The Book of Esther

Persepolis

By Robert J. Littman

The Book of Esther has been called one of the strange books of the Bible. There is no reference to God in the entire book. The story is one of the few books of the Bible set outside of Israel. It reads like a folk story and has nothing very Jewish about it. It was written probably in the second century BCE, and purports to tell the story of Esther and Ahasueros, the King of Persia.

Ahasueros (Hebrew for the Greek King Xerxes) ruled from 486 BCE to 465 BCE. We have a great deal of information about his reign from the Greek historian Herodotus, who was a contemporary, as well as from inscriptional evidence from Persia. He was married to Amestris, a Persian noble woman, and never had a wife called Esther or Hadassah.

Even the names in the story are fanciful. Esther is the Aramaic rendering of the Babylonian name Ishtar, the Goddess of sexual love, and sometimes war. Readers of the book have long puzzled about the two names of Esther, Esther and Hadassah. In fact, the goddess Ishtar was called Ishtar Hadasha, “Ishtar the Bride.” Readers and Biblical commentators have misunderstood Hadassah to derive from hadasa, “myrtle.” Mordecai again is a Babylonian name which means “Follower of Marduk.” Marduk was the Babylonian god of war, and is associated with Ishtar in the Babylonian.

Even rabbinic Judaism tried to reject the Book of Esther and not include it in the canon of accepted books of the Bible. But its popularity among common people, and the popularity of Purim kept the book alive. It is a good yarn that describes how a Jewish folk heroine helps her people survive, and triumph. It does not matter that this was originally a Persian or Babylonian story and festival that has been usurped. This Purim, let us write the name of Haman on the bottom of our shoes and stamp out his name, along with all those who would oppress the Jewish people.

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