A few years ago, when I was working as the education director of a small synagogue, I was assigned the task of preparing the Purim celebration. I started hunting around the Internet for an abbreviated version of Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), which I would divide up and email to our volunteer readers before the spiel. The scroll in its original form was much too long, and I was hoping for an easy way of cutting it down.
And that’s when things got interesting.
There are, I discovered, plenty of shortened versions of Esther to be found on the Internet. The problem is, they all came from websites and proudly touted that they are “true to the story!”
They are true alright. And if you’ve ever looked closely at the details of the Purim story, that’s maybe not such a great thing! Here are just some of the troubling aspects of the story:
1:20: When Vashti refuses to obey the king, the king sends out a decree to the countryside ordering that “all women will respect their husbands” and that “every man shall be a master in his home.”
2:3: The King’s attendants sweep the countryside looking for “virgins” to add to the King’s “harem”. Esther didn’t so much “win” a beauty pageant as be forcibly selected and “taken” to the King’s palace.
7:8: When Esther reveals to the King that Haman’s edict to kill all Jews means she too will be killed, it appears that Haman tries to sexually assault her. Haman is then sent to the gallows and hanged.
8:11: Rather than merely nullify Haman’s edict, the King issues an edict allowing the Jews to “annihilate, kill and destroy every army of any nation or province that might attack them, [including their] children and women, and to plunder their possessions.”
8:17: This bloodlust is celebrated a few verses later, where we read that: “In every province and city to which the king’s edict and law reached, there was happiness and joy for the Jews, a celebration and a holiday. Many of the gentiles converted to Judaism, for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”
9:6: The Jews of Shushan kill 500 men, and then a few verses later, Haman’s 10 sons are hanged at the gallows.
It might bring you comfort to know that no serious academic believes there is any historical truth to the events recounted in Esther. The narrative, which takes place in the time of the ancient Persian empire (539 BCE – 333 BCE), is rife with chronological problems, which are too numerous to list. Furthermore, no evidence of the key events of the story has ever turned up in biblical or extrabiblical sources, including from Persian literature, much of which has been preserved.
The author of the book does show some familiarity with details of life in the Persian empire. The author knows, for example, about its size, its postal system, and a considerable number of details about its court life (3:13; 8:10). The story uses a number of words and a few names of indisputable Persian origin.
But there are other parts of the story that contradict what we know about Persia, or simply strain credulity. Esther herself is a historical improbability. According to Herodotus (3:84), the Persian king could only marry within seven noble families, and there is no reason to think any of them were Jewish. There is no evidence for the existence of 127 provinces or satrapies (1:1; 8:9) in Persia. It doesn’t make sense that a decree go out in a multitude of languages, when the only language spoken was Aramaic (1:22, 3:12, 8:9). And how could a banquet last 180 days (1:1-4)?
Scholars believe that the book of Esther is best seen as a historical novella set within the Persian empire. As the authors of Etz Hayim We: Megillat Esther (The Reconstructionist Press) explain, “This is not to say that the book is false, only that its truth, like the truth of any piece of literature, is relative to its genre, and the genre of Esther is not that of the historical annal, even though it sometimes imitates the style of a historical annal.”
Etz Hayim We is a wonderful resource for an adult education group that is interested in spending a few weeks engaged in a close text study of Megillat Ester. Visit http://www.jrf.org for more information.
Image above: “The Cracow Wedding” Purimshpil