April 19, 2024
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Identifying Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources

Until the 19th century, a search in secular sources for a Persian king named Achashverosh would not have been a successful one. Our knowledge of the Persian kings from the Biblical period was coming entirely from the writings of Greek historians, and none of the names that they recorded were close to Achashverosh. The Greek historians (Herodotus, mid-5th cent. BCE, and the others who came after him) described the following Persian kings from the Biblical period: Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.

It was only in the 19th century that we were able to solve our problem, as a result of the deciphering of cuneiform inscriptions from the ancient Persian palaces. It was discovered that the name of the king that the Greeks had been referring to as “Xerxes” was in fact: “Khshayarsha” (written in Old Persian cuneiform). The name was not properly transliterated in Greek because Greek did not have a letter to represent the shin sound. “Khshayarsha” is very close to the Hebrew “Achashverosh.” In their consonantal structure, the two names are identical. Both center on the consonantal sounds “ch,” “sh,” “r,” and “sh.” The Hebrew just added an initial aleph and two vavs. (Interestingly, the Megillah spells Achashverosh several times with only one vav, and one time spells the name with no vav).

Identifying Khshayarsha/Xerxes with Achashverosh thus makes much sense on linguistic grounds. Most important, it is consistent with Ezra 4:6 which implied that Achashverosh was the king between Daryavesh (=Darius I) and Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I). This is exactly when Xerxes reigned. Xerxes reigned from 486-465 BCE, when the Temple was already rebuilt. It was rebuilt in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 BCE.

Admittedly, the identification of Achashverosh with Xerxes does not fit with the view of the Talmud. According to the Talmud, Meg. 11b, Achashverosh reigned between Koresh and Daryavesh. But there is no reasonable basis to deny the identification of Xerxes and Achashverosh today. It is accepted by many in Orthodoxy. See, e.g., the Chamesh Megillot (Daat Mikra) volume published by Mossad HaRav Kook.

Do we have any evidence in secular sources for the main plot of the Purim story, the threat to destroy the Jews in the 12th year (3:7)? We do not, but this is to be expected. Our main source for the events of the reign of Xerxes is Herodotus and his narrative ends in the 7th year of Xerxes.

According to Herodotus, the wife of Xerxes was named Amestris, and she was the daughter of a military commander named Otanes. (In the Megillah, Esther is described as the daughter of Avichail.) A later Greek historian, Ctesias, records that Amestris outlived Xerxes. Moreover, in the further details that Ctesias provides, Amestris is involved in royal affairs even in the reign of her son Artaxerxes. Neither Herodotus nor Ctesias use a term like “queen” for her, but their description of Amestris fits what we would call a “queen.” Neither gives any indication that Xerxes had any other wife.

Some postulate that Amestris is Vashti. But this is extremely unlikely since there is nothing in Herodotus or Ctesias to indicate any loss of status by Amestris. Others postulate that Esther was never the main wife of Xerxes, but was one of his other wives of a lesser status. See, e.g., Chamesh Megillot (Daat Mikra), introduction to Esther, p. 6.

The problem with this approach is that the clear impression that one receives from the Megillah is that Esther was the Persian wife of the highest status from the time she was chosen in the 7th year of the reign of Achashverosh through the balance of the years described in the book. See, e.g., verse 2:17 (va-yasem keter malchut be-roshah va-yamlicheha tachat Vashti).

The approach that seems to have the least difficulties is to postulate that Amestris is Esther and that Herodotus simply erred regarding her ancestry. Although Herodotus traveled widely in the 460s and 450s B.C.E., he probably never set foot in Persia. His information about Persia is based on what was told to him orally. Every scholar knows that he could not possibly be correct on a large percentage of the details he reports (whether about Persia or any matter). Also, the impression that one receives from the Megillah is that Esther did not disclose her true ancestry for several years. Whatever rumors about her ancestry first came out may be what made their way to Herodotus.

It is striking that the name Avichayil is very close to meaning “military commander.” It is also not farfetched to suggest that Avichayil might have had another name that resembled the name Otanes. The Megillah tells us that Esther had another name, Hadassah.

Herodotus tells one story depicting the cruelty of Amestris. Ctesias portrays her negatively as well. But scholars today know not to believe the tales told by the Greek historians about their enemies, the Persians. Herodotus, known as the “Father of History,” is also known as the “Father of Lies.” The reputation of Ctesias as a historian is far worse; he is widely viewed as freely mixing fact and fiction.

We have no Persian sources for the name of the wife of Khshayarsha. But close examination of the name “Amestris” supports its identification with Esther. The “is” at the end was just a suffix added to turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form (just as “es” was added at the end of “Xerxes”). When comparing the remaining consonants, the name of the wife of Xerxes is recorded in the Greek historians as based around the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the name as recorded in the Megillah is based around the consonants S, T, and R. Out of the numerous possible consonants in these languages, three consonants are the same and in the same order! Probability suggests that this is not coincidence and that the two are the same person. Probably her Persian name was composed of the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the M was not preserved in the Hebrew.

Given that it is clear that Achashverosh is to be identified with Xerxes, there should be a presumption that the one queen-like wife described in the Greek sources (composed at a time when Vashti would have been long forgotten) and the malkah described in the Megillah are one and the same. As shown above, in their consonantal structure, the names essentially match (STR vs. MSTR). The issue is not whether there is enough evidence to equate Esther with Amestris, but whether there is sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that they are the one and the same. When the issue is phrased this way, the correct conclusion is arrived at. The contradiction on the detail of the name of the father is insufficient to rebut such a presumption. That Herodotus seems to have believed that Amestris was the wife of Xerxes even in the early years of his reign is also not a contradiction to Amestris being Esther. It is understandable that Herodotus might have had such a belief. It would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater to reject the identification of Esther with Amestris based on “contradictions” such as these.

Once we realize that Achashverosh is Xerxes, it becomes evident that the one who was exiled at Esther 2:6 cannot be Mordechai. King Yechanyah was exiled in 597 B.C.E. If Mordechai was old enough to have been exiled with King Yechanyah, he would have been over 120 years old when appointed to a high position in the 12th year of Xerxes. Moreover, Esther, his first cousin, would not have been young enough to have been chosen queen a few years earlier. A reasonable alternative interpretation is that the individual exiled was Mordechai’s great-grandfather Kish. (See the article by Prof. Aaron Koller in in the “Journal for the Study of the Old Testament,” vol. 37:1, 2012).

The Megillah (10:2) implied that we could search outside the Bible for additional information regarding Achashverosh. I trust that this search has proven an interesting one!

This article is a short summary of a much longer article included in my recently published book, Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015), available at Amazon.com. I can be reached at [email protected].

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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