History Crash Course #24: Purim in Persia
A feast celebrating God's abandonment of Israel puts into motion Haman's plot to annihilate the Jews.
The armies of Medes under Darius and the armies of Persia under Cyrus march into Babylon and conquer it. The Babylonian Empire ceases to exist and it is now absorbed by the new Persian Empire.
So what do we have in that part of the world, just to keep it straight? First Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia ― they were all great Mesopotamian empires, one after the other, all interacting with the Jewish people.
In 370 BCE Cyrus issues a decree allowing all the indigenous peoples that had been exiled by the now-defunct Babylonian empire to go back to their homeland. One copy of this decree is on display at the British Museum, and although this version does not specifically mention the Jews, they are included as we learn from the Book of Ezra:
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, upon the conclusion of the Lord’s prophecy, by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, and he issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom – and in writing as well, saying, “Thus said Cyrus the King of Persia, ‘All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord, God of heaven, given to me and He has commanded me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of His entire people – may his God be with him – and let him go to Jerusalem which is in Judah and build the Temple of the Lord...” (Ezra 1:3)
You would think that the Jews would jump up, pack up and go. But that’s not what happens. Of what is probably a million Jews living in the empire, only 42,000 go back ― only about 5% of those that went into exile 70 years earlier go back and the remaining 95% stays put.
The same thing happened in 1948 when the state of Israel was declared. There were about 12 million Jews in the world at that time and only 600,000 or 5% settled the land. The rest 95% preferred to stay in exile.
Only about 5% of the Jews that went into exile 70 years before go back to the land of Israel.
The answer is the same for 370 BCE, as it is for 1948, as it is for today. The Diaspora is nice. It’s more comfortable to live in Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Toronto than in Israel. Why move if you have a nice big house in America and a nice standard of living and two cars, and you have nice day schools.
This attitude is repeated in Jewish history, and it is a problem. Because God might give the Jews a little breathing space in Diaspora from time to time, but in the long run, He’s not going to allow them to stay there.
One of the great patterns we’re going to see over and over again is the higher the Jews rise in the Diaspora, the lower they fall. The nicer the Diaspora seems to be at first, the worse the subsequent reaction against the Jews. We see it in Egypt. Jews are invited in, they do well and prosper, and look what happens ― they end up slaves. We see this in Spain. We see this in Germany. All the places that once loved and welcomed the Jews eventually turn on them. Therefore, Jews make a mistake if they ever think that the Diaspora is home. It never works for long. Israel is the only home for the Jews.
The 42,000 Jews that go back in 370 BCE immediately start rebuilding Jerusalem, and, of course, the first thing in Jerusalem that they want to rebuild is the Temple, because a Jew can’t live a complete Jewish life without a Temple.
The Samaritans, who never liked the Jews and who hate this new influx, immediately send a message to Persia demanding that the Jews be forbidden to continue building. They say that if the Jews are allowed to rebuild the Temple, they’re going to rebel.
And, as a result of their threats, Persia freezes the building permit. For 18 years no construction is allowed. And it is during this period that the Purim story, related in the Book of Esther, takes place.
Meanwhile, Back In Persia
Back in Persia, a new king has replaced Cyrus. His name is Achashverosh, and he is married to Vashti, the sole survivor of the blood-bath in the royal palace of Belshazzar during the Persian invasion (as noted in Part 23).
Achashverosh throws a party reminiscent of the one that Belshazzar had thrown some years before. He, too, has been calculating and he has decided that the 70 years allotted in Jeremiah’s prophecy for the Jews to regain the land of Israel is up.
(In truth, Jeremiah prophecy mentions 70 years in different contexts, one referring to when God would “remember” Jerusalem, and another when God would “redeem” Jerusalem. The first 70 years ― counted from the initial conquest of Judea ― was up when the Jews were allowed to return to the land. The second ― counted from the destruction of the Temple ― will not be up for another 14 years when the Temple will finally be rebuilt.)
To this feast, Achashverosh invites the Jews and, unbelievably, they come ― to “celebrate” their own end. This gives you an idea how far gone were the Jews who opted to stay in the comfort of the Persian Diaspora.
To this feast, the king invites the Jews and, unbelievably, they come to “celebrate” their own end.
Though years before they had “sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept,” they had gradually adapted to the comforts of exile to the point that they gradually developed into a positive enjoyment of the pagan way of life and its pleasures. So deep was their desire to fit in that these Jews could actually toast their own public humiliation.
