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When the Jews and Persians were Friends
[As I get feedback from others and learn more about the history, I continue to revise and improve this commentary. This is the 5/7/2011 revision.]
For thousands of years people have been inspired by Esther's brave choice when she risked her safety in the king's harem to save the Jewish people from annihilation. Her cousin Mordecai had called her to greatness when he asked her, “Who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 14). She had bravely replied to Mordecai:
Some think that the Book of Esther is fiction. But I do not. It fits too well with what we know about Persian history. Even though the Persian libraries were destroyed by Alexander the Great and the Greek reports conflict wildly, the Jewish account of Persian history is quite consistent. Esther is part of a chain of historic Jewish figures (Mordecai, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah) who worked together to save the Jewish people at a time of extreme peril. The following timeline shows how Persian and Jewish history fit together:
Each Jewish event is dated as having taken place during such-and-such year of the reign of such-and-such monarch, so the reigns of the Persian monarchs give us the approximate year of each major Jewish event. On the timeline, the Jewish events are shown above the horizontal axis, while the Persian monarchs are shown below.
I have not deviated from the accepted Persian timeline, except that I have only separated Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes by a dashed line, because I believe that they were a single person who reigned as two different kings. The doubled lines between the reigns of Cambyses II and Darius I and between the reigns of Artaxerxes and Darius II indicate short reigns of quickly deposed kings. This timeline is just the briefest of summaries. Here are more details.
597 BCE. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and took 10,000 of the Jewish nobility and skilled workers back with him to Babylon:
The Book of Esther tells us that Mordecai's ancestors were among these first exiles.
Both Jewish and Babylonian records show that these first exiles were treated very well, even King Jehoiachin:
In Understanding the Bible Through History and Archaeology Harry M. Orlinsky related that the same account appears in the Babylonian records. He wrote:
Mordecai's family, like many others in this first group of exiles, may have assimilated into Babylonian culture. In fact, his parents may have named Mordecai after the Babylonian god Marduk.
587 BCE. Then some Jews assassinated the Babylonian-appointed governor Gedalia, and the Babylonian military returned to punish Judah. After a long siege, the Babylonian army tore down Jerusalem's walls, burned the temple to the ground, murdered many Jews, and carried others to Babylon in captivity:
One of the members of this second group of captives wrote Psalm 137. At the end, he or she would like to see Babylonian children dashed against a rock, just as Babylonians had dashed Jewish children:
540 BCE. The Babylonian triumph was short lived. Just 53 years after Babylon razed Jerusalem, King Cyrus II of Persia conquered Babylon. Unlike the Babylonians and Greeks, the Persians were known for religious tolerance. A declaration by Cyrus, called the “Cyrus Cylinder,” was found in the ruins of Babylon. In the writing upon the cylinder, Cyrus noted his support for the restoration of all temples, and his encouragement of all peoples and gods to be returned from Babylon to their homelands. Here is a selection from the text:
The Jews were included in Cyrus' magnanimity. One of his proclamations allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem:
530 BCE. About ten years after his conquest of Babylon, King Cyrus died in battle, and his son Cambyses II took the throne. The rebuilding of the Temple proceeded slowly. The main problem was the Samarians, who lived in what was formerly the northern kingdom of Israel. They not only harried those who tried to build the temple, but they also hired “counselors” (lobbyists?) to frustrate the plans of the Judeans to rebuild the temple:
522 BCE. About eight years after becoming king, Cambyses was fighting in Egypt, when his brother Bardiya (Greek name: Smerdis) usurped the throne. Soon Cambyses died. But Bardiya's power was brief. A group of noblemen known as the Seven Families, led by the future King Darius, killed him (or, if their claim was true, an imposter named Gaumata pretending to be him) and took power for themselves. In the Behistan inscription, Darius names these seven families:
In the Behistan inscription, Darius relates that it took him battle after battle, throughout his huge kingdom, to secure his power. During the second year of Darius' reign, while this fighting would have been taking place, the prophet Haggai predicted that the Lord would “destroy the strength of kingdoms and nations ... everyone by the sword of his brother.” He urged Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, to take up the signet ring and thus declare himself King of Judah. (For more about the signet ring, see Jeremiah 22: 24.) The following are the last words from Haggai that appear in the Bible:
And the word of the Lord came the second time unto Haggai in the four and twentieth day of the month [in the second year of the king of Darius], saying: “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying: I will shake the heaven and the earth; and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, My servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the Lord, and will make thee as a signet; for I have chosen thee, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2: 20-23)Ezra wrote that Zerubbabel indeed “rose up,” that very year:
The remainder of Ezra's Chapters 5 and 6 recounted that the building of the 2nd Temple continued during Darius' reign, but under the leadership of the elders of Israel, not under the leadership of Haggai and Zerubbabel. Perhaps Haggai and Zerubbabel were killed by Darius, just as others who rose up against Darius had been killed, according to the Behistan inscription.
