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The Book of Esther, a story in history


While modern exegesis no longer defends the complete historicity of the Bible, it does agree on the abundance of historical facts that form its background. On the occasion of the celebration of the feast of Purim by the Jews, this year on March 20, 2019, the exegesis of the Old Testament writing through the history of Achaemenid Persia sheds light on its both theological and political significance.

A story of the seraglio

Let us recall the plot in a few words. A Persian king, Ahasuerus, under the influence of his anti-Semitic prime minister, Haman, signs an edict of extermination of the Hebrew people on the fabricated grounds that they are disloyal, a 'fifth column' threatening the empire, but following the Haman's vexation, which a pious Jew, Mordecai, refused to greet because one bowed only to God. The Hebrew people will be saved through the intercession of a beautiful Jewish virgin, Esther, who rounded up for the royal harem, conquered the heart of the king after the repudiation of Queen Vashti, guilty according to the midrash of not having accepted s 'show off naked, wearing only her crown, in front of her husband's booby guests. Esther becomes queen, the enemies of the Hebrew people are massacred en masse or are converted. Haman and his ten sons are hanged. Mordecai becomes the second of the Persian kingdom. Happy end!

An apologue for the diaspora

The plot is an apologue written by a Jew of the Persian diaspora, after the liberation of the Hebrew people by Cyrus the Great to call his co-religionists to fidelity to the divine Law in respect to the law of the power in place and to refuse the assimilation, not to give in to sacrilegious syncretism, like the cult of the Queen of Heaven, inspired by Ishtar, by the Jewish community of Elephantine, a community that the prophet Jeremiah dedicates to gemonies. Zionist exaltation, the moral of the Book of Esther is thus a kind of religious and political vade-mecum for the use of the diaspora, advocating both religious piety and political loyalty.

A biblical story in which God seems absent

If the exact dating of the Book of Esther is uncertain (3rd - 1st century BC) the reference to the difficult reconstruction of the Second Temple by the Hebrew people returning to Judea and the action locates the story. The author, more probably the successive authors, because the original text, the proto-codex, has undergone multiple additions and withdrawals, as evidenced by the divergence between the version admitted to the Judaic canon by the Masoretes who did not retain the invocations religious versions of the Greek version admitted to the Catholic canon, in particular the prayer of Esther from which Louis Racine was very much inspired for his tragedy, redacting a writing in which there is no longer any mention of YHWH, even though this account founding the one of the main Jewish holidays, Purim, is one of the most popular and holy. Maimonides affirms in 1170 that at the end of time, marked by the return of the Messiah, all the books will turn to dust except the Book of Esther because it was dictated by God.

An intrigue worthy of a novella

We can read the story of the beautiful Esther and her uncle Mordecai-Mordecai as an oriental tale, a seraglio plot, a biblical novella, the tragico-comic twists have inspired an abundant literature from the Middle Ages to peplum scenarios like Esther and the King by Raoul Wash from 1960. God is nevertheless there but he is hidden, deus ex machina of the reversal of the fate of the Hebrew people through the intercession of Esther. We will endeavor to analyze here the interweaving of history, of fiction, with the History of Achaemenid Persia.

Xerxes, a vanquished and debauched king

King Ahasuerus of the Book is etymologically derived from that of Xerxes 1st. The identification of the Persian king as his son Artaxerxes by the Greek version of the text, as well as by Flavius ​​Josephus, is rejected by modern research. Herodotus describes Xerxes as a "cruel, despotic and weak ruler, although he was capable of acts of generosity." Born in 519, he reigned from 486 to 465. After the calamitous Second Median War (-480) marked by the defeats of Salamis, Xerxes knew in Susa a shameful end of reign; he devoted himself to the pleasures of the harem, multiplying conjugal infidelities; Herodotus recounts how he tried to bribe his brother's wife, who, however innocent, will be the victim of the revenge of Queen Amestris who made him cut her breasts, before she and all her fleeing family are massacred by order of the King ; a sad end of reign which ends with his assassination by Artaban, the head of his guard. Unlike Cyrus, Xerxes persecuted the priests of Marduk as a punishment for their support for the Babylonian revolt during his absence in the war. Marduk took revenge.

