Esther and history—2

The historian cannot prove beyond all doubt the accuracy of the Bible's account of Esther, but when the known historical data is compared with the Inspired Record, the results are in every case compatible.

William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Scholars have questioned whether there is a rightful place in Persian history for Esther as queen of Xerxes, the Biblical Ahasuerus. Four pieces of chronological data from the book of Esther can be shown to fit the ancient Greek and Persian accounts: (1) The six months of Xerxes' third year (484-483 B.C.) spent at his winter capital of Shushan with his army or its officers (Esther 1:1-4) corresponds well with a period of time allotted to laying plans for the invasion of Greece. (2) The following seven-day celebration involving all of the city of Shushan (verses 5-12) fits well with a celebration of the New Year's festival in the spring of 482 B.C. (3) Since data from the book of Esther indicate that Xerxes' order for the most beautiful women of his realm to be gathered and prepared for his evaluation in searching for a new queen was acted upon in Shushan during the winter of his sixth year (chap. 2:1-4, 12, 16), he must have issued it from his winter headquarters at Sardis in 480-479 B.C. during the lull between his army's two campaigns into Greece. The chronological factors involved here are compatible, and the Bible does not indicate where Xerxes was when he issued that order. (4) Xerxes departed from Sardis for Shushan in the fall of his seventh year (479 B.C.) after he heard that his army had been defeated. His itinerary allows for a few months' travel time before he received Esther and the other candidates the following winter at the Shushan palace.

Thus these four chronological points in Esther can be harmonized satisfactorily with what is known from Persian history of Xerxes' activities. Since the fourth is connected with Esther's acceptance and installation as queen, we must consider the problem of the preceding queen, the Biblical Vashti.

While at his winter quarters in Sardis in 480-479 B.C, Xerxes turned his attention from making war to making love. Herodotus, the Greek historian, reports that during that time the Persian king fell in love with the wife of Masistes, his brother, and endeavored unsuccessfully to carry on an affair with her. In connection with this incident, we should note that Greek sources indicate that Amestris, the only queen of Xerxes to which they refer, was not with him in Sardis during the winter of 480-479 B.C. This raises the interesting possibility that Amestris may have been Vashti, the only queen of Xerxes, besides Esther, known from the Bible. If so, Vashti's refusal to appear before the king, recorded in Esther 1:10-12, could have provided the reason why she was left home during this campaign, whereas the wives of lesser military figures were included in the royal entourage. The possibility of identifying Amestris with Vashti raises two questions, one linguistic and the other historical.

The linguistic question is whether these two names can be equated on the basis of known phonetic shifts between the languages involved. Vowels play little part in such an equation, since the text of Esther was originally written without vowels. The initial vowel of Amestris in Greek (alpha) might lead one to have expected an initial aleph in Hebrew. However, this need not necessarily be the case, based on the way in which some other personal names in Esther were transcribed in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. There Abataza appears for the Hebrew Zetfiar, and Arlcesaios appears for Karshena. The s in the middle of Amestris can be equated with the sh of Vashti's name in Hebrew, since the Greek alphabet does not have an exact equivalent for this Hebrew consonant.

The difference between the m in Amestris and the w in Vashti (the first Hebrew letter of this name is a waw) can be explained best by going back to Old Persian, from which this queen's name undoubtedly originated. Since Old Persian had no w, the initial waw in Hebrew implies an original Old Persian v. Further more, Old Persian had a v, but Greek and Hebrew did not. In this case the original Old Persian v dissociated into different labial letters in Greek and Hebrew, m and w respectively, neither of which reflected precisely the consonant from which they stemmed. All three of these letters, v, m, and w, fall into the class of sounds known as labials, because they are pronounced mainly with the lips. The differences, known as phonetic shifts, reflect the way in which such sounds were pronounced among different languages and dialects. The r in Amestris cannot be explained on the basis of such a shift, and it can be seen only as intrusive, probably deriving from a corruption of this name as it was transmit ted in Greek. From Vashti in Old Persian, therefore, it is quite easy to go to Washti in Hebrew, and only slightly more difficult to derive from it (A)m/vest(r)i(s) in Greek.

Thus the identification of Amestris, mentioned by Herodotus, with the Biblical Vashti offers no insurmountable difficulties on linguistic grounds. The next question, then, is How well does she fit that identification historically?

If Xerxes was also in search of a new chief wife, or queen, at that time, his amorous affairs, which Herodotus describes, may have been more than the usual liaisons. His attention to these women under such circumstances could also explain why Amestris' reaction was so violent. Position rather than affection may have been the issue as far as Amestris was concerned, since the royal harem doubt less provided ample competition for the king's affections.

Upon returning to Susa from his Greek campaign, Xerxes immediately became enmeshed in yet another amorous affair, this time not with Masistes' wife, but with his daughter, Anaynte. This matter came to a crisis when he promised Artaynte the desire of her heart. She chose Xerxes' coat of many colors, which Amestris herself had woven for him (a very unqueenly activity, perhaps designed to court his favor). Xerxes gave her the robe, but Amestris got revenge when the time came to celebrate the king's birthday. On that occasion she, Salomelike, asked Xerxes to give her Masistes' wife, and according to the custom of the day he was obliged to comply with her request. Amestris promptly had her mutilated.

