The real Esther.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 January

The story of Hadassah bat Abihail, or as she’s better known אֶסְתֵּר֙/Ester (KJV “Esther”), is told in the book Purim, written in Late Biblical Hebrew in the late 300s. When it was translated into Greek for the Septuagint, the translators rightly renamed it Esther. It’s actually a secular book: It never mentions God in the Hebrew version, although the Greek translation inserted God and a few prayers in several places, and those additions are either titled Additions to Esther and made a separate book in the apocrypha, or simply left in Esther as part of the text—like you’ll find in Roman Catholic bibles.

Esther takes place in Iran, which back then was called Persia. It’s about a Persian vizier named Haman bar Hammedatha, who attempted to destroy all Persian Jews, but was unexpectedly stopped by the shah’s Jewish wife. Thus it explains how the Jews celebrate the day of Purim in memory of that event.

Thing is, popular fiction of the last 30 years tries to reinterpret Esther as a romance. It’s the story of a young Jewish girl who wins a beauty contest, falls in love with a handsome king, and courageously stops the vizier from killing her uncle. Oh yeah, and all the other Jews. It’s a love story. A romance novel. Disney will make an animated movie of it yet.

It’s no such thing, but that hasn’t stopped various Christians from spinning it that way big-time.

Esther’s backstory.

As a consequence of the Cycle, Israel was conquered by the neo-Babylonian Empire over a period of conquests in the early 500s. Israelis were dragged from their homeland, and following Babylonian policy, were scattered throughout their empire, so as to keep them from ever banding together and uprising.

Half a century later, the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the ancient Iranians (or “Media” and “Persia,” as the ancient Greeks called them). According to Daniel, these were armies under Darius of Media, Da 5.31 (Greek Dareíos, Farsi Darayavaúš, Hebrew Daryavéš) a governor under Cyrus of Persia (Farsi and Hebrew, Kurúš). Since the Medes and Persians hadn’t conquered Israel, and had no problem with them—and vice versa—Cyrus decreed they could return to their homeland if they wished. He’d even rebuild their temple. 1Ch 36.23 Hence many went home—as we read in Ezra and Nehemiah.

And many didn’t. After half a century scattered in Iraq, Arabia, Syria, and Iran, these weren’t Israeli Jews anymore. They were Iraqi Jews. Arabian Jews. Persian Jews. They didn’t even speak Hebrew anymore; they spoke Aramaic and Farsi and Syrian and whatever they spoke where they now lived. Their homeland was where they were, not where they were from. Like American Jews when the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, they were glad the mother country was back… but they weren’t going home; they were already home. And staying put.

Esther takes place in the Persian Empire’s capital of Shushan, and begins in the year 483BC, three years after Cyrus’s great-great-grandson Xšayarša (Greek Assúiros or Xérxis, Hebrew Akhašveróš, KJV Ahasuerus, NIV Xerxes) took the throne. This is the shah who later conquered Egypt, then tried to conquer Greece (as seen in the movie 300) and failed. He was eventually murdered in 464.

During a party, the shah wanted to parade Vashti, his shahbanu, before his party guests. (Esther calls her a מַלְכָּה/milkáh, “queen,” but don’t get the idea she had any ruling power whatsoever. She’s just the shah’s favorite consort.) Vashti bravely refused, so the shah banished her. Then, following his courtiers’ advice. rounded up all the young beautiful virgins he could find, to add to his harem. Whichever one pleased him most would be the new shahbanu. And by “pleased him most,” let’s be blunt: We’re talking sexually. He wasn’t looking for a conversationalist.

Esther was the adopted daughter of Mordecai, a Persian Jew who lived in Shushan. (Hadassah was her Hebrew name; probably her original name.) She was rounded up along with the other women of Shushan. She hid her ancestry, and cleverly befriended the chief eunuch, whose good advice got her a favored place in the harem. She pleased the shah enough to win his contest.

Meanwhile Mordecai, anxious for news about Esther, overheard other eunuchs plot to assassinate the shah. So he passed that news along, and got the assassins crucified. Various bibles interpret Eshter 2.23 all sorts of ways, like the ESV’s “hanged on the gallows” or the NIV’s “impaled on poles,” but the Persians invented crucifixion centuries before, and that’s their most likely fate.

