Is Esther religious fiction? (Esther 5)

Bilderesultat for esther queen of persia

Illustration: One of the movies made on the story

The book of Esther is viewed today by a majority of scholars as nonhistorical. Yet the story itself is recounted candidly. and there is nothing within it to suggest that it is fictional. Miracles or other “impossible” occurrences are totally absent. Critical scholars are bothered, however, by apparent exaggerations or suspected inaccuracies:

  • The length of the 180-day feast (Esther 1:1-4) seem excessive.
  • The six months of perfuming with oil and the additional six months of beautifying with spices (2:12) seem extreme.
  • The book claims that there were 127 Persian provinces (1:1), while historian Herodotus speaks only of 20.
  • The notion of a Persian decree being irrevocable (1:19, 8:9) is regarded as doubtful – but see Daniel 6.
  • Planning for a massacre of Jews a year in advance (Esther 3:8-15) strikes scholars as unlikely.
  • It seems too coincidental that Haman would turn out to be a descendant of Agag the Amalekite, the enemy of Israel who cost Saul his crown (3:1, see 1 Samuel 15).
  • Contrary to the Biblical account, Herodotus identified Xerxes’ queen as Amestris, not Vashti.
  • Although the name Mordecai and that of Haman’s son Parshadatha (Esther 9:7) are attested elsewhere during the Persian period, Xerxes is the only indisputable historical figure in the book.
  • Archaeological data from the Persian period has not specifically confirmed the story’s historicity.

Thus, Esther is often read as a satire addressing the needs of Jews outside of the Holy Land. Yet these challenges, thought not insignificant, are not in fact as overwhelming as they might first appear:

  • The apparent exaggerations may be a result of narrative technique. The 180-day banquet may have been primarily a gathering of leaders to strategize the Greek invasion. Similarly, the six-month preparation periods for the women were probably also intebded for training in court decorum and protocol. The author apparently wished to highlight the splendour of the Persian court, but this does not signify that the events were manufactured.
  • ‘The discrepancy in the number of provinces in the empire is founded on the notion that the Greek satrapeia (in Herodotus) and the Hebrew medinah (in Esther) mean the same thing, but this has not been established. The higher figure in Esther may refer to smaller subdivisions.
  • The idea that a royal decree was irrevocable is not documented outside the Bible, but this is probably best understood as a matter of royal etiquette and/or tradition – not as formal law.
  • Regarding the length of time needed to plan a pogrom, two facts stand out. First, such a matter would require time and planning, given the size and makeup of the empire. Second, it is entirely credible that a man of the ancient world would cast lots to determine an auspicious day for following through with such a plan.
  • The text does not state that Haman was descended from the Agag of 1 Samuel 15. The meaning of “Agagite” in Esther is actually unknown.
  • It is possible that the queen Herodotus called Amestris was in fact Esther, since the two names appear to be linguistically related (others suggest that Amestris is to be equated with Vashti).
  • There are remarkable similarities between the book’s statements about fifth century Persia and what is known about that country and society from archaeology. That the author had more than a casual knowledge of Persian life during this period is displayed in his reference to Persian vocabulary and customs as well as in his awareness that the king had seven advisors (Esther 1:14), that eating was undertaken while reclining on couches (7:8) and that the royal horses could wear crowns (6:8).

It is rare for archaeology to provide direct evidence for a historical event. More often, reconstructing ancient history is a matter of combining the stories found in texts with artefacts discovered in archaeology, though such work always requires a measure of confidence in the reliability of the texts. If every narrative from the ancient world had to be specifically confirmed by archaeolgy, we would have no ancient history at all.

The book of Esther makes strong implicit claims to being historical. It is precisely as history that Esther is most significant; it mark the beginning of the long, sad saga of pogroms and holocausts against the Jews.


 

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