Esther (fl. 475 BCE)

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Esther (fl. 475 bce)

Hebrew queen. Name variations: Edissa. Flourished around 475 bce; daughter of Abihail; niece of Mordecai; married Xerxes I (c. 518–465, known in the Biblical text as Ahasuerus or Assuerus), king of Persia (r. 486–465); children: Darius, Hystaspes, and Artaxerxes.

In the ahistorical Old Testament Book of Esther (written 2nd century bce?), Esther is portrayed as an Israelite beauty who became the wife of the Persian king, Xerxes (Ahasuerus in the Biblical text), despite her religious background which was kept hidden from Ahasuerus for a time. Esther's rise is credited to the fall of Ahasuerus' previous wife, Vashti , whose disobedience toward the king led to her rejection—a rejection that angered some of her supporters at court. Discarding one wife, Ahasuerus ordered that the most beautiful virgins of the Persian Empire be brought to his harem at Susa, so that he might choose another. Among these was Esther, said to have been the daughter of one Abihail but raised by her uncle Mordecai—a prominent Israelite living in Susa as a result of the diaspora brought on by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (whose realm had subsequently been incorporated into the Persian Empire). Fearing that her Jewishness might cause his niece harm, Mordecai advised Esther to conceal her religion, and Esther took his advice. It is said that Ahasuerus was so taken by Esther's beauty and demeanor that he made her his new wife.

Thereafter Esther is said to have been the savior of her husband, her uncle, and her people. She protected her husband against a plot organized by Vashti's partisans—a conspiracy discovered by Mordecai and revealed to Ahasuerus through Esther. She saved Mordecai and the Israelites from Haman, one of Ahasuerus' officials, who conceived a great hatred toward both Mordecai and all of his people because the Israelite would not kneel before Haman's imperial authority. Beset by hubris and angered by Mordecai's defiance, Haman supposedly retaliated

by plotting the extermination of all Persian Jews. Incited by Haman to act against the Israelites, Ahasuerus, unaware of his wife's religion, ordered their extermination. However, Mordecai, acting upon inside information, besought Esther's aid. Putting her faith in God, Esther approached her husband, revealed her background, and convinced Ahasuerus to reward Mordecai's past services (including his part in uncovering the earlier assassination attempt), which had been previously overlooked. After Haman later agreed, without knowing who was involved, that a loyal servant should be rewarded by the king, and, after Ahasuerus caught Haman in an attempt to seduce Esther, Ahasuerus executed Haman and replaced him with Mordecai. Therefore, Haman's extermination of the Persian Jews was averted, leading to a general celebration recreated in the feast of Purim.

The Book of Esther renders testimony for the religious toleration that was a hallmark of Persian dominion throughout the reign of the Achaemenid Dynasty (c. 550–331 bce). More a historical novella than a historical record from Xerxes' reign, the story offers an explanation for the origin of the festival of Purim, but cannot be held to detail accurately the career of a historical Persian queen.

suggested reading:

The Book of Esther (in the Old Testament).

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California