Saturday, September 21, 2019

Esther: Sacred Story And Secular History

The action of the book of Esther is played out against the background of the empire of the Medes and the Persians. Apart from Esther herself and her kinsman Mordecai, the chief actor in the book is the Persian king Ahasuerus. Despite the rendering of the name as Artaxerxes in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, most scholars would identify this Persian king as Xerxes I, who reigned from 485 to 465 B.C. Perhaps the event in the reign of Xerxes most widely known in the modern world is his invasion of Greece in 480–479 B.C. In this he was carrying out the legacy left by his father Darius, who had been turned back by the Athenians when he attempted an amphibious landing at Marathon in 490. 

Xerxes’ forces did manage to enter the Greek peninsula by land and to wipe out a small Spartan force at Thermopylae; but this holding action by King Leonidas of Sparta and his three hundred Spartan knights allowed the rest of the Greeks time to prepare for the Persian onslaught. The Athenians withdrew to the island of Salamis, near which, in a brilliant naval action, they wiped out the Persian fleet. The Greek historian Herodotus records that Xerxes viewed the destruction of his forces from a portable throne placed on the Greek mainland, overlooking the straits. The king then left the campaign in the hands of his general Mardonius and retired to Persia; but a pitched battle near Plataea in Boeotia in the following year resulted in the final Persian withdrawal from Greece.

Xerxes’ campaign against Greece, however, is not mentioned in the book of Esther, which is concerned with court intrigue and a planned persecution of Jews within the empire. Despite the criticisms of some scholars, the book is clearly a work of history. It is introduced with the standard phrase used in the historical books, “And it came to pass.…” The record offers precise dating of the events which it describes. It contains genuine Persian names and titles, and it exhibits accurate knowledge of the customs and life at the Persian court.

The picture which the book of Esther gives us of the character of the Persian king is in agreement with that of the person whom we meet in the records of the ancient historians. In the words of a modern commentator, Xerxes is presented to us as being “famous for his lavish drinking parties and his extravagant promises and gifts” and as having “an irrational, nasty temper” (Carey A. Moore, Esther, page xli.) This is the very sort of person whom we meet in Herodotus’ History, a man beset by conspiracies and harem intrigues in the wake of his defeat in the Greek war. Herodotus has preserved for us in particularly lurid details an account of Xerxes’ fascination with a young girl named Artaynte and of the horrible revenge which Xerxes’ queen took upon the mother of the girl. Xerxes was eventually to fall prey to a palace conspiracy, led by his own uncle Artabanus and his grandson Megabyzys. The man whom we meet in the book of Esther is quite consistent with all that we know about him from other sources.

One of the most interesting proofs of the historicity of the book is the figure of Mordecai. Reference to a person of this name as an official of the Persian court, acting as a representative of the king on a tour of inspection, has been found in a formal government document of the reign of Xerxes. This documentation, when linked with the accurate historical details found everywhere in the book, provides compelling evidence for the accuracy of the historical account preserved here. For example, the author knows the extent of Xerxes’ realm and the location and layout of his winter palace. He makes reference to certain aspects of the Persian government: the postal service; the inner cabinet of seven advisors to the king; the requirement that obeisance be payed to the high officials; and the form of capital punishment employed. Many Persian words are introduced into the account, using the actual technical terms used in the Persian court, including nobles, law, decree, province, treasury, and the like. The account reflects accurately the life of the Persian court at the time of Xerxes. The historicity of the book of Esther should never be questioned.