Soon after Zerubbabel's rebellion, Tattenai, the Persian governor of “Beyond the River” (the entire region of the Persian empire which is south of present day Iraq), wrote Darius a balanced letter telling him that the Jews were rebuilding their temple and walls. In that letter he related the Jewish elders' answer to his question, “Who gave you a decree to build this house, and to finish this wall?” (Ezra 5: 9). The Jewish elders cited Cyrus' decree in their reply, saying:
So Darius looked up the records, and gave his consent that the temple be rebuilt. After that, Governor Tattenai not only permitted the rebuilding, but he even assisted it financially.
517 BCE. In the sixth year of King Darius' reign (about 517 BCE), exactly 70 years after the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple (about 587 BCE), the second temple was completed:
The timing was significant because it fulfilled Jeremiah's prophesy (Jeremiah 25: 11-12), made at the beginning of the exile, that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years.
486 BCE. About 36 years after taking power, Darius died while planning a renewed attack against Greece after losing the Battle of Marathon. His son Ahasuerus (“Xerxes” in Greek) assumed power. The approximately 32-year-old Ahasuerus was not Darius' oldest son. But he was Darius' first son through King Cyrus' daughter Atossa, and thus his first son of Cyrus' royal line.
483 BCE. About three years into his reign, Ahasuerus called an 180 day convocation, which included his army, probably to plan a renewed military campaign against Greece. His privy counsel consisted of princes of the Seven Families, who made many of Ahasuerus' decisions for him. For example, after King Ahasuerus' beautiful wife Vashti refused to come when summoned to the feast at the end of the convocation, they turned her crime into a crime against them, and thus forced him to separate from Vashti and strip her of her royal estate:
Soon after that convocation, Ahasuerus led the attack upon Greece, but was eventually defeated in the Battle of Salamis by the brilliant Athenian general Themistocles. After that campaign, the Greeks hated Ahasuerus because of the tremendous destruction that his armies had caused. Not only had he burned the city of Athens, but he had also burned and pillaged the Athenian temple. For years, the Athenians left their temple in ruins as a reminder to them of their lust for revenge.
480 BCE. Afterwards, possibly when Ahasuerus arrived home discouraged by his failure in Greece, he could not be consoled by Vashti because he had separated from her. He was lonely and sad. Then his servants came up with the idea of holding a contest to pick a beautiful virgin to replace Vashti.
By this time, Mordecai had moved with his beautiful orphaned cousin Esther from Babylon to the Persian capital city of Susa (pronounced “Shushan” in Hebrew). Mordecai sat with other lobbyists at the palace gates. He got Esther to enter the contest, so she entered the harem and was eventually elevated by Ahasuerus as Vashti's replacement. At about the same time, Mordecai foiled a palace plot against Ahasuerus:
474 BCE. At some time during the early days of King Ahasuerus, the Samarian leaders wrote a letter that was not balanced like Governor Tattenai's letter. In fact, Ezra describes it as an accusation against the Jews:
Ezra doesn't tell us the contents of that accusation. I suspect that it contained a similar argument to the one made by Haman, King Ahasuerus' prime minister, soon afterwards:
Mordecai had precipitated a conflict with Haman by refusing to bow down to him. Haman had responded by putting together a plan to kill and loot all the Jews, starting with Mordecai. But Esther successfully appealed to King Ahasuerus. The king's justice was poetic. Haman was executed on the same gallows that he had constructed to kill Mordecai and Haman's estates were given to Esther. Although King Ahasuerus could not rescind his own edict that Jews could be attacked and looted on a coming day, he issued a new edict, promulgated by Mordecai, giving Jews permission to arm themselves and kill those who planned to kill them.
Mordecai's edict specifically gave the Jews permission to defend themselves if attacked by people or by a province. It stated:
... that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for prey, upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. (Esther 8: 11-12)
During these events, King Ahasuerus elevated Mordecai to a high position in the palace (“Mordecai was great in the king's house,” Esther 9: 4) where he would likely have been in charge of protecting the king's safety. Later, Mordecai may have brought other Jews into the palace. These may have included Nehemiah, as cupbearer, who would thus protect the king from being poisoned.
