Esther & the King

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My wife loves musicals. I love my wife, so I love musicals too – sort of anyhow. One that comes to mind is The King and I, a musical extravaganza based on the unlikely relationship between an English nanny and a Siamese king. How can you not swoon in the presence of the Magnificent Seven’s Chris Adams (Yul Brenner)? If you’ve seen the King & I, you might enjoy the contrast with Crazy Rich Asians, the modern day rom-com dripping with innocent irony in the contrast between the Singapore of 1860 and 2018. Though the King and I is still being staged, hanging on by its fingernails to the “Ok but Questionable” list, that is probably short lived. Daring to use gender or cultural differences for anything other than agitprop destines literature, or people for that matter, for the memory hole.

But even allowing for its insensitive cultural/gender stereotypes, the King and I is a theme well trod, a twist on the Cinderella theme beloved of little girls and their mothers through the ages. The story, with variations to suit culture and time, shows up again and again through the centuries. Perhaps the earliest appearance in Western literature of the Cinderella story is a most unique book in the Bible, the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther could as well be subtitled the King and I.

Surprisingly, God did not give any explicit guidance as to the content of the Bible, the works to be included. He did put the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, but stopped short of anything more definitive. As an example, the Bible used by Protestants does not quite match the Catholic Bible, which does not quite match the Orthodox Bible. The various pieces of Scripture appearing and disappearing are notably found in the dusty closets of the Old Testament featuring titles such as Baruch, Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Sirach. For the most part, these books contain additional Jewish history and proverbial wisdom.

The Book of Esther is included in the commonly accepted canon, but its claim for inclusion is one often contested. Esther is the story of a young Jewish maiden chosen to be a member of the Persian king’s harem. She uses her access to the king from her privileged place in the harem to save her people, the Jews, from genocide at the hand of an evil schemer named Haman in the Persian court. This ancient brush with genocide is commemorated in the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival still celebrated today.

Large quantities of theological ink and lamp oil have been used up over the centuries in arguments over the Book of Esther, whether it is truly the Word of God and deserving of study by the faithful. The book’s great weakness is that God is AWOL from its pages. The Book of Esther does not speak of God at all, relying on readers to see the unseen and unspoken hand of God in the rescue of the Jewish people. On the printed page, Esther is simply the story of a young girl, her uncle and the deadly serious political maneuvering within the Persian court of Xerxes some 2,500 years ago.

I claim no expertise on the matter, with an opinion ill-formed that no one besides my Mother cares about, so I will remain silent on my own thoughts. But in my amateurish way, I find the story fascinating. Esther finds herself in the harem of a Persian king, the harem of Xerxes. I will share another opinion however. I believe it to be a great failing of the present age in that our cultural ethos ignores the great stories in the Bible. Believers all too often are offended by anything other than plaster saint characters, while non-believers are mean spirited or simply refuse to engage at all. Esther is a great story.

The Book of Esther opens in the middle of a great feast being thrown by Xerxes for his “great men”, i.e. generals, court advisors and political administration. Evidently this party is a week-long affair with no expense spared or entertainment ignored. As this week long party is winding up, Xerxes and his cronies are well into the wine, totally jaded and looking for something new. It’s no easy matter to keep partygoers excited after six days and nights of uninterrupted debauchery.

Xerxes is feeling fine as the story opens. Understanding the need to take the party up to the next level, Xerxes comes up with the idea of having his queen, Vashti by name, come on in to the party and parade in front of the fellows to “display her beauty”. Left unsaid in the text is whether Vashti was to bring her clothing along or if pole dancing was involved. After all, given the story of Salome and Herod in a later time and place, one can’t help but wonder at the unspoken details of Xerxes request.

In any case, rightly understanding the bad boys atmosphere at the party, Vashti tells Xerxes “in his dreams”. That probably was the right answer given the circumstances, but a bad answer none the less. Pride is a dangerous thing in the presence of power, even when that power is clearly being used to humiliate. As a result of Vashti’s answer, “the king (Xerxes) became very angry and his wrath burned within him.”

An angry king wants somebody to make him feel better. Yes Men have lived comfortable lives since time began by making angry kings, or CEO’s for that matter, feel better. These “wise” men of Xerxes hold an impromptu conference, concluding that if Vashti ignores Xerxes command, wives all over the empire will follow her example, disrespecting and disobeying their husbands. We certainly can’t have that!! Vashti must go!!! And on this bit of wisdom, Xerxes anger is appeased with Vashti leaving the stage, being heard of no more.

