Ancient Persian History Through Darius

ESTHER 1 Persia (modern Iran) is first attested in Assyrian' documents from the ninth century B.C. The Persian Empire reached its height under the Achaemenid kings of the sixth—fifth centuries B.c.The events of the latter books of the Hebrew Bible (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) took place against the background of Persian dominance.

We know virtually nothing of the early Persians, except that they, along with the Medes, were Indo-Europeans who entered eastern Mesopotamia from the north around 1000 B.C. During the seventh century B.C. the Medes became a unified power, ruling over the Persians. Finally, in 612 B.c., in an alliance with the Chaldeans,3 the Medes captured Nineveh and brought the Assyrian Empire to an end.' The Persians ultimately became the dominant partner in their alliance with the Medes, with the rise of a king now called Cyrus the Great (r. 559 —530 B.c.).

Cyrus began to expand Persian power. Moving westward, he defeated Croesus, king of Sardis in Asia Minor. But his most significant campaign was against the Babylonian king Nabonidus.° He routed the Babylonian army at Opis, and Babylon fell without a contest on October 12, 539 B.C. (Herodotus's History, 1.189-91)2 After securing his empire, Cyrus sought to establish himself as a benevolent ruler. He protected existing temples from looting and rebuilt others. As part of this policy he issued a decree in 539 B.C. authorizing the return of Judean exiles and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple (2Ch 36:22-23; Ezr 1:1-4; Isa 44:28).° Cyrus died during a military campaign in Central Asia and was succeeded by his son Cambyses (530-522 B.c.).

Cambyses conquered territory as far away as Egypt but died without an heir in 522 B.C. He was succeeded by Darius I Hystaspes (522-486 B.C.; Ezr 4:24; Hag 1:1; Zec 1:1). According to Darius's official account (recorded in an inscription on the rock face of a cliff at Behistun), a priest named Gaumata, falsely claiming to be Bardiya, Cambyses' brother, seized power while Cambyses was in Egypt.Cambyses died en route back to Persia, but Darius took control of at least some of his returning forces and continued on to Persia. With the aid of six other ranking men, he killed Gaumata.The six proclaimed Darius the new king. Though not in line to inherit the throne, he was from another Achaemenid family.

Historians debate the credibility of Darius's account of his rise to power. Some say he was himself no more than a usurper who killed the true heir. Others consider his story convincing.

Darius proved an able ruler and capable administrator. He established a new legal system, introduced coinage and construct-ed imperial palaces at Susa, Persepolis and Babylon.10 Early in his reign he quelled rebellions throughout the empire, in time extending its boundaries eastward to the Indus River and westward to the Aegean Sea. Darius organized this vast realm into 20 administrative districts, or satrapies, which allowed local peoples to enjoy a degree of autonomy.

Judea was part of the satrapy called "Beyond the River" (see Ezr 4:10; Ne 2:7). According to Ezra 6 Darius reconfirmed a decree of Cyrus allowing the Jews to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem and actually underwrote the costs. We should not suppose, however, that Darius was devoted to Israel's God. He viewed religion as a political tool for gaining support from subject peoples.

Darius overreached himself when he invaded Greece.1' Greek city-states on the western coast of Asia Minor (Turkey) were under Persian control, but with the support of the city of Athens they resisted Persian authority. Darius concluded that he had to subdue mainland Greece and proceeded to invade with a massive army in 490 B.C. Persian forces were routed at the battle of Marathon. Darius died in 486 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Xerxes (r. 485-465 B.c.).

Ancient Persian History From Xerxes Forward

ESTHER 1 Xerxes, called Ahasuerus in some translations, is the Persian king at the center of the book of Esther. After taking the throne he first had to deal with rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, but he soon turned his attention to Greece. Planning a new invasion, he put together perhaps the largest army of ancient history and, with the resources provided by his city-states on the Mediterranean, also built up a formidable navy. Intending to overwhelm the Greeks by sheer force of numbers, he began the invasion.

