Purim: When Bad History Makes Bad Policy

by Marsha B. Cohen

The most raucous holiday of the Jewish calendar begins tonight (Wednesday), observed by reading the biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther or just the Megillah). The reading is accompanied by an outbreak of cacophony every time the name of Haman the villain is mentioned. Other Purim traditions include feasting and sharing treats with friends and family, masquerading in costumes, staging comedic performances (purimspiels) and engaging in inebriation to the point of being unable to distinguish the anti-hero Haman from the hero Mordecai.

During their meeting, timed to coincide with the AIPAC confab, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented President Barak Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther. As Nathan Guttman noted in The Forward:

Benjamin Netanyahu’s gift to Barack Obama summed up his message at their White House meeting Monday. The Israeli Prime Minister gave the President a copy of he Book of Esther, which tells the story of the Jews fighting back against a genocidal plot by the ancient Persians. Netanyahu sees the nuclear threat posed by modern-day Iran as no less existential to Israel…

As the biblical novella recounts in the tale, a Jewish young woman by the name of Esther is taken into the harem of the Persian King Ahasuerus during a roundup of pretty young virgins, after the uppity Queen Vashti is deposed for defying her husband. Esther keeps her Jewish identity secret for five years until Haman, now the King’s vizier, becomes enraged when Mordecai, Esther’s uncle/cousin (depending on the translator), won’t bow to him. Haman persuades the king to allow him to organize the mass extermination of the Jews of Persia on grounds that they refuse to observe the king’s law. Ahasuerus gives Haman his signet ring, to use as he wishes in promulgating edicts.

Urged by Mordecai to intervene, Esther risks her life by going before the king without having been summoned and inviting him and Haman to two sequential banquets. At the second banquet, Esther reveals Haman’s dastardly plot, and Haman and his ten sons are hanged. Mordecai becomes the king’s vizier in his stead, and all live happily ever after–except for the 75,800 people in Persian empire who are massacred when Esther convinces the king to allow the Jews to avenge the plot against them.

“For as long as I can remember, I never liked the holiday of Purim, with its story of the massacre of the gentiles and its message of revenge and rejoicing at the downfall of others,” writes author Ruth Meisels in Haaretz. “And so every year all that’s left for me to do is to grit my teeth during the synagogue reading of the Megillah, taking comfort in the fact that historically, at least, the veracity of this story is very much in doubt.”

Although many apologists for the Book of Esther have claimed its author was familiar with the intimate details of life at the Persian court, such claims don’t hold up in light of what we now know of Persian history (559-331 BC), apart from the copious Greek propaganda produced during the Greco-Persian Wars (492-449 BC).

A Persian king sleeping with a virgin every night? This sounds remarkably like premise of the tale of Sharazad in Hezar Afsaneh, a collection of ancient Persian folk tales. According to Elias Bickerman, a highly respected scholar on Jewish literature of the Achaemenid Persian period, “We have here a typical tale of palace intrigue that could as well find a place in the Persian histories of Herodotus and Ctesias, or in the Arabian Nights. The only Jewish element of the tale is that, according to the author, Mordecai is a Jew.” “Mordecai” was not a Jewish name in ancient times (it is now); nor was “Esther.” In fact, it has been noted numerous times that the two names bear a remarkably close resemblance to those of the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar.

A Persian king marrying a mysterious Jewess who kept her origins secret for five years (especially with her known to be Jewish cousin/uncle lurking around outside, exchanging messages with her through courtiers)? No way! A Persian king’s marriages, as Maria Brosius explains, were alliances with the daughters of foreign potentates and the leading families of the Persian empire for reasons of statecraft. The Achaemenid Persian tradition seems to have been postponing the designation of any of the king’s wives as what might best be translated as “queen” until after she had given birth to his designated heir. Neither Esther nor Vashti is mentioned as having been the mother of Ahasuerus’ children. Furthermore, a Persian monarch’s mother and his wife were entitled to see him whenever they wished.

