The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #02: Timeframe and Chronology (Chapter
By Rav Yonatan Grossman
question of when a certain biblical narrative transpired historically is not
necessarily relevant to comprehending it completely. Thus, for example, Iyov is not
anchored in some specific historical moment, and the narrative and its moral
lesson can be understood without knowledge of the historical context of its
occurrence or composition. Its
historical situation neither adds to nor detracts from Iyov's suffering, and it
has no effect on the fundamental positions expressed by any of his companions,
nor on God's reaction to these events.
one could imagine that Esther falls into the same category. This is undoubtedly an "Exile
narrative," and it clearly occurs during the period of the Persian Empire, but
any attempt to locate it more precisely on a historical continuum may appear
unnecessary. What does it matter
whether these events take place immediately upon the ascent of Persia as the
ruling empire, or sometime later, during the empire's decline? The wickedness of
Haman remains the identical either way; the wisdom and selflessness of Esther
are unchanged; the plot will bring a smile to the face of its readers,
some scholars maintain that Esther is not meant to reflect any historical
event that happened at a specific time; rather, it is a fictional story: "The
story narrated in the Megilla is historically improbable, and several
contemporary scholars concur that it should be regarded as a fictional tale,
like other narratives that were popular among the Jews in the Land of Israel and
in the Diaspora during the Persian period and during the Hellenistic period."
A less extreme formulation is proposed by other scholars who regard
Esther as a historical novel – i.e., the main plot of the narrative
contains a kernel of genuine historical truth. Indeed, during Achashverosh's time, a
decree was passed to annihilate the Jews, and this decree was rescinded in the
wake of Esther's intervention; however – according to this view – the author
elaborated on this historical core and added details at his own discretion.
question is not whether the narrative, as it appears in Esther, actually
happened or not,
but rather whether a specific historical context represents the background that
is crucial to our understanding of it.
In other words: does the historical period in which the narrative is set
have any special significance for our understanding of the narrative and its
narrative opens by noting an historical point when the events take place: "It
was in the days of Achashverosh – he was Achashverosh who ruled from India to
Ethiopia, 127 provinces" (1:1).
This introduction does not sound foreign to anyone familiar with
Tanakh, although only four other narratives begin in this way.
The setting of the narrative at a specific historical point establishes a
reading consciousness and has a significant influence on the analysis of the
events. In a narrative that makes
no mention of any timeframe, the reader tends to ignore the issue of its
historical location (as, for example, in Iyov), while in a narrative that
begins by noting its historical context, it is reasonable that this background
influences our understanding of the events or their significance.
it would seem that the historical setting of Esther is of considerable
significance as pertains to the work's hidden messages, and that a fundamental
aspect of that message is profoundly connected to the specific historical period
within which the plot is narrated.
Interestingly, the introductory verse focuses the reader's attention on
the Persian regime rather than the corresponding state of the Jewish nation (for
instance, "It was during the seventh year of the exile of Judea," or the
In this respect, the narrator plays innocent and conveys the sense that he is
about to tell a story of the Persian Empire – as we noted in our discussion of
the literary framework of the narrative as a whole. As we shall see later on, this is one of
the motifs interwoven throughout: the disparity between the Persian exterior of
the narrative and the Jewish perspective within it.
discussion of the historical setting that opens the narrative must mention the
well-known debate as to the identity of King Achashverosh. Clearly, he was one of the Persian kings
of the Achaemenid dynasty (539-330 B.C.E.). This dynasty, comprising ten generations
of kings, began with Cyrus, who defeated the Babylonians (539 B.C.E.) and ended
with the death of Darius III (330 B.C.E.), approximately three years after the
conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great),
ushering in the Hellenistic period.
which of the Achaemenid kings was Achasheverosh? Among contemporary scholars,
opinions are divided into two main schools of thought:
A. Giving the narrative a later date tends
to identify Achashverosh with Artaxerxes II (404-359 B.C.E.). This view is supported by the Septuagint
(where the king's name appears as "Artaxerxes") and by Josephus Flavius.
B. An earlier – and more widely
accepted – date identifies Achashverosh as Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.E.).
latter view rests upon four major proofs:
The king's Persian name – חשיארש –
is very similar to the name in Hebrew – אחשורוש, especially when attention is paid to the
way in which the name is written in 10:1, without the vav.
