Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bonus Purim Post

So, I forgot to reserve a week for Purim, so instead, I decided to just make a bonus post to outline some of my thoughts on the book of Esther.  Esther is probably one of my favorite books.  In my opinion, it's possibly the first satire ever written.  It has a reasonably good story.  And possibly to the chagrin of at least one ancient Jewish community, it makes no mention of God or anything divine.  In this post, I'll lay out some of my thoughts on Esther, some of the historical background, and I'll propose my own theory that the original story was probably completely unrelated to Judaism at all.

Three Levels of Irony

There is actually multiple levels of irony in Esther, which is one of the reasons I like the book so much.  The first level is the superficial level of irony present in the story itself.  Namely, the king of Persia, Ahashverosh, is depicted as having no ability to make decisions on his own. He in fact, makes only one decision in the story.  At the very beginning, he holds a party.  All the other decisions he makes are prompted by advisors and Esther.  His advisors tell him to kill Vashti for insubordination. His advisors tell him to invite a bunch of virgins to the palace for one night stands in order to find a replacement queen.  Haman (his chief advisor) tells him to kill the Jews, and also suggests, ironically, to honor Mordechai. Esther advises him to not kill the Jews.  Ahashverosh, is the most powerful king in the known world, and he's depicted as completely useless.  That's irony level one.

The second irony level is found in the names of the two protagonists in the story, Mordechai and Esther.  These are no other than the names of the two chief Babylonian deities, Marduk and Ishtar.  Marduk being the symbol of Babylonia itself, and Ishtar being the prime female deity, worshiped in many lands (Greek Astarte for example).  The irony here is a triumph over Babylon over Persia who recently captured it.  In other words, even though Persia is the ruler of the world, "from India to Ethiopia," it is the Babylonian deities that are pulling the strings.

The third level of irony is the fact that the Babylonian deities are depicted as Jews.  This leads to two humorous ironies, the first is that Mordechai and Esther are two of the most prototypical Jewish names, and they're names of the deities worshiped by the culture that destroyed the kingdom of Judah!  The second irony is that the great Babylonian deities, now worshiped by no-one, only live on because they were depicted as folk heroes of one of their conquered nations.

Historical Background

Esther is actually one of the easier books to place historically.  Ahashverosh is almost definitely Xerxes I who ruled from about 485 to 465 BCE.  Xerxes is the Greek name, and Ahashverosh is actually the Babylonian name.  Xerxes I is chosen, as opposed to later kings with that name because he actually did rule over a kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia.  Later the Persians would lose a lot of those lands to Alexander the Great's conquests.

There are also other features of the story that are reminiscent of Xerxes.  In the story, Mordechai foils a plot by two eunuch guards to kill Ahashverosh. Xerxes was actually assassinated with the help of a eunuch.  Also, Ahashverosh wants to kill the people of Mordechai, depicted as Jews in the story.  One of Xerxes' more notorious actions was to melt down a statue of Marduk in Babylon, greatly angering the Babylonians.

These ideas lead to one possible origin for the story which is the story was originally Babylonian propaganda.  In this case, the identification of Mordechai and Esther with Judaism would have been added later by people (Jews) who co-opted the story.  It should be noted that the motif of a foreign king that wants to wipe out the Jewish population because they refuse to bow down to the king appears elsewhere in Tanach, namely the book of Daniel, chapter 3.

A Modified Tale

Esther is really one of the odder inclusions in the Tanach for many reasons.  As mentioned above, it has no mention of God, or really any theological message at all.  Also, it seems that it wasn't considered canon by other groups. For example, Esther is the only book not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Other groups did include Esther but were apparently put off by the lack of theological message.  We know this because the Septuagint version of Esther differs significantly.  The only real "story" difference is a dream at the beginning, that Mordechai has of two intertwined serpents.  The obvious guess is that it's describing the wars between Persia and the Greeks, although we have no idea how recent this addition was.  Another difference is the inclusion of the letters that the king sends out, both to kill the Jews and to not kill them.  However, there are also changes that are theological in nature.  God's name is added in several places.  Also, both Mordechai and Esther give long drawn out speeches in which they ask for God's help several times. 

The reasons for these additions, and it really seems like they are additions, is that the Egyptian community that authored the Septuagint were unhappy with the lack of divine elements, so they added their own.  While the Masoretic text used today does not have any mention of God, Rabbis are very likely to point out stuff like it must all be God's doing.  In my opinion, if any deities are involved in this tale, it's not the Jewish God, but it's the Babylonian ones.