The campaign proved a disaster. The Persians managed to overwhelm a tiny contingent of Spartan defenders at the Thermopylae Pass, but at the cost both of high casualties and of leaving the Greeks with a legacy of fallen heroes around whom they could rally. Xerxes proceeded to take most of the land of Greece, but his fleet was crushed by a smaller Greek fleet in the bay of Salamis, near Athens, in 480 B.C.The Persian forces were driven from Greece after they were decisively beaten at Plataea in 479 B.C.

The story of Esther spans much of Xerxes' reign., Although the details of Esther's story are not confirmed from external sources, the Biblical account matches well with the chronology of Xerxes' time in power, and many details of the book suggest that the author was thoroughly acquainted with Persian court life.

Xerxes was succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes I (r. 464-424 B.c.).2 The war with Greece had not ended; it had simply shifted from the Greek mainland to the eastern Mediterranean. Soon after taking the throne, Artaxerxes was confronted with a major rebellion in Egypt; the Athenians gave military support to the Egyptian cause. The war was brutal and protracted, lasting from 460 to 450 B.C., but the Persians ultimately managed to crush the rebellion and drive out the Greeks. Exhausted, the Greeks and Persians concluded a peace treaty (the Peace of Callias). It was during Artaxerxes' reign that Ezra and Nehemiah did their work in Jerusalem, with Ezra arriving during the seventh year of Artaxerxes I and Nehemiah in the king's twentieth year.

In the years that followed, dynastic succession frequently involved conflicts between rival claimants to the throne of Persia. Darius II ruled from 423 to 404 and spent much of his time putting down revolts. He was followed by Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358), who began his reign with a civil war between himself and Cyrus the Younger. When Cyrus was killed at the battle of Cunaxa (401 B.c.), the 10,000 Greek mercenaries whom Cyrus had hired had to fight their way back home through Persian territory. (This story is recounted in the famous Anabasis of the ancient Greek historian Xenophon.)

Artaxerxes II was succeeded by Artaxerxes III (r. 358-338), who retained the throne by massacres and a campaign of terror. Responding to revolts in the western provinces, he destroyed the Phoenician' city of Sidon and waged a brutal war in Egypt. He himself was assassinated and replaced by Darius III, who had the misfortune of having to defend his empire against a Greek army led by one of the ablest generals of ancient history: Alexander the Great. In successive battles Alexander routed the Persian armies and brought the Persian Empire to an end.

Counselors and Concubines: L!fe in an Ancient Royal Palace

ESTHER 2 Piecing together the nature of palace life in the ancient world is fraught with difficulties, since what was true for one place and time may not have been so for another. Not all ancient courts, for instance, followed the same rules. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw together some general tendencies about ancient Near Eastern palace life from various examples from the Biblical world.

Counselors and High Officials As advisors to the king, counselors and courtiers were held in high esteem. Their ad-vice influenced the king and the court in many matters; this influence could be either for evil (2Ch 22:3ff.) or for good (e.g., Baruch used his influence to read Jeremiah's prophecies not only to the people but to his fellow officials as well; Jer 36:5ff.). High officials were expected to be "wise," but in the ancient Near East wisdom involved not only education or good judgment but also an ability to read omens and practice divination (as was the case in the examples of Joseph's and Daniel's ability to interpret dreams or solve riddles).

The fundamental duty of royal counselors was to give the king advice that would enable him to retain his power and prestige. Thus a wise counselor could make or unmake a king, and the counselor's prestige (and sometimes his life!) depended upon whether or not the king regarded his advice as sound (see 2Sa 15:32-17:14). King Xerxes' officials advised him to remove Vashti from her position as queen and to replace her with another queen, lest other women hear of her actions and treat their husbands with contempt and the king himself become an object of scorn (Est 1:13ff.).

The Royal Wives and Concubines The king maintained separate quarters from the women; at Mari, the queen was also housed separately from the concubines and other women. The concepts of "harems" and "concubines" have derogatory connotations in modern times, but this was not the case in the ancient Near East."Harem" simply referred to the palace women (including concubines and slaves) or to the area where they lived. Persian royal women not only could attend banquets (2:10-11) but also accompanied the king on hunts and even on military campaigns.

