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Historical Background of Purim
Howard Richman, 2/25/2018
[Note: The first version of this was posted on March 8, 2011. The second was posted on March 8, 2012 and revised March 25, 2012]
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:
Go gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so shall I go in unto the king; which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish. (Esther 4: 16)
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:
And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came unto the city, while his servants were besieging it. And Jehoiachin the king of Judah went out to the king of Babylon, he, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers, and the king of Babylon took him in the eighth year of his reign. And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of the Lord, as the Lord had said. And he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land. (Second Kings 24: 11-14)
The Book of Esther tells us that Mordecai's ancestors were among these first exiles.
There was a certain Jew in Shushan, the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamanite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jaconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. (Esther 2: 5-7)
These exiles were treated very well. Among them was the child Daniel:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of god; and he carried them into the land of Shinar to the house of his god and the vessels he brought them into the treasure house of his god. And the king spoke unto Ashpenaz his chief officer, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel, and of the seed royal, and of the nobles, youths in which was no blemish, but fair to look on, and skilful in all wisdom, and skilful in knowledge, and discerning in thought, and such as had ability to stand in the king's palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. And the king appointed for them a daily portion of the king's food, and of the wine which he drank, and that they should be nourished three years; that at end thereof they might stand before the king. Now among these were of the children of Judah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And the chief of the officers gave names unto them: unto Daniel he gave the name of Belteshazzar... (Daniel 1: 1-7)
Even King Jehoiachin was treated well:
And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, that Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, did lift up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison. And he spoke kindly to him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon. And he changed his prison garments, and did eat bread before him continually all the days of his life. And for his allowance, there was a continual allowance given him of the king, every day a portion, all the days of his life. (Second Kings 25: 27-30)
In Understanding the Bible Through History and Archaeology, Harry M. Orlinsky related that the same account appears in the Babylonian records. He wrote:
Shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin received some three hundred cuneiform tablets which had been excavated by a German expedition near the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. These tablets lay for over three decades in the basement of the museum, unknown and undeciphered. Under the very thorough Nazi regime, the boxes of tablets came to the attention of the curator of the museum and he began to study them. He was astounded to discover that several of the tablets dealt precisely with this same King Jehoiachin of Judah and his family in exile in Babylon, and that these texts not only substantiated but even filled in gaps in the Biblical account.... (p. 210)
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 in Judah 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:
Now in the fifth month of the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem. And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king's house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great man's house, burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldeans, that were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls of Jerusalem round about. And the residue of the people that were left in the city, and those that fell away, that fell to the king of Babylon, and the residue of the multitude, did Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carry away captive. But the captain of the guard left of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen. (Second Kings 25: 8-12)
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:
By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof
We hanged up our harps.
For there they led us captive asked of us words of song,
And our tormentors asked of us mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord's song
In a foreign land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I set not Jerusalem.
Above my chiefest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the children of Edom
The day of Jerusalem;
Who said: “Rase it, rase it,
Even to the foundation thereof.”
O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed;
Happy shall he be, that repayeth thee
As thou hast served us,
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
Against the rock.
540 BCE. The Babylonian triumph was short lived. Just 53 years after Babylon razed Jerusalem, King Cyrus II of the Medo-Persian empire 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:
I am Cyrus, king of the globe, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akad…
I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akad whom Nabonid had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places which makes them happy.
May all the gods whom I have placed within their sanctuaries and resettled in their sacred cities, address a daily prayer in my favor before Bel and Nabu, that my days may be long, and may they recommend me to him, to Marduk my lord, they may say: “May Cyrus the king, who worships thee, and Cambysis his son ...... all gods I settled in a peaceful place, I sacrificed ducks and doves, I endeavored to repair their dwelling places ...... ”
The Jews were included in Cyrus' magnanimity. One of his proclamations allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem:
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: “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people—his God be with him—let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel. He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1: 1-4)
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:
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity were building a temple unto the Lord, the God of Israel; then they drew near to Zerubbabel, and to the heads of fathers' houses, and said unto them: “Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up hither.” But Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers' houses of Israel said unto them: “Ye have nothing to do with us to build a house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord, the God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah and harried them while they were building, and hired counselors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, and even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4: 1-5)
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:
Says Darius the king: These (are) the men who were there then when I slew Gaumata the Magian, who called himself Bardiya; then these men cooperated as my allies; Intaphernes by name, the son of Yayaspara, a Persian; Otanes by name, the son of Thukhra, a Persian; Gobryas by name, the son of Mardonius, a Persian; Hydarnes by name, the son of Bagabigna, a Persian; Megabyzus by name, the son of Daduhya, a Persian; Ardumanish by name, the son of Vahauka, a Persian.
