1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Esther

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ESTHER. The Book of Esther, in the Bible, relates how a Jewish maiden, Esther, cousin and foster-daughter of Mordecai, was made his queen by the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) after he had divorced Vashti; next, how Esther and Mordecai frustrated Haman’s endeavour to extirpate the Jews; how Haman, the grand-vizier, fell, and Mordecai succeeded him; how Esther obtained the king’s permission for the Jews to destroy all who might attack them on the day which Haman had appointed by lot for their destruction; and lastly, how the feast of Purim (Lots?) was instituted to commemorate their deliverance. Frequent incidental references are made to Persian court-usages (explanations are given in i. 13, viii. 8), while on the other hand the religious rites of the Jews (except fasting), and even Jerusalem and the temple, and the name of Israel, are studiously ignored. Even the name of God is not once mentioned, perhaps from a dread of its profanation during the Saturnalia of Purim. The early popularity of the book is shown by the interpolated passages in the Septuagint and the Old Latin versions.

The criticism of Esther began in the 18th century. As soon as the questioning spirit arose, the strangeness of many statements in the book leaped into view. A moderate scholar of our day can find no historical nucleus, and calls it a sort of historical romance.[1] The very first verses in the book startle the reader by their exaggerations, e.g. a banquet lasting 180 days, “127 provinces.” Farther on, the improbabilities of the plot are noticeable. Esther, on her elevation, keeps her Jewish origin secret (ii. 10; cf. vii. 3 ff.), although she has been taken from the house of her uncle, who is known to be a Jew (iii. 4; cf. vi. 13), and has remained in constant intercourse with him (ii. 11, 19, 20, 22; cf. iv. 4-17). We are further told that the grand-vizier was an Agagite or Amalekite (iii. 1, &c.); would the nobility of Persia have tolerated this? Or did Haman too keep his non-Persian origin secret? Also that Mordecai offered a gross affront to Haman, for which no slighter punishment would satisfy Haman than the destruction of the whole Jewish race (iii. 2-6). Of this savage design eleven months’ notice is given (iii. 12-14); and when the danger has been averted by the cleverness of Esther, the provincial Jews are allowed to butcher 75,000, and those in the capital 800 of their Persian fellow-subjects (ix. 6-16).

It is urged, on the other hand, that the assembly mentioned in i. 3 may be that referred to by Herodotus (vii. 8) as having preceded the expedition against Greece. This hypothesis, however, requires us to suppose that Xerxes had returned from Sardis to Susa by the tenth month of the seventh year of his reign, which is barely credible. In the reckoning of 127 provinces (cf. Dan. vi. 1; 1 Esd. iii. 2) satrapies and sub-satrapies may be confounded. It is at any rate correct to include India among the provinces; this is justified, not only by Herodotus (iii. 94), but by the inscriptions of Darius at Persepolis and Naksh-i-Rustam. Herodotus again (vii. 8) confirms the custom referred to in Esth. ii. 12. But what authority can make the conduct of Mordecai credible? To-day the harem is impenetrable, while “any one declining to stand as the grand-vizier passes is almost beaten to death.”[2] This, surely, is what a real Mordecai would have suffered from a real Haman. Even the capricious Xerxes would never have permitted the entire destruction of one of the races of the empire, nor would a vizier have proposed it.

Serious difficulties of another kind remain. Mordecai is represented as a fellow-captive of Jeconiah (597 B.C.), and grand-vizier in Xerxes’s twelfth year (474 B.C.)! This is parallel to the strange statement in Tobit xiv. 15. And how can we find room for Esther as queen by the side of Amestris (Herod. vii. 14, ix. 112)? How, too, can a Jewess have been a legal queen (see Herod. iii. 84)? Then take the supposed Persian proper names. “Ahasuerus” may no doubt stand, but very few of the rest (see Nöldeke, Ency. Bib. col. 1402). As to the style, the general verdict is that it points to a late date (see Driver, Introd.6, p. 484). Altogether, critics decline to date the book earlier than the 3rd or even 2nd century B.C.