Concubines in the Persian period included foreigners—daughters of other kings with whom alliances had been made.The fact that they had their own attendants indicates that they were not of low social station, though within the royal family they possessed only the rights of secondary wives. In some contexts access to the palace concubines was equated with the right to the kingship (cf.25a 3:7; 16:21-22; 1Ki 2:22ff.), so the harem was guarded by a eunuch or other official. While the access of the concubines to the king was limited (Est 2:14; 4:11), this was not a function of their status; no one of any position could approach a Persian king without having been summoned (4:11).0fficials, however, could not meet with royal women alone (e.g., Mordecai sent word to Esther about Haman's plot via the eunuch Hathach; 4:5 —9). In the Assyrian court the penalty for a courtier attempting to meet alone with a royal woman was death. Royal women could use their influence to intercede with the king, particularly on behalf of or for the benefit of family members. In this way Esther was able to reveal a plot against the king that was discovered by Mordecai (2:21-23), as well as to intercede on behalf of her people when Haman tried to destroy them (7:1ff.).Queens, in addition to supervising household management and overseeing the harem, also owned and managed estates and oversaw work details.

Mordecai and Marduka

ESTHER 3 The book of Esther is unique within the Old Testament in a number of respects.There is no explicit mention of God in the story, the main character is a female and the scene is set within the royal courts of Persia., As with other Biblical accounts, archaeologists have often puzzled over the historicity of the story and its main characters. In particular, the figure of Mordecai has been questioned: Is it plausible that a Jewish man could have achieved such a prominent position within the Persian government? The name Mordecai does represent an authentic personal name from this period, occurring in Aramaic documents as Mrdk and in cuneiform tablets as Mar-du-uk-ka or Mar-duk-ka.

The historicity of Mordecai receives possible confirmation from a cuneiform text dating from the last years of Darius 12 or the early years of Xerxes I.The tablet mentions a certain government official or scribe named Marduka in the context of a list of payments made to Persian officials and their retainers.The tablet was formerly part of a collection belonging to an Englishman named Lord Amherst of Hackney. At his death the collection was sold to the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin. The German Assyriologist Arthur Ungnad first noted the reference to Marduka and suggested a possible connection to the Biblical Mordecai in a short article published in 1941.The complete text of the tablet was later published in 1960.

At the very least this text confirms the existence of a Persian royal official named Marduka/Mordecai.This agrees in principle with the Biblical portrait of Mordecai, who is depicted as a royal official "sitting at the king's gate" (Est 2:19;5:13; 6:10)3 and later invested with broad administrative authority (8:2). The fragmentary nature of the evidence and the common usage of this name, however,make the identification of Marduka with the Biblical Mordecai a matter of conjecture.

The King's Gate

ESTHER 4 Susa, the city of the summer palace of the Persian rulers, is the setting for Esther. Archaeological research conducted during the 1970s by a French team has uncovered some locations mentioned in the book., A particularly interesting find is the gatehouse mentioned in Esther 2:19-21, 3:2-3, 4:2 and elsewhere. This gatehouse, approximately 87.5 yards (80 m) east of the palace, was an imposing was about 43.8 yards (40 m) across and had a central room that was roughly 23 yards (21 m) square. Massive columns flanked the structure.

A trilingual inscription from Xerxes himself celebrates the building of the gatehouse by his predecessor, Darius, and honors the Persian god Ahuramazda. A monumental statue of Darius also once stood at the western end of the gate.3 The historian Herodotus spoke of suppliants who wailed before the Persian king's gate (History, 3.117), and it may have been that the rule mentioned in 4:2—that no one could enter the gate wearing sackcloth—was intended to make the point that petitioners could come as far as, but no farther than, this gate.

Is Esther religious fiction?