After some drunken revelry featuring (yet again) the Temple vessels, the king orders his wife to appear wearing nothing besides the royal crown. She refuses to come and he has her executed.
Queen-less, the king sends his scouts to round up all the eligible women in the land ― and this is how Esther gets nabbed for the palace. No one knows she is Jewish, and her cousin Mordechai tells her to keep her identity secret. The king falls in love with her and from among all the women taken to the palace Esther becomes queen.
(The Book of Esther is best read with the commentary from the Talmud’s Tractate Megillah, because there are a lot of fascinating details to the story that are left out from the simple telling. However, these details are beyond the scope of a crash course in Jewish history. For more see the Aish.com Purim Site.)
Haman, The Amalekite
Achashverosh’s top minister is a man named Haman HaAgagi. If that rings a bell, it should. Agag was the king of the nation of Amalek whom King Saul neglected to kill as commanded. Haman is an Amalekite, and he harbors a pathological hatred of the Jewish people. (For a detailed explanation of Amalekite ideology see Part 16.)
And so it comes to pass that Haman gets the king to agree to issue a secret decree to annihilate the Jews of Persia on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. And how he decides on the best date for genocide is very interesting.
Haman throws lots – called “purim.”
It is part of Amalekite ideology that everything is a random occurrence – everything happens by chance. There is no God running the show. It’s the ultimate denial of reality.
It is part of Amalekite ideology that everything happens by chance.
So this holiday which is called Purim – “Chance” – comes to illustrate that, in fact, nothing happens by chance. From the point that Haman throws the lots – flips the dice, so to speak ― everything begins to flip on him.
Expecting honors from the king, Haman finds himself forced to bestow these honors on his arch-enemy Mordechai. Invited along with the king to the queen’s feast, Haman is preening with pride, only to discover that the queen is Jewish. And that now he is accused of plotting to murder her along with her people. Begging for mercy, he throws himself onto the queen’s bed only to be caught by the king in this precarious position and accused of attempted rape.
Things couldn’t possibly look worse for Haman and then comes the clincher. Having erected a gallows for Mordechai, he finds them put to an unexpected use when he himself is sentenced to death. And the Jews, whom he had wanted to wipe off the face earth, rather than being annihilated are given the king’s permission to annihilate their enemies.
The most fascinating thing about the Book of Esther, which relates this incredible story, is that in the entire text the name of God is never mentioned. We learn from this that after the destruction of the Temple the presence of God was concealed in the world, but that we could still see God acting through history – delivering one hidden miracle after another to help the Jews survive, keeping his promise that Israel would remain an “eternal nation.”
We learn from the Talmud that this state of affairs was actually prophesied in the Book of Deuteronomy, where God says:
“I will surely conceal My face on that day...” (Deut. 31:18)
The Hebrew word for “conceal,” hester ― because of its identical root letters with the name Esther – is read as an allusion to this time.
Hidden Face Of God
In the time when the First Temple stood, you could see God’s presence clearly. You could feel God in Jerusalem. God is always here but since that Temple’s destruction the level of spirituality in general is lower and the Jews’ ability to relate to God from that period of time onward is much less direct.
From this time forward God will not act in history in the open manner He had previously. But God is always there, nevertheless. He’s the master puppeteer behind the scenes putting everything into place.
From this time forward God will not act in history in the open manner He had previously.
The Book of Esther is the ultimate story of God putting the cure before the disease. Everything that’s a seeming disaster, in hindsight works out, so at the end of the story the Jewish people look back and see how incredible it all was.
This is why on Purim Jews get drunk so that they can’t tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed Be Haman.” This is to illustrate that even the worst is really serving the will of God. Everything is not what it seems, which is why on Purim it is a custom to wear masks.
The Hebrew word that best describes Purim is venahafoch hu, meaning “flipped over story.” Whatever bad had seemed to be happening by chance was, in fact, intricately planned for the good. Nothing happens by accident. There’s a design to it all.
This, in fact, sums up Jewish history. Just as in the story of Purim when it’s over we look back and we see how everything fits into place. Nothing is by chance. Everything has a reason and God will make sure that even in the worst circumstances the Jews are always going to have a way out, so that they can accomplish their mission in this world.
The next part of their mission means rebuilding the Temple. Darius II succeeds Achashverosh as King of Persia. He is believed to be Esther’s son and he allows the Jews to finish the job they had started under Cyrus.
This is a very special time in Jewish history when the Jews make a second attempt at getting it right.