And this is assuming Esther could even read, or it may have been in a foreign language (has to have the decree explained - 4:8).

After Esther confirms she's in Xerxes' good graces in the scepter scene (5:1ff), she starts by asking small favors: first a banquet. Only at that pleasantry would she ask her people be saved, along with exposing Haman, now that she's gotten over the fear of death, in an all-or-nothing pick me or Haman move, betting on the former. Without a doubt she would've mentioned Mordecai saving the king's life, but this is omitted in the text since the readers already know it. Mordecai hadn't been rewarded because the king probably didn't know it was him, having heard it from Esther or another messenger (2:22), and the affairs of court-life, why Esther doesn't see the king for a full month, made the event forgotten. The word for reading of the court records (6:1) implies a long time. Had this not happened that night, Esther would've saved all the Jews except her uncle, but this did not happen, confirming Mordecai's words in 4:14. After this, Haman realized Mordecai's position was unassailable, and Zeresh aptly predicts it's only a matter of time before her husband jumps into the grave he had dug for Mordecai (6:13). Since nobody knew Esther was a Jewess, let alone related to Mordecai, Haman probably didn't have much to fear physically. Yet with such a reversal of fortune, and the fact that Haman must've advertized everywhere his intent against Mordecai (7:9), instead of attending the banquet, he should've packed as much valuables on his fastest horse and ran in the best direction to never be found.

The citadel at Susa was 15 meters (~30 cubits) above the rest of the city [Yehuda Landy (2011), Purim and the Persian Empire], so Haman likely built it 50 cubits to be able to see it from Xerxes' palace while at Esther's banquet. High poles on whom victims were impaled are known from Assyrian reliefs. [Karen Radner (2015). "High visibility punishment and deterrent: Impalement in Assyrian warfare and legal practice." Zeitschrift Für Altorientalische Und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte / Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law, Vol. 21, pp. 110, 113]

V. Date of Composition

The book cannot have been written much later than 350-300 BC. Aside from the accuracy of Persian names, customs, etc noted above, the fact that there were additions to the original both in Hebrew and Aramaic, and Greek, proves this. These additions show the later concern for diet laws and anti-Gentile (during Hellenistic times) sentiment, hence Esther is not much later than the early 3rd century BC. The Lucianic text is shorter, but is probably an abbreviation of the traditions because it's unique in this. It also doesn't mention relevant details such as Mordecai's discovery of the eunuchs' plot in chapter 2, yet chapter 6 assumes this. Esther 1:1 definitely supposes that several generations after Xerxes had passed as does 8:7, 9 about Mordecai and Esther. Verse 1:2 can be interpreted that Susa is no longer the important capital it was in the Persian days (hence, an early Hellenistic date of c.325-300 BC), but that's not certain.

The form of the Hebrew can't help with provenance because copyists rewrote works in the language of their day as is evident from the Isaiah scroll. The many Persian loanwords, however, show that it's probably not a late Hellenistic work if it's Hellenistic at all. Haman's face being covered at the banquet debacle (7:8) was a practice the Greeks and Romans did of their condemned, but not the Persians. But the language is probably figurative (cf. 6:12).

VI. Resources

  • Hallock, R.T. Persepolis Fortification Tablets (1969)
  • Millard, A.R. "The Persian Names in Esther and the Reliability of the Hebrew Text", Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol.96, No.4 (1977)
  • Shea, William H. "Esther and History", Andrews University Seminary Studies Vol.14, No.1 (1976)
  • Waerzeggers, Caroline and Maarja Seire (eds.). Xerxes and Babylonia: The Cuneiform Evidence (Peeters, 2018)