The Greek historian Herodotus, who describes the Achaemenid Persian
dynasty in vivid colors, speaks of Xerxes as a king overcome with lust for women
and wine (echoing the description of Achashverosh in Esther), and also as
having a magnificent palace in Shushan, and reigning from India to Ethiopia.
In the Babylonian city of Sifar, an administrative record was discovered
noting that during the period of this king there was a senior official from the
city of Shushan who served as the royal treasurer by the name of Mardukâ.
This name is highly reminiscent of Mordekhai the Jew.
Finally, the only other biblical reference (outside of Esther) to
Haman's decree, in Ezra, would seem to identify Achashverosh as Xerxes:
"The people of the land would weaken the hands of the people of Judea, and
frightened them off from building.
They hired advisors against them, to frustrate their planning, throughout
the time of Cyrus, King of Persia, and until the reign of Darius, King of
Persia. And during the reign of
Achashverosh, at the beginning of his reign, they wrote accusations against the
inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem.
And during the days of Artaxerxes they wrote…" (Ezra 4:4-7). If, indeed, Achashverosh was Xerxes,
then we have an orderly account of the beginning of the dynasty: Cyrus – Darius
– Xerxes (Achashverosh) – Artaxerxes.
As noted, this is the most widely accepted identification
among the scholars of that period, and – as we shall discover – this information
is of great importance in unearthing the concealed meanings of the
Let us now turn our attention to one fact of extreme
importance for our understanding of the real context of Esther. If Achashverosh is indeed Xerxes, then
the narrative transpires about 100 years after the destruction of the First
Temple and – more importantly – about thirty years after the dedication of the
altar of the Second Temple.
Thus, it becomes immediately apparent that the people of
Shushan – including Mordekhai and Esther – were not among those Jews who
returned to the Land of Israel, who acceded to Cyrus's Proclamation of freedom
to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. While the Jewish settlement in the Land
of Israel is struggling to exist, to survive, to build the Temple – the Jews of
Shushan are sitting comfortably, enjoying the sumptuous feast organized by the
Persian king for all the inhabitants of his capital.
The situation of those Jews who had returned from the
Babylonian exile was dire. This was
true both in the politico-religious realm (since the other nations living in the
land opposed the rebuilding of the Temple) and especially in the economic
sphere, to the point where some were forced to sell their children into
indentured servitude so as to be able to pay the heavy taxes imposed upon them
(Nechemia 5:1-4). Towards
the end of Nechemia's leadership, the priestly tithes and other gifts were no
longer given, for lack of financial ability (Nechemia
Yet, while this battle for survival was going on in their
homeland, the Jews of Shushan flourished and enjoyed an abundance of material
comforts. At the beginning of
Esther we discern no hint of any discrimination against the Jews of
Shushan. On the contrary – some of
them attain senior positions in the Persian kingdom, and some of their children
even marry into Persian royalty. As
noted previously, the introductory words, "It was in the days of Achashverosh…,"
serve to focus our consciousness of historical time away from what was going on
in the Land of Israel and towards the events in Persia. But, is this an innocent declaration of
intent, implying that the story has nothing to do with the Jewish history going
on in the Land of Israel, or is it an pretense of innocence, whereby the
narrative indeed appears to be disconnected from the goings-on there, while in
fact it points to the author's discomfort at focusing on the Jews of Shushan
while ignoring their brethren who are struggling desperately in the Land of
In this context it is interesting to go back to the
description of Haman's decrees as recorded in Ezra – a description that
reflects the perspective of those who had returned to Zion: "During the reign of
Achashverosh, at the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against
the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem" (Ezra 4:6). If the accusation recorded in this verse
refers to Haman's decree, then it is described in a most surprising manner.
Was Haman's decree really only written concerning "the inhabitants of Judea and
Jerusalem"? From the description of the decrees in Esther, we know that
they applied throughout "all of the king's provinces" – i.e., all 127
This is a rare instance in which we discern a dual attitude
towards the same event, from the two real, historical perspectives of the
authors of two different works (as opposed to a mere change of literary
narrated from the Shushanite perspective, expresses the danger hovering over the
continued existence of the entire Jewish nation, and the great salvation that
comes to the Jews thanks to the actions of Mordekhai and Esther. In Ezra, in contrast – written
from the perspective of the Land of Israel – the focus of the decrees is the
danger that they pose towards the Jewish settlement in the land. The book's focus on the Jews' attempt to
renew their national existence in their land places the events of that period
under a "Land of Israel" magnifying glass, and it is from this perspective that
Haman's decrees are conveyed.