Palace workers, including Mordecai and Nehemiah, probably had to become eunuchs so that they could circulate freely among the king's wives and concubines. This caused some of their fellow Jews to reject them, due to a provision in the Bible which states “He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23: 2). But a prophet softened this provision, probably on their behalf:
The Greek physician Ctesias who worked in Persia about 50 years after these events, may have been referring to Mordecai as “Matacas” when he wrote:
We don't hear much more about Mordecai, except that both Ezra and Nehemiah mention his name as one of those who led a group returning to Judah. He probably returned to Judah after retiring from the palace. Ezra writes:
Similarly, Nehemiah writes:
The two listings of returnee leaders differ slightly. For example, Ezra gives his father, Seraiah, credit for leading Ezra's group of returnees, while Nehemiah gives that credit to Ezra's grandfather, Azariah. (See Ezra 7:1-5 for Ezra's geneology.) Although both writers list the groups in almost the same order, we can tell that it isn't chronological order because they both list Nehemiah's group before Ezra's group, even though Ezra's group preceded Nehemiah's group by about 13 years. My guess is that these groups were listed in size order, rather than chronological order. If so, we don't know when Mordecai returned, but we do know that he led either the sixth or the seventh largest group of returnees.
465 BC. After reigning about 21 years, Persian records report that Ahasuerus was replaced by his son Artaxerxes (who the Greeks later nicknamed Longimanus due to his elongated hand). The Greeks relate two different versions of what happened. In both of these versions, Artaxerxes is the innocent avenger of his father's murder. A third possibility, which may have been first suggested in 1996 by Anaidis, is that Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes are the same person. He didn't die at all, but instead pretended to succeed himself, following a plan hatched by Themistocles, the Athenian general who had defeated Ahasuerus at Salamis.
Themistocles had been banished from Athens and had traveled to Persia to meet with Ahasuerus. He arrived just about the same time that Ahasuerus either died or changed his name. In fact, the Greek historians of the day were all quite confused about whether he actually met with Ahasuerus or with Artaxerxes. In Lives of Eminent Commanders, Cornelius Nepos summarized this confusion: “I know most historians have related that Themistocles went over into Asia in the reign of Xerxes… Thucydides says that he went to Artaxerxes”.
I think that he originally met with Ahasuerus (Xerxes). And that he was the one who suggested the name change as a way to remake Ahasuerus reputation. We do know that King Artaxerxes elevated Themistocles to be one of his governors in Asia Minor, the part of the Persian empire closest to Greece.
As a Greek hero and the governor of a Persian province close to Greece, Themistocles would have been the Persian leader that Greeks would naturally come and visit. He may have told his Greek visitors stories that would cast King Artaxerxes in a positive light. These stories may have led to the Greek view that Artaxerxes was characterized by “gentleness and magnanimity,” as expressed 500 years later by Plutarch in the first sentence of his Life of Artaxerxes:
If the name change was a ruse to fool the Greeks, it worked. While Xerxes was king, the Athenians left their temple in ruins to remind them of their lust for vengeance. But with the benign Artaxerxes as king, the Athenians not only rebuilt their temple but they also arranged a truce in which Athens and Persia both agreed to respect the other's sphere of influence.
There is much evidence which suggests that Ahasuerus (Xerxes) indeed changed his name to Artaxerxes:
458 BCE. About seven years into his reign (or after the name change), King Artaxerxes sent the Jewish scholar Ezra to Jerusalem. He told Ezra to promulgate the Jewish law and set up a legal system. He was partly trying to end, once and for all, the accusation that Jews would not obey the king's law. Here is a selection from the directive that King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra:
Ezra did not travel to Jerusalem alone. He traveled with a large group of Jews, who began to rebuild the city and its walls. The Governor of Samaria was concerned about this rebuilding and, referring to those that came up from King Artaxerxes (i.e., those who went in Ezra's group), wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes, saying that the Jews should not be allowed to build the city or its walls because they were a rebellious people:
This is the copy of the letter they sent unto him, even unto Artaxerxes the king—thy servants the men beyond the River—and now be it known unto the king that the Jews that came up from thee are come to us into Jerusalem; they are building the rebellious and the bad city, and have finished the walls, and are digging out the foundations. Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, impost, or toll, and so thou wilt endamage the revenue of the kings. Now because we eat the salt of the palace, and it is not meet for us to see the king's dishonour, therefore have we sent and announced to the king, that search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers; so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time; for which cause was this city laid waste. We announce to the king that, if this city be builded, and the walls finished, by this means thou shalt have no portion beyond the River. (Ezra 4: 11-16)
Artaxerxes was convinced by this letter and suspended the building of Jerusalem's walls. He wrote back to the leaders of Samaria:
445 BCE. About thirteen years after Ezra left for Jerusalem, Nehemiah, who was then King Artaxerxes' cupbearer, asked Artaxerxes for a commission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. Nehemiah was certainly being presumptuous with this request. We know, from Esther's earlier hesitancy in making a request of the king, that such a request could result in the requester's death. Here's how Nehemiah described the scene:
The above quote is from the 1999 Jewish Publication Society translation. Note the words “the consort,” which I have italicized. In most translations, these words appear as “the queen.” But they don't mean queen! There would only be one consort from Artaxerxes' harem who would have been “the consort” to the Jews. Why else would Artaxerxes grant Nehemiah's request? Why else would Nehemiah wait until the consort was seated next to Artaxerxes? Why else would the fact that the consort was seated next to the king be a significant fact that Nehemiah would mention? This reference confirms that Esther was Artaxerxes' consort, and, therefore, that Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes were the same person.