Finally, there is no historical record of any King Ahasuerus or a Queen Vashti, and, most significantly, no record of a plot to ethnically cleanse the Achaemenid Persian Empire of its Jews. Nor is there any account by any ancient historian of vengeful Jewish mobs slaughtering nearly 76,000 residents of the Persian Empire.

As for Jews living according to their own rules, Darius the Great (ruled 522-486 BC) had institutionalized hagiarchy (rule by priests) over the various and distinct peoples of his empire, not only allowing, but requiring that each of the ethnic groups in his domain live according to its own religious code, promulgated and enforced as da’t–“The King’s Law.” The Second Temple in Jerusalem, for which Jews mourn in their liturgy and for whose restoration observant Jews today pray three times daily was built by returning Jewish exiles with the full support of Darius. The Temple was a center not only for sacrificial worship, but for bureaucratic administration, including the the collection of taxes. Darius and subsequent Achaemenid Persian emperors institutionalized the various religious codes by which his subjects lived. The enactments of Ezra, which became the core of Jewish ritual observances (halakha) still practiced by orthodox Jews to this day, were enforced as though they had been decreed by the emperor himself.

During the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Empire (165-162 BC, commemorated by the Jewish festival of Chanukah), Judeans battled the Greek overlords who had seized control of Judea with Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Achaemenids (331 BC), demanding the right to live according to the Jewish “law of the ancestors,” codified as d’at hundreds of years earlier while Judea under Persian rule. The Parthians, the successors of the Achaemenids in Persia after an interlude of a century or so after Alexander, aided the Maccabees–heroes of the Jewish Chanukah story–in their resistance against Greece, and their Hasmonean descendants in their revolt against Rome.

The closest that most scholars can come to identifying the historical setting of the Book of Esther is the reign of Xerxes, who ruled from 486-465 BC. A staunch and uncompromising monotheist, Xerxes eliminated all government subsidies that non-Zoroastrian religious cults in the Persian empire had been receiving from his father. According to scholar Robert Littman, writing in the Jewish Quarterly Review, it was actually Babylonians, not Jews, who were the original victims in an incident that would be recast as the tale of Esther and Mordecai in the Megillah.

Xerxes took the 18-foot solid gold statue of Bel Marduk, the chief idol of the god, whose hands monarchs seized to gain title as King of Babylon, and whose hands the pretenders had seized to gain legitimacy for their rule and revolt, and carried it off to be melted down for bullion. When the priest of Esagila protested, he was killed. Without the idol of Marduk, no pretender could so easily legitimize and claim divine sanction for his position.

None of this historical background would matter very much, if at all, were Purim just a fun-focused festival of eating, drinking, whirling noisemakers (groggers) at the sound of Haman’s name, and pretending to really like the triangular-shape pastries, filled with prune jam or poppy seed puree that grandma baked, the way that the overwhelming majority of Jews who have even only heard of Purim recall as the festival from their childhood.

But Purim has a darker side, unencumbered by historical facts, that has impacted relations between Jews and their neighbors, as Elliot Horowitz, a professor at Bar Ilan University, chronicles in his book Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. In recent years, Purim has taken on an increasingly ominous aspect, with Israeli settlers belligerently sparking confrontations with Palestinians in whose midst they have entrenched themselves. The most deadly of these took place in 1994, when the holiday of Purim coincided with the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. Muslim worshipers packed the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a shrine sacred to Muslim as well as to Jews. An American-born Israeli settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on them with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 29 and wounding more than 100 others.  “Since then, for me and for many others, Purim has never been the same,” Horowitz writes.

Goldstein’s mentor, Dov Lior, the government-salaried rabbi of the Kiryat Arba settlement near the site of the Hebron massacre, has been frequently accused of incitement of, and involvement in, terroristic acts of violence directed against Arabs, including a plot to blow up six buses, loaded with explosives, with the objective of killing the hundreds of passengers on them. Israel’s Shin Bet security service foiled the plot at the last minute. Lior endorsed a book, Torat HaMelech (Law of the King) which countenanced the slaying non-Jews, and not surprisingly drawing upon the Book of Esther for justification. His arrest incited outrage among his followers. At the beginning of February of this year, Israeli Army Radio reported that Lior had derisively referred to the US president as a kushi (a biblical term denoting a person of African descent, the modern Israeli equivalent of “nigger”) and compared him to Haman.