So far we have only been carrying on 18th-century criticism. In more recent years, however, new lines of inquiry have been opened up. First of all by the great Semitic scholar Lagarde. His thesis (seldom defended now) was that Purim corresponds to Fūrdigan, the name of the old Persian New Year’s and All Souls’ festival held in spring, on which the Persians were wont to exchange presents (cf. Esth. ix. 19). In 1891 came a new explanation of Esther from Zimmern. It is true that in its earlier form his theory was very incomplete. But in justice to this scholar we may notice that from the first he looked for light to Babylonia, and that many other critics now take up the same position. There is also another new point which has to be mentioned, viz. that, judging from our experience elsewhere, the Book of Esther has probably passed through various stages of development. Here, then, are two points which call for investigation, viz. (1) a possible mythological element in Esther, and (2) possible stages of development prior to that represented by the Hebrew text.

As to the first point. The Second Targum (on Esth. ii. 7) long ago declared that Esther was so called “because she was like the planet Venus.” Recent scholars have expressed the same idea more critically. Esther is a modification of Ishtar, the name of the Babylonian goddess of fertility and of the planet Venus, whose myth must have been partially known to the Israelites even in pre-exilic times,[3] and after the fall of the state must have acquired a still stronger hold on Jewish exiles. A general knowledge of the myth of Marduk among the Israelites cannot indeed be proved. Singularly enough, the Babylonian colonists in the cities of Samaria are said to have made idols, not of Marduk, but of a deity called Succoth-benoth[4] (2 Kings xvii. 30). Nor does the Second Targum help us here; it gives a wild explanation of Mordecai as “pure myrrh.” Still it is plain that the name of the god Marduk (Merodach) was known to the Jews, and the Cosmogony in Gen. i. is considered by critics to have ultimately arisen out of the myth of Marduk’s conflict with the dragon (see Cosmogony). At any rate the name Mordecai (the vocalization is uncertain) looks very much like Marduk, which, with terminations added, often occurs in cuneiform documents as a personal name.[5] Add to this, that, according to Jensen, Ishtar in mythology was the cousin of Marduk, just as the legend represents Esther as the cousin of Mordecai.[6] The same scholar also accounts for Esther’s other name Hadassah (Esth. ii. 7); hadasshatu in Babylonian means “bride,” which may have been a title of Ishtar.

But we cannot stop short here. Unless the mythological key can also explain Haman and Vashti, it is of no use. Jensen, now followed by Zimmern, is equal to the occasion. Haman, he says, is a corruption of Hamman or Humman or Uman, the name of the chief deity of the Elamites, in whose capital (Susa) the scene of the narrative is laid, while Vashti is Mashti (or Vashti), probably the name of an Elamite goddess.

Following the real or fancied light of these names, Prof. Jensen holds that the Esther-legend is based on a mythological account of the victory of the Babylonian deities over those of Elam, which in plain prose means the deliverance of ancient Babylonia from its Elamite oppressors, and that such an account was closely connected with the Babylonian New Year’s festival, called Zagmuk, just as the Esther-legend is connected with the festival of Purim.

We are bound, however, to mention some critical objections. (1) The Babylonian festival corresponding to Purim was not the spring festival of Zagmuk, but the summer festival of Ishtar, which is probably the Sacaea of Berossus, an orgiastic festival analogous to Purim. (2) According to Jensen’s theory, Mordecai, and not Esther, ought to be the direct cause of Haman’s ruin. (3) No such Babylonian account as Jensen postulates can be indicated. (4) The identifications of names are hazardous. Fancy a descendant of Kish called Marduk, and an “Agagite” called Hamman! Elsewhere Mordecai (Ezra ii. 2; Neh. vii. 7) occurs among names which are certainly not Persian (Bigvai is no exception), and Haman (Tobit xiv. 10) appears as a nephew of Achiachar, which is not a Persian name. Esther, moreover, ought to be parallel to Judith; fancy likening the representative of Israel to the goddess Ishtar!

