Thursday, October 15, 2009

K) Haman's plot, the story of Purim

The story of Purim, as told in the Scroll of Esther, is usually rated as a kind of fairy tale included in the Tanakh for the sake of religious education. Like the stories of the Exodus from Egypt, of the Kings David and Solomon, of the Hashmonean wars, and even of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, it is not presented as part of world history. Excluded from the latter, it is confined to the "history of salvation".

Yet as Israel exists also physically in time and space, its history is as real as the history of any other people even if archaeological and historical "hard facts" are often lacking. Odd as it sounds, it was only after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and after the Six Days War that peoples becoming aware of Israel's reality, coined the phrase "Israel is real".

Stories like that of Purim are certainly not meant to merely convey dry historical data. Written down and incorporated in the Tanakh as Divine teachings good for generations to come, they should be understood from the background of a real historic situation upon which they are built. Thus, even the story of Purim with its timeless religious message relates yet to facts known in world history. At this point, may I mention some of them: the Medo-Persian Empire; its extension from India to Cush (=Ethiopia), including Mediterranean islands; its capital Shushan; and one of its kings named Ahasuerus who ruled this huge empire. The Jews mentioned in the story are characterized as the captivity which had been carried away from Jerusalem by Nebukadnezzar.

It is from this perspective that the relations between King Ahasverus, called Xerxes by the Greeks, and the Jews as told in the Scroll of Esther, deserve here some deeper considerations.

First, we have to find out whether Ahasuerus and Xerxes are identical indeed.

1) Identifying Ahasuerus as Xerxes

Ancient sources relate the Ahasuerus of the Purim story to different kings of the Medo/Persian period.

Some hold that Ahasuerus and Queen Esther were the parents of King Cyrus1. If so, Ahasuerus would have been a Median king, not a Persian king, as there was no Persian Empire before Cyrus. This version is ruled out also by the well-known, howbeit few, data of history and of archaeology, as well as by the Scroll of Esther itself. Sushan was never the capital of the Medes, nor did they rule from India to Cush, nor did they possess islands in the Mediterranean Sea2.

This holds true also in view of other versions which speak of King Cyrus the Great or of King Darius I, the Great, as Ahasuerus3. The Persian Empire did not reach during their rule the huge extension just mentioned.

Flavius Josephus, apparently following the Septuaginta, has King Artaxerxes I in mind4. But in ancient sources, this king is described as kindhearted and wise. These descriptions do not match the picture of Ahasuerus we get from the Scroll of Esther; they fit quite well Xerxes.

H.Hefez, a contemporary scholar, thinks that Cyrus the Great and Ahasuerus reigned side by side as double kings5, ascribing the leading position to the latter. In that he does not do justice to the facts that the former is unequivocally acknowledged as "the Great" in history, and as Messiah of the Lord by Prophet Isaiah, while Ahasuerus/Xerxes is nowhere called “the Great”

Besides the above considerations, we should also take notice of Xerxes' Persian name, Kashayarsha, to which the Hebrew version Ahasuerus sounds relatively close, at least more so than the Greek word for it, Xerxes. We may take this as another indication that the Ahasuerus of the Scroll of Esther is Xerxes.

However, the mentioning in the Scroll that Mordecai was one of the exiles to Babylonia, poses quite some problem. The passage in which he is presented as Esther's stepfather, says that

"Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimaei, the son of Kish, a Benjamenite, had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar ... had carried away"6 .

This so-called first Baylonian captivity occurred in 597 B.C.E., that is, 68 years before Cyrus took Babylon, and 112 years before Xerxes ascended the throne. In this case, Mordecai and Esther must have been quite some elderly people, and the latter not at all a young beauty queen. Attempting to solve this problem, I can only suggest to understand the phrase quoted above not in the way it is usually taken, namely that Mordecai himself had been carried away in the first Babylonian captivity, but rather that Mordecai was a descendant of that family of Kish who had been carried away together with King Jeconiah. In fact, the Hebrew text allows for such an interpretation. The term "who had been carried away", could refer to anyone of those mentioned. What is more, the term "son of Kish, a Benjamenite", suggests that the narrator had foremost in mind to show Mordecai's descent from Kish, the father also of King Saul, indicating thereby that Mordecai was now to make good for Saul's disobedience to the Lord's voice which coasted him the kingdom. This would explain also the incompleteness of the list of Mordecai's ancestors which leaves out the names of Mordecai's ancestors from Kish to Shimei: they are simply irrelevant in that context. The term "who had been carried away", could thus well refer to the latter, and not to Mordecai himself. If so, he and Esther would have been born in exile, some when during the reign of Darius I, the Great, and their age would not pose any problem in identifying Ahasuerus with Xerxes.