In the Behistan inscription, Darius relates that it took him battle after battle, against one false king after another, to conquer the kingdom. While this fighting was occurring, 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 who was descended from King David, 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)
Meanwhile, Zechariah was giving Zerubbabel very different counsel, urging him not to rebel. He wrote that an angel told him:
Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying: 'This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? thou shalt become a plain; and he shall bring forth the top stone with shoutings of Grace, grace, unto it.'
Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying. 'The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundations of the house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts has sent me unto you....' (Zechariah 4:6-9)
Apparently, Zerubbabel listened to Haggai, not Zechariah. Ezra wrote that Zerubbabel “rose up,” that very year:
Now the prophets, Haggai, the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem; in the name of the God of Israel prophesied unto them. Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem and with them were the prophets of God, helping them. (Ezra 4: 24 - 5: 1-2)
Nothing more is heard of Zerubbabel. King Darius may have executed both Zerubbabel and Haggai when he put down their rebellion, just as he executed others who rose up against him, as related in the Behistan inscription. But Zerubbabel's failure did not put a halt to the building of the 2nd Temple. In Chapters 5 and 6 Ezra reports that the building continued during Darius' reign under the leadership of the elders of Israel.
He reports that 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:
We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and build the house that was builded these many years ago, which a great king of Israel builded and finished. But because that our fathers had provoked the God of heaven, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzer king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house, and carried the people away into Babylon. But in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree to build this house of God. And the gold and silver vessels also of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that was in Jerusalem, and brought them into the temple of Babylon, those did Cyrus the king take out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered unto one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor; and he said unto him: Take these vessels, go, put them in the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be builded in its place. Then came the same Sheshbazzar, and laid the foundations of the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and since that time even until now hath it been in building, and yet it is not completed. (Ezra 5: 11-16)
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:
And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. (Ezra 6: 15)
The timing was significant because it fulfilled Jeremiah's prophesy, made at the beginning of the exile, that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years:
For thus saith the Lord: After seventy years are accomplished for Babylon, I will remember you, and perform My good toward you, in causing you to return to this place. (Jeremiah 29: 10)
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:
Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times for so was the king's manner toward all that knew law and judgment; and the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king's face, and sat first in the kingdom. What shall we do unto the queen Vashti, according to law, foreasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?
And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like unto all the king's princes. (Esther 1: 13-18)
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 the employees and 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:
In those days, while Mordecai sat in the king's gate, two of the king's chamberlains Tithem and Taresh, of those that kept the door, were wroth, and sought to lay hands on the king Ahasuerus. And the thing became known to Mordecai, who told it unto Esther the queen, and Esther told the king thereof in Modecai's name. And when inquisition was made of the matter, and it was found to be so, they were both hanged on a tree; and it was written in the book of the chronicles before the king. (Esther 2: 21-23)
473 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:
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 4: 5-6)
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:
And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.” And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews' enemy. And the king said unto Haman: “The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.” (Esther 3: 8-11)
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)
The only archaeological evidence of the fighting comes from Shechem, a Samarian-Jewish religious center on the road from Samaria to Jerusalem. This would be the logical place for a battle if the province of Samaria were moving on Judah, but were stopped by an armed militia of Jews. In a 1987 journal article, William Shay noted that Shechem was burned and was left temporarily inhabited. He noted that the burned Greek pottery dates the fire to about 475 B.C.E. and wrote:
For the historical significance of this destruction, G.E. Wright drew a blank: “That age is a dark one as far as the history of Palestine is concerned, and we simply do not know what happened.” Esther 9:16 dates the fighting that broke out “in the provinces of the king” to Adar of Xerxes' twelfth year, or March, 473. (p. 244)
Indeed, the Book of Esther describes the fighting that took place in the provinces:
And the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand – but on the spoil they laid not their hand – on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of fasting and gladness. (Esther 9: 16-19)
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:
Neither let the eunuch say:
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus saith the Lord
Concerning the eunuchs that keep My Sabbaths,
And choose the things that please Me,
And hold fast by My covenant;
Even unto them will I give My house
And within My walls a monument and a memorial
Better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting memorial,
That shall not be cut off....
For my house shall be called
A house of prayer for all peoples.
Saith the Lord God who gathereth the dispersed of Israel:
Yet I will gather others to him, beside those of him that are gathered. (Isaiah 56: 3-8)
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:
Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, over whom Artapanus the son of Artasyras had as great influence as his father had had over Darius. His other confidential advisers were the aged Mardonius and Matacas the eunuch (Pers. fr. 24).
We don't hear much more about Mordecai, except that both Ezra and Nehemiah mention his name as one of those who led an aliyah (ascent to Jerusalem), traveling for protection in a group (a wagon train?) from Babylon. Mordecai must have emigrated to Judah after retiring from the palace. Ezra writes:
Now these are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebucharnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and that returned unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city; who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. (Ezra 2: 1-2)
Similarly, Nehemiah writes:
These are the children of the province, that went up out of captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and that returned unto Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city; who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah. (Nehemiah 7: 6-7)
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 Azariah, Ezra's grandfather. (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 aliyah.