Nehemiah goes on to relate that he traveled to Jerusalem with an escort of Persian cavalry. Once there, he assumed the position of governor and organized the rebuilding of the walls, perhaps taking advantage of King Ahasuerus' edict, the one promulgated by Mordecai which gave Jews permission to bear arms in order to defend themselves:
In order to keep Nehemiah from completing the walls, Tobiah the Ammonite and Governor Sanballat of Samaria tried to scare Nehemiah into entering the walls of the temple for safety. Then they planned to accuse him of profaning the temple as a eunuch:
There is no writing in the Jewish Bible (the Tenach) that is attributed to either the prophet Shemaiah or the prophetess Noadiah. In fact, no further prophetic writings were included after this point. Prophets had sustained the Jewish people during their exile, but the Jews were about to be given something new to sustain them, an accessible Torah. Soon after the walls of Jerusalem were completed, Ezra read aloud the Law of Moses (the Torah) to the assembled people:
Included in the Law of Moses was the Book of Leviticus, a book instructing the priesthood about their responsibilities. One of those responsibilities was to continue teaching the law of Moses. They were told to “teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 10: 11). After the fall of the 2nd Temple, rabbis (teachers) were given the responsibility of teaching the Law of Moses to the Jewish people. That teaching continues at Synagogues throughout this world to this very day.
443 BCE. When the Jews are living in Israel, they are instructed to give their land a sabbath of rest every seventh year (Leviticus 25: 2). According to the careful calculations of W. Glenn Moore, 311/310 BCE can be substantiated as a sabbatical year. Thus it is likely that 444/443 was the 19th sabbatical year before that.
Although every sabbatical year was important, every seventh sabbatical was to have special importance. It was to be a jubilee year when Jews were instructed to return Jewish land to its original owners and to free Jewish slaves:
And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto the thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. Then shalt thou make proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month in the day of atonement shall ye make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (Leviticus 15: 8-10)It was at about this time that the Jewish people witnessed the only full-fledged jubilee that has ever been recorded. Nehemiah organized it, responding to an outcry from the farmers of Judah that their payments to their landlords were keeping them so impoverished that they were being forced to sell their children into slavery:
Then there arose a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews. For there were that said, “We, our sons and our daughters, are many; let us get for them corn, that we may eat and live.” Some also there were that said: “We are mortgaging our fields and our vineyards, and our houses; let us get corn, because of the dearth.” There were also that said: “We have borrowed money for the king's tribute upon our fields and our vineyards. Yet now our flesh is the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children, and lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters are brought into bondage already; neither is it in our power to help it; for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” (Nehemiah 5: 1-5)
Nehemiah called a great assembly to resolve the problem. He got the Jewish landlords to give the land to their Jewish tenants and the Jewish slave owners to free their Jewish slaves. Here is his account of the dramatic meeting where the agreement was reached:
And I held a great assembly against them. And I said unto them: “We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, that sold themselves unto the heathen; and would ye nevertheless sell your brethren, and should they sell themselves unto us? Then held they their peace, and found never a word. And I said: The thing that ye do is not good; ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies? And I likewise, my brethren and my servants, have lent them money and corn. I pray you, let us leave off this exaction. Restore, I pray you to them, even this day, their fields, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundred pieces of silver, and the corn, the wine, and the oil, that we exact of them. Then said they: “We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do, even as thou sayest.” Then I called the priests and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise. Also, I shook out my lap, and said: “So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise; even thus be he shaken out, and emptied.” And all the congregation said: “Amen,” and praised the Lord. And the promise did according to this promise. (Nehemiah 5: 7-13)
Chapter 25 of Leviticus, which Ezra was just making accessible at about this time, gave theological legitimacy to Nehemiah's jubilee. At the same time it restored commerce by assuring purchasers of land and indentures they would not have to return the land or release their Jewish slaves until that far-away year.
