Purim historiography



An 18th-century Megillat Esther, as per Wikipedia: Public Domain.

During the festival of Purim we read the Book of Esther (Megillahs Esther).   The story of Purim is set in ancient Persia, but just as well could take place today.  It is a story about assimilated Jews living outside the Land of Israel, afraid to reveal their identity, intermarriage, Jew hatred, being in control of your life and standing up for yourself and for your people.

In this essay I have tried to pin down what we know about the four main individuals in Megillahs Esther: Mordechai, Ahasuerus, Haman and Esther. I think that they are real people and not characters of historical fiction. It is a very interesting time in our Jewish past, and involves Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia, two well-known foreign powerhouses who have left a large footprint in Jewish history.

Adding depth to Megillas Esther necessitated bringing together the historical reality of persons and events as best I can.  This means not only taking a hard look at authenticity and substantiated facts, but trying not to dissemble or have an axe to grind.  Hopefully, speculation is kept at a minimum.

The story of Purim begins in the year 598 BCE .  This is when the King of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar, exiled the King of Judah and maybe 3,000 of its citizens to Babylonia.  One of these citizens is the hero of the Book of Esther.  His name is Mordechai, the cousin of Esther.

The basis and timeline for this essay hangs on two statements, one from the Babylonian Chronicles and another from the Book of Esther.  It is also supported by 2 Kings and the Book of Ezra. The Babylonian Chronicles are a series of cuneiform writings from the time of Nebuchadnezzar that explain in exquisite accurate detail the history of Babylonian Empire.  The Book Esther speaks for itself.

The quote from the Babylonian Chronicles is as follows: “In the seventh year, in the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land, and encamped against the City of Judah and on the ninth day of the month of Adar [598 BCE] he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice and taking heavy tribute brought it back to Babylon”. 

Nebuchadnezzar began his reign in 605 BCE.  In the 7th year of his reign, 598 BCE he invaded Hatti-Land which is the Levant or Syria-Israel.  The City of Judah is Jerusalem.  Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem.  The Judean King, Jehoiakim died and his son Jeconiah was appointed king.  After three months, fearing rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar removed Jeconiah from the throne and exiled him along with maybe 3,000 prominent Jews to Babylonia.  Among those citizens was Mordechai. He was probably an infant or very small boy.

The Jews revolt once more.  After a long siege, Jerusalem falls in 586 BCE. The Kingdom of Judah is in ruins and is devoid of much of its population.  No longer a kingdom it becomes a small Babylonian province called Yehud. Then in 539 BCE, the Persian Empire led by Cyrus the Great defeats the Babylonians.  A year later, Cyrus issues a proclamation entreating the Jews to return to Yehud (now a Persian sub-province not even a satrapy) and rebuild our Temple.

What Do We Know About Mordechai?

The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624,  as per Wikipedia: Public Domain.

Mordechai was a baby when he was exiled and must have grown up in Babylonia, modern day Iraq.  He did not return to Yehud.  Instead, somehow or other, probably as a grown man, he made his way due east to the Persian capital of Susa (Shushan) in modern day Iran.

In answer to a question as to why Mordechai did not return to Jerusalem when Cyrus made it possible for Jews to return consider the following excerpt from a lecture by Professor Oved Lipschits, Tel Aviv University:

“…Jerusalem was wretchedly poor, not just in the period after the Babylonian destruction, but also at the height of the Persian period. In light of this clear archaeological evidence, we should interpret the return to Zion as a slow and gradual process that didn’t leave its imprint on the archaeological data. After nearly a century of Persian rule, Jerusalem was still small, unfortified with only few hundreds of people living in and around it”.   Also consider It may have not been in the best interest of Mordechai’s ward, young Esther, to live in or around Jerusalem at that time.

It is in Shushan that we find Mordechai when he first makes his appearance in the Book of Esther.  Our story begins to take shape, starting with a quote from the Book of Esther at 2:5-6.

The quote reads: “There was a man, a Jew, in Shushan the capital,  whose name was Mordechai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been exiled from Jerusalem along with the ones exiled that were exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, who Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled.”

אִישׁ יְהוּדִי, הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן-שִׁמְעִי בֶּן-קִישׁ–אִישׁ יְמִינִי

אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה–אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה, נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל

What else do we know about Mordechai?  Well, when the story begins there is a new king who has been sitting on the throne for about three years.  He is not Cyrus who died in 530 BCE.  Since Mordechai was born as late as 598 BCE, he had to be at least 71 years old when the story begins.  Mordechai’s father had a brother named Abihail.  His daughter was Esther, who at the time when the story begins was in her late teens.  Her parents must have passed away and Mordechai her much older cousin has become her guardian.

What Do We Know About Ahauverus?

Ahasuerus and Haman at Esther’s Feast, by Rembrandt, , as per Wikipedia: Public Domain.

Cyrus dies and there is a new king on the throne. His name is Ahasuerus (אֲ חַ שְׁ וֵרוֹש); what can we say about him?  Well, we can say a lot.  Who was he, and when did he reign? Well, he was not Cyrus the Great, and must have come to rule sometime after Cyrus’ death in 530 BCE.  Many scholars suggest that Ahasuerus was Xerxes I who ruled between 486-465 BCE.  They see in the names Xerxes and Ahasuerus certain similarities on which their claim is based.

If you give any credence at all to the Book of Esther where it states that Mordechai went into exile with king Jeconiah, and that happened in 598 BCE, then Mordechai is least 112 years old when Xerxes began his reign.  Come on folks, claiming that Xerxes is Ahasuerus is ridiculous; Ahasuerus was somebody else.