ESTHER 5 The book of Esther is viewed today by a majority of scholars as nonhistorical.Yet the story itself is recounted candidly, and there is nothing within it to suggest that it is fictional. Miracles or other impossible" occurrences are totally absent. Critical scholars are bothered, however, by apparent exaggerations or suspected inaccuracies:

    • The length of the 180-day feast (1:1-4) seems excessive.

    • The six months of perfuming with oil and the additional six months of beautifying with spices (2:12) seem extreme)

    • The hook claims that there were 127 Persian provinces (1:1), while the historian Herodotus speaks of only 20.

    • The notion of a Persian decree being irrevocable (1:19;8:9) is regarded as doubtful -- but see Daniel 6.

    • Planning for a massacre of Jews a year in advance (Est 3:8-1S) strikes scholars as unlikely.

    • It seems too coincidental that Haman would turn out to be a descendant of Agag the Amalekite,the enemy of Israel who cost Saul his crown (3:1; see 1Sa 15).

    • Contrary to the Biblical account, Herodotus identified Xerxes' queen as Amestris,2 not Vashti.

    • Although the name Mordecai and that of Haman's son Parshandatha (Est 9:7) are attested elsewhere during the Persian period, Xerxes is the only indisputable historical figure in the book

    • Archaeological data from the Persian period has not specifically confirmed the story's historicity.

Thus, Esther is often read as a satire addressing the needs of Jews outside of the Holy Land. Yet these challenges, though not insignificant, are not in fact as overwhelming as they might first appear:

    • The apparent exaggerations may be a result of narrative technique. The 180-day banquet may have been primarily a gathering of leaders to strategize the Greek invasion., Similarly, the six-month preparation periods for the women were probably also intended for training in court decorum and protocol.The author apparently wished to highlight the splendor of the Persian court, but this does not signify that the events were manufactured.

    • The discrepancy in the number of provinces in the empire is founded on the notion that the Greek satropeia (in Herodotus) and the Hebrew medinah (in Esther) mean the same thing, but this has not been established. The higher figure in Esther may refer to smaller subdivisions.

    • The idea that a royal decree was irrevocable is not documented outside the Bible, but this is probably best understood as a matter of royal etiquette and or law.

    • Regarding the length of time needed to plan a pogrom, two facts stand out. First , such a matter require time and planning, given the size and makeup of the empire. Second, it is entirely credible that a man of the ancient world would cast lots to determine an auspicious day for following through with such a plan.

    • The text does not state that Haman was descended from the Agag of 1 Samuel 15. The meaning of "Agagite" in ESther is actually unknow.

    • It is possible that the queen Herodotus called Amestric was in fact Esther, since the two names appears to be linguistically related (others suggest that Amestris is to be equated with Vasti).

    • There are remarkable similarities between the book's statements about fifth-century Persia and what is know that country and society from archeology. That the author had more than a casual knowledge of Persian life during this period is displayed in his references to Persian vocabulary and customs as well as in his awareness that the king had seven advisors (Est 1:14), that eating was undertaken while reclining on couches (7:8) and that royal horses could wear crowns (6:8).

It is rare for archeology to provide direct evidence for a historical event. More often reconstructing ancient history is a matter of combining the stories found in texts with the artifacts discovered in archeology, though such work always requires a measure of confidence in the reliability of the texts. If every narrative from the ancient world had to be specifically confirmed by archeology, we would have no ancient history at all.

The book of Esther makes strong implicit claims to being historical. It is precisely as history that Esther is most significant; it marks the beginning of the long, sad saga of pogroms and holocausts against the Jews.

Xerxes, Vashti and Esther

ESTHER 7 Xerxes I, who ruled the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 B.C.,1 is best known for his failed invasion of Greece.Xerxes' palace at Susa ("Map 8a") has been excavated and some administrative records from his reign recovered.2 The historian Herodotus (c.484-425 B.c.), in his history of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, provides a great deal of information about Xerxes. However, while Herodotus's record of the major events of the war is basically trustworthy, his anecdotes about Persian court life are dismissed today by many historians as being little more than gossip (Herodotus, a Greek,they submit, wanted to portray Xerxes as a weak womanizer). Our only other major source of information about Xerxes is the Bible.

