Survival and Revival: Megillat Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah
Periodization of Ancient Israel and Judea
The Biblical Period in the history of Israel is typically divided into pre-exilic and post-exilic eras, with a short intervening exilic period. The pre-exilic period stretches from the very beginnings of Israel, through the period of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, and terminates with the Babylonian conquest of 587/586 BCE. The post-exilic period, whose terminus cannot be precisely determined, begins with the rise of the Persian Empire.
The Persians conquered the Babylonians in 539 BCE, when Cyrus the Persian overthrew Babylon, and later ruled a vast empire. Persian rule of the Near East—comprising just a little more than two hundred years—ended with the conquest of the Persians by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and the formation of the Hellenistic kingdoms, including Seleucid and Ptolemaic rule over Israel.
Two Biblical Persian-Jewish Works
This essay focuses on the “Persian period,” in particular on two literary works composed then: the book of Esther, and the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. Although their precise dates of composition are still a matter of debate, there is no doubt that these are the most “Persian” (so to speak) compositions in the biblical canon.
Their most conspicuous common characteristic is their Persian provenance. The events described in these works take place in this historical context; the language abounds with Persian words and terms, and they exhibit a close knowledge of the Persian political, social and intellectual reality: historical data, names of rulers, names of the heroes – major and minor, social customs, political administration, and more.
These two works also exhibit many differences in topic, literary genre, religious framework, beliefs, and more. The study of these differences reveals the works’ differing historical and religious views, and their significance for the history of Israel.
The Book of Esther: A Story Not a History
The story of the book or scroll of Esther is well known. The following will focus on its peculiarities and message rather than its historical reliability.
The scroll presents a “story of the diaspora.” Regardless of its historical reliability, it is “a story” not “a history”; it does not relate a continuous series of events, connected by “cause and effect,” but tells of two separate and unconnected events that become intertwined as the story unfolds: the banquet offered by Ahasuerus on the third year of his reign (1:3), the circumstances of which placed Esther on the throne in place of Vashti (2:17); and the order issued by Ahasuerus on the first month of the twelfth year of his reign (3:7) to destroy all the Jews in his kingdom on the 13th of the twelfth month of the same year (3:13).
The story does not focus on the community but on four personalities: Esther and Mordechai, Haman and Ahasuerus. The broader public – “the Jews in Shushan” (9:15) and “the rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces” (9:16) are in the background. It tells of a one-time event, with unique circumstances and situations.
Furthermore, the story is not set against a general, historical background and has no future political consequences. Thus, we do not know what befell the Jewish community after this event or what happened to the story’s protagonists later on. The only detail that ties both Esther and Mordechai to any kind of past is the note that Mordechai (or his ancestor),
אסתר ב:ו-זאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָגְלָה֙ מִיר֣וּשָׁלַ֔יִם עִם הַגֹּלָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָגְלְתָ֔ה עִ֖ם יְכָנְיָ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֶגְלָ֔ה נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּ֖ר מֶ֥לֶךְ בָּבֶֽל: וַיְהִ֨י אֹמֵ֜ן אֶת הֲדַסָּ֗ה הִ֤יא אֶסְתֵּר֙ בַּת דֹּד֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ אָ֣ב וָאֵ֑ם וְהַנַּעֲרָ֤ה יְפַת תֹּ֙אַר֙ וְטוֹבַ֣ת מַרְאֶ֔ה וּבְמ֤וֹת אָבִ֙יהָ֙ וְאִמָּ֔הּ לְקָחָ֧הּ מָרְדֳּכַ֛י ל֖וֹ לְבַֽת
Esther 2:6-7“had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jehoiachin of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He was foster father to Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter.”
Exclusively Diaspora Focused
The story deals exclusively with the Jews of the diaspora – in the capital of Shushan and in “the rest of the provinces of the kingdom” (9:16). This is how Haman describes them to the king (Esther 3:8):
יֶשְׁנ֣וֹ עַם אֶחָ֗ד מְפֻזָּ֤ר וּמְפֹרָד֙ בֵּ֣ין הָֽעַמִּ֔ים בְּכֹ֖ל מְדִינ֣וֹת מַלְכוּתֶ֑ךָ
“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm.”
