Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Purim – the "Real" Story

One thing’s for sure about Purim – it ‘aint all fiction. As you will see, many of the details correspond neatly with known historical fact.

Another thing is for sure, it ‘aint all fact. Some of the plot twists and commentary in the Book of Esther itself scream out that this is really parody; it’s almost cartoonish in nature. From the snide commentary about women found at the beginning – such as the line that Ahashverosh feared Vashti because her defiance might lead to a cultural revolutions where wives won’t listen to their husbands anymore, to the bloody massacre described at the end in almost giddy tones, this is no dry history we’re reading here. The Megilla might well be the world’s first docu-drama, containing embellished kernels of truth. But the author was an excellent historical novelist, of the James Michner variety, and he got the facts down.

So let’s look a bit more closely. The story takes place in the Persian city of ShushanSusa – in SW Iran, about 30 miles from the Iraqi border. It was a provincial capital back in the 4th century, BCE, where the kings of the Ahmenide dynasty had their winter palace. Many scholars believe that the King of the story, Ahashverosh, corresponds to the king H’sharyanha (Heroditus = Xerxes), who reigned between 46-465 BCE.

The book of Esther begins with a lavish banquet, where Xerxes orders his queen Vashti to appear and display her beauty before his guests. She refuses. Enter Esther.

Now the Greek historians Heroditus, who lived in the 5th cent. BCE, and Ctesias, who lived a century later, both report that Xerxes had a queen named AMESTRIS. Close enough!

Court records, however, show that in that kingdom, queens came from the royal aristocracy. Maybe Mordechai and his family were in fact aristocracy. Douobtful. Jews had it good, but not that good. From the book we learn that Mordechai would sit by the palace. That’s where Haman found him. In Hebrew, it must be noted, the word to sit, “lashevet” also means to be stationed, and archeological evidence shows that the king’s gate was not simply a place, but an administrative office of the palace. Which explains how Mordechai, in his official capacity at the kings gate, heard about the two guards plot to kill the king. It was his job to know. BTW, as benefactor to the king, it was customary that he wouldn’t have to bow down to anyone other than the King himself!

Now, was there really a Mordechai? THIS JUST IN! An archaeological dig completed about a decade ago at the Mesopotamian site of SIPPUR has turned up a cuneiform tablet that mentioned a certain MADUKA as being one of Xerxes’ high officials in Shushan. I kid you not!

As for Haman, the name isn’t found anywhere (Yimach shmo). Except for maybe the Honeymooners… But his wife Zeresh seems to be derived from the Elamite God Zarisha – and this is especially significant because there was a large Elamite population at that time in Shushan. Haman’s sons? What names…Persian jawbreakers! When the reader reads all ten of them in one breath, it might well be to simulate the feel of strangulation… ARIDATA, ARISAI AND ARIDAI, the older ones: derived from the Persian word “Arya” meaning “noble” or “high born.” The original Aryans migrated from Europe through Persia to India and were mentioned frequently in early Hindu literature. The term Aryan was later taken by 19th century European racists, and then by the Nazis. It is ironic indeed that through the names of Haman’s sons, there is then a direct link from Haman to Hitler!

There is another Hindu connection, BTW – and Indian and Persian culture have always been closely linked. One of the advisers Ahash consulted when Vashti did her defiance thing was named Carshena, an old Perisan word meaning “black,” which is related to the Hindu word, “Krishna,” the Hindu God often often depicted in Indian art an Hindu legend as being black or blue in color.

Now, back to the story. It begins with HUGE banquet, lasting 7 days and taking place in the 3rd year of the king’s reign. We know from historical sources that in Xerxes’ 3rd year he suppressed rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia. A good reason for a huge feast! As the story moves along, we know that the king affixed his seal to a decree allowing the Jews to be killed. This decree could not be revoked since it had the royal seal affixed to it. We know from Greek sources that this practice was indeed followed.

But was there such a decree? What happened to the Jews in Persia at that time? We don’t now – yet. But we do know that in the reign of a later king, Ataxerxes, in 340 BCE, there was a Phonecian and Greek revlt against Perisan rule and evidence in Israel shows that the Persian armies were active in suppressing revolts in Judea just beofre the conquest of Alexander the great in 330 BCE. NUMEROUS SITES. And at about this time the Jewish population of Jericho was deported to a no-man’s land in Southern Lebanon. So the revolt was put down and likely led ot anti-Semitism in other parts of the empire. One theory of the book of Esther is that, to console themselves in this time of peril, Jews took the historical records of a great leader already known to them, named Mordechai, and a queen named Esther, actual historical figures, and created a wild, incredible story of a miracle salvation done without the visible help of God. By this theory, the book of Esther, written about a century after the events it depicts, authentically Persian in detail and language, might indeed have been the world’s first docu-drama.

A docu-drama, with truth for us. We face danger, no matter where – for the Jew, life is always just a roll of the dice (Pur – ancient Babylonian word for small cube shaped stones or piece of clay used as dice). I prefer to cast my lot with Purim, a holiday with timeless lessons we are only beginning to discover.

Sources: JPS Bible Commentary for Esther, by Adele berlin; "The Book of Esther: Where Does Fiction Start and History End?" Bible Review, 2/1992; also the Enclyclopedia Judaica article on the "Scroll of Esther."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the connection between nazis and sons of Haman see also