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Notes from Newcastle One-Day Limmud 2005

Esther and Haman, the Real Story

Stephen Rosenberg

Bible critics describe the Book of Esther is a fairy story. The events in it are not corroborated by anything in the Persian or Greek records. Nor does Achashverosh/Xerxes*, the king in the book, have a wife by the name of either Vashti or Esther. Indeed, the characters in the book seem to be identifiable in some respects with gods; Wikipedia, quoting the 1911 Encylopaedia Britannica, says:

"Vashti" was the name of an Elamite goddess. "Esther," too, is the name of a goddess -- it's Aramaic for "Ishtar," the chief Babylonian goddess. ("Hadassah," the name Esther's family called her, comes from the Babylonian for "bride" and was one of Ishtar's titles.) "Mordecai" is a form of the Hebrew for "Marduk," the Babylonians' chief god. "Haman" comes from the name of the Elamites' chief god, "Hamman." "Shushan" is identified with Xerxes's capital, Susa. The meaning of the allegory is that Babylonian gods replaced Elamite gods in Susa in the last years of the Assyrian Empire, and it was written at a time when the Macedonians posed the kind of danger to the Jews that the story describes.

Though the author was evidently familiar with life in the Persian court, the story seems to be merely a fable, or allegory, made up in later days.

The last chapter of the book, however, does not fit in with the assessment of the Book of Esther as a fairy tale. It describes King Achashverosh levying taxes. Why was this included at the end of the book?

Further problems emerge when you look in detail at the dates of the story. The Book of Esther describes Achashverosh as throwing an inaugural feast in the third year of his reign. Why was this feast in the third year of his reign, not the first? And why did it last for 180 days? This scarcely sounds realistic! This is difficult to understand.

Also, when the king put away his wife Vashti in his third year, why did he not take a new queen until his seventh year? And why does Haman, the baddy in the story, not appear on the scene until year twelve? The answers to these problems can be found, and reveal there is, indeed, a historical story underlying the Book of Esther.

As for the problems with the names, the traditional answer to this is that the Jews took Babylonian names during the Babylonian exile, the same way they take names from the cultures they live in nowadays. We're told in chapter 2 that Esther's Hebrew name was Hadassah; Mordechai's Hebrew name is not given in the book, but the Midrash records it as Petachya. And these names are not directly those of the gods, but are named after the gods, in the same way that the Greek name Hephaistion, for example, was named after the god Hephaistos. There are several other Mordechais found in the Persian or Greek records. It's possible, though that these and the other names found above were changed in order to play up the story's allegorical nature; Dr Rosenberg believes, though that the Book of Esther may be based on an official record, which is why G-d is never referred to once in it.

Anyhow, on to Dr Rosenberg's talk. The story begins when Achashverosh's father, Daryavesh (Darius) I died, and there was a revolt in Egypt. (We know this from the account left us by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. Herodotus was born two years after Achashverosh's accession, in Asia Minor—part of the Persian empire.) Persepolis was a long way away in Egypt, and the Egyptians thought they could gain their independence from the empire. Consequently, the first thing Achashverosh had to do on taking power was not to throw a feast but to put down this revolt. It took him two years to achieve this. In the light of this, throwing a feast in his third year makes a lot more sense.

After that Achashverosh still had to avenge his father's catastrophic attempt to invade Greece. This was not easy—Darius had had an enormous army and yet it was still defeated. He needed the encouragement and support of all his huge empire in order to be able to launch another invasion attempt. It was not easy for get this support of an empire stretching מהדו ועד כוש (from India to Kush [Ethiopia]). Herodotus tells us it took two to three years before Achashverosh was able to commit to an invasion. There were (Herodotus tells us) twenty satrapies in the empire. Perhaps the 180 day feast was to gather support for the war from each of his satraps—a week's deliberations with each, sitting down with them and entertaining them, then one day to recover before starting out out again with the next.

The מגילה (megilla, scroll) describes Achashverosh as holding one a feast for 180 days for all his empire, then then another feast for his advisers for seven days. This would have been his inner circle—his commanders in chief deliberating the decision to go to war. The Persian emperors had an inner circle of seven advisers; this is referred to in the Book of Daniel and substantiated by Herodotus.