2) Developments under Xerxes.

Already in his days, the worship of nature forces in form of the Anahita cult next to Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd since Darius I) came up again7. Zarathustra's monotheistic teaching with its high ethical and moral standards and the abstractions required by an invisible and incorporeal Godhood may have influenced a big part of the Empire's nobility, but was not shared by all its peoples, especially not by its foreign subjects. King Cyrus did not interfere in their respective religions, as we saw, and the Persian people as a whole did not undergo an educational training comparable to that of the people of Israel in Egypt and the forty years' desert experience. Even King Cambysos had not really absorbed the moral and ethical values required by monotheism, as we saw; nor did Ahasuerus/Xerxes adhere to them.

This scenario may explain to quite some degree the empathy of some Achaemenian rulers on the one hand, and the animosity of big and influential groups against the Jews and the Throne on the other hand.

While Kings Cyrus and Darius I were renowned for their high integrity, Xerxes' character was somewhat unbalanced, probably as a result of his strong inclination to grandiosity. The Scroll of Esther, here in line with ancient records on other items, depicts this unstable character of his quite vividly.

In this deficiency of his, of which he must have been aware, Xerxes tried to upkeep rather the forms than the spirit of the religion, sticking still to the Achaemenian principle that the kingship was endowed to them by Ahura Mazda. Since lying was considered the basest of all sins and the source of all evil, a word spoken by the king could not be altered as a matter of consequence.

While Cyrus subordinated himself to what he conceived as the Divine; and while Darius I made the Divine truth as perceived by him to his guiding principle; Xerxes, at the climax of Persia's and his personal glory8 apparently saw himself as the mouthpiece or even representative of the Divine, and words which came out of his mouth were to be taken as unalterable "Dat" (Law). This allowed others to sound the tone through him, and he conceded to his counselors' suggestions to declare the dethronement of Queen Vashti; and then, ten years later9 the hanging of the Jews, as Dat.

It is apparently not by mere chance that these events are mentioned in connection with the King's lavish feast, and *harem*. In the visions of Daniel, the Medo-Persian Empire is compared to a devouring bear10, a comparison which does not fit the rules and behaviors of Kings Cyrus and Darius I. The sages, apparently considering Ahasuerus/Xerxes, explain that base drives as those of that animal allowed adversary forces to grip it.

3) Haman Hammedatha the Agagite

Intrigues like that of Haman should be seen before this background. It is revealing to look closer at his name in this context. He is frequently called "Hammedata the Agagite"11. The term Hammedatha is often interpreted as "Given by the Moon" (from Pers. mah and data = Moon-given, Ordained by the Moon). If so, it would indicate his close connection to the pre-Zarathustrian worhippers of nature forces. But this term could also be understood as "The Maker of dat", The Law-Maker, that is, as the one who issues laws which, although formally correct, do not necessarily reflect the overall spiritual principle they should codify. The King, unsure of his assumed god-like position, might have been charmed by the cleverness of this Hammedata/law-maker who, among others, was able to "legalize" the return of the ancient pagan Anahita cult (and later on the hanging of the Jews).

The term Agagite is usually understood as a reference to Haman's descendent from Agag, king of Amalek12. Amalek was the tribe most hostile to Israel13, hostile for no other reason than for the sake of robbery and hostility. Most likely, Haman was not a Persian by birth but a stranger promoted by the king14. May be that he was physically of the tribe of Amalek, but it may also well be that that term describes him as one of Amalek's trait. His contempt for the Jews altogether is brought out in the phrase that "he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone ... he sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout all the kingdom ..."15. Mordecai's refusal to bow down before him and what he stood for, served him only as pretext.

Scenes like these clouded for the Jews the picture of the Persian Empire not less than the impediments of the construction of the Temple caused by other hostile peoples.

3) Esther and Ahasuerus.

According to the Targum of Esther, when Esther16 sought to see the king and plead on behalf of the menaced Jews, Ahasuerus/Xerxes first assumed that she wanted to get his permission to rebuild the Temple (meaning to allow the continuation of the impeded work), and did not want to grant this wish of hers. Apparently he was not aware of Cyrus' edict, and saw no possibility to grant Esther's (supposed) wish. Hostile court officials had managed to hide it away17. Haman apparently belonged to their faction18, perhaps even functioned as their leader. We would be mistaken, however, if we would think that they targeted only the Jews: their ambitions went much beyond vanquishing the latter.

