Tonight and tomorrow Jews across the globe will be celebrating the festival of Purim, eating triangular prune or poppy seed stuffed pastries and imbibing alcohol to some excess, unable to distinguish between the good guys and the evil ones.
The author of Megillat Esther probably lived in Persia. He was familiar with Persian words and names and Persian culture and he used his knowledge to create a beautiful fictitious story about a Jewish queen.
The story takes place in the city of Susa (Shushan, in Hebrew), a major city of the Elamite, Seleucid and Parthian empires of ancient Persia.
His characters bear the names of Persian gods (Ishtar=Esther and Marduk=Mordechai) who rescue the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the wicked vizier during the reign of King Xerxes I (Ahasuerus, in Hebrew).
Vashti, the queen, refuses to appear naked dancing before the hundreds of princes and nobles celebrating the anniversary of the king’s reign. Infuriated, the king consults with his advisors as to what he should do to punish her. They tell him that the queen’s refusal to obey her husband’s wishes would create problems since other wives could now have reason to disobey their husbands.
Finally, Vashti is banished from the court and a beauty contest begins throughout the empire in search of a suitable new queen. A Jewish girl (Hadassah) is selected and spends a year soaking up luxurious oils and perfumes before appearing before the king. She becomes the chief woman in the royal harem.
The problem with this part of the story is that it would have been quite impossible for a Jewish girl to become queen of Persia. According to ancient Persian law, a queen had to be descended from one of seven royal families. As a Jewess, Ishtar did not meet the qualifications.
When Marduk refused to bow down before the vizier, Haman the Agagite (Haman ha rasha in Hebrew),his anger overcomes him and in a rage he demands that the king issue an edict to destroy Marduk’s people on a day to be chosen by lots (pur=purim).
“There is a people in the kingdom whose ways are not the ways of the Medes and the Persians. Let them be destroyed”, he pleads in summation.
Get rid of the Jews. They worship one God while we worship many. They eat strange food while we enjoy all manner of foods. They are a lazy people working only six days of a week while good Persians work seven days. They pray in a strange language while our prayers are in Farsi. Who needs these different people among us ? Let us be rid of these Jews. So Haman relates in the presence of the king.
And King Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) gives his consent.
Haman confides to his wife Zeresh that he could be a very happy man if it were not for that “damned Jew Mordechai who sits at the king’s gate”.
Here, the author introduces us to the very first instance of anti-Semitism, in particular, hatred of the Jews because of hatred for one Jew. This is an historic statement.
Marduk informs his niece, Queen Ishtar, of the wicked vizier’s plot and begs her to intervene with the king. She hesitates because Persian law stated that no one could appear before the king unless that person received a royal summons.
Marduk tells her that she must go before the king to plead for the salvation of her people. He tells her that if not, help will come from another Source.
No mention of God in the 167 verses of the 10 chapters of the scroll. In fact, of the twenty-four books in the Hebrew bible (Tanach), Megillat Esther is the only one in which God’s name is never mentioned. It is a secular rather than a holy book.
Hurrah! Haman and his ten sons are hanged on the gallows intended for Marduk. The Jews are able to defend themselves against Persian attackers. Marduk is elevated to an important position in the king’s court and he, Ishtar and all the Jews of the Persian empire live happily ever after.
In my 52 years as a professor at the university teaching biblical literature, Megillat Esther was the most difficult of all the twenty-four books.
Once a religious student stood up and asked me, “Professor, how can you say that Megillat Esther is only legendary? We Jews have been remembering it and reading it each year in Adar. Surely it must be because it is a story of true events in our history”.
I could not argue with him. In my heart I knew he was correct. But in my brain, I remembered biblical criticism of great scholars and their analysis of the Book of Esther as historic legend.
In any case, as chapter 8 informs us that the tragedy was prevented. “La Yehudim hayta ora v’simcha v’sasson v’icar…..” The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor and celebrated their deliverance with a great feast.
The lesson to be learned is that while God’s name does not appear anywhere in the scroll, it is He who supervises all things and He who controls all destiny.
Enjoy your oznai Haman (hamantashen) and drink your whiskey with care and caution. Chag Purim samayach l’kol bet Yisrael…. Happy Purim to every Jewish home.