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Two Books to Read for Purim

The book of Esther jumps immediately into the reign of Achashverosh, but provides little background. Fortunately, we get some background from the book of Ezra. There we learn that, after defeating the Babylonians, the Persian king Koresh gives permission to the Jewish exiles to return and build their Temple. The returnees start work but run into opposition from people already in the land. They have difficulties from the time of Koresh “ve-ad malchut Daryavesh” (Ezra 4:6). Later, early in the reign of Daryavesh (=Darius I), they resume their work. Since it is now about 20 years later, the Persian governor asks them who gave them permission for this rebuilding work. The returnees respond that Koresh had given them permission. King Daryavesh is notified and he orders a search, which locates the initial decree of Koresh. Accordingly, Daryavesh renews the permission and the work on the Temple is completed in his reign. There is also a one-sentence reference to Achashverosh in the book of Ezra. Finally, the book of Ezra and the book of Nechemiah describe the activities of Ezra and Nechemiah and the assistance that king Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I) provided to them.

What if you wanted to learn more about kings Koresh, Daryavesh, Achashverosh and Artachshasta? Where would you go? In 1990, Edwin Yamauchi, a professor in Ohio, published a book: “Persia and the Bible.” It is easy to read, with many pictures and charts, and gives us all the background we need. You see from the title of the book that it’s meant for us, readers of the Bible. It is not a dry general history of ancient Persia. (For that, you would read Pierre Briant, “From Cyrus to Alexander.”) Yamauchi presents in a clear and organized manner all that ancient historians and archaeology teach us about the reigns of kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes (=Achashverosh) and Artaxerxes I. (With regard to Cambyses, he is not mentioned by name in Tanach, but his reign is alluded to in the word “ve-ad” that I cited above.)

With regard to Cyrus, Yamauchi summarizes all the legends about his life reported in the various Greek historians (Herodotus and others). We also learn about one of the most important Biblical archaeological finds ever: The Cyrus Cylinder. This was an inscription of Cyrus that revealed that it was not just the Jewish returnees who were permitted by Cyrus to return and build their Temple. Rather, Cyrus gave such a permission to many of the peoples under his rule whom the Assyrians and Babylonians had exiled. This was part of his plan for benevolent rule. This was a dramatic insight. All of a sudden, Cyrus’ permission to the Jewish returnees described in the book of Ezra became understandable!

Yamauchi then moves on to Cambyses, summarizing the data in Herodotus, the later Greek historians, and archaeology.

Yamauchi then deals with Darius I. The extra-biblical material about Darius I is voluminous. First, we learn the most important story in the history of ancient Persia: the story of how Darius became king. Herodotus tells us that Darius was not the son of Cambyses, but was a distant relative. (Cambyses had no children.) Someone who pretended to be Cambyses’ brother reigned for about 7 months. (The real brother of Cambyses was already dead.) Darius and six others joined in a conspiracy to kill the impostor. After the conspiracy was successful, Darius was installed as king. (I have here oversimplified a very long story!)

Then Yamauchi focuses on the many inscriptions of Darius I. The most important is the trilingual inscription (Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian) in Behistun (western Iran) that largely confirms the above story told by Herodotus. Then we learn about the canal that Darius built between the Nile and the Red Sea, his expeditions against the Greeks and other military adventures, and his work building the palace at Shushan. Finally, we learn about his tomb and his several wives.

Then comes a 52-page chapter devoted to Xerxes, and another chapter on Artaxerxes. There are also chapters on the palace at Shushan and the other ancient Persian palaces.

As I have discussed before, it is clear that the name Xerxes is to be identified with Achashverosh. This was discovered in the middle of the 19th century when Old Persian cuneiform was deciphered and the original Old Persian names of the kings came to light. Once Old Persian was deciphered, we saw that the king the Greeks were calling “Xerxes” had the name “Khshayarsha” in Old Persian. This name is structured around the consonantal sounds Ch-Sh-R-Sh, i.e., the same consonantal sounds as the name A-Ch-Sh-R-Sh.

Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C.E. This was after the work on the building of the Second Temple was completed in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 B.C.E. From the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra, where Achashverosh is mentioned in a context, you see that Achashverosh followed Daryavesh. (Unfortunately, the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra was written in a confusing way. This misled Seder Olam and the Talmud, causing them to take a different view of the order of the Persian kings.)

Yamauchi writes all about Xerxes’ military expedition against the Greeks that took place in the early years of Xerxes’ reign. But he can tell us practically nothing about what happened in the reign of Xerxes after that. Why not? Because Herodotus and the Greek historians after him wrote practically nothing about the events of Xerxes after year seven, when Xerxes returned defeated. This is important because skeptics always point out that the Greek historians don’t refer to the Purim story, the plot to destroy the Jews in the 12th year of Xerxes’ reign (3:7). But the Greek historians refer to practically nothing in the reign of Xerxes after year seven until his assassination in year 21. (Of course, even if the Greek historians had described some events of years 8-21, it would hardly have been surprising if the plot against the Jews was not mentioned.)

There is only one flaw in Yamauchi’s book for our purposes. Xerxes’ wife was referred to by the Greeks as “Amestris.” Yamauchi has a section suggesting that Amestris may be Vashti. But nowhere does he consider that Amestris may be Esther. (The “is” at the end of “Amestris” is likely only a Greek addition to her original Old Persian name, which must have been something like M-S-T-R.) I argue strongly for the identification of Esther with Amestris in my book, “Esther Unmasked.”

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The other book I recommend is Yehuda Landy, “Purim and the Persian Empire” (Feldheim, 2010). This book is of a completely different nature. It is a book with wonderful color photos, based on archaeological findings, which helps one visualize the palace at Shushan and many of the other items mentioned in the Megillah. The author is an Orthodox rabbi and educator in Israel. He knew very little about ancient Persia until around 2006, when he visited a special exhibit on this subject at the British Museum. He was shocked at how much archaeological material there was that confirmed details of the Megillah. He also realized that 99 percent of the Orthodox world knew nothing about this, so he needed to collect it all and publish it as a book. (He included a text of the Megillah as well, so you can follow the Megillah with his book in your hand!)

The book includes some history. But he is aware that there are chronology disputes between Chazal and secular history, and he figured out a way to publish his book and publicize the visual material without taking clear positions on dates and historical identifications. After all, he reasoned, Shushan is Shushan, no matter what precise year the events occurred and whether or not Xerxes is Achashverosh. (But he does take the position that most likely Xerxes is Achashverosh. He does not address the issue of who Amestris is.)

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I titled this column: “Two Books to Read for Purim.” We can alternatively reinterpret this title to refer to my own two books on this period, which I also recommend: 1) “Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology” (published in 1997 but unfortunately very expensive), and 2) “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (published in 2015 by Kodesh Press and very reasonably priced).

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is now working on his third book, which he will explain in a future column.

 

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

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