We also know that the Jews have celebrated Purim from about that time until the present day. Each year, the Purim story recounts how Esther and Mordecai changed King Xerxes (Ahasuerus') mind and saved the Jews from annihilation.
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:
The first Artaxerxes, preeminent among the kings of Persia for gentleness and magnanimity, was surnamed Longimanus, because his right hand was longer than his left, and was the son of Xerxes; the second Artaxerxes, the subject of this Life, was surnamed Memor, or Mindful, and was the grandson of the first by his daughter Parysatis.
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 additional evidence which suggests that Ahasuerus (Xerxes) indeed changed his name to Artaxerxes:
- The Greek nickname for Artaxerxes was Longimanus because of his long right hand. But Ahasuerus also had a very long right hand as illustrated by stone reliefs at Persepolis, carved when he was still the crown prince of Darius I. (Click here for a U. of Chicago Oriental Institute's photo of one of these carvings.
- There is no record of Artaxerxes birth.
- The burial place for the Persian kings at Persepolis places Artaxerxes in a large tomb between the large tombs of Darius I and Darius II. There is no tomb in between the two Dariuses for Ahasuerus. (Click here for the U. of Chicago Oriental Institute's photo of these tombs.)
- According to Jewish tradition, Darius was Esther and Ahasuerus' son.
- The Book of Daniel dates one of Daniel's prophesies to the beginning of the reign of “Darius, the son of Ahasuerus” (Daniel 9: 1). An editor of the Book of Daniel might have confused one of the Dariuses who governed Babylon during the lifetime of Daniel (Darius the Mede or Darius I) with the Darius who was known by the Jews to be son of Ahasuerus and Esther (Darius II).
- The Leviticus Rabba, a Jewish Bible commentary dating from about 500 C.E. which draws from still earlier works that have been lost: "The last Darius was the son of Esther."
- According to the Greek historians, Darius II was the son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine named Cosmartidene, which could have been another name for Esther.
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:
And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God, that is in thy hand, appoint magistrates and judges, who may judge all the people that are beyond the River, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye him that knoweth them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him with all diligence, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment. (Ezra 7: 25-26)
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:
Then sent the king an answer unto Rehum the commander, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and unto the rest beyond the River: “Peace, and now the letter which ye sent unto us hath been plainly read before me. And I decreed, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein. There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, who have ruled over all the country beyond the River; and tribute, impost, and toll, was paid unto them. Make ye now a decree to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until a decree shall be made by me. And take heed that ye be not slack herein; why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings? (Ezra 4: 17-22)
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:
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, wine was set before him; I took the wine and gave it to the king—I had never been out of sorts in his presence. The king said to me. “How is it that you look bad, though you are not ill? It must be bad thoughts.” I was very frightened, but I answered the king. “May the king live forever! How should I not look bad when the city of the graveyard of my ancestors lies in ruins, and its gates have been consumed by fire?” The king said to me: “What is your request?” With a prayer to the God of Heaven, I answered the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors' graves, to rebuild it.” With the consort seated at his side, the king said to me, “How long will you be gone and when will you return? So it was agreeable to the king to send me, and I gave him a date. (Nehemiah 2: 1-6)
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 the Hebrew word, pronounced "hashegel," doesn't mean "the 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.
I am not the first to note that "hashegel" does not mean "the queen." In his 1831 Bible commentary, Adam Clark uses the correct translation to "disprove" an earlier contention by Dean Prideau that it is a reference to Esther. Clark wrote:
The queen also sitting by him - Who probably forwarded his suit. This was not Esther, as Dean Prideaux supposes, nor perhaps the same Artaxerxes who had taken her to be queen; nor does ùâì shegal signify queen, but rather harlot or concubine, she who was chief favourite. The Septuagint translate it παλλακη, harlot; and properly too....
Clark is supposing that Esther became queen. But there is no indication of that in Persian history. Having come from Babylon and having kept her Jewish heritage secret (Esther 2: 10), she would have been known to the Persians as a Babylonian concubine. Although she may have taken the place of Queen Vashti in Artaxerxes affection, her actual coronation in the Book of Esther may have simply been sugar coating to make the story of a Jewish girl going into the King's harem more palatable for telling to Jewish children.