One must admit that Xerxes had less bloody minded toadies than another angry king some centuries later in a situation not too dissimilar, Henry II of England. Vashti was sent back to the harem – permanently, a sad fate to be sure, but still better than that accorded to Samuel Beckett. However, Xerxes’s advisors were creative types and additionally proposed holding a contest in which the “most beautiful young virgins be sought for the king”. An empire wide beauty contest is to be held with the local finalists taken into the harem, provided with room and board along with instruction in grooming and how to please the king. When judged ready by the eunuchs running the harem, each girl would be given a one-night tryout with the king.

Xerxes, some 39 years old at the time, thought his advisors suggestion a pretty good idea. As the Book of Esther puts it, “this pleased the king, and he did accordingly”. One suspects that Xerxes advisors got a pretty good bonus that year when it came time for performance reviews. Henry II should have been so lucky, but then Eleanor was a bit more formidable than Vashti.

Esther, an orphan “beautiful of form and face”, had been brought up by her uncle, Mordecai. Esther participates in the contest, judged worthy and taken into the harem. Left unsaid in the text is whether this is a volunteer assignment or conscription. Given the mood and tenor of the writing, I suspect Esther, or at least Mordecai, volunteered. There is no indication anywhere in the book, even a hint, that Esther was anything but pleased with her fate.

Esther is doubly blessed, not only “beautiful of form and face”, but with a winsome personality, “finding favor of all who saw her” among the movers and shakers in the harem. At long last, Esther gets her tryout some 4 to 4 ½ years after Vashti’s understandable but unfortunate bout of pride. Esther wins the contest, or at least appears to – “And the king loved Esther more than all the women (in the harem), and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the (other) virgins.”

That’s four long years, minimum, for the beauty contest. Either there was upwards of a thousand virgins in the contest or something else was going on. The Book of Esther is silent as to Xerxes life during this span of time but it turns out we have another historical source for the life of Xerxes and the Persian court during this four year span. We have The Histories, written by a citizen of Greek heritage within the Persian Empire named Herodotus.

The Histories is Herodotus’s entertaining history of the Middle East over a span of two hundred years, with particular attention to the time of Xerxes, his father, Darius and his grandfather Cyrus. The focus of The Histories is on the personalities in Persia’s court and the Empire’s dealings with the Greeks. Those familiar with the Bible might remember Cyrus as the king who allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the Temple as recounted in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Remember the Book of Daniel and the macabre incident of Belshazzar’s Feast? Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, and his cronies are getting drunk when a ghostly hand appears. Perhaps you see a pattern here, but in all honesty remember that in this time and place there was no television, no fantasy football and water gave you dysentery. What else was there for the idle rich to do? In any case, this ethereal hand stretches out a finger and writes upon the palace wall – “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”.

The prophet Daniel is summoned from out of his involuntary retirement and told to translate these enigmatic words to these frightened rapidly sobering drunks. Daniel tells them that the message is direct from God, the time allotted to Babylon is over and the men in the room will be shortly dead.

Remember Queen Vashti from the party that opens the Book of Esther? Interestingly enough, Jewish tradition names Vashti as the daughter of this Belshazzar whose fate is pronounced by the prophet Daniel. One might speculate on Vashti’s thoughts about the drunken parties of royal men. You can run but you can’t hide.

Even as Daniel’s words echo through the suddenly silent room, there is an army outside the walls of Babylon, a Persian army commanded by Cyrus, the grandfather of Xerxes. History remembers this Cyrus as Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, the Achaimenid Dynasty of which Xerxes is fifth in the line of ruling kings.

The unknown author of Esther comes across as a bit of a documentarian, perhaps a rabbi channeling Bob Woodward. But Herodotus is sui generis, something unique. He reminds me of another modern day impresario, Steven Spielberg. Herodotus has no movie camera, but he is an story teller, a master of vivid detail and memorable plots. The Histories of Herodotus is really a screenplay written before there were movies. Like Mr. Spielberg, Herodotus is always entertaining, and again like Spielberg a master at subtly catering to the prejudices of his audience. One suspects neither man allows inconvenient details to get in the way of a good story.