Amestris, his proud wife

Queen Amestris inspired the character of Queen Vashti. Of royal lineage, she was the cousin of Xerxes following Darius the Great's political alliances with Otanes, one of those who overthrew the impostor Gaumata allowing her to ascend the throne. Herodotus describes Amestris as a woman of character and very cruel, indulging in human sacrifices. Following the death of her first born Darius in the plot of Artaban and after a few months of regicide reign, she exercised a kind of moral regency during the reign of her younger son, Artaxerxés, said long hand because he had a more hand. longer than the other, perhaps due to the excess of consanguinity of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Jewish heroes with the names of Persian gods

The two Jewish heroes of biblical history share a very surprising characteristic: their names are, not Hebrew names, but names derived from the two greatest deities of the Persian pantheon, deities adopted from the Babylonian and Sumerian, Marduk and Ishtar. This fact is so scandalous that the Judaic gloss puts forward more "kosher" onomastics: Hadassah, the Jewish name of Esther derives from the Hebrew hadas the myrtle a star flower. Esther is said to be based on a Hebrew word meaning 'hidden'. The origin of the name Mordecai, Mordecai, is researched in the Hebrew word mor for myrrh. The difficulty of excluding the derivation of Ishtar is, however, recognized by a Targum: "it was indeed as beautiful as 'the star of the night', called astara by the Greeks". Not only is the nomination of the two saviors of the Jewish people by the two major gods of the pagans obvious but, far from being problematic, it carries a theological meaning that of appropriation to dominate them, to surpass them, a victory marked by the episode. conversion of the Persian pagans to Hebrew monotheism. Some midrash do not hesitate to make Ahasuerus circumcised and Esther the mother of Persian kings.

Ishtar - Esther

Ishtar-Astarté-Astoret, is a very old Elamite deity. Ishtar embodies both warlike violence and fertility. Associated with the planet Venus, a star is often associated with it. The Ishtar Gate, decorated with Mushussu, a sort of red serpent-dragon symbol of Marduk, kept at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, marked the way to celebrate Akitu. She falls in love with Gigamesh in the eponymous epic. The goddess Aphrodite and then Venus take back some of her attributes.

Marduk - Mordecai

Marduk was not originally as powerful as Ishtar. During the Babylonian dynasty, Marduk took over the Elamite gods Enlil and Nipur, becoming the new Bel, the central god of the pantheon. It is Marduk who anoints the king in a ceremony, the akitu, in which the ruler humbles himself in public, taking upon himself the sins of his people, before being re-enthroned by the god. The great ziggurat of Susa is dedicated to him, the very one that inspired the Tower of Babel in the Bible. The invader of the Babylonian kingdom, Cyrus II the Great, the liberator of the Jews, claims himself in his cylinder kept in the British Museum, as the Messiah of Marduk, his anointed, the one called to come and restore his worship neglected by Nabonidus, the last king Babylonian, the father of Balthazar, who prefers the moon god Sin. In fact, the Babylonian clergy welcomed the Persian invader with open arms.

The Purim, Judaization of the Persian Akitu

The feast of Akitu marked the new year, in spring, the rebirth of life facilitated by the hierogamy of Marduk and Ishtar accompanied by orgies. The choice of the same month of Nissan to celebrate Purim expresses the Judaic desire to substitute a celebration of YHWH to supplant the previous pagan cults; Christianity will do the same with Christmas, Saint John ...

Astrology and numerology

Astrology and numerology mark the key episodes of the story. The date of the pogrom is fixed by Haman on the advice of his magi who "cast spells", an operation designated by the Akkadian word puru which will give its name to the festival of Purim. The author does not specify how. The midrash imagines that it was with dice or by arching a representation of the zodiac that the supposed auspicious month, that of Nissan, under the sign of Pisces, was chosen. Bad pick because this month is the month of both the birth and the death of Moses. This error will be fatal to Haman because YHWH who had turned away from the chosen people guilty of sacrilege (some had eaten at the king's table during the banquet which opens the story of non-kosher foods) will hear Esther's prayer. The number seven, the most sacred number for the Persians, occurs at all the key moments of the story: the seven planets, the repudiation of Vashti occurs on the seventh day of the king's banquet, the king is surrounded by seven eunuchs of the king, the seven Jewish servants of Esther allow her to respect the mitzvot even in the seraglio,… Jewish gematria, in particular kabbalistic, subtly computes the number of Haman's sons and the chronology of the story. Bernard Benyamin's Esther code brings the date of Haman's hanging closer to that of the hanging of the Nazi criminals in Nuremberg evoking Streicher's cry before the gibbet hatch opened "It's Purim 1946!" ".

The Book of Esther thus lends itself equally well to mystical as well as political, religious and secular reading. that the reader can deepen by consulting my book, The Book of Esther, an iconography in images, BOD, 2018, 742 works of art referenced and commented on.


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