The difference in perspective is no mere literary
discrepancy; it hints at a political difference of opinion, or – as we might
call it – an idealistic-moral debate.
The two Jewish centers of the time were at odds, and the historian
seeking to record the story of Jewish history is forced to choose where his
focus will be: the Land of Israel – where the Jewish settlement is struggling
for its survival and trying to build the Second Temple, or the majority of the
Jewish nation, which is still in the Babylonian-Persian
As noted, the midrashim of the Sages in the
Babylonian Talmud (especially in Tractate Megilla) contain hidden
literary readings of Esther.
The tension between the inhabitants of Shushan and the inhabitants of the
Land of Israel, busy building the Second Temple, surfaces in several different
Thus, for example, Achashverosh is described as counting seventy years from the
time when Israel was led into exile, and when he saw that after seventy years
(according to his count) they had not been redeemed, he assumed that they would
never be. At that point he brought
out the Temple vessels and used them at the feast that he held for the
inhabitants of Shushan (Megilla 11a).
The use that Ahashverosh made of the Temple vessels is presented, in this
Midrash, as an alternative to their intended use in their original home. In other words, because the Jews were
not going to be redeemed and the Temple was not going to be rebuilt, the vessels
could serve the Persian king at his feasts.
we find any hint to this tension within the text itself? Does the author hint in
any way to the Jewish center in the Land of Israel and to the Temple being built
there? It would seem that the answer is yes. There are hints throughout the
narrative, but for now let us concentrate on the description of the royal
palace, and the description of the feasts in chapter 1.
comments on some literary connections between the palace of Achashverosh and the
Sanctuary and the Temple in Jerusalem.
These connections exist both on the architectural level and on the linguistic
level of the description of the feast; the description of the structure of the
royal palace is reminiscent of the structure of the Temple – especially as
recorded in the vision of Yechezkel.
The comparison is striking in the arrangement of the royal palace in two halls,
"The inner court of the king's house" (5:1) and "the outer court" (6:4). This connection may find further support
in the author's use of the title "capital" (bira) for the palace precinct
It is clear that this was an accepted name for this region of Persia. Daniel, too, refers to it in his vision:
"I saw in a vision, and it was when I saw, that I was in Shushan the capital,
which is in the province of Elam" (Daniel 8:2). Still, it may be no coincidence that the
other place in the Bible that is referred to as "bira" is
Jerusalem (and the Temple within it), as, for example, in David's prayer: "And
to Shelomo, my son, grant a whole heart to observe Your commandments,
testimonies and statutes, and to perform all of it, and to build the capital
which I have prepared" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:19).
is not clear when this title began to be used for Jerusalem and for the Temple
(it is definitely a later word). However, if the author of Esther
was familiar with it as a name for Jerusalem, it is possible that he sought
thereby to hint at the tension discussed above: which is the "bira"?
Which is the royal city – the city of Achashverosh's kingdom, or the city in
which the Temple is located?
the description of the feast that is held in the royal palace, too, it seems
that the author of Esther seeks to bring the Temple to the mind of the
reader. Attention should be paid to
the materials listed in the description of the feast: "Hangings of white, of
fine cotton, and blue, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple" (1:6). A quick comparison shows that the
associations aroused by these materials are clearly related to the Temple:
- "Blue" (tekhelet) is mentioned in
Tanakh forty-nine times. Out
of these, forty-two appearances are connected to the Sanctuary and the Temple.
- The "cords of fine linen" likewise are
reminiscent of the Temple. "Fine
linen" (butz) is mentioned in Tanakh seven times. It appears twice in Esther, and
once in Yechezkel's prophecy concerning Tzor (27:17).
The other four appearances are connected to the Temple and the Ark of God's
Covenant (I Divrei Ha-yamim 15:26; II Divrei
Ha-yamim 2:13; 3:14; 5:12).