Herodotus, a citizen of the Persian Empire, gives us almost our only eyewitness account of the Persian Empire. We might think of the Persians as the natives of what is now Iran. From the time of Cyrus (circa 550 BC) to the time of Alexander the Great (331 BC), the Persian Empire was every bit the greatest empire ever seen up to that time. On the east it reached into India and China, to the north it reached up into the various whatsistans & Russia while bordering the Mediterranean and extending into the Balkans and Greece. Persia’s empire was equal in size and scope to the Roman Empire some 500 years later.

Many experts take pleasure in sneering at the fanciful tales in Herodotus, and of course anything in the Bible is dismissed as mythical poppycock, opiate for the masses. But without them, we are left with official bureaucratese engraved on stone monuments to impress the peasants and burnish the egos of the mighty. As Pierre Briant, perhaps the pre-eminent modern expert on Persia comments on Herodotus:

“Even if it’s not true we must believe it, for it’s all we have”

Herodotus tells us that some years after Belshazzar’s Feast and the fall of Babylon, Cyrus dies in battle along with one of his armies on the plains of what is now Uzbekistan. Of course Herodotus embellishes this death in a manner worthy of Shakespeare, at once both dramatic and reeking of poetic justice.

Cyrus’s son Cambyses continues in his example, a warrior king expanding the Empire by conquering Egypt. But only a short time into his reign, Cambyses dies in a mysterious accident while battling rebellion in Syria. The volatile nature of the Middle East in Cambyses time was no different than the Middle East today.

It so happened that Cambyses had no children when he died, at least children by a wife with royal blood. Cambyses did have a brother however, a brother named Bardiya next in line for the throne. Strangely enough his brother died under equally mysterious circumstances just before Cambyses himself died. And somehow, one of Cambyses junior staff officers, one Darius becomes the new king by employing clever stratagems devised by his servant. Herodotus tells the story in a manner worthy of Spielberg, but perhaps with too little flavoring of Machiavelli in the telling.

This Darius, noted in the Book of Ezra as the source of funds for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, may or may not have been Cambyses’s loyal subject, but he was known as Darius the Great in the annals of the Persian Empire. Whereas Cyrus, the founder of the dynasty, earned his nickname “the Great” on battlefields, only historians call Darius “the Great”. His people called Darius by another nickname, “The Shopkeeper”. Darius had a ruthless genius for running the affairs of the Empire, for politics, for administration and management. Can anybody say Jack Welch?

But the Middle East is the Middle East and even a man of peace, like Barack Obama, finds himself drawn into military affairs. Darius “The Shopkeeper” was no exception. Herodotus’s great grandfather’s fellow Greek citizens of the Empire, residents of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), rebelled. Drunk with the supercharged oxygen of their newly born democracy, their cousins in the independent city of Athens offered to help their oppressed fellow Greeks in Asia Minor, pledging to send help. But as is common with relatives and their offers of help, Athens help was too late and too little. Darius put down the rebellion with ease. But Athens pathetic assistance was noted by the Persian commanders on the scene and reported back to Darius. Athens needed to be taught a lesson. The citizens of that newfangled Athenian democracy must be reminded to keep their noses out of the Persian Empire’s business.

And so there came about what many view as the dawn of Western Civilization, Marathon. Across twenty-five centuries of time, Marathon looms large in the origins of our culture but is well shrouded in the misty veils of legend. One might think of Marathon as something akin to an ancient version of the D-Day landings, an amphibious assault on a defended shore. The might of the Persian Empire, transport ships landing veteran professional troops onto the Plain of Marathon where they face off against the heavily outnumbered citizen soldiers of Athens’s militia. Against all the odds, the Athenian militia wins a stunning victory. The Persian fleet is forced to withdraw from the coasts of the Greek Peninsula and Athenian democracy stands victorious.

The legend is that after the battle, a runner was sent from the Marathon battlefield to bring news of the victory back to Athens. This messenger ran the whole way back, gasping out the news of the victory in the Agora of Athens even as he dropped dead of exhaustion. The 26.2 miles from the battlefield to Athens gives both name and distance to the marathon race beloved of present day masochists.

But back in Susa, in Darius’s palace, there were consequences. Now well into his sixties, Darius was furious at this setback. The honor of Persia was at stake. The professional armies of Persia would repay these amateurs – with interest! Unlike modern times and leaders, no one crossed a red line drawn by Darius the Shopkeeper without dire consequences. Jack Welch would have understood.