The Scroll of Esther relates this scenery very vividly, however from a different angle. When the already suspicious King asked Haman how to honor a faithful man who had done a good service to the king, and Haman supposed that he would be the one to be honored, he suggested to be dressed with the royal apparel which the king uses to wear; to be put on the horse that the king rideth upon; and (even) the crown royal to be set upon his head19. Haman would not have dared to make such an inordinate, even insulting proposal if he had pursued merely personal ambitions, unsupported by others; or was only sour against unbending Mordecai and his people, the Jews. He must have thought that once he had the crown royal in public upon his head, he could take over with the help of the forces at his disposal.

Thus, the above quoted mentioning in the Targum, if we take it as historic record, shows us:

a) The building in Jerusalem had come to an halt because of Xerxes’ campaign against revolting Egypt and/or on instigations by hostile groups, or peoples, during the early years of his reign;

b) the king, aware of the impediment, did obviously not know Cyrus' edict. For, had he known it, he could not have disregarded it, as the "Dat (Law) of the Medes and the Persians could not be altered";

c) before this background, we can understand Mordecai's request that Esther should not reveal her kindred nor her people20. He must have been aware of these hostile elements and their growing influence. The Jews were already slandered, and hiding her Jewishness might allow her finding out what is going on behind the scenes, perhaps even gaining some influence;

d) we don't know up to which degree Esther succeeded in concealing her Jewishness, but at least the King must have become aware of it in an earlier stage, or else he would not have suspected her -according to the Targum - of pleading for the renewal of the building in Jerusalem. He had come to "love Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti"21. Her integrity as a Jewess, finding expression in the depth of her mind and the warmth of her heart, must have affected him not less than her natural beauty and the cosmetics applied to her.

This, as well as her and the other Jews' fasts and prayers; the King's sleepless night and discovery from the Court annals about Mordecai's loyalty22, helped to bring about Haman's fall.

But King Ahasverus, even after he realized that he was duped by Haman, felt that he could not revoke his decree to hang Mordecai and the Jews; he rather issued a new decree which allowed the Jews to take care of themselves and fight their adversaries without interference on the part of the Persian authorities, even with their consent23. It was surely also in the king's interest to get rid of the treacherous chancellor Haman and his clique without sending Persian forces against them. From the Scroll of Esther we may gather that Haman's henchmen, besides the five hundred in Shushan the capital, numbered some 7500024 - indeed a formidable task force. They were ready to strike not only against the Jews but most likely to topple the king as well, and to re-establish the pre-Achemenian and pre-Zarathustrian regime25.

In this context we ought to look closer into ancient sources. There, Haman is depicted as an agent on behalf of the Macedonians26, i.e. Greeks who supported the Parthians, a people rivaling the Persians. Thus, Haman's fall saved not only the Jews, it saved Persia as well.

The people of the capital Shushan who were deeply disturbed when they heard about Haman's decree16, had now all the reason to be glad and rejoice together with the Jews "who had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour"27.

This joy of theirs became even a Persian national event:

Haman had chosen Nowrooz (New Year's Day), in the middle of the month of Adar (approx. the month of March), as the day for carrying out the plot to kill the Jews28 and to overthrow the Achaemenians. It was foiled by Mordecai's steadfastness and Esther's superb conduct. We can be sure that these comportments of theirs, as well as the three days' fast of the menaced Jews, caught the attention of Persians loyal to the Court, so that they could warn -perhaps in co-operation with Esther29- the King of the impending danger, and prepare him for the meeting with Haman30. Above all, it was Haman's own behavior which began to turn fate against him. His insolent demand "to set the crown royal upon his head" must have startled the king. Apparently sensing the danger, he gave order to dress the one to be honored, and put him on the king's horse, as per his request, but pointedly omitted mentioning the crown. The king, brought to his senses literally in the last minute, could thwart Haman, turn fate against him, and save the Jews and his throne as well.

In the wake of these events, Nowrooz took on an additional dimension. Besides the ancient traditions, the Persians celebrat(ed) on this joyful day also their preservation from Haman and his dark forces. The lot ("Pur") had fallen in favor of the Achaemenians as well as to that of the Jews. It contributed certainly to the Persians' esteem for the Jews in general, and for Mordecai in particular31. The Persians, considering the importance of the whole event, duly recorded it in their royal chronicles: "And all the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia"32.

We may understand now why both communities celebrate this event: the Jewish people annually as Purim,33 while the Parsees34 celebrate it as part of their Nowrooz. The foiling of Haman's plot had turned out to be a national event for Jews and Persians alike. The latter were accustomed since ancient times to celebrate in spring season the joyful day of New Year, known as Nowrooz, the "New Day", or "New Creation". It marks both the renewal of life after winter and, symbolized by it, the overcoming of the evil forces of darkness by truth and justice as the forces of light. Moreover, the Parsee’s celebrations give us another indication of Purim's historicity.