  1. > The second irony level is found in the names of the two protagonists in the story, Mordechai and Esther.

    And Haman means "magnificent one." I've also read that Haman was a name for a malevolent Babylonian god, but I can't find a source confirming that.

    > and Ishtar being the prime female deity, worshiped in many lands (Greek Astarte for example).

    And as the Canaanite goddess Ashera, who was worshipped in Israel and Judah as YHVH's consort.

    1. I actually searched quite a bit for the sources of some of the other names in the story. Haman, Vashti, Bigtan/Teresh, the sons of Haman, and the advisors of Ahashverosh, but didn't really come up with anything.

      As far as Asherah, I haven't gotten into this yet, but there's significant disagreement on whether the Asherah mentioned in the Tanach and in inscriptions is the same as Ishtar/Astarte, or whether it's referring to the cultic tree that derived from it. Mark Smith, for example, thinks the references to "Yahweh and his Asherah" are referring to a cultic tree, not a wife.

      Now, the anat-yahu worshiped by the Elephantine Jews is a different story.

    2. Vashti and Haman maybe related to names of Elamite gods. The Babylonian gods 'Mordechi' and 'Ester' overcome those rival gods.

    3. Alter Cocker, do you have a source for the Elamite gods? And about the idea you posted below about Purim originally being a pagan celebration?

    4. @ A Kefirah - Have not researched Vashti and Haman names - My comment is based on H.Neil Richardson discussion of Book of Esther.So I think it is a good lead. He also says in all likelihood Purim was a non jewish celebration. Jewish Publication Society sort of hints the same - saying Megillah is an etiological tale to justify a holiday already being celebrated by the Jews. It goes on to say Purim has obscure origins. Pretty sure I came across a pagan holiday parallel to Purim - but my memory eludes me. I need to refresh my memory and hope to check out some texts over the next few days - time permitting.

    5. @ A Kefirah - Check out "...The probable true origin
      Purim falls out roughly the same time of year as Carnival, the Feast of Fools, and other similar holidays. All of these holidays have as part of their celebration masquerading, drinking, and a reversal of the usual order of things. In ancient Rome and medieval Europe, it was common for the social order in particular to be upended during the holiday, with a commoner being appointed "lord" for the duration of the holiday and the aristocracy serving him. These holiday customs can be traced back to older winter holidays such as Saturnalia. It is likely that Purim either borrowed traditions from these holidays or that both Purim and these holidays share traditions from an older source..."

    6. @Kefirah - I do have to write a post about Purim one day. Anyway - Humman / Homman was a principal God of the Elamite pantheon.

      Mashti (with an M not a V) , was a Goddess in the Elam , who is replaced by Ishtar- See Page 338 Godesses in World Mythology 1993 by Ann and Imel).

      Morodach=Marduk sounds like Mordachai, and Esther sounds like Ishtar. Both replace Haman and Vashti. Very strange coincidences.

      There was an ancient babylonian festival involving Babylonioan gods victory over Elamite gods. Purim has similarities to other pagan festivals or stories including Massacre of the Magi.

  2. i like your post but i would like to disagree with one of your points i think the absence of gods name from the megilah is a delibarate litary device the person who reapropriated the purim story as a jewish drama from its murky balonyian /persian roots ccould have very eisily made mention of god many times during the story and he very heavily hints towards him in many places during thee narritave i.e. lech knos kol hayehudim and tzumu ali, divrei tzomozam zakasem, revach vehatzalah yamod layhudim,ect. it actualy looks queite plusiable that he was left out as a delibarite part of the message.

    1. Vafsi, it's very possible, maybe even likely, that the original author of megillat esther did leave out God deliberately. I don't know why, but your reason is probably as good as any.

      What I do know is that two Jewish communities didn't like this. The Egyptian one edited God's name back in their version which eventually became the Septuagint. The Qumran community dropped the book altogether. Unless of course the absence of Esther in the Dead Sea Scrolls is a coincidence.

  3. Another great post. Some scholars believe purim was a pagan celebration adopted by the Jews, just like many 'Jewish' holidays. The Jewish scribes then claim a 'historical' basis why the Jews celebrate it, i.e an etiogical myth. It makes purim kosher.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the article, but most of all, I enjoyed the back and forth between Kefira and Cocker (shouldn't it be spelled Kakker?), the last 2 remaining active (formerly frum) biblical bloggers. Keep it up!