    • Ezra recorded that at the beginning of Xerxes' reign enemies of the Jews"lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem" (Ezr 4:6). Egypt revolted in 486 B.C., and the allegation may have been that the Jews were planning to do the same.Thus, the book of Ezra was written against the backdrop of a Persian Empire that was likely to be alarmed by slanderous accusations of sedition.

    • After suppressing the Egyptian revolt in 485 B.C., Xerxes invaded Greece in 481-480 B.C. The 180-day banquet Xerxes hosted during his third year (483 B.C.; Est 1:3), may have been an extended planning session for the Greek campaign.

    • The banquet for the elite was followed by a shorter, seven-day version for all the residents of Susa (1:5-9). During this banquet Vashti embarrassed the king by disobeying his order (1:10 — 22). Xerxes did not take action to replace Vashti until his sixth year (480 B.C.; 2:1-4), probably because he was away for three years putting down a revolt in Babylon (482 B.C.)3 and leading the unsuccessful invasion of Greece (481-480 B.c.).

    • Esther was selected as a potential candidate for queen and, following a year of preparation (2:12) was chosen as the new queen during Xerxes' seventh year (479 B.C.; v.16). Fourteen years later Xerxes was assassinated in a palace intrigue.

    • Herodotus specified that Xerxes' queen was named Amestris, and some scholars have equated Amestris with Vashti and others with Esther. However, as stated earlier, Herodotus's information about Persian court life should not be used as a basis for evaluating the book of Esther.

Signet Rings

ESTHER 8 Signets were a type of seal, worn either as a ring or on a cord around the neck and used to leave impressions in clay or wax.The impression functioned as a signature to authorize or authenticate a document, or to indicate that something had been sealed shut by the signet's owner.' Although the use of signet rings is attested from early times (Ge 41:42), in the ancient Near East cylinder seals= and scarabs (stone beetles used as talismans, ornaments or symbols of resurrection) were also common.

Seals on finger rings became more popular from the fifth century B.C. onward, and most Biblical examples come from the late preexilic (Jer 22:24) or Persian period. King Darius used his signet ring to seal the stone over the lions' den (Da 6:17),3 and rulers gave signet rings to individuals as signs of high office and to enable them to implement official business. King Xerxes first presented his signet ring to Haman, authorizing him to dispose of the Jews (Est 3:10ff.). Later, Xerxes reclaimed the ring and bestowed it instead upon Mordecai, who issued an edict permitting the Jews to defend themselves against any attackers (8:2,8)., In Haggai 2:23 God selected Zerubbabel as his representative, likening him to God's own signet ring, as though God's name were stamped upon his representative as a verification of his office.


ESTHER 9 Susa ("Map 8a"; modern Shush, Iran) was inhabited from the fourth millennium B.C. to the thirteenth century A.D. Early on, the city became a religious center, with temples to Inshushinak ("lord of Susa") and other deities. During the third millennium B.C. Susa, along with another city called Anshan, was a center of Elamite civilization. It even-. tually came to have a large and prosperous population. Through the second and early first millennium B.C. the city was either an independent Elamite capital or controlled by foreign powers, such as the Babylonians and Assyrians. It also became an important commercial hub, with contacts in India, Egypt, Arabia and Greece.

Susa came to the height of its power during the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. One of its kings, Shutruk-Nahunte, conquered Babylon and brought fabulous spoils to Susa, including the Code of Hammurabi (which was discovered at the Susa acropolis in 1900). In 646 B.c. the city was destroyed by the Assyrians under Assurbanipal. Susa was rebuilt shortly afterward but again was conquered by Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C.

Darius I (522 -- 486 B.C.) made Susa the winter palace for the Persian Empire, and in this capacity its prestige and prosperity greatly increased.The city grew to 625 acres. Its remains correspond to what we see described in Esther. During the reign of Darius a canal separated the unfortified, lower city on the eastern bank (i.e.,"Susa"; 9:13-15) from the fortified, upper city on the western bank (i.e.,"the citadel of Susa" in 1:5; cf. Da 8:2). An artisans' village was located east of the citadel. Citadel remains include a monumental gate (cf. Est 2:19,21) with trilingual inscriptions (cf. 1:22) and a large palace with two divisions: a three-acre audience hall and a ten-acre residential area with four successive inner courts (cf.4.11; 5:1-2; 6:4).

