Over the years our view of Purim has been subject to a double distortion.
On the one hand many historians past and present have impugned the historical authenticity of the events recounted in the Book of Esther and have relegated them to the realm of fantasy. Thus, H.L. Ginsberg, in his introduction to the edition of the Five Scrolls (the Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Esther) published by the Jewish Publication Society, calls the Book of Esther the “Original Purim Torah” and suggests that it be read in a “mock-serious vein.”
It is truly ironic that the only book of the Bible that does not ascribe events to God should have its historicity questioned! As a result, Purim, for many Jew, remains part of the juvenile world of Sunday School make-believe, of costumes and carnivals.
Purim is considered strictly for kids. It does not seem to have made it with adults.
This is not the place to argue the historicity of the events of Purim. Suffice it to say, in passing, that Persian scholars are impressed with the intimate and thorough knowledge of Persian life and nomenclature exhibited by the author of the Book of Esther.
But even among those who take Purim seriously, the emphasis has always been upon seeing this holiday as a product of the Diaspora, as events which express the classic tragedy and vulnerability of the Jew in exile. In this connection, Purim is usually contrasted with Hanukka, the latter marking a struggle for national independence in the land while Purim is seen as preoccupied with the problem of survival in exile.
There is Haman, the typical antisemite, the familiar charges, the Big Lie, collective guilt – one Jew offends and all are held responsible – the Final Solution – genocide.
Of course there is a happy ending, which is what the holiday is all about. And although God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther, tradition has always sensed allusions to His providence operating as it were behind the scenes.
We should like to suggest a different orientation altogether, one which places the events of Purim squarely within the context of the single most important problem of the Jewish people throughout the Persian period (539 BCE-344 BCE), which was to consolidate and secure the newly re-established Jewish community in Judea.
Because the Book of Esther begins and ends with references to general history – “And it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus...
in the third year of his reign” and “are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia?” – our perspective on Purim as part of the process described in the Book of Ezra tends to become obscured.
We are wont to think of Purim in isolation, an event that happened in exotic Shushan long ago.
Let us get a “fix” on the period. In 539 BCE, the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and issued his famous declaration permitting the Jewish exiles to return to their land and to rebuild the Temple. A number returned under Zerubavel, and the foundations of the Temple were laid. Plotting by the Samaritans and other peoples who had occupied the land led to an interruption of the Temple-building, and continual harassment of the Yishuv throughout the reign of Cambyses (530-522 BCE).
Under Darius I (521-485 BCE) and after the prompting of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, building was resumed and the Temple completed in 515.
Under the next kings, Xerxes (485-465 BCE) and Artaxerxes (465-424 BCE), the conspiracies and persecutions by the well-organized enemies of Jewish resettlement continued, creating severe economic and security problems until Ezra and Nehemiah came up from Persia-Babylon with royal authority and stabilized the Yishuv by completing the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem in the year 444.
Regardless of whether we identify Ahasuerus with Cambyses or with Xerxes (Kishayarsha in Persian), the point is that the struggle between Haman and Mordechai is to be seen as being related to the larger struggle between the Jewish community in Judea and their enemies in Judea-Samaria, who had supporters in the Persian capital.
The 127 satrapies that Ahasuerus governed “from India to Nubia” included Judea and Jerusalem. Thus when Haman engineers an edict “to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish all Jews both young and old... in all the King’s provinces,” the olim in Judea are included.
Since the return from the Babylonian captivity and the establishment of the second commonwealth came about not through conquest as in the days of Joshua but through statesmanship and the good will of the nations, the period of consolidation was not a series of battles and wars as recorded in the Book of Judges, but intense infighting involving influence, diplomacy and intrigue within the Persian court.
While the objectives were in Judea, the crucial battles took place in the capital in Susa (Shushan) or in the royal summer residence at Ekbatana.
This is clear from the Book of Ezra: “And the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judea... and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus even until the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Ahasuerus in the beginning of his reign they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.”
This was the nature of Judea’s political basis throughout the two centuries of Persian rule. Mordechai, therefore, must be seen as another heroic Jew of the Diaspora who, like Zerubavel before him and Ezra and Nehemia after him, acted to prevent and preserve the developing but threatened dream of the Return by employing the resources at his disposal in the Persian court.
In the Midrashic literature, explicit associations are made between Haman and the king’s general plan of genocide and their specific opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple and the resettlement of Judea, some of which are incorporated by Rashi in his commentary on the Book of Esther.
IN LIGHT of all this, the story of Purim must be retold with the following emphasis: even before Haman was elevated to high position, he was known in the Jewish community for his implacable opposition to Jewish resettlement efforts in Judea. The term “tzorair hayehudim” – enemy of the Jews, applied to Haman, is to be associated with a similar term in the Book of Ezra – “tzarai yehuda” which carries the specific connotation of opposition to the resettlement of Judea. The sudden elevation of Haman clearly spelled trouble for Judea sooner or later.
The refusal of Mordechai to bow to Haman is to be interpreted as a deliberate, calculated risk by Mordechai to force the foes of Zionism to make their move.
Mordechai’s calculation was simple. He realized that it was to his advantage to act immediately while, unknown to Haman, the Jewish community was holding two trump cards: a Jewish queen was the king’s favorite and a Jewish nobleman had just saved the king’s life. Mordechai refuses to bow and makes sure that Haman knows he is a Jew – “...for he had told them that he was a Jew.”
Haman’s charge to the king that the laws of the Jews “are diverse from those of every people, neither keep they the king’s laws” must also be seen as based upon the long campaign of vilification of the Jewish people carried out by their enemies. In the Book of Ezra we are told that the Jewish settlers are denounced to the Persian court for contemplating rebellion, scheming to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem when the royal permit spoke only of the Temple, not paying taxes and imposts, and harboring ambitions to crown their own king.
We today are familiar with the mechanics by which a statement without foundation in fact, if repeated long enough, will be believed and accepted.
Most important, however, is the new insight we gain regarding the seemingly harsh request of Esther for another day in which the Jews of Shushan might “defend” themselves. While it may be granted that Mordechai’s objective here was not merely survival, nevertheless neither was it senseless bloodletting, or revenge. He saw in the favorable turn of events an opportunity to be rid of those organized parties in the Persian capital who were constantly plotting the destruction of Judea.
Thus in Shushan and in Judea primarily, the Jews went on the offensive in a preemptive strike, rooting out the terrorists in their home bases and the hate-peddlers in their downtown headquarters.
It is for this reason that the day celebrated as a holiday is not the day of the theoretical miracle of salvation but the day “when the Jews had rest from their enemies.” For this was the important achievement of Purim, gaining for the weakened community of Judea a period of relative peace and security.
The writer is emeritus professor of Jewish studies at Bar Ilan University.