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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 3

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 BÍl-šim‚nni and Šamaš-eriba), and many details betray knowledge of the Achaemenid royal palace in Susa.

The translation of the short version is offered here in the Revised Standard Version.
 
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Pharnaces paying honor ('proskynesis') to king Darius the Great. Relief from Persepolis. Archaeological museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Proskynesis; original relief of the northern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (National Archaeological Museum, Tehran)
After these things King Ahasverus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him. And all the king's servants who were at the king's gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. Then the king's servants who were at the king's gate said to Mordecai, "Why do you transgress the king's command?"[1]

And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai's words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was filled with fury. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, as they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasverus.

In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasverus [474/473], they cast Pur, that is the lot, before Haman day after day; and they cast it month after month till the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.[2Then Haman said to King Ahasverus, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not for the king's profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, that they may put it into the king's treasuries."

So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. And the king said to Haman, "The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you."

Then the king's secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month [3], and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king's satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the princes of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king's ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.

A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation to all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went in haste by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the capital. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was perplexed.






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Note 1:
The Greek version of Esther explains this refusal by pointing out that Mordecai, as a Jew, felt religious scruples; however, doing obeisance by bowing (proskynesis) for anyone who was not the king, was forbidden anyhow. Ahasverus has broken his own Persian laws.

Note 2:
The pur was some sort of oracle. By casting the lot, the Persians tried to find a good day to destroy the Jews.

Note 3:
The date is 16 May 474 BCE, one day before Passover.

Online 2006
Latest revision: 29 October 2006


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