433 BCE. During the 32nd year of the reign of King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah temporarily returned to Susa (Nehemiah 13:6). He does not say why, but according to Jewish tradition, he served as an advisor to Darius:
While working as the king's cupbearer, Nehemiah may have befriended Esther's son. During this visit, years later, he may have helped the future King Darius II prepare for the upcoming power struggle after Artaxerxes' death.
424 BCE. About sixty-two years after becoming king, Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes died. He lived a longer life than most Persian kings, partly because he had Themistocles changing the Greek attitude toward him and partly because he had trustworthy Jews in his palace protecting him from assassination.
According to Ctesias (Pers. fr. 47-51), Artaxerxes had just one legitimate son (Xerxes II) by Queen Demaspia, which would fit with the idea that Demaspia was another name for Vashti, who was separated from King Ahasuerus just 3 years into his reign. He also had 17 illegitimate sons by his concubines. After he died three of his sons contended for power. Xerxes II was killed by a son of the concubine Alogyne named Secydianus. Then Secydianus was killed by Ochus, son of a concubine named Cosmartidene (Esther?). When Ochus took the throne, he took the name Darius II. Ctesias is the only historian to report the details of this succession, but we do know from other sources that Darius II's enemies called him “The Bastard” (“Nothus” in Greek) because he was the son of a Babylonian concubine.
410 BCE. About thirteen years later, according to the Elephantine papyri, a Jewish military garrison in the Elephantine region of Egypt had its temple destroyed by Egyptians during the first recorded anti-Jewish pogrom. The Egyptians had taken out their hate of the Persians on the Persians' close Jewish friends. But King Darius II quickly responded with strong punitive measures against the Egyptians.
The Jews had powerful friends in the Persians, and the friendship was mutual. In his book Wanderings, Chaim Potok wrote, “The Jews had so appreciated the tolerant Persians that they carved on a gate of the temple a picture of Susa, the capital city of that empire” (p. 181).
Postscript: How to Read the Book of Ezra
Ezra was the only scholar/historian of that day and place whose writing survives intact. Although some scholars once argued that his book must have been written later, the Elephantine Papyri confirm that his dialect of Aramaic was current during the time that he wrote.
Although some modern readers believe that Ezra identified some Persian kings by the names of other Persian kings, I believe that Ezra was accurate in this respect. Scribes of his day dated documents using the year and standard name of the reigning king. Ezra would have known the standard names and would have used them in his writing.
Most modern readers get confused by Ezra because of misplacement in the modern division between Ezra's Chapters 4 and 5. They think that the last verse of Chapter 4 ends Chapter 4, when it actually begins Chapter 5. In Chapter 4, Ezra discussed Samarian activities against the Jews:
Throughout Chapters 4 through 6, Ezra's account is historically consistent, but it is not entirely in chronological order. Ezra assumes that his readers can follow his chronology through his references to specific years in the specific reigns of named Persian kings. This was extremely difficult during the period of Bible scholarship when the Persian timeline had been lost.
Now that we again know the Persian timeline, we can place his references and those in the books of Esther and Nehemiah into chronological order, as I have done here. If my filling in the blanks between events is correct, then Mordecai, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah worked together during the reigns of Ahasuerus/Xerxes and Artaxerxes (who may have been the same person), to save the Jews from destruction and to make Jerusalem secure.
Postscript 2: Filling in the Blanks
Here is a brief summary of my speculations that fill in blanks in the Bible narrative:
[Unless otherwise noted, the Bible quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society's 1917 translation as republished in 1955.]
Comment by Arthur Chrysler, 3/9/2011:
Thank you for posting this awesome article. I believe your information to be correct and beneficial to anyone's study resources. I now have a better understanding of what actually occurred during this period.
Response to this comment by Howard Richman, 3/9/2011:
Comment by Jordan I., 4/13/2014:
Very informative. It puts this entire timeline in a different light. Thank you for your research and writing.
Response to this comment by Michael johnson, 6/2/2014:
Response to this comment by Howard Richman, 9/21/2014:
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Response to this comment by Michael Taglinao Liad, 9/2/2015:
Response to this comment by Michael Taglinao Lias, 9/2/2015: