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Portrait from a Persian lady (from Persepolis). National archaeological museum, Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Portrait of a Persian lady, from Persepolis (Archaeological museum, Tehran)

Esther 1

The Biblical book of Esther, written in the fourth or third century BCE, describes how a Jewish woman marries to the Persian king Ahasverus (Xerxes) and protects, as queen, her people when a courtier named Haman attempts to destroy the Jews. The Jews still commemorate their rescue during the Purim festival.

The historicity of the story has been questioned with sound arguments. No queen with this name is known from other sources, for example, and the names of two of the protagonists, Esther and Mordecai, look suspiciously like the names of the Babylonian gods Ištar and Marduk. On the other hand, the story is dated to the third year of Xerxes (483/482 BCE), immediately after a serious crisis in Babylonia (the revolt of Bêl-šimânni and Šamaš-eriba), which may be related to the fall of queen Vashti. Many details betray knowledge of the Achaemenid royal palace in Susa. Whatever the authenticity, it is a lively text full of humor - for example, how king Xerxes can not sleep and asks someone to read to him what must be the most boring text imaginable.

The translation of the short version is offered here in the Revised Standard Version.

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Xerxes on a relief of Darius I the Great. Originally at the north stairs of the apadana of Persepolis, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins
Xerxes (as crown prince) on a relief of Darius. Originally part of the north stairs of the apadana at Persepolis, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran (Iran)
In the days of Ahasverus, the Ahasverus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, in those days when King Ahasverus sat on his royal throne in Susa the capital, in the third year of his reign [483/482] he gave a banquet for all his princes and servants, the army chiefs of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces being before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, a hundred and eighty days.

And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the capital, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king's palace. There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings caught up with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to the law, no one was compelled; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as every man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasverus.

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasverus as chamberlains, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command conveyed by the eunuchs.

At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times - for this was the king's procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media,[1] who saw the king's face, and sat first in the kingdom - :"According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasverus conveyed by the eunuchs?"

Then Memu'can said in presence of the king and the princes, "Not only to the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also to all the princes and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasverus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt upon their husbands, since they will say, 'King Ahasverus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.' This very day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen's behavior will be telling it to all the king's princes, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. If it please the king, let a royal order go forth from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more before King Ahasverus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low."

This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed; he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be lord in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.

>> to chapter 2  >>

Note 1:
Traditonally, there were seven noble families in the Persian Empire. According to the Behistun inscription, they were descendants of the people with whom Darius I the Great had staged his coup d' état.
Online 2006
Latest revision: 22 March 2007

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