If Amestris is the same person as Vashti, and the verdict on Vashti was that she was "to come no more before" Xerxes (Esther 1:19), then what was Amestris doing at the birthday banquet described by Herodotus? It appears that Xerxes' advisers recommended not divorce in the modem sense of the word, but rather demotion from being the chief royal wife and bestowal of that position upon someone else. Connected with this demotion was the prohibition upon her coming before Xerxes, which probably exiled her to a considerably less important position in the royal harem. To interpret this phrase too literally—to mean that Vashti never could come within eyesight of Xerxes again—probably is pushing its significance too far. As an idiom, it probably could be paraphrased to mean that she could not appear again with Xerxes in her official capacity as queen. The reverse of this occurs in the case of the seven princes who "saw the king's face" (verse 14), which may be interpreted to mean that they could converse personally with the king, i.e., they could minister to him personally in matters of state.

In essence, Herodotus breaks off his account of Xerxes' reign after describing these events of the king's seventh year following his return from the Greek campaign. We are overstating the case when we say that Amestris was Xerxes' queen between his seventh and twelfth years, since we have no further information about her until the time her son Artaxerxes I occupied the Persian throne. In view of this silence, we have no specific evidence to indicate whether or not Amestris was Xerxes' chief wife from his seventh year to the end of his reign. This silence at least allows a place in Persian history for Esther, although it does not prove that she occupied it.

We now turn our attention to an examination of the episode in which the book of Esther reaches its climax, the events resulting from the decree that Haman engineered against the Jews. Unfortunately, our written sources are largely silent on the remainder of Xerxes' reign; therefore the events attributed in Esther 3-9 to his twelfth year lie outside the scope of an investigation of contemporary written documents.

Based on nonwritten materials from Palestine, we find possible clarification for the warfare between Jews and non-Jews that was the aftermath of Hainan's decree. If the fighting "in the king's provinces" referred to in Esther 9:16 did take place, as we believe, it would be difficult to detect it archeologically in Persia or Babylonia because one would not expect to find a related destruction layer in the larger cities there, and because the scribes who might have written a tablet recording such an event would have been biased against the Hebrews. Thus the chances seem rather slim for any illumination upon this episode from that quarter.

Archeologically speaking, the situation is somewhat different in Palestine. There, in contrast with the larger cities of Persia and Babylonia, smaller towns were located on their respective tells. Although written sources recovered from those tells are more scarce than those recovered from the great centers of the East, the destruction layers in their strata at times can be correlated with historical events known from written sources.

Of special interest in this connection is the gap in occupation on the summit of Samaria that commenced with the end of Period VIII, the so-called "chocolate-soil layer." In the British report of the excavations at Samaria, Kathleen Kenyon observed that the date for this gap "cannot be much later than the sixth century B.C."; but in a more recent work on Palestinian archeology, she refined that date to "prob ably early in the fifth century." This date puts the gap well within the range of Xerxes' reign (486-465 B.C.). However, the occupation of the city did not terminate by means of a destruction; it simply lapsed. Remains after that period are extremely fragmentary until well into the Hellenistic period.

The findings from this period of occupation at Shechem are of a more dramatic and precise nature than at Samaria. Stratum V at Shechem ended with a destruction by fire. The date of this destruction has been derived from frag ments of important Greek pottery found in the debris. These fragments of black and red Attic ware lend themselves to a rather precise date for the destruction. According to Nancy Lapp, "The latest example of figured ware, No. 9, dates ca. 480 B.C. Allowing time for its importation into Palestine and consideration for its value, a conservative terminus for the end of Stratum V at Balatah (Shechem) would be the end of the first quarter of the fifth century B.C. or ca. 475 B.C."

G. E. Wright, director of the renewed excavations at Shechem, was puzzled about the historical significance of this destruction: "That age is a dark one as far as the history of Palestine is concerned, and we simply do not know what happened." Esther 9:16 dates the fighting that broke out "in the king's provinces" to Adar of Xerxes' twelfth year, which is March, 473 B.C. A reasonable estimate would indicate most of the fighting occurred in areas where the Jews were located. Aside from Egypt and Babylonia, where the exiles resided, from which no records of fighting at this time are known, the single largest concentration of Jews was in Judah. Thus the close proximity of Jews living near Shechem at the time of its destruction around 475 B.C. leads to the hypothesis of a cause-effect relationship here.

Ezra 4:1-5 traces the frictions between the Samaritans and the residents of Judah back to the last half of the sixth century B.C. This provides some plausibility for the idea that these frictions could have erupted in armed clashes in the first half of the fifth century under the aegis of Xerxes' decrees. In that case, two of the most likely places to look for archeological evidence for such clashes would be in the strata of the two principal cities of the Samaritans. Thus a potentially positive correlation can be proposed between the lapse in occupation early in the fifth century at Samaria, the destruction of Shechem, dated ca. 475 B.C., and the fighting in the Persian Empire, dated early in 473 B.C. by the book of Esther. Likewise, this event described in Esther provides a possible historical explanation for these archeological findings in Palestine that have hitherto gone unexplained.

In summary, we have considered historical matters in the book of Esther: the identification of Vashti, the date when Esther came to court, and archeological evidence from Palestine that may have resulted from fighting involving the Jews as a consequence of Xerxes' decrees. In each case the details described in the book of Esther have been found compatible with the available extra-Biblical evidences. These correlations do not prove the historical accuracy of the book of Esther, but they certainly point in that direction.


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William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1982

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