After this he finally went to war in Greece; the war lasted two years according to Herodotus. Again, after initial victories—conquering Athens—the Persians were defeated, first at Salamis and then Plataea. The king was so humiliated by his defeat he never went to war again.

When Achashverosh returned afterwards to Persis, he had been four or five years without a chief wife. Now choosing Esther as a wife in his seventh year makes sense - he would not have done so beforehand, whilst he was at war. As for the fact Xerxes is not recorded as having had a wife named Esther—indeed, he was recorded as being married to one Amestris during this period—it's not impossible that such a king—who, after all, had a large harem in addition to his wives—kept a wife in each of his capitals - Susa (the Biblical Shushan), Persepolis and elsewhere.

Now consider the entry of Haman into the story in the twelfth year of Achashverosh's reign. The preceding Mesopotamian civilisations (which, Georges Roux argues in Ancient Iraq, passed on their culture on to the next, and to which the early Persians were heirs), had the concept in their governance of the eponym year, in which a different chief minister would be appointed every year. This is described by the limu tablets in the British Museum. In the first year of a king's reign the eponym would be the king himself. His seven close advisers would then become eponym one by one.

After all of the close advisers had been eponym, it became possible for second rank ministers to become eponym. This was done by casting lots - the pur[u] described in the book (an example of which was dug up, not anywhere in the Middle East, but in the vaults of Harvard University, where it had been languishing, unrecognised, since 1923 :o).) At the time of the Esther story, the selection of eponym by lot was probably a mere pretence; in actuality it would be done by the king.

During years of war it was usual for the king to reign supreme; in this case, this extends this initial period of eight years up to twelve. This now explains why Haman does not enter the story until this point in time.

Chapter 3 of the book describes lot being cast:

In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Achashverosh, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman; from day to day, and from month to month, to twelve—the month Adar.

The following verses seem to imply this lot was cast to determine when the Jews should be killed, at Haman's instigation, but in actuality this was probably to determine whether Haman should be eponym for that year. (Dr Rosenberg suggests Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman indicates a personal rivalry between them—there are other places in the Bible where people bow to important people [though not, I notice, to non-Jews since the earliest books of the Bible]; possibly the job Haman got here was one Mordechai had been after?)

The text continues:

Haman said to King Achashverosh, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all your kingdom's provinces. Their laws are different from every other people, and they don't keep the king's laws: it's not in the king's interests to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed. I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those carrying out this business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.

[...] The king said to Haman, The silver is given to you; and the people—do with them whatever seems good to you.

The king's scribes were called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and all what Haman had commanded was written to the king's satraps, and to the governors of every province, and to the ministers of every people of every province according to their own writing, and their own language. [...]

The letters were sent by runners to all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all the Jews, young and old, children and women, in one day—the thirteenth of the twelfth month, the month Adar—and to despoil them for a prey.

It does not make sense for these letters to be sent, publically, and in open language, giving the Jews eleven months warning of their destruction. Surely the Jews would have taken precautions during this period—armed themselves, appealed to the king, or even fled the empire!

Furthermore, the king appears to be giving Haman permission to do whatever he liked with the money he had offered the king. But that is not credible. The Persians had just lost two wars. The soldiers who fought in them would not have been paid; their expected pay would have been the plunder they would have expected to take. The army was a million troops strong, according to Herodotus; that's a lot of back pay that needed to be found. Losing a war was financially very bad indded.

Haman probably got the job of eponym by claiming to be able to raise the ten thousand silver talents, in order to pay for the war. What he was probably doing here was saying he could raise the money by taxing the Jews, not killing them. The threat of death was precisely that, a threat of the consequences of their not paying. The king would never have given Haman permission to kill so many of his subjects straight off; what he gave permission for was for Haman to intimidate them. We know Haman doesn't have permission to kill the Jews because when he wants to kill Mordechai in chapter 5, he has to ask the king's permission to do so.

This, then, is why Haman gives the Jews eleven months notice of their death sentence—it's the period they have to raise the money and pay it in; it's also the period until the end of Haman's office.