Like all empires, the Persians felt the need to keep expanding. To do otherwise risked finding other tasks for an army and its officers used to the rich rewards of conquest. The warm waters of the Mediterranean now washed the western edge of the Persian Empire. The Greek cities of Asia Minor had recently been turned into prosperous provinces of that empire. It was probably time for the Persian Empire to expand into Greece itself – opening up the dark continent of Europe to the enlightenment of Persian culture.

To avenge Marathon and while they’re at it, expand the empire, Darius issued a call across the Empire for troops to be assembled, a great army to march across the Bosporus Strait near present day Istanbul from Asia into Europe. But then Darius died. At least according to Herodotus, he died in bed, a novel experience for kings of the Achaimenid Dynasty.

However the machinery of Darius’s the Shopkeeper’s competent management team continued to run the Empire. A vast army and navy were assembled to move on Athens, and any other Greek city-states daring to resist Persia.

At the time Darius had given orders to assemble this host, he had also given thought to his successor. Darius had a number of sons and he had put the question of succession to them. As Herodotus puts it, Darius asked each of his sons to argue his case – “Why should you be the next king?” Xerxes, the Xerxes of the Book of Esther, was not the oldest of Darius’s sons, but he was the oldest of Atossa’s sons.

Soon after he became king, Darius had married the daughter of the revered Cyrus, Atossa by name. Atossa had also been the wife of Cambyses, Cyrus’s son. Keeping things in the family is important in the Middle East, even if it takes a bit of incest. As noted earlier, Darius was a shrewd politician and he understood keeping things in the family. Darius might be the king, but he wasn’t family and there were many shirttail relatives of the great Cyrus who might risk a chance for the throne given encouragement by one or another of the provincial governors. The blood of Cyrus and Cambyses did not flow in the veins of Darius, but with their wife and daughter as his own chief wife, he was the next best thing.

The first born son of Darius and Atossa, Xerxes made the argument to his father that the next king should have the blood of Cyrus. Given what we know about the people involved, it was more likely to have been Atossa who closed the deal for Xerxes. In any case, Darius agreed. And so Xerxes became king upon the death of Darius either by dint of logic and legal argument or more probably by way of bedroom politics. At least according to Herodotus.

Herodotus also makes clear that Atossa was no shrinking violet, not a pawn to be played. Atossa was a daughter, a wife and a mother of kings. Atossa was a player in the Game of Thrones. The name Atossa means “the girl with beautiful legs.” But it is doubtful that Darius ever commanded this formidable woman to “display her beauty” in front of his friends at a weeklong drunken bash. In fact, Herodotus hints that Atossa was a factor in Darius’s initial attack on Greece, the Battle of Marathon. Darius, the masterful politician, would know the truth of the saying “happy wife, happy life”, especially such a powerful wife as Atossa. Herodotus records that Atossa had a strong desire to own a set of slave girls made up of daughters of the nobility from each of the independent Greek cities as her personal servants.

And so we come back to the week-long debauch beginning the Book of Esther – which book mentions it happening towards the end of Year 3 in Xerxes reign. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes really didn’t want to attack Greece, but his father, Darius, had put in motion the plans to assemble this giant army and navy and – “What was Xerxes to do with it otherwise?” Even Xerxes knew that large armies with nothing to do are dangerous to have around. It is about this time that the big party mentioned in Esther happens. In the words of Herodotus;

“he (Xerxes) summoned a special assembly of the Persian nobility in order to hear their opinions and to express his own wishes in person to all of them”

Sounds like a good time for parties and displays of machismo to me. Herodotus is silent about what went on at the party, but records instead a long drawn out argument between three men. Xerxes is wishy washy, looking for an excuse to back out. One of Xerxes cousins, a man named Mardonius is intent on the opportunity for glory in Greece and eager for invasion. Xerxes uncle, Artabanos the brother of Darius, advises caution.

This being Herodotus, dreams and messages from the gods figure prominently in the decision to be made, but finally the order is given – Forward Ho!!! While the Book of Esther is silent about the whereabouts of Xerxes for some three years after the party, Herodotus tells us that Xerxes is on campaign with his army, moving to avenge his father’s humiliation at Marathon.

Once more we are left to rely on Herodotus, who spends pages lovingly describing the awesome might of the Persian army passing in review, a force he numbers at 1,700,000 men. Soldiers from every corner of the empire were there, Indians with clothing of cotton and reed arrows tipped by iron, Libyans with the wooliest hair of all humans wielding javelins sharpened by burning, Persian shock troops called the Immortals conspicuous because of the lavish amount of gold they wore.

