Some 250 years ago Voltaire pointed out a fatal flaw in the Book of Esther. Voltaire was no friend of the Jews but he had a keen intellect and knew his Bible. How could it be, he wrote, that Haman announced in mid-Nisan that he was going to kill all the Jews and then set the date for their execution in mid-Adar, 11 months later? It hardly made sense, Voltaire claimed. And he was right, would anyone hang around for 11 months, waiting to be hanged?
And Voltaire could have added several other inconsistencies. Achashverosh comes to the throne but makes his inaugural feast only in his third year. Why wait so long?
At that feast he demotes the feminist Vashti, but only takes Esther to bed four years later. Is that a way to show the ladies who is boss? Another four years later Haman gets permission to kill all the Jews by offering the king 10,000 talents of silver, and then the king says he can keep the money. What kind of ruler is that?
Then, having got permission to kill all the Jews, Haman has to get up early one morning to seek the king's consent just to hang one of them, Mordechai (Esther 6:4). Does that make sense?
ALTHOUGH WE hear the Megilla read twice a year, it all happens so fast and so noisily that we do not look too much at the details. We are too busy waiting to thunder against Haman to check all the fine detail. But it is there and some of it is quite disconcerting, as Voltaire was the first to point out.
Later scholars have followed him and declared the whole story to be a romantic fiction, full of happy coincidences and unhappy contradictions.
Must that be our final verdict? The clear answer is No. History will come, if we allow it, to rescue the authenticity of the Book.
But first, one more curious fact about the Megilla. The nine chapters of court luxury, romance and intrigue are followed by the short tenth chapter on the mundane matter of the state taxes. What is that doing at the end of a tale of oriental serendipity? The subject seems to be out of place but it is in fact one vital key to understanding Esther, as we shall see.
THE PERSIAN name of the Emperor Xerxes is Chashavarasha, much closer to the Hebrew Achashverosh than the Greek. He reigned from 486 to 465 BCE and had to spend his first two years putting down a rebellion in Egypt. Hence no feast until the third year. And how come that the dinner lasted 180 days (1:4)? A quick look at Herodotus, the contemporary Greek historian, tells us that Xerxes was planning to invade Greece, to avenge their defeat of his father Darius. But it was a risky undertaking and needed the cooperation of all the 20 satraps (of the 127 medinot) of the vast Persian Empire.
Just to spend a week or so with each of them would have taken over 140 days; and then Xerxes had to wind up with another week with his close advisors (1:5) to reach a final decision. After all that, it was a bad decision that they made and the Persians were bogged down for the next two years in Greece, ending in another crashing defeat. Their navy was burned at Salamis, their army annihilated at Plataea in 479. Xerxes came home not in triumph but in bankruptcy.
What he needed was the love of a good woman and the silver for a life of luxury. He got the first from Esther in the year after he returned from Greece, and the second a few years later from his clever Chancellor Haman.
HAMAN HAD risen to power by the Assyrian limmu system, as adopted by the Persians. It entailed casting the lot (Pur) that decided who among the top brass would be chief minister for the year. Such a Pur, a small inscribed die dated about 840 BCE, is now in the Yale Museum.
The lot was cast on the Persian New Year in Nisan and Haman's name came up to be Chancellor for the year "from day to day, from month to month, until the twelfth month, the month of Adar" (3:7). One of the Chancellor's duties was to collect the annual revenues for the Empire, which became increasingly difficult after the defeat in Greece, which had impoverished the king and all his subjects.
Herodotus tells us that the Empire needed at least 15,000 silver talents, a vast sum, each year, and the Megilla tells us that Haman offered 10,000 talents to the Treasury. It does not say that he gave that sum, only that he offered it, to which the king replies that "the silver and the people are yours, to do with as you see fit" (3:11). Haman had to pass over the promised sum to the king's coffers, but what he collected over and above that he could keep, and he could extract the tax from the people in any way he saw fit. But there was a time limit.
Haman, as Chancellor for the year, had to get the sum paid to the Treasury within his year, and so he set the time limit at the middle of Adar, the last month. His cunning plan, which led to the whole affair being recorded in the Megilla, was that the tax was restricted to the Jews. As foreigners who, he claimed, were different and "did not obey the king's laws" (3:8) they should be taxed and, if they did not pay up, the king had given him the right to execute them. So Haman would get the silver either way for, after death, he could seize their assets. It was a dastardly plan and, but for the Queen, it might have worked.
AT THE famous second drinks party, Esther makes a statement that has not been fully understood. She blurts out that her people have been sold to be destroyed: "Had we been only sold to be bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent...." (7:4). The ancient punishment for non-payment of debts or taxes was to be made to serve as a slave. Esther is saying that if the non-payment of Haman's tax would mean that the Jews were to be enslaved, that would have been normal, but to be killed for default was unprecedented, and needed to be drawn to the king's attention.
On hearing this the king storms out into the garden to cool off and comes back to find Haman pleading for his life on the Queen's couch. Achashverosh has a stroke of genius. He accuses Haman of trying to assault the Queen and thus at one fell swoop rids himself of the now-infamous Chancellor and gets access to any silver that Haman has already collected. But that is not the end of the matter.
The king still needs funds and he does not rescind the order against the Jews, though they are now able to resist the death penalty, especially as many Persians have come over to their side (8:17). The king is not unhappy to see the ten sons of Haman killed by the Jews as then any assets that they have received from their father will now come to the Treasury. But it is still not enough.
That is why the king has to impose further taxes on his Empire, but this time it is on the whole nation, "on the land and on the islands" (10:1) and not exclusively on the Jews. Haman has been hanged, Esther has triumphed, and we Jews have a wonderful, if somewhat exaggerated, novella of the Persian Empire.
The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem. He is the author of Esther/Ruth/Jonah Deciphered. (Devorah, 2004)