The book does not allude, not even with the slightest detail, to the large centers of Jewish population, in Jerusalem and Judah, in Babylon, or elsewhere.
No Reference to God or Jewish Rituals
It does not relate the religious nature or character of the protagonists. Although Haman describes this people as those “whose laws are different from those of any other people” (3:8) the book never refers to specific Jewish laws, or to any religious aspect of this community.
As is well-known, God is not mentioned in the scroll – not even once, and there is not the slightest hint of any law, belief or custom that is specifically Jewish. For example, when Mordechai learns about the royal order to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:1-3),
וּמָרְדֳּכַ֗י יָדַע֙ אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר נַעֲשָׂ֔ה וַיִּקְרַ֤ע מָרְדֳּכַי֙ אֶת בְּגָדָ֔יו וַיִּלְבַּ֥שׁ שַׂ֖ק וָאֵ֑פֶר וַיֵּצֵא֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֔יר וַיִּזְעַ֛ק זְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה וּמָרָֽה: וַיָּב֕וֹא עַ֖ד לִפְנֵ֣י שַֽׁעַר הַמֶּ֑לֶך… אֵ֤בֶל גָּדוֹל֙ לַיְּהוּדִ֔ים וְצ֥וֹם וּבְכִ֖י וּמִסְפֵּ֑ד שַׂ֣ק וָאֵ֔פֶר יֻצַּ֖ע לָֽרַבִּֽים:
“Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city crying out loudly and bitterly until he came in front of the palace gate … also… there was a great mourning among the Jews with fasting, weeping, and wailing, and everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes.”
Prayer to the God of Israel, to his role as governing the history of the world, are conspicuously absent here. Similarly, when Esther requests of Mordechai, “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast” (4:16), she does not mention prayer or any address to God, neither of the community nor of herself. As many scholars have pointed out, even the festival of Purim lacks any Jewish or traditional features.
The attentive Jewish reader may ask how it is that God does not exist in the story in any way. The answer might be that the unique occurrences in the story — such as the fact that it was Mordechai who discovered the eunuchs’ plot against the king, or that the king read the record of this event exactly on the night before Haman’s visit — are evidence of divine intervention. In this manner, the believing reader may supplement this missing dimension of the story, but these are not explicitly mentioned.
Meaning of the Story
The story of the Scroll is thus about the survival of the Jews in the Persian kingdom in the face of a vicious and well-planned attempt to annihilate them all, “young and old, children and women” (3:13), because of their Jewish identity. Their survival was made possible because of the unique circumstances, especially the position of Mordechai, who informed the king of the plot against him, and the position of Esther as queen, who was wise and courageous and ready to sacrifice herself in the attempt to save her people.
The circumstances of this event are so unique that it is rightly defined by some “a miracle.” But what would happen if a similar danger turns up in the future? Would “relief and deliverance … come to the Jews from another quarter” (4:14), according to Mordechai’s optimistic statement? Does the story have any future horizon?
The reality of the Persian Empire and of life under Persian rule is an unquestioned and fixed element in the story; the story does not deviate from this context, neither toward the past nor toward the future. The conclusion is thus self-evident: this is a typical story of survival, an immediate and successful response to an imminent threat.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
An entirely different picture appears when we turn to the other literary work, the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther have many features in common. Ezra-Nehemiah, like Esther, was composed in the Persian period and it abounds with Persian features: historical details, the administrative system, the language, and more. Moreover, the book of Ezra-Nehemiah is set in its entirety in the political framework of the Persian Empire and regards this framework as a lasting reality. It does not foresee any change in the political situation nor does it expect a different future. However, it views this reality as the expression of God’s compassion towards His people.
This reflects a major difference between Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther, to which I shall return.
Historiography vs. Narrative
Unlike the scroll of Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah is a history. It tells the history of the land of Judah during the Persian period, from 538 BCE, “the first year of King Cyrus of Persia” (Ezra 1:1) until the middle of the fourth century, the days of Artaxerxes the second (404-359 BCE), a period of over 150 years. More precisely, the book focuses on certain segments of this period: the building of the Second Temple, from the first year of Cyrus until the sixth year of Darius (517 BCE, Ezra 6:15); the mission of Ezra, beginning in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, whether the first (458 BCE) or the second (397 BCE), (Ezra 7-10; Neh. 8); and the office of Nehemiah during the reign of Artaxerxes the first (445-432; Neh 1-7; 9-13).