Presumably most of them would not have been able to pay, the amount required being beyond their means. The total income of the entire empire was fifteen thousand talents of silver according to Herodotus; ten thousand talents was clearly beyond the means of a single subjugate people!

Why did Haman offer the king this figure? He was acting as a tax farmer. Tax farmers commit to a figure and ask the king for permission to collect that amount; if they manage to collect more, they get to keep the surplus; if they end up collecting less, they have to bear the loss themselves. This is why the king tells Haman he can keep the money; it's the surplus above the ten thousand talents of silver he's telling him he can keep.

As for the threat of death for not paying, two hundred years later a tax farmer by the name of Yosef Tobiat, acting for Ptolemy king of Egypt, met with refusal by the citizens of Ashkelon to pay, and responded by by killing them. So Haman's threat was not just empty words.

The normal punishment for tax evasion and unpaid debts was slavery to work off the debt—think of it as a form of community service! Haman's threat went beyond the normal; this is why in chapter 7, Esther petitions the king as follows:

If I have found favour in your eyes, O King, and if is good for the king, give me my soul at my petition, and my people at my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold into slavery, I would have held my tongue.

Esther identified the Jews' enemy as Haman, and the king, overcome with wrath, went out into the garden to collect himself. When he came back, he saw Haman prostrate on the divan before the queen, and exclaimed, "Will he force the queen also before me in the house?" When his courtiers heard that, they covered Haman's face, marking him out for death.

In chapter 6, Haman had tried to have himself paraded on the streets. Possibly Achashverosh thought Haman had overweening ambitions, and he was worried about a coup attempt. There had already been one coup attempt described in chapter 2—which took place, as can be seen by aligning the biblical timescale with that of Herodotus, whilst the king was out of the country at war—a dangerous move for a king to make unless he is absolutely sure of his support at home. And, indeed, Xerxes was eventually killed by two of his courtiers, one of whom was from his inner circle of advisers.

Now, Achashverosh could have drawn his sword and killed Haman on the spot at this point; but had he done so, Haman's sons would have inherited the tax money Haman had so far raised, putting it beyond the reach of the king, so it was a clever move of the king to hold back from doing so. This is also why he is happy for the Jews to kill Haman's ten sons later on, in chapter 9—he got their money too.

Nevertheless, there was still a shortful, because Haman had not managed to raise all the money he had promised. Hence the line in chapter 10: "King Achashverosh laid a tax on the land, and the isles of the sea." This was a fairer tax—it was laid on all of his peoples, not just one people used as a scapegoat for the rest.


This talk derives from Dr Rosenberg's book Esther, Ruth, Jonah Deciphered; anyone interested in reading further is referred to it. (Disclaimer: I have not read it myself yet.) Feel free also to point anyone who would be interested in reading this but does not read my blog, such as [livejournal.com profile] daegaer, to this article.

* The king in the book, אחשורש (Achashverosh), is the same as the Xerxes referred to in Greek accounts. His name in Persian I have encountered before as Khsharyasha; according to Dr Rosenberg it was written Kha-sha-va-ara-sha-a in cuneiform. I cannot account for the differences in transliteration. I have a private theory that originally the name in Hebrew was אחשירש (Achashyaresh) which got turned into אחשורש through a transcription error—the lengthening of the י to ו. Compare the mistranscription of Nebuchadrezzar as Nebuchadnezzar in half its occurrences in the Bible.

The Greeks couldn't represent half of these sounds in their alphabet, so it got mangled to Xerxes (as, likewise, the Hebrew Achashverosh got mangled to Ahasuerus). As for the initial A, [livejournal.com profile] livredor talks about initial gutturals getting an "a-" prepended in Hebrew; cf, frex, khshathrapavan (satrap) becoming achashdarpan in Hebrew.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2005-02-21 07:37 pm (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
This sounds more than a little contrived, but interesting anyway. Thanks for writing it up!

Date: 2005-02-21 08:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Bits of it sound contrived to me, but I was sufficiently convinced by the main argument to buy the man's book (which is more than I did for anything in the main Limmud at all (to the dismay of [livejournal.com profile] snjstar, who was manning the bookstall some of the time)).

Date: 2005-02-21 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Interesting article.

Next time you should wait to buy the book!

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