I’m sure that people reading this are no doubt aware of the questions concerning the historicity of the Purim story. Proponents of the theory that Megillat Esther is fiction tend to rely on things like the play of words on the names Mordechai and Esther (they are similar to the names of the Persian gods Marduk and Ishtar) and the lack of the concomitant record of this episode in the royal records from the Medean monarchy.
The trouble about identifying Achashveirosh and the lack of a clear dating of the events in question, also play a role. The problem with those arguments is that they violate the general rule that “the lack of evidence is not evidence.” I’m personally ambivalent about the theory, changing my mind from Purim to Purim; lately I’m erring on the side of skepticism, but feeling guilty for violating Pascal’s wager. But I give such historical challenges to the events recorded in the Torah some measure of credence to the extent that they at least need to be considered and addressed, even if not entirely resolved.
As regards Purim, I feel that way given our own historic record of celebrating Yom Nicanor on 13 Adar (see B.T. Taanit 18b and here) and not observing Taanit Esther, as proscribed, the day before “Yom Mordechai” as the Book of Maccabees calls Purim. Why rely on speculative arguments arising from the lack of historical evidence, when there is a clear record that indicates that Yom Mordechai was not seriously celebrated (i.e., no fast before and the festival itself appearing to be an appendage to the prior day’s celebration) until the mid- to late- Tannaitic era?
As to why it was not celebrated, one could submit that we did not celebrate an event that we “knew” did not really happen until there was some pressing doctrinal need to do so. It therefore seems plausible that Purim was used to supplant the Nicanor celebration when the Hasmonean monarchy proved to be disastrous for Klal Yisrael.
The problem with that theory, however, is why then is Esther even in the biblical canon? And why was it, at least according to Jewish tradition, included in the canon long before the Hasmonean revolt? I believe that question is answered by positing that Esther never intends to be a historical document, even if it might record a historic event. Rather, Esther, like the other megillot, is a religious/moral text, one that stands for the idea that G-d’s redemption need not always be final and permanent. Rather national redemptions on a smaller scale can and do occur. And, indeed, replacing the celebration of a military victory which ultimately segued into national disaster with an observance about which the Talmud notes “. . .acati avda d’Achashveirosh anan. . .” (We now remain servants of King Achashveirosh. See B.T. Megilla 14a) is a perfect fit.
On the brink of exile, our sages didn’t want to encourage further futile revolt as a practical matter. Moreover, they wanted to imbue us with some hope for the future by reassuring us that salivation, even if temporal and fleeting, can come from any place at any time. To take it a step further, Esther and Job (another “fictional” Bible story) parallel one another. Each illustrates the complexity of divine immanence and G-d’s plan. Esther reassures us that G-d is with us and watching over us, even if He does not provide the ultimate redemption.
The ironic beauty of all this is that it allows me to reject the historicity of Purim (if I so desire), and still maintain Chazal’s moral authority. Ironically, the less historically “true” Esther is, the stronger Chazal become in instituting the holiday. They had the authority to write a significant event that actually occurred and which had been memorialized with an annual observance, out of our observed history and substitute it with a “fictional” one for the sole purpose of making our exile (i.e., our divinely decreed punishment for national iniquity) somewhat more spiritually palatable. If Esther is not true, Chazal partially thwart G-d’s penance for us with. . .well, a Purim shpiel. And in ironies like this one, is where I see the Divine.
There is another loose end to tie up though, Esther’s main purpose. I suggested that Esther is in fact not a historical document, but, like all the megillot, it is a moral/religious document. Like the other megillot it addresses an aspect of Klal Yisrael’s relationship with G-d, and how He guides us both on the individual and national levels. What then of Megillat Ruth? Is not Ruth recorded history; and very important history at that? We rely on the chronology there to establish the legitimacy of the Davidic monarchy. But since the need to affirm David’s bona fides is grounded in our eschatology, can we not say that Ruth too is a religious tract that lays the groundwork for the messianic era? Homiletically, that is rather attractive, as it provides a full connection to the relationship to Shavuot, when it is read. The encounter at Sinai set forth the terms and conditions to follow in order to attain the final redemption, Ruth tells us that G-d has already laid the genealogical groundwork in anticipation of our meriting it. A rather tidy resolution, I think.
As a postscript, ponder the following two points:
- The Megillah makes a point of emphasizing that Mordechai comes from Shaul’s family and is not of davidic lineage. Why? I think it’s to remove any hint of an eschatological message from the text. The final redemption will be via a Messiah who is from the davidic line. It’s as if Megillat Esther tells us this will not be the final redemption.
- The Megilah stresses that the Jews did not defend themselves until the king allowed them to do so. Again this emphasizes our galut, we are subservient to the liege in all ways and dependent on him for survival. These are two important points to stress to a people about to lose their national autonomy.
Happy Purim to one and all.