Next, as to the preliminary literary phases of Esther. Such phases are probable, considering the later phases represented in the Septuagint. There may have once existed in Hebrew a story of the deadly feud between Mordecai (if that be the original name) and Haman, with elements suggested by the story of the battle between the Supreme God and the dragon (see Cosmogony). As the legend stands, Mordecai and Esther seem to be in each other’s way. In a passage (i. 5 in LXX.) only found in the Septuagint, but which may have belonged to the original Esther, reference is made to a dream of Mordecai respecting two great dragons, i.e. Mordecai and Haman (x. 7). This seems to confirm the view here mentioned. If so, however, there must also have been an Esther-legend, which was afterwards worked up with that of Mordecai. This is, in fact, the view of Erbt. Winckler takes a different line. Linguistic facts and certain points in the contents seem to him to show that our Esther is a work of the age of the Seleucidae; more precisely he thinks of the time of the revolt of Molon under Antiochus III. Of course there was a Book of Esther before this, and even in its redacted form our Esther reflects the period of three Persian kings, viz. Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius. Lastly, Cheyne (Ency. Bib. “Purim,” § 7), while agreeing with Winckler that the book is based on an earlier narrative, holds that that earlier text differed more widely from the present in its geographical and historical setting than Winckler seems to suppose. The problem of the origin of the name Purim, however, can hardly be said to have received a final solution.

Bibliography.—Kuenen, History of Israel, iii. (1875), 148-153; Lagarde, Purim (1887); Zimmern in Stade’s Zeitschrift, xi. (1891), pp. 157-169, and Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament(3), 485, 515-520, Jensen in Wildeboer’s Esther (in Marti’s series, 1898), pp. 173-175; Winckler, Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament(3), p. 288, Altorientalische Forschungen, 3rd ser. i. 1-64; Erbt, Die Purimsage (1900); Ency. Biblica, articles “Esther” and “Purim” (a composite article).  (T. K. C.) 

Additions to Book of Esther. These “additions” were written originally in Greek and subsequently interpolated in the Greek translation of the Book of Esther. Here the principle of interpolation has reached its maximum. Of 270 verses, 107 are not to be found in the Hebrew text. These additions are distributed throughout the book in the Greek, but in the Latin Bible they were relegated to the end of the canonical book by Jerome—an action that has rendered them meaningless. In the Greek the additions form with the canonical text a consecutive history. They were made probably in the time of the Maccabees, and their aim was to supply the religious element which is so completely lacking in the canonical work. The first, which gives the dream of Mordecai and the events which led to his advancement at the court of Artaxerxes, precedes chap. i. of the canonical text: the second and fifth, which follow iii. 13 and viii. 12, furnish copies of the letters of Artaxerxes referred to in these verses; the third and fourth, which are inserted after chap. iv., consist of the prayers of Mordecai and Esther, with an account of Esther’s approach to the king. The last, which closes the book, tells of the institution of the feast of Purim. The Greek text appears in two widely-differing recensions. The one is supported by ABא, and the other—a revision of the first—by codices 19, 93a, 108b. The latter is believed to have been the work of Lucian. Swete, Old Test. in Greek, ii. 755, has given the former, while Lagarde has published both texts with critical annotations in his Librorum Veteris Testamenti Canonicorum, i. 504-541 (1883), and Scholz in his Kommentar über das Buch Esther (1892).

For an account of the Latin and Syriac versions, the Targums, and the later Rabbinic literature connected with this subject, and other questions relating to these additions, see Fritzsche, Exeget. Handbuch zu den Apok. (1851), i. 67-108; Schürer (3), iii. 330-332; Fuller in Speaker’s Apocr. i. 360-402; Ryssel in Kautzsch’s Apok. u. Pseud. i. 193-212; Siegfried in Jewish Encyc. v. 237 sqq.; Swete, Introd. to the Old Test. in Greek, 257 seq.; L. B. Paton, “A Text-Critical Apparatus to the Book of Esther” in O.T. and Semitic Studies in Memory of W. R. Harper (Chicago, 1908).  (R. H. C.) 

  1. Kautzsch, Old Testament Literature (1898), p. 130.
  2. So Morier, the English minister to the Persian court, quoted by Dean Stanley.
  3. See Zimmern, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Test.(3), p. 438.
  4. Ibid. p. 396.
  5. Johns, Assyrian Deeds, iii. 198-199; Amer. Journ. of Sem. Languages (April 1902), p. 158.
  6. So too Zimmern, in Gunkel’s Schöpfung und Chaos, p. 313, note 2.