Presence vs. Absence of God
The historical philosophy of Ezra-Nehemiah, expressed throughout the book, is that history is determined and guided by the God of Israel, a typical biblical view. The manner in which God conducts the history of Israel, the way in which He expresses His compassion towards his people, is through the kings of Persia.
The Persian monarchs are God’s agents who realize His wishes and plans in the history of Israel. Therefore, the very existence under the Persian rule is an expression of the divine guidance and benevolence of the God of Israel. Thus, for example, the rebuilding of the Temple has been initiated by Cyrus and made known by his declaration, which Ezra-Nehemiah describes thus (Ezra 1: 1b-2):
הֵעִ֣יר יְ-הֹוָ֗ה אֶת ר֙וּחַ֙ כֹּ֣רֶשׁ מֶֽלֶךְ פָּרַ֔ס וַיַּֽעֲבֶר קוֹל֙ בְּכָל מַלְכוּת֔וֹ וְגַם בְּמִכְתָּ֖ב לֵאמֹֽר: כֹּ֣ה אָמַ֗ר כֹּ֚רֶשׁ מֶ֣לֶךְ פָּרַ֔ס כֹּ֚ל מַמְלְכ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ נָ֣תַן לִ֔י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְהֽוּא פָקַ֤ד עָלַי֙ לִבְנֽוֹת ל֣וֹ בַ֔יִת בִּירוּשָׁלִַ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּֽיהוּדָֽה
“the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm … as follows: ‘Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: the Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem which is in Judah.’”
The process of building, after some ups and downs, is concluded thus (Ezra 6:14):
וְשָׂבֵ֤י יְהוּדָיֵא֙ בָּנַ֣יִן וּמַצְלְחִ֔ין בִּנְבוּאַת֙ חַגַּ֣י (נביאה) נְבִיָּ֔ה וּזְכַרְיָ֖ה בַּר עִדּ֑וֹא וּבְנ֣וֹ וְשַׁכְלִ֗לוּ מִן טַ֙עַם֙ אֱלָ֣הּ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמִטְּעֵם֙ כּ֣וֹרֶשׁ וְדָרְיָ֔וֶשׁ וְאַרְתַּחְשַׁ֖שְׂתְּא מֶ֥לֶךְ פָּרָֽס
“So the elders of the Jews progressed in the building, urged on by the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah son of Iddo, and they brought the building to completion under the aegis of the God of Israel and by the order of Cyrus and Darius and king Artaxerxes of Persia.”
And immediately in the following passage (Ezra 6:22):
וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֧וּ חַג מַצּ֛וֹת שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים בְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה כִּ֣י׀ שִׂמְּחָ֣ם יְ-הֹוָ֗ה וְֽהֵסֵ֞ב לֵ֤ב מֶֽלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר֙ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם לְחַזֵּ֣ק יְדֵיהֶ֔ם בִּמְלֶ֥אכֶת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
“They joyfully celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days, for the Lord had given them cause for joy by inclining the heart of the Assyrian king toward them so as to give them support in the work of the House of God, the God of Israel.”
This view is expressed also by Ezra (7:27-28), and by Nehemiah, whose activities as a whole are carried out by the permission and under the auspices of the Persian king.
In both Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah life under Persian rule is taken as an unquestioned reality, and no wish is expressed to change this situation, to strive for political independence or for the re-establishment of the monarchy under the rule of the House of David.
Life under the Persian dominion is the expression of God’s mercy (Ezra 9:9):
כִּֽי עֲבָדִ֣ים אֲנַ֔חְנוּ וּבְעַבְדֻתֵ֔נוּ לֹ֥א עֲזָבָ֖נוּ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וַֽיַּט עָלֵ֣ינוּ חֶ֡סֶד לִפְנֵי֩ מַלְכֵ֨י פָרַ֜ס לָֽתֶת לָ֣נוּ מִֽחְיָ֗ה לְרוֹמֵ֞ם אֶת בֵּ֤ית אֱלֹהֵ֙ינוּ֙ וּלְהַעֲמִ֣יד אֶת חָרְבֹתָ֔יו וְלָֽתֶת לָ֣נוּ גָדֵ֔ר בִּֽיהוּדָ֖ה וּבִירוּשָׁלִָם
“For bondsmen we are, though even in our bondage God has not forsaken us but has disposed the king of Persia favorably toward us, to furnish us with substance and to raise again the House of God, repairing its ruins and giving us a hold in Judah and Jerusalem.”
