History of Purim: The Story of Esther



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Purim, or “lots,” is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation during the Achaemenid Empire, around five centuries before Christ, as recounted in the Old Testament Book of Esther.

This was during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus. It is celebrated today as a Jewish feast day on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar. This year, Purim begins at sundown on March 23.


What was the Achaemenid Empire?

Otherwise known as the First Persian Empire, it was founded by Cyrus the Great around 550 B.C. in what is now modern Iran.

achaemenid empire 500 bc

Achaemenid Empire, 500 BC

There had never been a larger empire before this time; it covered over two million square miles, from Egypt and the Balkans in the west to modern-day Pakistan and the Indus Valley in the southeast, with West Asia at its center and most of Central Asia in the northeast.


Who Was Cyrus?

standard of cyrus the great.svg

Standard of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus of Persia had conquered the previous Median Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and Lydia (modern-day Turkey.) His dynasty lasted until it was conquered by Alexander the Great


Obligatory historical context:

Following Alexander’s death was the Hellenistic Period (Greek for Greek speakers). Much of Alexander’s former empire was controlled predominantly by two of his four remaining generals: the Seleucid Empire headquartered in Antioch of Syria, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom headquartered in Egypt – Cleopatra was the last of that dynasty. In the first century B.C., much of Rome‘s eastern empire consisted of these lands.


Who was Ahasuerus?

330px gelder, aert de the banquet of ahasuerus google art project

The Banquet of Ahasuerus, by Aert de Gelder.

Historians debate which of the three Persian rulers the name refers to in the Book of Tobit, which is found in the deuterocanonical Apocrypha. Many modern English translations render the Old Persian name as Xerxes I, though others call the king Artaxerxes. There is even speculation that the king was Artaxerxes II.

The story goes that on the seventh day of a great feast, during a banquet in his capital city of Susa, Ahasuerus was inebriated.

He called for his wife Vashti to dance and display her beauty before his guests -the nobles and governors of his provinces. The queen refused to appear. She was banned from the king’s presence, and another was to be given her role as queen.


The Story of Esther

Ahasuerus decreed that all beautiful maidens should be brought before him at Susa so that he may select a new queen. Mordecai, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, was a captive taken from Judah by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

330px esther haram

Esther, by Edwin Long (1878)

He was raised, as his daughter, a beautiful young cousin named Esther (Old Persian stara, or Greek ἀστήρ, “aster” or star), who was an orphan. Mordecai took her to the king’s palace, where she resided in the harem. After twelve months in the harem beauty spa, her turn came up to be presented to the king. However, Mordecai cautioned her not to reveal that she was Jewish. Then:

The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:17)

Esther became queen of the empire around 480 B.C.


The Plot to Kill the Jews


“she was called Hadassah (Myrtle) because the righteous are compared to myrtle … As the myrtle spreads fragrance in the world, so did she spread good works.”

Mordecai, while sitting at the king’s gate, learned of a plot to kill the king. He passed this intelligence to Esther (Hadassah or Myrtle), now queen, who warned the king, and the conspirators were executed. But a vain and arrogant high official named Haman was furious that Mordecai would not bow down to him at the gate as others did. When he learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he planned to destroy all the Jews throughout the Persian empire.

Haman cast lots (Pur) to determine an auspicious day to speak to the king about this perceived danger. He told the king the Jews did not keep the king’s laws, man suggesting that they were different from all other peoples in the kingdom and that they should be destroyed. The king commanded that the proclamation go out to kill the Jews.

Mordecai, upon learning of the decree, clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes in mourning. He told Esther the news, and she requested all Jews to fast for three days before she was to speak to the king.


Esther Intervenes

Taking a risk to visit the king without being called, Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the king’s inner court, where he could see her from his throne. Winning his favor, he invited her in. She asked that she be allowed to prepare a feast the next day for just the king and Haman. The king allowed it and Haman went home rejoicing to his wife that he had such favor from the king and his queen Esther. He also planned to have Mordecai hanged upon a newly built gallows.


King Ahasuerus’ Insomnia

Unable to sleep, the king had read to him the Book of Memorable Deeds. In it, he learned that Mordecai had exposed the plot against the king’s life. Realizing that this deed had never been honored, he asked his advisor Haman what should be done to honor someone who had delighted the king. Haman, thinking the king was referring to him, suggested the honoree be given royal robes, a horse, and a crown and then paraded through the city square. So it was done… for Mordecai.

Haman was called to the feast with Queen Esther. On the second day of the feast, the king offered Esther the granting of a wish. She informed him that someone was plotting to kill her and her people. When the king asked who it was, she replied:

“A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” (Esther 7:6)

esther denouncing haman

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand

Angrily, the king rose from the feast Esther had prepared. Haman fell on Esther’s couch to beg for his life. Ahasuerus, suspecting an assault on the queen in his presence, arrested Haman. Ironically, the gallows he had intended for Mordecai became the means of his own execution.

When the king learned of Mordecai’s relation to Esther, he elevated him to Haman’s rank and gave Esther Haman’s house. The king also revoked the proclamation written by Haman to kill the Jews. Then:

The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. (Esther 8:16)

Mordecai then exacted justice on the ten sons of Haman and the enemies who had attempted to kill them.


The Irony of the Book of Esther

The Book of Esther never mentions God’s name, yet it is clear that God is supernaturally orchestrating the events in Esther’s life. She was clearly prepared “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) to save her people.

The Feast of Purim

Mordecai, now second in rank to the king, decreed that the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar be commemorated as a feast to remember the victory over their enemies. This year, Purim begins at sundown on March 23.

mohn hamantaschen

Hamantash, “Haman pockets”

Jewish traditions for this holiday include reading the Megillah (Book of Esther), feasting, eating three-cornered pastries hamantaschen, drinking wine, gifts of food to one another, and charitable donations to the poor.

The Fast of Esther occurs on the 13th of Adar, referring to Esther 9:31-32. During the subsequent feast on the next two days, it is not unusual that the drinking of wine leads to intoxication. 

The traditional Hebrew greeting is
Chag Purim Sameach, Happy Purim Holiday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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