Not to be outdone, the fleet assembled is awesome as well. The warships, oared triremes with bronze beaks to ram their enemies, numbered 1,207. Transport ships for supplies and other transport number 3,000. It truly is a fleet unmatched in size until the invasion fleet of the Allies at D Day.

There follows a march of months, during which this armed force accomplishes truly awesome engineering feats. Bridges are built for the army to cross the Bosporus Strait where Istanbul now stands. A canal is built across a Greek peninsula for the navy to avoid a stormy cape. Just keeping a large army supplied over this time and distance is a feat unimaginable until modern times. Finally in Greece this army arrives at the Hot Gates, the name given to hot sulphur springs named in Greek mythology as the entrance to Hades (Hell).

In modern times, we remember the Hot Gates by another name, Thermopylae. Thermopylae is the name given to a nearby narrow passage between the sea and steep cliffs. In the time of Xerxes, this passage was a 100 yards wide at best and the only way forward towards Athens and mainland Greece. And here the mighty Persian army ran into the Spartans, the Spartans of King Leonidas. Athens and the other city-states of Greece excepting Sparta relied on militias, citizen soldiers who worked as farmers or shopkeepers when not at war. But Sparta was a professional military force. Sparta was the sometimes big brother, sometimes big bully of the Grecian block, feared by everyone other Greek.

King Leonidas had brought with him a force of 300 Spartan hoplites, armored spearmen trained to fight in close phalanx formation. The rest of Sparta’s army remained in Sparta engaged in an annual religious ritual. Leonidas and his 300 joined a force of another 6-7 thousand men from various other Greek cities that had marched to oppose the oncoming Persian army. Upon coming up against them, Xerxes could not believe that such a small force would fight his army. He waited for four days, parading his army every day before the Greeks, waiting for them to run away as surely they must.

Finally Xerxes understood that they would not run and ordered an attack. Over three days the Persian army hurled itself against the Greeks holding the pass at Thermopylae. The army of Xerxes suffered horrific losses as their attacks broke against the shield wall of the Greeks in the narrow confines of the passage. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes had a platform built for his throne from which he could watch the fighting. On the first day of fighting at Thermopylae,

“It is said that during these assaults, the King (Xerxes), who was watching, leapt up three times in fear for his army.”

At an impasse, a Greek traitor comes to Xerxes by night and makes an offer. One Ephialtes, a local boy, will show the Persians a secret path through the cliffs allowing the Persians to outflank Leonidas for a suitable amount of gold. This was Xerxes kind of guy and he accepted the offer. At dawn of the fourth day, Persian troops can be seen working their way through the mountainous cliffs, putting themselves at the rear of the Greek force.

Seeing that there is no hope, Leonidas sends all of the Greeks except his 300 Spartans away to fight another day. Leonidas and his Spartan die glorious deaths fighting a rear guard action protecting the retreating Greek troops. It is a story that has echoed through 2,500 years, a story touching into the heart of who we believe ourselves to be as a people, as a culture. Herodotus puts the number of Thermopylae’s Persian dead at 20,000.

There was an epitaph later carved in stone on the cliffs above the battlefield, written by Simonides, one of the great Greek Lyric poets. They are words from the grave, a message from Leonidas and his men to their city. It reminds Sparta of the debt they owe the Spartan dead at Thermopylae. The words speak of honor, of courage, of duty and have been long remembered:

“Tell them in Sparta, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws, we lie”

There was a movie back in 2006 called “300”. It was not a movie for serious people or snowflakes. It is one of those movies drunk on testosterone. The victims of oppression are not empathized with and abandoned kittens are not in evidence. On the other hand it does have Lena Headey in a great performance foreshadowing her future career defining role as Cersei Lannister. Even though the movie’s genesis is a comic book, the movie “300” is quite faithful to Herodotus, which as Pierre Briant points out, is basically the only account we have.

After Thermopylae, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans are dead, legends remembered through the ages, taking their place alongside William Travis and Jim Bowie at the Alamo. But just as in the Alamo’s aftermath Santa Ana’s army swept across the plains of Texas, the Persian army is now on the plains of Thessaly. Thessaly is the soft belly of Greece. Thessaly is cavalry country – the specialty of the Persian army. Persian cavalry sweeps across the Thessalian plain, burning, pillaging, raping. The smoke of burning cities, fields and orchards hangs heavy over Greece.

