According to press reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave President Obama a gift during his visit to Washington, as he urged the U.S. to attack Iran: a copy of the Old Testament Book of Esther. Officials around Netanyahu referred to the text as “background reading” on Iran for Obama, comprising as it does a story of a plot by Persians (Iranians) to exterminate the Jewish people. The book is traditionally read on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins tonight (March 7).
According to the Oxford Companion to the Bible, Esther is “best understood as a novella.” Its date cannot “be determined with any precision,” but is “clearly one of the latest books in the Hebrew Bible.” It’s apparently set during the reign of the Persian king Xerxes, who reigned between 486 and 485 BCE, although some suggest it’s set during the later reign of Artaxerxes. In any case, it may have been composed as late as 100 BCE, long after the events it purports to depict. It is fiction.
The body of the text, written in Hebrew, is supplemented by substantial interpolations composed in Greek.
In the plausible historical record, the elite of the kingdom of Judah were transported to Babylon in 587 BCE, as punishment for resisting the Assyrian Empire. (The bulk of the population of that kingdom were probably never removed but remained in place during the “Babylonian Captivity.”) In 538, Cyrus the Persian conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple; this is why Cyrus–the founder of Persia (Iran)–is glorified in the Bible as a servant of God (Isaiah 44:28 and in various passages in the books of Ezra and Daniel).
So far we are on firm historical ground. It was customary for empires in the ancient Middle East to displace and relocate whole peoples. Members of the elites in Judah and Israel did spend part of the sixth century BCE in Babylonian exile. Many stayed or ventured beyond, forming communities as far afield as India. The Iranian Jewish community dates its origins to this period.
But this book, which Netanyahu gifted Obama, does not reflect the realities of the Jewish past in Iran. It is rather a highly fanciful tale of how Jews at one point in the past supposedly escaped persecution due to the wisdom of the Jewess Esther–who becomes the queen of Persia–and her cousin Mordecai.
(It was written at a time when the question of Jewish intermarriage with non-Jews was a matter of considerable debate. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example, the priests discourage Jewish men from mixing their “holy seed” with Egyptians, Moabites, Amorites etc.; see Ezra 9:12. But the whole point of the Book of Ruth, a novelette written about the same time, is that a Gentile–Moabite–woman can be a good wife and make the Jewish god her own. The Book of Esther should be seen in that context. In the Hebrew version she seems comfortable enough being Persian queen. But in the extended Greek version, she abhors “the bed on the uncircumcised and of any alien.”)
In this book, Mordecai (“one of the captives whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had brought from Jerusalem”) has a dream in which the “righteous nation” is threatened but then “exalted” due to divine intervention. He himself advances in society after exposing a plot of eunuchs to kill the king; two of the wicked eunuchs are executed, and he himself is honored. Meanwhile the court official Haman, who had been close to the eunuchs, conspires to injure Mordecai and his people.
The king becomes upset with his wife Vashti for refusing to appear with him publicly. He sees her behavior as a precedent that might cause women to “dare to insult their husbands” (Esther 1:18) and so issues a decree that “in every house respect would be shown to every husband” (1:22). He searches around for an alternative consort.
Mordecai then arranges for the king to meet his cousin Esther, and she receives his favor (while concealing her ethnicity). Haman, upset with Esther’s rise in favor, and the refusal of Mordecai to pay him due deference, and angered by the rise of the Jews at court, tells the king, “There is a certain nation scattered among all the other nations in your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other nations, and they do not keep the laws of the king. It is not expedient of the king to tolerate them…” (Esther 8:8). He recommends they be “destroyed.” The (rather malleable) king following his advice issues an order for Jewish annihilation.
There is no evidence this ever happened. There’s no evidence that the Zoroastrian elite in ancient Persia were ever interested in oppressing Jews for religious reasons, much less wiping them out. (Indeed the evidence suggests that Jews in exile were deeply influenced by Persian religion, including the concepts of paradise, the end of time, and a messiah).
In any case, in the story, Mordecai protests publicly. Esther supports him and goes to the king. At the sight of her face “God changed the spirit of the” apparently rather mercurial, malleable king “to gentleness.” Esther revealing her ethnic identity soon persuades him to save Jewry and execute the evil Haman (7:10).
It’s not a terribly interesting story, and if it has any historical value at all, it merely suggests that in the Persian Empire the exiles from Israel and Judah had considerable influence and also confronted opposition and resentment. Why would Netanyahu recommend it to Obama for “background reading”?
Just a hunch: in this fictional piece, Jews confront the power of Persia–the greatest empire of the time, extending “from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1), creatively and indirectly. Mordecai engineers his cousin (“fair and beautiful… admired by all who saw her”) into a position of power and uses her to bring down Haman, who would annihilate Jewry.
Isn’t Netanyahu pressing Obama to bring down the Iranian regime, while arguing that Tehran is hell-bent on nuking the Jewish state? And isn’t that charge as baseless as the fairy tales in the Book of Esther?