Behind the Book of Esther’s mask - A Purim story

Persian scholar explains how Purim was shaped by Near Eastern myths

THAMAR EILAM GINDIN: This is why the Rabbis decided to include the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, to have this constant thread of fighting with Amalek throughout the work. (photo credit: DANI SHAVIT)
THAMAR EILAM GINDIN: This is why the Rabbis decided to include the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, to have this constant thread of fighting with Amalek throughout the work.
(photo credit: DANI SHAVIT)
There are two mythic engines that power the Book of Esther, Dr. Thamar Eilam Gindin explains.
The first is the mythic engine of the Near East with its focus on the sacrifice of gods and kings needed to maintain prosperity.
The second is the Jewish one, which powers the ancient struggle between good and evil, Israel and Amalek, Jacob and Esau, Mordechai and Haman.
This Wednesday, she will offer an online English lecture on this topic at Beit Avi Chai.
“From the very first scene, we are anchored in reality,” she points out. “The city of Susa is a real place. It was the capital of Elam before the Persian Empire began using it as a winter capital. Xerxes was also a historically accurate ruler, and the feast description fits what we know from Greek historians.”
However, she notes, just as there is fake news regarding contemporary issues, there are “fake oldies” about the ancient world.
The Greeks could be hostile to the Persians. When a Greek historian in the Persian court complains that he’s sick of being served wine in gold goblets and can’t find a decent clay cup, he’s not just writing home. He is also describing how Greeks saw themselves (Spartan, manly) in contrast to others.
The role of a researcher is not to say what really happened but to carefully present the available evidence, flawed as it might be, and compare.
“The Book of Esther presents Vashti as holding her own feast for the ladies of the court,” she points out. “We have no other source claiming such feasts took place. On the other hand, the Encyclopædia Iranica depicts how young women from around the empire were summoned to the palace, which is described nowhere else but in the Book of Esther.”
Vashti declined to heed the command to arrive at the king’s feast, where he drank with other men, because she was honor-bound to refuse. A noble Persian woman would attend the beginning of a feast and then retire with her peers, at which point other women – dancing girls, for example – would enter the hall and entertain. Vashti couldn’t obey, as she’d lose face. This cost her a marriage.
Many Near Eastern cultures marked the passing of time with celebrations and sacrifices meant to appease the gods and ensure the earth would grow enough food. The Mesopotamian cult of Dumuzid (Tammuz), common among Jews during biblical times as well, is one example of mourning a god that must die and go to the underworld in order for the summer to end and winter rains to water the earth.
Kings used to function as representatives of the divine in this part of the world, and when Haman is given the ring of King Xerxes, he becomes a good representation of him, assuming his role in the mythic logic of sacrifice and redemption.
In this light, Purim isn’t only about the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people. An earlier, non-Jewish, version of the holiday existed in which the Persians were in danger of being subjected to the Medes. That older tale had a very similar structure, right down to an older man standing outside the palace gate passing instructions to his young female relative, who was married to the king and tasked with saving her people, risking her own life.
The Book of Esther is also full to the brim with coded knowledge, usually in Persian. The name Vashti means “the best,” making the comparison between the former queen and our heroine funny. Esther is so good she is better than the best there is. “Hapartemim” (“the nobles”) in Esther 1:3 derives from the Persian fratam (literally, “first at the table”) with a Hebrew suffix (-im) marking the plural.
Haman gives his children Persian names Parshan-datha (wonderful-law) and Ari-datha (he who has an Arian law) despite being a descendant of Agag, a Semitic king.
In that sense, Eilam Gindin offers, this could be why Haman claims Jews do not follow datei hamelech (the decrees of Xerxes). His zeal is that of someone who had totally assimilated into Persian culture and is profoundly committed to following its laws. Mordechai, on the other hand, is a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin.
“In this reading,” meaning the Jewish engine that powers the whole narrative, “the court and Susa serve as background to what the author sees as the real issue, the cosmic struggle,” she says.
“Benjamin is the only one of Jacob’s children who did not bow down to Esau, as he wasn’t yet born. When Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, which evokes his homicidal rage, he is closing the circle that began with Jacob and his brother.
“This is why the Rabbis decided to include the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible,” she explains, “to have this constant thread of fighting with Amalek throughout the work.”
EILAM GINDIN is so committed to building bridges between Persian culture and Jewish culture that she also gave a similar talk, in Persian, to the Jewish community of Los Angeles.
Due to the Iranian calendar being different from the Western one, anyone with a birth certificate or other document in Persian seeking to have the date translated can contact her for an answer – pro bono.
She published a book titled The Book of Esther Unmasked which is available in both English and Hebrew, and a Hebrew introduction to the ancient Iranian myths called Heroes, Kings and Dragons. She hopes to adapt Esther to the Persian market should a sponsor show interest.
Her podcasts, lectures and online courses made her one of the few Israelis known to the wider Persian-speaking world.
“Building good relations between people,” she tells me, “is more powerful than even an atomic bomb.”
Dr. Thamar E. Gindin will speak in English on “Esther in Iran” in an online lecture at Beit Avi Chai at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, February 24. A link to the lecture can be found here. 
Her own site can be seen here