Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Esther, Mordecai, and the Feast of Purim

Last Sunday was Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Queen Esther’s heroism in helping save the Persian Jews from extermination at the hands of the evil Haman, viceroy to Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus. 

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar, which usually corresponds to some time in March or late February. This year it coincided with the Spring Equinox, which is appropriate since many scholars feel that the feast of Purim may be a commemoration of the ancient Spring festivals of the Middle East -- a Hebrew folktale cast in a quasi-historical setting rather than an actual historical event. The Book of Esther is not mentioned in an authoritative list of sacred writings dated c. 180 BC, so its composition most likely dates to some time beyond 180 BC. 

The story takes place in the Persian empire city of Susa, in the 5th century BC. The Jews had been released from their Babylonian captivity by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 538 BC and some had come to settle in nearby Persia. Among them was a good man named Mordecai. Mordecai later became the guardian of his lovely niece (or much younger cousin), Hadassah (means myrtle, as in myrtle tree), who, for unexplained reasons, is renamed Esther. The beautiful Hadassah/Esther is chosen as bride by King Ahasuerus (thought to be either Xerxes or his grandson Artaxerxes), but he is unaware that she is of the Hebrew immigrant community and she does not enlighten him about it. 

Ahasuerus has a trusted right-hand man named Haman who does everything he can to curry favor with the king and thus become even more trusted and powerful. A decree goes out that people must bow to this highly favored individual but Mordecai refuses to do so. Haman is insulted and becomes angry. Finding out that Mordecai is part of the Jewish community, Haman vows revenge on all of Mordecai’s people; he begins to plot how to kill all the Jews. He starts by getting the king to countenance his plan by convincing him that the Jews refuse to obey his laws. This outrages the king and together they write up the execution order for the Jews and set a date for it. 

Word gets out and Mordecai is distraught for his people. Esther doesn’t know about the decree but she sees that Mordecai is very sad and wonders why. When she finally learns the truth she decides to intercede with the king, heroically defying the king’s decree that no one should ever come to his chambers uninvited. But the king is receptive to her when she arrives, and agrees to a plan she has devised. The truth comes out soon thereafter and Haman’s true colors are shown. He is executed and the Jews are saved.

Or so goes the story. 

People everywhere have celebrated spring festivals and the Middle East is no exception. Spring represents the victory of light over darkness and life over death. It is mythologized and anthropomorphized in many cultures and many ways. During their many years in Babylon the Hebrew people were undoubtedly exposed to the New Year’s Spring festival of Akitu, which celebrated the god Marduk’s victory over the chaos of Tiamat and thus the beginning of creation. This festival took place for 11 days early in the month of Nissanu, which corresponds roughly with the time of the spring equinox. Babylonia’s primary goddess, Ishtar, played a prominent role in these proceedings. While they lived in Persia the Hebrews could not have avoided exposure to the Persian Spring Equinox Festival of Nauroz (also spelled Nowruz, Narooz, etc), meaning “New Light,” which was celebrated as least as far back in time as the Median Empire that predated the Achaemenid Empire—of which Xerxes was the fourth monarch—a time predating the arrival of the Hebrew immigrants by between 10-50 years. 

The name Mordechai is Babylonian and means "servant of Marduk," Marduk being the chief god of the Babylonians. The name Esther is equivalent to Ishtar, supreme goddess of the Babylonians who was linked with the “morning star” planet of Venus. The Talmud refers to Esther as the “morning star.” The Babylonian captivity of the Jews had allowed them approximately 90 years to soak up the religion and culture of the Babylonian empire. 

Even Haman finds his place among the local pagan deities; it is conjectured that Haman is equivalent to the Elamite (i.e. the area around Susa) deity Humman, which is also rendered as Humbar and Khumban. The Elamites and Babylonians were ancient foes; thus Humman was a foe of Marduk, just as Haman was a foe of Mordecai. 

It is quite likely that Purim began as some sort of Spring Festival, but since the Hebrews used a lunar calendar the festival was probably affixed to a full moon and thus the time of its celebration varied.

Jensen, P; as found in The Jewish Quarterly Review, April 1899, A New Commentary on the Five Megilloth,Thomas Tyler, p 519