Persian King Ahasuerus' Jewish Queen
Esther the Jewish Queen of Persia אֶסְתֵּר, Ester Tiberian ʼEstēr, born Hadassah, is the heroine of the Biblical Scroll of Esther. According to the Bible, she was a Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus.
While Ahasuerus was traditionally identified with Xerxes I during the time of the Achaemenid empire, many historians now believe that Esther was the queen of Persia under a later king of Persia, during the time of the Sassanid empire. Her story is the basis for the celebration of Purim in Jewish tradition.
Esther reigned as the queen of Persia for a period of about 13 years. With King Ahasuerus, she had one son, named Darius II, who would later rebuild the holy Temple in Jersusalem.
It is believed that her life extended into the reign of her stepson, Artaxerxes. Although the date of her death is not known, Jewish tradition indicates that Queen Esther's tomb is in Hamadan, also known as Ecbatana, located in what is now western Iran.
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- Identifying Esther in Secular Sources
- The Hidden Story of Queen Esther
- The Book of Esther
The primary source relating to the origin of Purim is the Book of Esther, which became the last of the 24 books of the Tanach to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly (The Sanhedrin). It is dated to the fourth century BCE and according to the Talmud was a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text by Mordechai.
The first century CE historian Josephus recounts the origins of Purim in Book 11 of his Antiquities of the Jews. He follows the Hebrew Book of Esther but shows awareness of some of the additional material found in the Greek version in that he too identifies Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes and provides the text of the king's letter. He also provides additional information on the dating of events relative to Ezra and Nehemiah.
Josephus also records the Persian persecution of Jews and mentions Jews being forced to worship at Persian erected shrines.
Berossus (early third century BCE) provides context for the account in that he records the introduction of idols of Anahita under Artaxerxes II Mnemon throughout the Persian Empire.
An account of the origins of Purim is also included in chapter 4 of the tenth century CE compilation of Jewish history, the Josippon. It too follows the original biblical account and includes additional traditions matching those found in the Greek version and Josephus (whom the author claims as a source) with the exception of the details of the letters found in the latter works. It also provides other contextual information relating Jewish and Persian history such as the identification of Darius the Mede as the uncle and father-in-law of Cyrus.
A brief Persian account of events is provided by Islamic historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari in his History of the Prophets and Kings (completed 915 CE). Basing his account on Jewish and Christian sources, al-Tabari provides additional details such as the original Persian form "Asturya" for "Esther". He places events during the rule of Ardashir Bahman (Artaxerxes II), but confuses him with Ardashir al-Tawil al-Ba (Artaxerxes I), while assuming Ahasuerus to be the name of a co-ruler.
Another brief Persian account is recorded by Masudi in The Meadows of Gold (completed 947 CE). He refers to a Jewish woman who had married the Persian King Bahman (Artaxerxes II), and delivered her people, thus corroborating this identification of Ahasuerus.
He also mentions the woman's daughter, Khumay, who is not known in Jewish tradition but is well remembered in Persian folklore. Al-Tabari calls her Khumani and tells how her father (Ardashir Bahman) married her. Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh (c. 1000 CE) also tells of King Bahman marrying Khumay.
King Ahasuerus holds banquets for the members of his court and subsequently for his people, too; 180 days with his peers, and another seven days with the members of his court. The text describes it at considerable length [Ch 1, 1-8]. His Queen, Vashti the daughter of Belshaazar, also holds a feast (women only!), and from the outset she reveals a surprising degree of independence: Ch 1, 9: "And Vashti the Queen also made a feast for the women in the royal house..." On the 187th day of the banquet, the King, having imbibed well, [Ch 1,10] requests Vashti be brought before him, in order to present her in all her beauty to his guests: Ch 1,11: "to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on." Vashti's personality comes to light; she refuses to appear before the drunken King: Ch 1, 12:
"But the Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment". Not for nothing is Vashti known as the "first feminist": despite the dangers inherent in her decision, Vashti declines to come before the King and demonstrate her beauty.
One should note that in contrast to the previous verse, where she is referred to as " Vashti, the Queen", here she is called "Queen Vashti", to show us that she has a mind of her own.
The King is exceedingly angry and as a ruler who, throughout his life, has been dependent on his counselors' advice - as described in the Megillah - he calls together those closest to him in order to clarify matters [Ch 1, 15]. Vashti's action requires an appropriate response. The counselor-ministers speak of the grave consequences of the queen's action and the negative impact of her refusal, on the whole fabric of relationships between spouses in the great empire of Persia and Mede: Ch 1, 16-18:
"... Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queeen will be made known to all the women so as to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it shall be reported that the king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And the princesses .... shall be telling of it today to all the king's princes. Thus shall there be contempt and wrath in plenty."
Vashti's action endangers the status of men in the empire - or, as we would say today: women would find in Vashti a role model for female liberation. Men are indisputably highly defensive of their status and superiority; they therefore decide to react with the utmost severity, to warn other women in the empire not to emulate her example. Ch 1I, 19: "If it please the king, let a royal commandment be issued by him, and let it be inscribed in the laws of Persia and Mede, so that it may not be altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the king shall give her royal estate to another who is better than she."
It appears that only dismissal of Vashti from her position can prevent the evil outcome of destroying male superiority in the Persian Empire. One must weigh the imperative of the empire against the imperative of the King [ChI,12] which was disobeyed by the imperative of the Queen [Ch 1,17] - and the consideration of the empire carries the day. Significantly, Vashti has already been deprived of her title and is referred to by name only. The purpose of the punishment is clear: to reinforce men's diminished status. In an irrevocable act of legislation [Ch 1, 19], it is determined to whom respect should be accorded in the Empire of Persia and Mede. Ch 1I,20: "And when the decree of and by the king shall be heard throughout his kingdom, which is great, all the wives will give honor to their husbands from the elevated to the lowly."
The motive behind the legislation appears to have been already forgotten. Vashti's actions are no longer mentioned in the verse - only the purpose of the new law: the domination of man in his home, which implicitly includes culture, religious and social education as well as control over the family structure. The fervor with which anti-feminist legislation was passed and its motives demonstrate clearly that how threatened men's status seemed in their eyes