- Finally, the purple, which is
mentioned in juxtaposition to these other materials. Out of thirty-eight appearances of this
word in Tanakh, twenty-nine times it is related to the creation of the
Sanctuary and the building of the Temple.
is possible that the use of the unusual verb y-s-d, with reference to the
establishment of law and custom ("For so the king had instructed all the
officers of his house, to do according to the wishes of each person" – 1:8), may
be meant to arouse associations of the verb y-s-d in Tanakh –
which concern the establishment of God's city and God's House (I Melakhim
6:37; Yishayahu 14:32; 28:16; Chaggai 2:18; Zekharya
8:9). Against this background, the
reader learns of the "establishment" of a special law by the king – that anyone
who attends the feast is entitled to drink as much as he chooses to, and
whichever type of wine he prefers.
then, by invoking these materials and colors, the author seeks to arouse
associations of a different place with a different atmosphere. One could still argue that the two
palaces are not meant to compete with one another, but rather that one teaches
us something about the other.
Timothy Laniak raises this idea in a different context, after arguing for
an associative relationship between the description of Achashverosh's kingdom
and a description of God's Kingdom: "… In Esther 1, a similar sentiment might be
evident: If a human king has the right to banish any subject guilty of
disrespect, how much more would God, the King of the Universe".
my mind, the situation is quite the opposite. The author of Esther seems to
present the Temple in Jerusalem as an alternative to his description of the
royal palace in Shushan. The
unlimited drinking and exaggerated self-aggrandizement with wealth and riches
(see further below) are not noted as an introduction to God's Kingdom, as Laniak
argues, but rather as an antithesis.
A sophisticated reader who hears the sounds of the Temple from behind the
description of the royal palace senses, through the author's hints, something of
the difference and contrast between the two edifices.
relationship between the two readings is quite surprising. The associations do not serve to deepen
the message that arises from the text.
In this instance, attention to the Temple associations turns the
narrative upside down: the atmosphere of gaiety that characterizes the
descriptions of the king's feasting, turns, in the mind of the reader (the
target reader, to whom the narrative is addressed) into an atmosphere of anguish
and destruction. The vivid colors
of the feast that – on the level of the plain reading – add majesty to the
narrative, suddenly turn into symbols of destruction for the Jewish people, a
commemoration of the Temple and a condemnation of the Jews of Shushan,
luxuriating in the lavish royal feast rather than helping their brethren who had
returned to their land.
should the narrative begin?
focus on the king's feast and on its strong colors is emphasized from another
angle, too – the matter of the timeframe of the narrative; not its historical
context (which we have discussed above), but rather the literary timeline of the
question we pose as a heading for this section – "Where does the narrative
begin?" – may surprise some readers: surely a narrative should begin at the
beginning. However, a plot that is
composed of small units, each drawing the next along, requires a decision that
is not always easy to make: what is the first image with which the narrative
should begin, so as to present the plot to the reader in the most perfect form
illustrate the difficulty, every reader is invited to think about which point he
would choose with which to start telling the story of his life, or more
specifically, the part of his life in the present that led him to his present
workplace or place of residence.
Some people would start the story with their interview, over the summer,
with their boss, at which point they were hired. Others would start with some significant
experience during adolescence, which led them to their field of occupation (from
there everything just fell into place…).
Another approach would be to start the story from childhood, where the
various aspects of one's personality are formed. There may even be some people who would
choose to start with the story of how their parents met each other, since their
parents are the basis for their world of values and culture. I imagine that readers would agree that,
in a certain sense, every story starts from the ultimate "beginning": "In the
beginning God created…" (Bereishit 1:1), but anyone choosing to start his
life's story in this way would have few listeners…
question may appear to be sophistry, but there are some fateful issues that
depend on it. Similarly, for
example, the question as to where the story of Yitzchak's blessings to his sons
(Bereishit 27) begins will significantly affect our judgment of the
characters. If we start from the
beginning of chapter 27 ("It was when Yitzchak was old…"), then we are likely to
be critical of Yaakov and of Rivka.
