The Book of Esther is the ﬁfth of the Five Scrolls, arranged in the Hebrew Bible in the order in which they are read on ﬁxed occasions in the Jewish religious calendar.
It is a partly historical, partly legendary story offering an account of how the Jewish feast of 'Purim' originated.
The book cannot have been written much later than the Persian period. The author introduced many Persian words into his story, was acquainted with Persian customs and gave the whole story a strong Persian atmosphere which led many to think that the anonymous author had actually lived in Persia.
The remains of Persepolis, and even more those of Susa, bear out the events related in the book. Inscriptions found distinguish between 'Susa the capital' (the royal palace) and the city of Susa. Thus the book correctly places the banquet of Esther in 'Susa the capital', (1:2) 'in the court of the garden of the king’s palace' (1:5).
Excavations in Susa and Persepolis have brought to light many pillars over which coloured awnings were stretched, as described in 1:6. In Susa, the city street 'in front of the king’s gate' (4:6) has been uncovered, and also the harem which had an exit opening onto the gateway of the city.
Aerial view of excavations at ancient Susa
Layout of the palace at Susa
Model of the ancient palace of Susa
Golden torque excavated at Susa
This conﬁrms in detail the accuracy of the description of Esther standing in the inner courtyard of the palace opposite the king’s hall, while the king sat on his throne inside the palace facing its entrance (5:1-2). From the harem, a corridor led to the inner vestibule of the palace. In this same inner vestibule, opposite the corridor leading to it from the harem, was the throne room (the 'king’s hall' of 5:2).
Reconstructed view of Persepolis: 1 The Grand Staircase. 2 Porch of Xerxes or 'The Portal of All Nations'. 3 Stone water tank? 4 Storage or service area. 5 The Queen's Rooms. 6 The Main Hall or 'Apadana'. 7 The Private quarters of Darius the Great 8. The Private quarters of Xerxes. 9 The Central Palace or Council Hall. 10 The Treasury. 11 Throne Hall or the Hall of a Hundred Columns. 12 An unfinished palace. 13 Persepolis sewer or water supply. 14 Royal mausoleums. 15 Guard tower.
An alternative reconstruction of the palace at Persepolis
Grand entrance to the palace when it was first excavated
The Main Hall (with high columns) and the Throne Hall as it appears today
gives some idea of the extent of the palace at Persepolis;
This photograph gives some idea of the height of the roof in the Main Hall at Persepolis
Wall carving on the stairway leading to the Main Hall at Persepolis
In the centre of the wall facing the entrance door at Persepolis stood the high throne from which the king could see all who approached him by looking over the curtain which separated him from those seeking an audience with him. The description of the banqueting hall opening on the palace garden is also correct in detail (7:7). A great stairway led to the audience hall, decorated with sculptured reliefs of soldiers and animals.
Wall carving of two high-ranking soldiers at the palace of Persepolis
In contrast to the wealth of archaeological material. it is impossible to ﬁnd even the slightest historical conﬁrmation of the events recounted in the book. Even the names of the main characters are unknown to history. Moreover, details such as the description of the relations between Jews and non-Jews, are not in keeping with the historical facts.
The Ahasuerus mentioned cannot be positively identiﬁed with a particular Persian king, though the author seems to have had Khshayarsha, better known as Xerxes (486-465BC) in mind. The general situation in Persia at the time of this monarch’s accession accords with the picture which emerges from the book. The description of the king as being coarsely sensual is well-suited to Xerxes, who is so portrayed by Herodotus and Aeschylus. The description, however, would be equally applicable to other Persian rulers and is of no real help in the identiﬁcation of the Ahasuerus of Esther.
It is also difficult to identify any known Persian word with 'pur' (meaning 'lot') of which 'purim' is the plural and which gave the festival its name. It appears to be of Akkadian origin. It is simply impossible to fit the book into a precise historical framework, though it may be assumed that it contains some element of historical truth.
