Gershon Hepner

The Book of Esther is a Midrashic Explanation of Ezra 4.6

This brief article suggests that the Book of Esther should be seen as a midrashic explanation of Ezra 4:6, describing the effect of the hatred of the Judeans by the Persians during the reign of Ahasuerus, attributing this animosity midrashically to Mordecai’s opposition to Haman’s anti-Zionism.

According to the megillah, the rationale of Haman’s decree against the Judeans was Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him. Esther 3:4-6 states:

ד  וַיְהִי, באמרם (כְּאָמְרָם) אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע, אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיַּגִּידוּ לְהָמָן, לִרְאוֹת הֲיַעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי–כִּי-הִגִּיד לָהֶם, אֲשֶׁר-הוּא יְהוּדִי.

4 Now it came to pass, when they spoke daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew.

ה  וַיַּרְא הָמָן–כִּי-אֵין מָרְדֳּכַי, כֹּרֵעַ וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ; וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן, חֵמָה.          

5 And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him, then was Haman full of wrath.

ו  וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ–כִּי-הִגִּידוּ לוֹ, אֶת-עַם מָרְדֳּכָי; וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן, לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל-מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ–עַם מָרְדֳּכָי.  

6 But it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.

The Book of Esther does not explain why Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman. I suggest that his refusal reflects an explanation for a Judean decree by Ahasuerus described recorded in Ezra 4:6.

 The Book of Ezra suggests a different rationale to Haman’s decree:

עזרא ד:ו וּבְמַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּת מַלְכוּתוֹ כָּתְבוּ שִׂטְנָה עַל יֹשְׁבֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם. Ezra 4:6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, at the start of his reign, they drew up a sitna, accusation, against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. 

I suggest that the Book of Esther provides a midrashic explanation for Ahasuerus’ sitna, accusation, against the inhabitants of Judea.  It explains this mysterious word implying that the sitna, mentioned in Ezra 4:6,  was the cause of  Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, and suggests that when the Book of Esther states that Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, it hides the motive of his opposition to Haman, which was that he inspired Ahasuerus’ revocation of Cyrus’ decree allowing the Judeans to return to Judea, reported in the first four verses of Ezra. Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman is a literary description of Mordecai’s refusal to accept an ‘anti-Zionistic’ policy that Haman encouraged Ahasuerus to decree.

This decree was effectively an ‘anti-Israel’ resolution. By using the word  שִׂטְנָהSitnah, to label this decree, Ezra 4:6 echoes the use of this word to denote the ‘anti-Zionist’ policy of King Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gera, when Isaac tried to establish a settlement there, echoing the settlement that his father Abraham had established before him. Gen. 26:21 states:

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, אֶל-יִצְחָק:  לֵךְ, מֵעִמָּנוּ, כִּי-עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ, מְאֹד.           

16 And Abimelech said unto Isaac: ‘Go from us; for thou art much mightier than we.’

Gen. 26;21 describes the well that produced no water for Isaac when he tried to occupy the settlement that had been occupied by his father  as שִׂטְנָהSitnah:

כא  וַיַּחְפְּרוּ בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת, וַיָּרִיבוּ גַּם-עָלֶיהָ; וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ, שִׂטְנָה.   

21 And they digged another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah. Hatred.

 The Book of Ezra confirms Mordecai’s ‘Zionism’, informing us that he was one of the exiled Judeans who, following Cyrus’ declaration authorizing the return of the Judeans from Babylon to Judea, returned to Judea with Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, as indicated in Ezra 1:1-2:

וּבִשְׁנַת אַחַת, לְכוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס, לִכְלוֹת דְּבַר-יְהוָה, מִפִּי יִרְמְיָה:  הֵעִיר יְהוָה, אֶת-רוּחַ כֹּרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ-פָּרַס, וַיַּעֲבֶר-קוֹל בְּכָל-מַלְכוּתוֹ, וְגַם-בְּמִכְתָּב לֵאמֹר.      

1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:

ב  אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ עִם-זְרֻבָּבֶל, יֵשׁוּעַ נְחֶמְיָה שְׂרָיָה רְעֵלָיָה מָרְדֳּכַי בִּלְשָׁן מִסְפָּר בִּגְוַי–רְחוּם בַּעֲנָה:  מִסְפַּר, אַנְשֵׁי עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס}       

2 who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel….. 

The midrashic interpretation I propose as the basis of the Book of Esther follows the midrashic approach to this book that was advocated by Shlomo Halevi Alkabets, who in his book Midrash Manot Levi suggested that the Book of Esther is best explained by means of derash rather than by peshat.

In the process of this derash, the role of God in delivering the Judeans is omitted in a way that contrasts with the way that Joseph in Gen. 45:9 attributes to God his instruction to Jacob to leave the land of Israel and go to Egypt:

ט  מַהֲרוּ, וַעֲלוּ אֶל-אָבִי, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָיו כֹּה אָמַר בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף, שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל-מִצְרָיִם; רְדָה אֵלַי, אַל-תַּעֲמֹד.   

9 Hasten ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him: Thus saith thy son Joseph: God hath made me lord of all Egypt; come down unto me, tarry not.

To summarize my interpretation of the Book of Esther, I suggest that it should be read as a midrashic explanation of Ezra 4:6. It implies that Ahasuerus’ hateful decree against the Jews mentioned in this verse was an attempt by Ahasuerus,  influenced by an antisemitic Haman,  to reverse Cyrus’ decree,  a policy Mordecai opposed  because he was a ‘Zionist’ who actually joined the Judeans who returned to Judea in response to Cyrus’ decree.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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