Also Megillat Ester; Esther, Book of

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					Also: Megillat Ester; Esther, Book of

SCROLL OF ESTHER (Heb.              rGsa TZgm, Megillat Ester), the festal scroll of Purim, the only
one of the Five Scrolls to bear the title megillah as part of its traditional name (see Scrolls, the
Five). The Scroll of Esther tells the story of the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.

The Persian king Ahasuerus, in the third year of his reign, climaxes 180 days of banqueting for
his officials with an additional feast of seven days for the entire populace of Shushan. On the
seventh day of this party, the king, while drunk, orders Queen Vashti to appear so that all may
appreciate her beauty. When the queen refuses, the king, having consulted his advisers, removes
Vashti from her position, and a decree is sent to all the husbands of the realm ordering them to
dominate their own households (chapter 1).
A contest is held among all the beautiful maidens of the kingdom to find a successor to Vashti.
One of the girls taken to the palace is Esther, or Hadassah, the cousin of Mordecai the Jew.
Esther, concealing her origins, finds favor in the eyes of the king and is chosen to succeed
Vashti. Mordecai, who is one of the officials who "sit in the King's Gate," learns of a plot against
the king devised by two of his eunuchs. He reveals this to Esther, who in turn informs the king.
The eunuchs are executed (chapter 2).
Ahasuerus elevates Haman the Agagite, a descendant of Agag king of Amalek (I Sam. 15),
above his other courtiers, and all the king's courtiers bow to Haman in recognition of his
distinguished rank. Mordecai refuses on the grounds that he is Jewish, presumably because
there is a perpetual feud between Amalek and the Jews (Ex. 17: 14–16; Deut. 25:17–19).
Angered by this snub, Haman resolves to exterminate Mordecai and the entire Jewish people and
determines the appropriate day by lot. He then persuades the king that the Jews are a subversive
people who should be eliminated, reinforcing this argument with an offer of 10,000 talents of
silver. Ahasuerus authorizes Haman to deal with the Jews as he chooses. Haman writes to all the
royal governors appointing the 13th of Adar for the slaughter of the Jews (chapter 3).
Learning of the decree, Mordecai appeals to Esther to intercede with the king. In spite of the
mortal danger of appearing before the king without being specifically summoned, Esther agrees
to spend three days fasting and then to go to the king (chapter 4). On the third day, Esther
approaches the king and is spared. She requests that the king and Haman come to a banquet
that night. At the banquet, Esther refuses to reveal her true wishes, but merely asks that
Ahasuerus and Haman attend a second banquet she will give on the following night. Haman
returns home proud of having been so honored. At the advice of his wife and supporters, he
prepares a stake 50 cubits high upon which to hang Mordecai (chapter 5).
Since the king cannot sleep that night, he orders that the royal annals be read, and thereby
discovers that Mordecai had never been properly rewarded for denouncing the two eunuchs. He
asks Haman's advice concerning a means of honoring someone whom the king deems worthy of
honor. Haman, thinking he is the chosen one, proposes a procession in royal garb upon a royal
horse through the streets of the city, with a noble leading the horse and proclaiming: "This is what
is done for the man whom the king desires to honor." The king then orders Haman to do this for
Mordecai (chapter 6). At the second banquet, Esther denounces Haman as plotting the
destruction of her people. When Haman appeals to Esther for mercy, the king, thinking he intends
to ravish her, orders him to be hanged on the stake prepared for Mordecai (chapter 7).
Haman's place in the king's favor is taken over by Mordecai, but Haman's decree sealing the fate
of the Jews poses a serious problem, since according to the Medo-Persian constitution a royal
decree may not be revoked (both the idea of a Medo-Persian partnership and the attribution to it
of this law are taken, with other features, from Dan. 6). Mordecai, however, writes to all the
satraps, governors, and other important officials of the realm authorizing the Jews to defend
themselves and to destroy anyone who may attack them (chapter 8). Mordecai's prestige is
sufficient to insure that the royal officials favor the Jews on that fateful day. Instead of being
exterminated on that day, the Jews seem to have suffered no casualties at all; on the other hand,
they themselves kill 500 of their enemies as well as the ten sons of Haman in Shushan, and
75,000 enemies in the provinces. At Esther's request, the Jews of the capital are also given the
following day, the 14th of Adar, to avenge themselves on their foes. The Jews are so feared that
many gentiles pretend to be Jews (this and not "are converted to Judaism," is the meaning of
mityahadim, 8:17).
The days following the battles, the 14th of Adar in the provinces and the 15th in Shushan, are
declared by Mordecai and Esther days of feasting and merrymaking forevermore, and they are
designed "the days of Purim" in memory of the lots that Haman cast (chapters 9–10). As is
pointed out by H. L. Ginsberg, Esther 9:30–31 obliquely justifies the innovation by invoking the
authority of the prophet Zechariah (who had flourished in the reign of Ahasuerus' predecessor
Darius I) in that they call the ordinance of Mordecai and Esther "an ordinance of 'equity and
honesty' " and state that its content was: "These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper
time, as Mordecai the Jew—and now Queen Esther—has obligated them to do, and just as they
have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fast with their
lamentations." The reference is to Zechariah 8:19: "Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fasts of the
fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months [corresponding to the modern 17th of Tammuz, Ninth of
Av, Fast of Gedaliah, and Tenth of Tevet] shall be turned into joy and gladness and happy
seasons for the House of Judah; just love honesty and equity." The reference to this verse
implies the following midrashic interpretation of it: having adopted those fasts, the House of
Judah is bound—as a matter of honesty and equity—to adopt new holidays as well.