The palace of Darius burned during the reign of Artaxerxes 13 but was restored under Artaxerxes II, who built a provisional palace in the lower city. Alexander the Great took Susa without a fight, and the city continued to flourish as a center of trade and textile production, with a large population of Jews, until it was finally abandoned during the thirteenth century A.D.

The Canonicity of Esther

ESTHER 10 During its early history the book of Esther had a controversial status within the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Esther is the only book of the Old Testament not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting that the Qumran community may not have viewed it as Scripture. Although the celebration of Purim (the holiday initiated in 8:16-17 to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews) was inaugurated in the book of Esther, the rabbis of the second century A.D. cited a text called Megillat Taanit—not Esther—to defend its celebration.This suggests that the book of Esther was not held in as high esteem as this late (first-century A.D.) work.

The status of Esther has been debated in Christian circles as well. Esther is not listed in the oldest Christian canonical catalog, that of Bishop Melito of Sardis (c. A.o.167). Neither was it recognized by other Christian leaders, including Athanasius (A.D. 295-373) and Martin Luther, who proposed that Esther be removed from the canon of Scripture. On the other hand, early church fathers such as Origen (c.185-254),Augustine (354-430), Innocent I (401-417) and John of Damascus (675-745) did count Esther among the accepted books of the Old Testament. And the councils of Hippo and Carthage officially recognized Esther's canonical status in the Christian Scriptures in A.D. 393 and 397, respectively.

Later, the canonicity of the Greek version of Esther (containing 107 verses not found in the Hebrew text) was debated. The additions were designated by the Protestant church as Apocryphal and omitted from the Protestant Bible during the Reformation. However, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546) labeled the additions to Esther as Deuterocanonical, and the Roman Catholic Church continues to include them after the book of Esther proper., Jewish and Christian objections to the canonicity of Esther have been many and varied. Some readers have objected to the omission of any reference to God. Within the book there are nearly 200 allusions to the king of Persia but not a single direct reference to God! There is likewise no mention of prayer, the law, the covenant, Jerusalem or any of several other themes we would expect to find in a canonical work. Other scholars identify the book either as a parable or as a composite of two or more Per-sian and Palestinian myths. In addition, early Jews and Christians may have objected to the canonicity of Esther because of the prevalent drunkenness that often accompanied early celebrations of Purim.

Despite these objections, there are solid reasons for accepting the canonicity of Esther:

    • The book is driven by implicit accounts of God's faithfulness and sovereignty, even though his name is unmentioned. From beginning to end the reader understands God's hand to be at work to deliver his people from the threats of foreign enemies. The events are not "miraculous"in a supernatural sense, but they suggest divine intervention.

    • The omission of themes like the observance of the law, sacrifice, the temple in Jerusalem, etc., do not create an insurmountable objection when it is remembered that the book's events occurred during the exile.The Jews were living in Persia,far from the altar in Jerusalem, which, since the reformations of King Josiah, had been the only acceptable site for sacrifices to Yahweh. That these themes would go unmentioned, therefore, is understandable.The Jews' familiarity with their sacred traditions, however, is clear from their evident knowledge of the efficacy of communal fasting (4:16; cf. 2Ch 20:3; Jer 36:9)3 and from the theme of providence that underlies the entire book.

    • To Jews living under foreign oppression until the time of Christ, or to Christians living in the present age, the book of Esther demonstrates God's care for and action on behalf of his people. It affirms, in fact, that all human affairs are ultimately under his dominion. With the exceptions noted above, the majority of Jews and Christians have accepted the book of Esther as Scripture for over 2,000 years. Its transmission and message demand that it remain a fundamental portion of God's message to his people.