If the words "the consort" indeed refer to Esther, then she again played a major role in Jewish history. After getting his commission from King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah 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:
And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work. And it came to pass from that time forth, that half of my servants wrought in the work, and half of them held the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They that builded the wall and they that bore burdens laded themselves, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon; and the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the horn was by me. And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people: “The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another; in what place soever ye hear the sound of the horn, resort ye thither unto us; our God will fight for us.” (Nehemiah 4: 9-12)
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:
And as for me, I went unto the house of Shemaiah, the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabel, who was shut up; and he said: “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us shut the doors of the temple; for they will come to slay thee; yea, in the night will they come to slay thee.” And I said: “Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being such as I, could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” And I discerned, and, lo, God had not sent him; for he pronounced this prophesy against me, whereas Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this cause was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might taunt me. Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and also the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have me put in fear. (Nehemiah 6: 10-14)
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:
All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand, and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law. (Nehemiah 8: 1-3)
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:
Nechemyah was a powerful leader and influential adviser in the Persian government. He advised Darius, King of Persia, who Jewish tradition identifies as the son of Ahasuerus through Esther, which makes Darius, halachically Jewish.
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 Ctesias' 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. The Greeks called him “The Bastard” (“Nothus”) because he was the son of a concubine.
In his Life of Artaxerxes, written about 500 years after these events, Plutarch claims to be writing about Artaxerxes II, but his description of the succession following Artaxerxes death shows that he was at least partly writing about Artaxerxes I. According to Plutarch's account, Ochus (who later became Darius II) won the kingship with the help of employees in the palace who caused the deaths of his rivals – the legitimate son of Artaxerxes who was older than he (Vashti's son?) and another son of a concubine. Plutarch concludes:
[Artaxerxes] had lived ninety-four years, and had been king sixty-two, and had the reputation of being gentle and fond of his subjects; though this was chiefly due to his son Ochus, who surpassed all men in cruelty and blood-guiltiness.
But the first Artaxerxes only officially reigned for 41 years and Artaxerxes II only reigned for 46 years. However, if Ahasuerus changed his name to Artaxerxes, Plutarch was precisely calculating the 62 year reign and death at 94 of Artaxerxes I.
410 BCE. About thirteen years later, according to the Elephantine papyri, a Jewish community 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:
- In verses 1-3 he describes their activities during the time of Cyrus when their enmity began over the building of the 2nd Temple.
- In verses 4-5, he quickly skipped over their activities during the remainder of Cyrus' reign and during Cambyses' and Bardiya's reigns.
- In verses 6-23, he discussed Samarian activities against the Jews during the reigns of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes. These verses do not mention the Temple, which would have already been completed. Instead, they mention a general accusation against the Jews during the reign of Ahasuerus and a complaint that those who had been sent by Artaxerxes (probably Ezra and his companions) were rebuilding Jerusalem's walls during the reign of Artaxerxes.
Then Ezra resumed his narrative by going back to King Darius and the events which actually led to the building of the 2nd Temple. The last verse of Chapter 4 is clearly the lead-in to the first two verses of Chapter 5 which describe the resumed building of the 2nd Temple during Zerubbabel's rebellion. The last verse of Ezra's Chapter 4 (Ezra 4: 24) basically identifies the year of Zerubbabel's rebellion. Haggai (2: 10-23) reported that he had urged Zerubbabel to rebel during that very year. The remainder of Ezra's Chapters 5 and 6 recounted that the building of the 2nd Temple continued during Darius' reign and that the 2nd Temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius' reign with the help of the Persians.
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 clarify the Bible narrative:
- The 2nd Temple was completed exactly 70 years after the destruction of the 1st Temple.
- The accusation against the Jews that was sent by the Samarian leaders during the early years of King Ahasuerus may have been similar to the one spoken by Haman to Ahasuerus a few years later.
- Mordecai may have been elevated to be the head of the palace at the end of the events related in the Book of Esther, partly because he had already prevented an assassination of King Ahasuerus and partly because Ahasuerus knew that the Jews would protect him, given the influence of Esther.
- Mordecai may have brought fellow Jews, including cupbearer Nehemiah, into the palace to protect the king from assassination.
- Ahasuerus may have changed his name to Artaxerxes and started a new reign at the urging of the Greek hero Themistocles, who had come to him after being exiled from Athens. If so, it was a successful ruse which let him make peace with Athens. The Jewish leaders were aware of the ruse, but the Greeks were kept in ignorance.
- Artaxerxes sent Ezra to Jerusalem partly to put an end to accusations, like the one repeated by Haman, that Jews wouldn't follow the king's laws.
- The Samarian leaders were complaining about the Jews who came with Ezra, when they asked Artaxerxes to halt the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls.
- Nehemiah asked for permission to rebuild Jerusalem's walls while Esther was seated next to Artaxerxes, and Artaxerxes gave him permission, partly as a favor to Esther.
- False prophets tried to trick Nehemiah into entering the Temple in order to discredit him, being a eunuch. The presence of false prophets and the new accessibility of the Torah both contributed to the decision made by Ezra, Nehemiah and their contemporaries to put an end to the era of Jewish prophesy.
- Darius II was the son of Esther and was advised by Nehemiah.
[Unless otherwise noted, the Bible quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society's 1917 translation as republished in 1955.]
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