The Scroll of Esther claims to be a simple historical account of events that actually took place in
the fortress of Shushan, or Susa. It is true that there was a Persian king named Ahasuerus; for
Ahasuerus is merely a Hebrew form of the Persian name which the Greeks heard as Xerxes.
Xerxes I (for it is he who is meant, since the reign of Xerxes II was ephemeral) reigned from 486
to 465, B.C.E. It is also true that a tablet found at Borsippa speaks of a royal official named
Marduka, or Mordecai, at around the time of Xerxes I. Finally, the author of Esther is well
acquainted with Persian customs and court practices, as is illustrated by Vashti's refusal to
degrade herself and appear at the drinking party. A Persian wife left when the drinking began.
Nevertheless, accepting Esther as veritable history involves many chronological and historical
difficulties. If Mordecai was exiled from Judea with Jehoiachin (589 B.C.E.), as Esther 2:6
suggests, he would have been over 100 years old at the time of Xerxes I. Herodotus reports that
Xerxes' queen was neither Esther nor Vashti but a Persian general's daughter named Amestris
(Hist. 7:114). Herodotus also says that the Persian king could only choose a queen from among
seven Persian noble families (3:84). In addition, the entire plot is full of improbabilities; for
example, while Mordecai is well known as a royal Jewish courtier (3:4), his cousin and adopted
daughter whom he visits daily (2:11) can successfully conceal her nationality and religion. Finally,
the story often seems mockingly serious and suspiciously areligious. Prayers are never
addressed to God in the hours of danger and need, and no mention is made of thanksgivings to
God after the salvation of the Jews. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud had to read references to
God into the Scroll of Esther (Meg. 7a). Assuming that Esther is not veritable history there are
innumerable possibilities for the book's origin, date of composition, historical context, meaning,
and purpose.

One significant group of scholars considers Esther, much like Daniel, a pseudepigraph, in which
the narrative set in Persia is merely a stage setting for the true meaning. Willrich, for example,
suggests that Ahasuerus is really Ptolemy Euergetes II (170–164 B.C.E. and 145–117 B.C.E.);
Esther, his queen, Cleopatra III, who was friendly to the Jews; and Haman, the anti-Jewish party
at the Ptolemaic court. Haupt and Lewy have proposed solutions that understand Esther in
relation to the periods of the Maccabees and Herodians, respectively. A detailed examination of
one example of these "historical" interpretations of Esther will reveal the difficulties inherent in this
approach. R. H. Pfeiffer argues that Esther was written during the Hasmonean era, specifically at
the time of John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.E.). Haman, Pfeiffer proposes, looks like a caricature of
Antiochus Epiphanes. He persecutes the Jews on the grounds that they are different from other
peoples (3:8), just as Antiochus ordered that all peculiar national customs be discontinued (I
Macc. 1:41). The Jews in Esther have taken matters into their own hands with great success,
and, indeed, ultimately force the gentiles to convert to Judaism (8:17), just as they did under the
Maccabees. The author of Esther, like that of Maccabees, is militantly nationalistic, more ardent
in his patriotism than in his religious zeal. He outwardly conformed to religious practice, but
"appears to have made no demands on God and to have expected that God would make none of
him." The background of Esther, according to Pfeiffer, is therefore neither the Persian period nor
the period of the persecution of Antiochus (168–165 B.C.E.) but rather the reign of John
Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus, among his other achievements, forced the conquered Idumeans to accept
Judaism by compulsory circumcision. Represented in our book by Mordecai and Esther,
Hyrcanus was the author's ideal and hero. These parallels between the events described in
Esther and those of the Maccabean period are, however, at best broad and general. Furthermore,
the reign of Hyrcanus may not represent the low level of spiritual life essential to Pfeiffer's
argument. Finally, if Esther is the product of intense nationalism, why does the author allow his
heroine to hide her Jewish origin and enter the harem of a gentile king? Why must the Jews
depend on successful intrigues at court and not revolt openly, as Hyrcanus' ancestors had done?
Another school of thought bases its interpretation on the fact that the names of Mordecai and
Esther are derived from the names of the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar. This approach
sees the story as an account of the conflicts of these gods or of their worshipers. The most
extensive formulation of this approach is that of Lewy. Lewy's analysis of Esther begins with the
fact that the Septuagint and II Maccabees preserve different features of the story than the
Hebrew text. Thus, according to the Septuagint, the Persian king is Artaxerxes rather than
Xerxes. Haman is called Bugaean and not the Agagite, and the name of the holiday is Phrouraia
or Phourdaia and not Purim. Finally, the holiday is called the "Mardochaic day" in II Maccabees
A proper understanding of these divergences, Lewy maintains, can solve the problem of the
origin and purpose of Esther and of the feast of the 14th and 15th of Adar which it proclaims. The
Phrouraia or Phourdaia suggests the Persian festival of Favardigan which was celebrated from
the 11th to the 14th of Adar. The Jews adopted a Babylonianized version of this feast and also
accepted the Babylonian legends connected with the festival. The name of the festival in II
Maccabees 15:36, the "Mardochaic day," does not mean the day of Mordecai but the day of the
Mardukians or worshipers of Marduk. Bugaean suggests a worshiper of Mithra. Combining this
information with the clear fact that the name Esther is equivalent to Ishtar, Lewy proposes that it
is now possible to reconstruct the Babylonian original behind the last eight chapters of Esther.
These chapters recount the threat to the worshipers of Marduk which resulted when Artaxerxes II
(404–358) instituted the cult of Mithra, a threat from which they were saved by the goddess
Ishtar. Another legend concerning Ishtar is behind the story in the first two chapters of the book.
This legend tells of the elevation of Ishtar-Esther over the Elamite goddess Mashti-Vashti.
While Lewy's interpretation explains many features of Esther, it must be considered more as a
hypothesis or conjecture rather than as proof. It seems far too complicated to be true, and
accounts for the features of Esther only by disregarding the scientific canon of economy.

Recent Research
Research on the Scroll of Esther, in particular the contributions of E. Bickerman, has elucidated
many aspects of this deceptively simple book. Bickerman has solved many of the problems left
unsolved by the other commentators we have considered. He has clearly recognized the literary
structure of the book and the fact that, while it may be ultimately based on actual events, Esther
contains two originally independent plots derived from oriental romance: one plot of harem
intrigue of which Esther is the heroine and another of court intrigue of which Mordecai is the hero.
Mordecai's story is based on a type of oriental romance. It is the story of the struggle between the
vizier and the dashing new courtier who outwits the vizier and replaces him in the king's favor.
Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman (3:2), which puzzled the later Jewish commentators, is thus
comprehensible as an attempt by Mordecai to demonstrate his equality with Haman. Haman is
angry, consults his friends and prepares the stake. Meanwhile, the episode of the king's sleepless
night occurs and at its conclusion Haman must honor Mordecai. Finally, Haman is overthrown
and Mordecai replaces him in the king's favor.
The second plot is that of the queen who brings about the downfall of the vizier. In Esther, the
conflict between Haman and the queen is accidental, as he does not know that she is Jewish.
This cannot have been the motive in the original story or stories. Yet the fact that Esther is not the
"original story" explains one puzzling feature of the book—the non-Jewish if not un-Jewish
character of the narrative. The heroes of the original story were not Jewish. These two plots were
combined quite effectively. Having heard stories of the struggles of a Jewish courtier and of a
Jewish queen against an evil vizier, the author combined them. However, traces of the
independent stories can still be seen in several places in the book, as in the two separate epistles
at the end (9:20–28 and 9:29–32) or in the unexplained presence of two where one would
suffice—the delay being necessary for Mordecai's first triumph over Haman on the night of the
king's insomnia. The Scroll of Esther presents Purim as a festival commemorating the victory of
the Jews, but it is odd in that it occurs on the day following the victory unlike other Jewish
festivals celebrated on the anniversary of the event itself. It is therefore clear, Bickerman
concludes, that the author of Esther invented his story to explain an already existent festival.
Purim, Bickerman suggests, was originally a seasonal festival of mock ritual combat between "our
side" and "their side" celebrated for two days in the capital and one day in the countryside
followed by a day of pleasure. Similar festivals are well known in the ancient world. On these
days, stories such as those which eventually contributed to Esther were told for the pleasure of
the celebrants.
This festival, originally a local feast of the Jews of Shushan and Persia (cf. Meg. 7a), received the
name Purim after the story of Mordecai and Esther had been elaborated. The name Purim is
based on the story of Esther and is properly explained by our author as being derived from the
lots (Akk. puru) which Haman cast to determine the date for the annihilation of the Jews (3:7;
This analysis of Esther makes it difficult to propose a specific date for its author since most of the
motifs occurring in the book are now explained as belonging to the long tradition of oriental
romance. Nevertheless, a few facts may be established. The author was definitely a Persian Jew,
possibly from Shushan. He certainly wrote before 78/77 B.C.E., the date the Greek translation of
Esther (see below) was brought to Egypt, and before the composition of II Maccabees 15:36
which mentions the 14th of Adar as the "Day of Mordecai."