Haman and Mordecai.

Round this time the shah promoted Haman to a rank high enough for everyone to bow to him. The only one who wouldn’t was Mordecai. Who just wouldn’t. Jews usually claim it’s because he was a devout Jew, who’d bow to no one but God; but elsewhere in the bible Hebrew would bow to kings, prophets, officials, priests, and anyone they considered worthy. So it’s likely a personal thing. And Haman took it as a personal insult, and wanted to get back at Mordecai—but not only Mordecai.

Haman picked a day by throwing dice (Hebrew גּוֹרָל/gorál, KJV “a lot,” but in Aramaic פּוּר/pur, hence “Purim”). Then he went to the shah and got him to agree on that day to destroy “a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom.” Es 3.8 He made ’em sound too foreign, too subversive, to tolerate longer. On that day, 13 Adar, Persians were to rise up and annihilate all Jews, and plunder them. An edict was written and circulated. Shushan was thrown into chaos.

Mordecai heard of it, went into mourning, and tried to contact Esther in case she could do anything. She explained she hadn’t seen the king in a month; after all he did have plenty of women in his harem. If she appeared in his inner court without invitation, unless he immediately forgave her, she’d be executed. Mordecai rightly pointed out her position was no protection—and You-Know-Who (remember, God isn’t mentioned in the book) would save the Jews with or without her. But “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for [such] a time as this?” Es 4.14

So Esther asked for three days’ fasting (and since fasting usually goes along with prayer, prayer is clearly implied here). After which she’d then go see the shah.

Esther informs the shah.

Esther must’ve caught the shah on a good day, for he immediately forgave her, whereupon she invited him and Haman to an all-day feast. And at the feast, she invited the two of them to another such feast. Haman was in such a good mood, he built a cross just for Mordecai, 50 cubits (i.e. 25 meters) high.

That same night the shah had insomnia, and to bore him to sleep his servants read him the imperial records. In them the shah discovered Mordecai was the unrewarded informant who reported his attempted assassins. Since Haman was outside (hoping to get the shah’s permission to crucify Mordecai), the shah called him in and picked his brain on what to do to a man “whom the king delighteth to honour.” Es 6.6 Presuming he himself was the honoree, Haman recommended something showy and noisy, and the shah ordered him to do just that for Mordecai.

Humiliated, Haman and his family interpreted this as a bad omen. And once Haman was at the second feast, and the shah cornered Esther as to what she really wanted, she told him: Haman had arranged a genocide which would kill her as well. The shah stepped out in a drunken fury. Fearing for his life, Haman threw himself on Esther’s couch to beg for mercy—and the shah returned just in time to misinterpret this as an attempted rape. He ordered Haman crucified on his own 50-cubit cross, then gave Haman’s property to Esther. She gave it to Mordecai, and the shah made him vizier.

Persian law forbade the shah from repealing his edict, but he could issue another permitting the Jews to defend themselves—and destroy and plunder any attackers. That done, the Jews rejoiced, and when 13 Adar came, they kicked anti-Semite ass: 75,000 of their enemies were killed. (But they didn’t plunder them. Probably nothing worth plundering.) The next day, they celebrated their victory.

And that’s how Purim came to be.

Not a romance.

Like I said, over the past 30 years people have warped Esther into a biblical romance novel. Books were written. Cheesy movies were produced. Esther is depicted as a willful young woman who chose to be in the shah’s contest, chose to enter his harem, chose a relationship with this drunken uncircumcised pagan polygamist. Who threw away his previous wife in a drunken rage, you remember; it wasn’t the last drunken rage he got into in this book! And despite God’s command against marrying foreigners, lest they lead Israelis into idolatry. 1Ki 11.2

Yep, Esther chose this man. Esther voluntarily got involved in this shah’s twisted sexual contest.

You see the problem. Claiming Esther is the protagonist of a romance novel turns her into a really bad Jew. It’s insulting and degrading to her memory.

Simply put, Esther was caught up in events which were outside her control. She didn’t ask to join the harem. She didn’t ask to be shahbanu—which, considering Vashti, was the least stable position in the shah’s household.

But she made the best of it, and prevailed. She was shrewd. She was clever. And when the time came to be brave, she was definitely brave. So if you want to consider her the heroine of her book, she certainly is.