The main army of Xerxes is soon outside the city of Athens, which they enter and burn to the ground. The Acropolis is a ruin, pointedly desecrated. Marathon is avenged. Thermopylae may have been a moral victory, but that is past. All Greece stands open and nearly defenseless before an irresistible force.

Before the fall of their city, the Athenian navy had evacuated as many of the city’s people as possible to near offshore islands and temporary safety. Standing offshore and watching the smoke of their burning city, the leaders of Athens navy consider what to do. Sparta and the surviving soldiers of Greek cities not yet surrendered are engaged in fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth with a hastily built wall. The Spartans plan to fight a last ditch battle, a replay of Thermopylae.

The Athenians decide to put their ships into the Bay of Salamis on an island just offshore Athens where many of the city’s refugees had been landed. They are joined there by what fighting ships were left to the other Greek cities still fighting. The Persian fleet looms large as it moves up the coast toward Salamis. The Persian army is moving south to attack the Spartan wall across the Corinthian Isthmus. The Rebel Alliance is helpless, simply watching the approach of the Death Star and Darth Vader.

And then what some might call another miracle occurs. The Persian fleet surrounds the Greek ships at Salamis. The Greek ships engage them in the constricted waters of the bay and win a great victory. Herodotus gives the size of the Greek force at 378 ships, against the 1,207 of the Persians. It was a shocking defeat for the Persian navy. In a section dripping with sarcasm, Herodotus writes that Xerxes returns to Persia shortly afterward, afraid that he might be trapped in Greece.

Whether Xerox flees back in panic or simply returns because that had been the plan all along is a question without an answer. Herodotus implies Xerxes retreated in near panic but Herodotus was playing to the crowd, a Greek crowd. Just like Spielberg, Herodotus subtly plays to the prejudices of his audience.

Herodotus was writing for Greeks. People in his audience had fathers or grandfathers at Marathon, had fathers or been themselves at Plataea, at Salamis, at Mycale and were proud of what they did. There was a famous playwright at this time in Athens. His name was Aeschylus, perhaps the most famous man of his day in Greece. The plays of Aeschylus survive to the present day. Plutarch, writing hundreds of years later, records that his gravestone says nothing about his art or his fame. Aeschylus was content with an epitaph that simply said – “he fought bravely at Marathon”. Do we have any artists of note of which it could be said the same?

But the Greek hometown crowd aside, Xerxes may well have seen it differently. The Persian fleet had been badly hurt at the Battle of Salamis, but the Persians may have seen it as no more than a serious skirmish. The Persian fleet had been bloodied, but the remaining fleet was still a potent force, more than a match for the Greek fleet. Athens, the most important city in Greece, was a burnt ruin, many of its citizens trudging in chains along the road back to Susa where they would be sold into slavery. The central plains of Greece, the breadbasket of Greece was in flames and under the control of the Persian army. The supposedly fearsome Spartans had retreated behind a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, remaining crouched behind it.

Xerxes back in Susa might be seen as George W. Bush on the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln declaring “Mission Accomplished”. The Persian army controlled most of Greece. Despite their victory at Salamis, the Greek fleet was in disarray and outnumbered. Cleanup remained but Greece was as good as in the Empire. It might well be time for Xerxes to return home and accept a grateful nation’s thanks for enlarging the Empire. Also don’t forget, because Xerxes probably didn’t, there was the prospect of judging that beauty contest to consider.

Xerxes left his cousin, Mardonius – the one seeking glory in Greece, with a large part of the army, still gigantic in size and the navy, still potent. Xerxes returned to his palace in Susa. In one translation of Herodotus it says:

“the king returned home and lost himself in wine and the pleasures of his harem”

Before we return to the Book of Esther and the intrigues of Haman, we must close the book on Mardonius in Greece. The Persian invasion force continues to wreak havoc in Greece trying to force the Spartans to come out from behind their wall at Corinth, while Mardonius mocks Spartan courage for hiding behind a wall. This finally happens at a place called Plataea where the Greeks once more face a greatly superior army. But at Plataea, Thermopylae is avenged. Persia learns just what happens when the full force of Spartan heavy infantry crash into the Persian line.