Chapters 1-2: Ahasuerus, the king of Persia and Media, made a great banquet in Susa (the ancient capital of Elam, which was part of his kingdom). Flushed with too much wine, he commanded that Vashti, the queen, be paraded before his male guests. The queen refused to come and was severely punished for her refusal. She was deposed, and her crown was to be given to 'another who was better than she'.
ln order to choose a successor to Vashti, beautiful maidens were gathered in Susa from all the provinces of the empire. One of these maidens was Esther, whom Mordecai the Jew had adopted as his daughter after the death of her parents, to whom he was related. After being carefully schooled in the duties of a royal woman, Esther found favour in the king’s eyes, and he chose her as his queen in place of Vashti. At this time, Mordecai saved the king from a plot, and his deed was recorded in the royal chronicles.
Chapter 3: A man named Haman rose to power, The king made him the highest of his ministers and ordered all his subjects to do obeisance to him. Only Mordecai disobeyed the royal command and refused to bow down to Haman. lnfuriated, Haman tried to destroy Mordecai’s people, the Jews, and obtained the king‘s consent to this act.
Chapters 4-5: Mordecai told Esther to go into the royal presence and plead for her people. Esther asked him to proclaim a three-day fast, at the end of which she would appear before the king, even though she had not been called to him and was thereby endangering her own life. No one dared appear unsummoned in the king’s presence, and unless the sovereign held out his golden sceptre to the intruder, he would be put to death, as prescribed by law and court etiquette.
After the three days of fasting Esther came before the king, who held out his sceptre to her. When the king asked what her request was, she invited him to come with Haman to a banquet on the same evening, and another banquet on the next. Haman, hearing this, felt himself favoured and left the king’s presence in high spirits. He had a gallows ﬁfty cubits high erected, on which to hang Mordecai once the king's authorization was received.
Chapter 6: That night, the king could not sleep, and had his attendants read to him the section of the royal chronicle describing Mordecai‘s act in saving his life. The king discovered that Mordecai had not yet been rewarded. ln the morning, when Haman came to request the king’s permission to hang Mordecai, the king asked him what should be done to the man whom the king wished to honour. Haman, thinking that he himself was to be honoured, replied that the man should be clothed in royal attire and led through the streets of the city on the king's own horse. The king ordered Haman to do as he had advised to Mordecai. Haman carried out the king’s order, but returned home 'mourning and with his head covered.'
Chapters 7-8: At the second banquet given by Esther for the king and Haman, she revealed Haman’s dastardly designs to the king, who thereupon commanded that Haman be hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. In fact, prisoners were more likely to be impaled than hanged. On the same day, Mordecai was appointed to Haman‘s high ofﬁce, and the king gave orders that Haman"s decree regarding the Jews should be revoked and that the Jews should be permitted to defend themselves.
Chapter 9: On the 13th of Adar, the Jews smote their enemies in the provinces, and on the 13th and 14th of Adar they smote their enemies in Shushan, the capital, and the cities, and killed Haman’s ten sons. Herodotus dicusses the income of the Persians and slaughter of people for their wealth, which suggests that the story of Haman may have an historical basis.They therefore made the 14th and l5th of Adar a festival in commemoration of their deliverance for themselves and future generations. The two days of feasting are called 'purim' because of the lot - 'pur' which Haman cast for the destruction of the Jews.
Chapter l0: This chapter is an epilogue and seems to be an appendix to the whole work; it can be interpreted as intended to give historical validity to the Book of Esther, since it states that its contents were recorded in 'the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia.'
There are two schools of thought on this question. Some scholars think that the Book of Esther is a historical story which has been adorned with a number of literary embellishments. Others hold that it should be regarded as a piece of ﬁction, its historical kernel obliterated by romantic and literary additions, as witness the fairy-tale elements in the story (the simple girl who, like Cindarella, becomes great and famous; the wicked villain who falls into the pit he has dug for the righteous hero) and the absence, in any other source, of references to the events related.
Even those who assume that the book had a historical kernel cannot suggest any precise dating, since knowledge of the whole period is so sketchy. lt must however be conceded that at least the general setting of the tale is authentic. This is evident from the knowledge of Persian customs displayed in it: the royal council (1:14); the method of honouring a hero or royal favourite (6:8); the details of the imperial postal system (3:15; 8:14); the description of the opulence of the court and the royal banquets (1:3-7), and the giving of presents on the Persian New Year.
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