As mentioned, Ahasuerus/Xerxes conceded towards the end of his 20 years reign to the continuation of the building in Jerusalem. Most likely he did so in gratefulness to Queen Esther and Mordecai, not on ground of Cyrus' edict: Apparently the original of the latter did even then not come to his knowledge. It was still hidden away.

The Kings Artaxerxes I and Darius II who followed Ahasverus/ Xerxes on the throne, certainly impressed by this Purim/Nowrooz story, showed this esteem, too, as said.

However, it was only under the latter, when the original of Cyrus' edict was found after some lengthy search35, that the permit for completion of the work at the Temple could be confirmed in accordance with the above mentioned principle that a word of a Persian king, including the edict of Cyrus, was an unchangeable "dat" (law).

There is still another important aspect of the story of Purim. At the first glance it is somewhat astonishing that the book which relates it, is named after Esther. It is not named after Mordecai the Jew, and not after its imposing subject, Purim. This conveys an important message. Looking at Esther's career, we notice a transition of hers from a beautiful but otherwise passive orphan girl who consents to her uncle's bids, to a self-assured, wise, and influential queen; and on top, to a leading, even prophetic figure in Israel whose "decree established these matters of Purim, and it was written in the book"36, meaning they were to be incorporated in the Tanakh on her behest. The sages, after long debates, indeed heeded this decree; and Purim got observed the longer the more.

We may see Esther's story as a paradigm for womankind's call altogether. In the kingdom of Ahasuerus, depicted as a typical male society with all its caprices in which women are but objects, Esther brings her natural beauty and her wisdom to the fore, not to deceive men but to bring the king to his senses, for his own good and for the welfare of the Jews as an essential ingredient of the empire in its restoration to the Divine order.

This leads us to the core of the message the Scroll of Esther probably wants to convey. Debates are still going on as to why there is no mentioning of God's name, or of a Divine intervention on behalf of his menaced people, the Jews. Indeed, in this respect the Scroll contrasts sharply the rest of the Tanakh which records, often in detail, all kind of events we conceive as miracles: the plagues in Egypt; the splitting of the Red Sea; the collapse of the walls of Jericho; sun and moon standing still on Joshua's command; David's consultations of the Divine before going to battle; etc. True, the change of the "Pur" is not less miraculous. Yet it was brought about by apparently "natural" means as e.g. Queen Vashti's deposition and Esther's acceptance into the Court; the fasts and prayers of the frightened Jews; the King's sleepless night and his discovery of Mordecai's loyalty; Haman's impertinence (by which the evil helped to destroy itself); etc. Looking at these, we sense quite a difference to the before mentioned events. This shows us that with Cyrus' advent, an era began in which all mankind, Jews and non-Jews, are meant to take responsibility on behalf of the Divine, and to mature therein. Women, symbolized by Esther, are to play a decisive, even leading role in the course of redemption as indicated in passages like these: "Esther commanded Mordecai"; "Esther the Queen, the daughter of Avihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote with all authority..."; "the decree of Esther established these matters of Purim"37. In this, Esther "compassed" Mordecai.

Even more so, she "compassed" King Ahasuerus. Originally chosen for him from among many beauties not even as a play girl but rather like an object, she gained access to his heart and mind, and was finally recognized by him truly as queen: "And the king said unto Esther the queen... what is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee; or what is thy request? and it shall be done"38 (Note: he does not add here the paltry phrase "up to half of the kingdom, and it shall be granted thee").

It was the Divine hidden in her which she acted out in an inconspicuous way, and which wrought all these. This is indicated indeed by her very name: Esther, אסתר, in Hebrew means I'll hide, i.e. the Lord God of Heavens and Earth, is acting through her in a hidden way.

Esther may serve as a model figure for a prophecy Jeremiah made in view of the new covenant he foresaw in connection with the final ingathering of the people of Israel: "...For the Lord has created a new thing in the earth: Woman shall compass man".39 Esther had indeed "compassed" Mordecai and Ahasuerus to their true destiny – on expense of being betrothed to a Gentile king – however a Gentile king who allowed then the continuation of the Temple’s building.

Expanding on the latter, we can still see an additional aspect of the Purim story: Esther and her uncle Mordechai may well represent the people of Israel and their role in world history; Haman the Amalekite standing for the dark opposing forces; and King Ahasuerus the world ruler first swaying between Amalek and Israel but finally acknowledging the latter’s Divine call, for the benefit of Israel and consequently for the welfare of the Empire altogether40.

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