I think Ahasuerus was the king of Persia who immediately followed Cyrus’ reign.  This would be Cambyses (Kamboujyeh or Kabūjiya) II. He was the son and successor of Cyrus the Great and he ruled from 530 BCE until 522 BCE.  Mordechai’s earliest age at Cambyses’ II’s death would be 76 years old, and unlike the probable age at the time of Xerxes is reasonable.  A weakness to this hypothesis is that Cambyses ruled for only eight years, not enough time for all the events in the Book of Esther to take place.  However, during the lifetime of Cyrus, in 539 BCE, Cambyses was proclaimed king of Babylonia giving another nine years for his story to unfold.

The Megillas Esther begins in the 3rd year of Ahasuerus’ reign, 527 BCE, with the wine party that lasts for 180 days.  The Persian-Greek historian writes that Cambyses was given over to drunkenness.  The association of that long wine fest and overindulging on Purim with strong drink cannot be passed up here.

Herodotus also writes that Cambyses was insane, had a short fuse and committed many crimes.  Maybe this adds credence about the plot discovered by Mordechai to assassinate Ahasuerus.  Most telling however, is that Cambyses murdered one of his wives. My guess is that it was not Vashti. But no wonder that Esther was extremely fearful in approaching Ahasuerus with her petition.  The man was irrational, had a bad temper and was given over to violence.

Having said that, we know that he loved Esther, and because of his love for her he viewed her people the Jews with much favor.  Cambyses also favored the Jews.  In 525 BCE Cambyses set out and succeeded in conquering Egypt.

During his campaign he is said to have wreaked havoc, looting temples, ridiculing the local gods, and defiling royal tombs.  When Cambyses conquered Egypt, he declared himself as “Pharaoh”.  As to how he was regarded there are two opposing points of view:

The historian, Herodotus puts an emphasis on Cambyses’ supposed killing of the Egyptian sacred bull called Apis. On the contrary, others say that Cambyses took part in the preservation and burial ceremony of Apis.

There is an Egyptian record that says Cambyses decreased the sizable income Egyptian temples received from the Egyptian pharaohs.  Under Cambyses, only three temples were given permission to maintain their entitlements. This caused those Egyptian priests who lost their entitlements to circulate spurious stories about Cambyses…maybe true…maybe not.

In Egypt at this time there was a military colony of Jews living on an island in the Nile called Elephantine.  The Jews of Elephantine had their own Temple. This is a quote from a Jewish inhabitant of Elephantine found on a papyrus, showing Cambyses’ favorable connection to Jews:

“’Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the kingdom of Egypt, and when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They (the Persians) knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this temple.”

I think that because of his love for Esther, Cambyses looked upon Jews with favor.

Who was Haman?

Esther denouncing Haman by Ernest Normand, , as per Wikipedia: Public Domain.

I came across some information which may shed some light on Haman.  It is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but let me explain:

In 597- 598 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar exiled King Jeconiah and his entourage to Babylon. As stated in Jeremiah 52: 31-34 and 2 Kings 25:27-30, their exile lasted for 37 years until the death of Nebuchadnezzar at which time they were set free.  And incidentally, Nebuchadnezzar on a daily basis provided food for them.  This daily food allowance is also spelled out in Babylonian cuneiform tablets.

While all of this is interesting, what is the connection to Haman?  Well it goes like this:

Very similar to the Jeconiah situation, but seven years earlier in 604 BCE, the King of Ashkelon and his two sons were also exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon.  As per cuneiform records, their daily food ration was also supplied to them by Nebuchadnezzar.

The surname of the King of Ashkelon is Aga, similar or identical to Haman the son of Hamdata the Agagite,האגגי

I’m guessing that this king or his sons were also set free when Nebuchadnezzar died.  They would not have returned to Ashkelon because that city had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians in much the same way as the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Perhaps, similar to Mordechai, they took up residence in Shushan.  Perhaps also because these Agagites were royalty they were able to hold a top administration position in the Persian monarch’s court and expected people to bow down to them, Mordechai included.

What is extremely important is that King Aga was a Philistine, the last of the Philistine kings.  Philistines were the archenemy of Israel from the time of the Patriarchs.  King Aga knew about Judah because the land of the Philistines of which Ashkelon was a part, bordered on the Kingdom of Judah.  They were neighbors, but shared a mutual hatred.  This explains the vehement contempt that Haman had for Jews in general and to Mordechai in particular.

Who Was Esther?

Esther talking to Mordecai, , as per Wikipedia: Public Domain..

The simple answer is that I do not know.  Her father’s name was Avihail or in Hebrew: אֲבִיחַיִל .  This translates: “My father is a soldier”.  This may mean that Esther’s father’s father, her grandfather was a military man.  Since Esther and Mordechai share the same grandfather, the same would be true for Mordechai.

I am guessing that at the time of the “Beauty Contest” she was a teenager living in Shushan.   According to most scholars, the name Esther is derived from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and/or the Persian word stara, “star”, maybe the evening star Venus.

There is a connection between the name Esther and one of Cambyses’ wives.  Her name was Roxane.  The name Roxanne is derived from the Greek name Rhōxanē, a derivative of the Persian Roshanak, This name has several meanings such as shining little star, lovely flare and luminous beauty. This name is still popular and in common use in today’s Iran.  Perhaps Esther and Roxanne are one and the same.

I hope that you had plenty to talk about when you last sat down at the table enjoying your Purim festive meal.  And now for your next Shabbat and next year’s Purim celebration you will have a little more to chew on.

About the Author
Lives in Nahariya, Israel. Interests: Torah, geology, archaeology, and anthropology. “Northern Exposure” Blog in Jerusalem Post for 3 years, co-founder of Nahariya Anglo Benevolent Society.
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