Since his election as Iran’s president in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been depicted both in the U.S. and Israeli media as a modern-day Haman, who will stop at nothing to achieve his genocidal objective. In 2006, Sarah Posner of American Prospect pointed out that Texas televangelist John Hagee, founder of CUFI (Christians United for Israel, an AIPAC for evangelicals) had “a huge following, the ear of the White House, and a theory that an invasion of Iran was foretold in the Book of Esther.” Hagee’s 2005 book Jerusalem Countdown, is described by its publisher asan incendiary new book purporting to show that the Bible predicts a military confrontation with Iran.” In the Purim apocalypse envisioned by Hagee, Posner noted, “he glossed over the obstacles faced by Tehran in creating a viable nuclear weapon, arguing that ‘once you have enriched uranium, the genie is out of the bottle,'” a view adopted not only by Israeli hardliners but also recently by the US Congress.

Last year, revelers waving groggers with Ahmadinejad’s picture on them created a ruckus at a Megillah reading outside the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. Now Netanyahu has given Obama a Book of Esther as a gift and a guide, which Netanyahu’s aides have stated is intended to be “a form of ‘background reading’ on Iran.” “Then too, they wanted to wipe us out,” Netanyahu told Obama, according to an Israeli official quoted by the Jerusalem Post. “…’And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto them that hated them.'”

As Ami Eden points out, “there’s the uncomfortable wrinkle that in Megillat Esther the Jews can’t/don’t launch their successful preemptive strike against their enemies until they secure the king’s permission — not quite the ‘Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions’ message that Netanyahu has been hammering home during his trip this week to Washington.”

Beyond that wrinkle, there’s a much larger question. Is it really a good idea for a US President to look to a biblical novella (especially one whose “happy ending” is the death of tens of thousands of people), or to any religious text, as his guidebook on foreign affairs? Robert Wright doesn’t think so, and proposes an intriguing “thought experiment” to answer this question:

Suppose that an Arab or Iranian leader of Muslim faith met with President Obama and told him about some part of the Koran that alludes to conflict between Muhammad and Jewish tribes. For example, according to Muslim tradition, the Jewish tribe known as the Qurayzah, though living in Muhammad’s town of Medina, secretly sided with Muhammad’s enemies in Mecca. Suppose this Muslim said to Obama, “Then, too, the Jews were bent on destroying Muslims.” What would our reaction be?

The Book of Esther is bad history. Bad history — especially when it masquerades as a relevant guide to foreign affairs — makes bad policy.

And bad policy is what you end up with when you can no longer tell Mordecai from Haman.

Photo: The opening chapter of a hand-written scroll of the Book of Esther.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. I found this to be an angry article with many factual errors. The author has little knowledge of Iranian history and culture.

  2. Well certainly Esther is an interesting story but I have difficulty believing it’s historicity and wonder about the time setting and place setting. There are several holidays in the Torah that celebrate mass destruction of people by Jews/Hebrews that I simply do not believe are really worthy of celebrating unless you are a part of the ‘cult of the dead’.
    The story is actually of a mix of folk tales from Iranian legends besides the one mentioned. Their is also the tale of a woman of both Turanian and Iranian ethnicity who had been found and brought to the king who played a significant role in the history of Turan and Iran-she also ‘hid’ her mixed background. This ‘hiding’ was helpful to restoring both sides into one people-different from the Esther story which DIVIDES people and advocates violence.

  3. My section was cut off-the story of the iranian folk tales are varied and i think this is taken from some other folk tales as well.

  4. I think Esther is only 1/2 a story in other words based upon the iranian folk tales I’ve read. It is not complete. Like much of the Torah, which I believe is still a 1/2 story.

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