In Esther this political reality or Persian domination has no religious dimensions or meaning, while in Ezra-Nehemiah it has a thorough religious outlook, expressing God’s benevolence.
Survival vs. Revival
Another essential distinction between the two books is their different foci: Ezra-Nehemiah is not a story of survival but a story of restoration and revival. The story in all its details is placed in the land of Judah and Jerusalem. The existence of a Jewish diaspora is recognized, but presented only as the place from which the people of Judah return to their country.
Of those who returned with Zerubbabel, it is said: they “returned to Jerusalem and Judah each to his own city” (Ezra 2:1), and likewise the return with Ezra and with Nehemiah. Following this view, the people of Judah are defined as “the children of Exile” (Ezra 6:16, 19), “The returning exiles” (Ezra 6:21), or just “the exile” (Ezra 9:4). Strikingly, contrary to the meaning of the term, “exile” does not refer to the people of Judah who stayed in the diaspora, but rather to those among them who returned and settled in Judah and Jerusalem. We hear nothing in Ezra-Nehemiah about the life of the Jews in Babylon or in the diaspora in general. Actual life in the diaspora lies outside the interests of Ezra-Nehemiah, which focuses on the restoration of life in Judah and Jerusalem.
The Three Stages of Restoration
This restoration is described in three stages:
The first stage is the large-scale return of the exiles from Babylon immediately after the declaration of Cyrus and with his permission; their settlement “each in his own city,” and the building of the Temple (Ezra 1-6).
The second stage is the arrival of Ezra from Babylon as an emissary of the Persian king to examine the internal situation in Jerusalem, to provide for the Temple’s needs and rearrange its economy, and to establish in Jerusalem and Judah a firm legal system, based both on the laws of the empire and on the Jewish law (Ezra 7:14-26). In this context, Ezra introduces the public reading of the Torah (Neh 8) – a custom that continues to the present. Ezra then attempted to overcome the problem of mixed marriage, which some in the Judean community defined as the most serious threat to their survival (Ezra 9-10).
The third stage, which lasted over twelve years, is Nehemiah’s office as the governor of Judah. Nehemiah attended to all the pressing problems of the Judean community and solidified the foundations of its existence. He improved the physical situation of Jerusalem by rebuilding its walls (Neh 2-6), augmented Jerusalem’s population by transferring people from the agricultural periphery to the capital (Neh 7; 11:1-2) and carried out an extensive social and economic reform through the remission of debts and manumission of slaves (Neh 5). He made a covenant with the people to adhere more closely to the laws of the Torah (Neh 10; 13), and took active steps to secure the Temple’s regular activity.
According to Ezra-Nehemiah, life under the Persian rule was a continuous process of restoration of the social, economic and religious aspects of life.
The Paradox of Historical Memory
It should now be clear that the two biblical books composed in the Persian period represent two different positions towards Jewish existence: survival in the diaspora on the one hand, and revival in the land of Israel, on the other. The different positions determined the reception of these works and their fate in Jewish history.
The Scroll of Esther, with its expansions in the ancient versions and the Midrash, together with its central role in the festival of Purim, became one of the cornerstones of Jewish existence in exile, and its protagonists became dominant in the national ethos. The fate of the Restoration as described in Ezra-Nehemiah was different. It did not become part of the Jewish liturgy, very few midrashic elaborations were dedicated to it, and it was largely neglected.
This is a wonderful example of the paradox of historical memory. The actual historical significance of the Restoration period was enormous, as it secured the continuity of the Jewish existence in the traumatic post-exilic period, and enabled the revival of Jewish existence. Yet, for most of Jewish history, in the Jewish historical memory it was all but non-existent for many years. This situation has changed dramatically in the modern period, with the emergence of the Zionist movement which led to the establishment of the State of Israel.
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Prof. Sara Japhet is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible at the Hebrew University. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University. Among Japhet’s many publications are The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and its Place in Biblical Thought and The Commentary of Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) on Qohelet (with Robert B. Salters).
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