Canonization and the Greek Version
One direct result of the non-Jewish atmosphere which pervades the Scroll of Esther was the
refusal of some of the rabbis to admit Esther into the Jewish canon. The Talmud (Meg. 7a)
preserves debates on whether Esther was written with the proper divine inspiration (Ru'ah ha-
Kodesh) and whether it "defiles the hands" like other scriptural works. The major objection to
including Esther in the canon seems to have been the lack of clear references to God, His
providence, or His intervention in the events of our story. The stridently militant and anti-gentile
tone of the concluding chapters added to the rabbis' objections. They seem to have been afraid
that Esther might arouse the jealousy and hatred of non-Jews. Ultimately, of course, the book
was admitted (Meg. 7a and Rashi ad loc.).
Esther was translated into Greek by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy of Jerusalem. His translation
was brought to Egypt in the "fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra," according to the
colophon at the end of the Greek version. Of the three Ptolemies associated with a Cleopatra in
the fourth year of their reign, the most probable one in this case is Ptolemy XII Auletos and his
sister and wife Cleopatra V. Documents about Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V are the only ones
which illustrate in the same royal style as the colophon. The translation was thus brought to Egypt
in the year 78/77 B.C.E.
Lysimachus follows his original fairly closely, although he obviously felt free to adapt and alter the
text for the sake of clarity or his own notions of probability. For example, he makes the slaughter
of the opponents of the Jews occur on the same day as the festival rather than on the day before,
so that Purim will be celebrated on the anniversary of the victory, as were Hellenic and Jewish
The Greek translation also contains six passages not found at all in the Hebrew text. These
passages should not all be understood as entirely new compositions of Lysimachus. The
representations of Esther on the walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europos also contain scenes not
in the Hebrew text. This suggests that the author of the Hebrew Esther only utilized part of a
larger circle of stories concerning his heroes. Lysimachus' "additions" and the paintings at Duro-
Europos may be other elements of this cycle.
The character and purpose of these additions have been much debated. Three purposes, at
least, can be discerned. These passages add a religious element, specifically prayer, to the book
to help explain how and why the Jews were saved. The additions also adapt the book to the
tastes of contemporary readers by introducing documents, namely, the decrees of Haman and
Mordecai. Finally, a particular interpretation of the conflict between Haman and the Jews is
emphasized. Haman's decree, according to the Greek version, charges the Jews with
exclusiveness and disloyalty which endanger the state. The Jews, in Mordecai's decree, answer
that their God is the ruler of the world who takes and gives away kingdoms. Sovereigns ought to
recognize this, as Ahasuerus ultimately does, understanding that those who oppose the Jews are
the real traitors who seek to deprive the kingdom of the support of the "chosen people" and of
their God. This exchange of charges of disloyalty fits well into the reign of Alexander Yannai and
it may be conjectured that this is when Lysimachus translated the work.
[Albert I. Baumgarten]