The Spartans break through the Persian line and slaughter ensues. The cousin of Xerxes, Mardonius who sought glory in Greece, Mardonius who delighted in ridiculing the Spartans, instead is a corpse over which the Greek victors argue as to the proper course of action. Mardonius and Xerxes had abused the corpse of Leonidas at Thermopylae, cutting off his head and mounting it on a stake overlooking the battlefield. Some Greeks argued for the same fate for Mardonius. But other Greeks argued that civilized men did not do such things to their defeated enemies. According to Herodotus, Mardonius’s head remained attached to his corpse.

But back in Susa while the Persian army is being decimated and the fleet destroyed at Mycale, Xerxes is “losing himself in wine and the pleasures of his harem”. Esther wins the beauty contest, establishing herself as a favorite in the harem. Her uncle, Mordecai, continues in his role of what appears to be some sort of lower level functionary associated with the civil administration of Xerxes.

Some five years after Esther’s elevation to a favorite in the harem, the Book of Esther relates the story of an attempt by one of Xerxes officials to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire. Xerxes promotes one of his officials, a man named Haman, to high authority. At this evidence of Xerxes favor, the all too human Haman becomes full of himself as is so often the case with us human beings. Enamored with the pomp and circumstance that come with his new position, Haman runs afoul of Mordecai who seemingly snubs Haman. For some unexplained reason, Mordecai does not offer Haman the respect due in his new position which infuriates Haman.

Haman goes before Xerxes and accuses the Jews of being “different”, a threat to the peace of the Persian Empire. Haman recommends that because they are “different”, all the Jews in the kingdom be killed. If Xerxes will give Haman permission for this slaughter, Haman will give a gift to Xerxes of ten thousand talents of silver. At this, Xerxes shrugs his shoulders and says “ok”. Just to show Haman how disinterested he is, Xerxes tells Haman he can keep the 10,000 talents. An edict goes out through the empire that on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, any Jews in the Empire are fair game. They may be killed with impunity, their property “plundered”.

The exact mechanics of this wide spread genocide is left unclear. The Jews know about this edict, but seemingly stay put. Perhaps there is nowhere to run to, perhaps they are in chains, perhaps they don’t believe it. Who exactly are those who stand to profit? Who will do the killing? Is the army involved? It is seemingly bizarre, but then the 1930’s in Germany stand as evidence of how such things might be.

Plots and counterplots ensue. As yet no one knows that Esther is a Jew and that Mordecai is her uncle. She uses her position in the harem, guided by Mordecai, to outwit Haman in a game of wits and intrigue. Esther and Mordecai play on Haman’s ego and his ignorance of Esther’s ethnic identity. In a final irony, Haman zigs when he should have zagged. Whereupon he is hoisted upon his own petard, hung on the gallows he had specially constructed to execute Mordecai.

Haman is dead, but his plan to exterminate the Jews lives on. Harem intrigues continue after the day of Haman’s reckoning. Esther recommends Mordecai to Xerxes whereupon Xerxes promotes Mordecai to Haman’s old position. Turnabout is fair play after all, though one wonders what the idea of fair play within the harem actually means.

Mordecai confers with Xerxes on how to right the situation. How about instead of killing the Jews, let’s kill the people that want to kill the Jews? Xerxes shrugs his shoulders and says “ok”. Again Xerxes is indifferent to any profit to be made out of the affair. And so on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Haman’s ten sons are hanged upon the gallows. An additional three hundred men in Susa, enemies of the Jews, die. This number pales compared to the 75,000 enemies of the Jews who die throughout the Empire on this day.

Who are these 75,000 dead people who are the enemies of the Jews? Are they simply opportunists eager to do a little killing for the opportunity to plunder? After all, for permission to exterminate the Jews, Haman had offered to pay Xerxes’ ten thousand talents of silver – i.e. 570,000 pounds of silver.

That must only be a portion of the plunder expected from the Jews. I would think everyone involved expected to profit on the deal. Haters gonna hate, but they like money just like everybody else. On the other hand, don’t forget that the Jews were in chains, Jerusalem a smoking ruin, only eighty years before this time. How much silver and other property could the Jews have accumulated by this time?

Haman’s desire to punish Mordecai for his insolence is understandable. For a modern parallel, just mention Donald Trump’s name to an Adorable or scan the front page of The New York Times. But massacring an entire race of people? That goes beyond individual pique and takes something more than one man’s wounded pride. It takes a substantial population to accomplish. There was something else going on.