How can a son and his mother exploit the weakness of the elderly father
so as to "steal" the blessing meant for the other son?! If we use this as our
point of departure we feel that Yaakov and his mother have violated a moral
principle which, in Sefer Vayikra, is given formal definition:
"You shall not place a stumbling-block before the blind, and you shall fear your
God; I am the Lord" (Vayikra 19:14). If, on the other hand, we read the
episode of the stolen blessing as part of the series of narratives – i.e., if we
read it against the background of Eisav's sale of the birthright to Yaakov, and
of Rivka's prophecy as to the younger son's superiority in relation to his elder
brother ("The elder shall serve the younger")
– then, of course, our moral perception and judgment will be entirely
question is of fundamental importance in the context of Esther. The plot is built from small literary
units, each of which may be analyzed in its own right, but at the same time each
influences the next and represents its foundation and background. A narrative constructed in such a way
lends this question critical significance.
when we examine the narrative from this perspective we discover an interesting
phenomenon. Esther is full
of dates, of important landmarks in the plot (Achashverosh's feast; Queen
Esther; the dissemination of Haman's decrees; the dissemination of Mordekhai's
letters, etc.). The highlighting of
these dates serves to emphasize the chain of events, each drawing the next along
and influencing it. The chronology,
hints the author, is the basis of this sort of narrative, and it must be read in
the proper order.
any event, this serves to make it easier for us to follow the narrative. The actual plot takes place during the
twelfth year of the reign of Achashverosh: at the beginning of that year
(Nissan) Haman decides to take revenge on Mordekhai and his nation, and he casts
the lot ("In the first month, which is the month of Nissan, in the twelfth year
of King Achashverosh, they cast the pur – that is, the lot – before
Haman" – 3:7). Later in that same
month he sends dispatches of his wicked decrees (on the 13th of
Nissan – 3:12). A short time later
Haman is hanged on the gallows that he prepared for Mordekhai, and in Sivan of
that same year Mordekhai sends his letters, permitting the Jews to defend
themselves ("The king's scribes were called at that time, in the third month –
which is the month of Sivan – on the twenty-third day of the month…" –
8:9). In the last month of the
twelfth year of Achashverosh's reign, in the month of Adar, the battles are
waged; the Jews defend themselves and prevail over those who hate them (chapter
would have been possible, then, for the Esther narrative to begin in that
year (i.e., with the events recounted in chapter 3). If the reader were unaware of the
circumstances of Esther's presence in the palace, the integrity of the plot
would in not way be diminished. On
the other hand, an earlier point could have been chosen as the beginning of the
narrative: it may have begun with the death of Esther's parents and her adoption
by Mordekhai, or Achashverosh's ascent to the throne, or the process of Haman's
promotion to his senior position, etc.
is the significance of choosing to begin the narrative with Achashverosh's feast
and the banishing of Vashti? Why is the feast presented as the beginning of the
To answer this question we must clarify which stages and developments the author
gains by starting at this point. In
other words – what would the reader be missing if the story began in the twelfth
year, from Haman's rise to power (chapter 3)? Two images would disappear: first,
Achashverosh's feast and the manner in which Vashti was banished (chapter 1);
and second, the manner in which Esther was chosen as the new queen (chapter
inclusion of the story of Vashti's removal and the selection of Esther within
the narrative serves to expose some of its fundamental principles. The first of these is what the
Babylonian Talmud refers to as "Preceding the affliction with its cure": "'After
these things' – Rabba taught: [This means,] after the Holy One, blessed be He,
had created the cure for the affliction.
As Reish Lakish taught: The Holy One does not strike at Israel without
first creating their healing" (Megilla 13b).
innocent reader (unaware of the continuation of the story) who finishes chapter
2 never imagines the possibility that Esther's arrival in the royal palace holds
the seed of salvation for all of the Jews.
Not only the innocent reader, but also the characters themselves would
never dream of such a scenario. The
"neutral" event of Esther's selection assumes its proper significance only years
later (more accurately, five years later), when it becomes clear how Esther's
position plays a decisive role in the development of the plot and in saving her
entire nation. When the story
develops in this way, the reader enters a reading experience in which he
relinquishes in advance his full understanding of the significance of every
episode, as examined individually.
Against his will, the reader finds himself in perpetual tension with the
images that he has not yet encountered, illuminating anew those with which he is
already familiar, and imbuing them with new meaning.
the molding of the narrative in such a way that the seeds sown in the beginning
will ripen later on and assume an important role in the development of the plot,
it seems that attention should also be paid to the concealed reading that lies
behind the description of the feast.
It is at this feast that Achashverosh ascends the literary stage, with
the feast revealing something of his values and culture. In other words, aside from the actual
development of the plot (the removal of Vashti and her replacement with Esther),
these images serve to form the image of the king in the narrative.
the next shiur, then, we shall address the beginning of the story: the
presentation of the king and of his feasts.
by Kaeren Fish)