What is it about the Jews? God first singles out the Jews as his chosen people in the days of Abraham some four thousand plus years ago. Ever since that time the Jews have been a people set apart, holding tightly to a shared sense of identity. From the days of Moses’ stepfather, the Pharaoh of Egypt, to Haman, thru Adolph Hitler and Yasser Arafat, the Jews have always seemed to be a lightning rod for unreasoning hate, teetering time and again on the brink of extinction. Yet they survive as a distinct people.

The Jews seem to be a people group that typifies the saying “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em”. Any look at the movers and shakers of Western Civilization shows the Jews represented far out of proportion to their numbers. But history shows they are hard to live with, even God calls the Jews “a rebellious house, a stiff necked people, a people of unclean lips”.

The Jews survive and prosper, even as they are persecuted over more than forty centuries. What other ethnic identity has survived intact for such a long period of time, even as concerted efforts are made to exterminate them? Why do the Jews figure large in today’s newspaper headlines while the names of the Hivites, Girgashites, Amorites, Jebusites, etc. make our eyes glaze over? What can we say other than it is the hand of God? God tells us He has plans for them. The Jews are prophesied to figure prominently in the End Times. How else can you explain their existence in 2018?

Returning to Herodotus who tells an almost endless line of stories about intrigues in and around the Persian king’s harem. The proximity of power, eunuchs and the women of the harem are a combustible mix, a main driver of the action in Herodotus’s account. According to Herodotus, every king of Persia, from Cyrus through Xerxes, is subject to the manipulations of these shadowy figures behind the veil. Herodotus is not alone. Another writer, Ctesias, actually lived within the walls of the harem. His book, History of Persia written 75 years after Herodotus tells the same kind of stories. Ctesias was a Greek physician to the women of the harem during the reign of Attaxerxes. He obviously had access to the stories told there.

Academics, particularly of the modern progressive mindset, consign these stories to the trash heap. It is said that such tales cater to the patriarchal Western mind with its desire to oppress women and harboring ignorant prejudicial hatred against other cultures. These academics say that Herodotus and Ctesias are Greeks playing to the prejudice of their audiences back in Greece. Well, yeah. Most writers seek to entertain their audience. If they wanted to simply write stories no one read, they would write a blog.

But then the Book of Esther is a story of harem intrigue as well, very like the stories of harem intrigue in Herodotus and Ctesias. Who is this Mordecai anyway? There is no mention of his family or job. In addition he seems very familiar with the intricacies and personalities of the Persian court. Perhaps he was a eunuch in another part of the harem? The stories of harem intrigue in Herodotus and Ctesias are often couched in a moral universe in which such intrigues are bad. But the Book of Esther is a harem intrigue with a righteous outcome. I guess it depends on which side of the bed sheets you sleep on.

We are left to wonder, to believe or not believe. Pierre Briant’s observation sums up our predicament – “even if it’s not true, we must believe it for it’s all we have”. The foundation of our culture rests on the Middle East of the first millennia BC, the Middle East of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. We really know nothing of this time other than what writings survive from the Greeks, such as Herodotus and Ctesias, or from the Bible.

Yes, we have proclamations from these kings carved in stone in various places throughout the Middle East that survive. But then are the officially sanctioned announcements from the king’s public relations department more believable than Herodotus? We have archeology, but what does that really tell us about those who move the levers of power and influence? Or why they do what they do?

And then there is the Book of Esther. Is it Scripture? I don’t know. I do know that it tells a story that is very like Herodotus, a book written in a parallel time but in a totally different culture for a different audience. The Xerxes of Herodotus is the Xerxes of Esther, a short-tempered vainglorious man. The Xerxes of Herodotus and Esther is manipulated by his women, whether wife or mother, much taken with the pleasures of wine and the harem with little interest in his job of running an empire. The harem of Xerxes in Herodotus is the same in Esther, a hidden place in which political games are played out with fatal consequences. The Persian Empire of Herodotus is the Persian Empire of Esther, a vast administrative apparatus that runs itself efficiently carrying out the whims of a king manipulated by his advisors, wives and hangers on.

So is the Book of Esther the Word of God? Is it part of the canon? I don’t know. But I think it apiece with my own walk with God. Miracles, visions and direct answers from God are in short supply. But things happen that can only be the unseen Hand of God directing my life, in a loving way, for his own inscrutable purposes. Perhaps that is why the Book of Esther is there for us to read and meditate on.

 

 

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  • What I’m Reading

    What I’m Reading

    The Twelfth Department
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