Today is Purim, so I thought I would explore the connection between the story of Megillat Esther and the revival of Jewish life in Judea and Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile, sometimes called the Return to Zion of 538-444 BC.
The Persian Empire
First, it might be helpful to frame the historical period where the story takes place. The Book of Esther opens with:
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus — he was the Ahasuerus who reigned from Hodu to Cush (India to Ethiopia), one hundred twenty-seven provinces.
The following map shows the borders of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC:
You can see the city of Susa, where the story takes place, marked with an arrow. As you can read in the wikipedia link above: Darius the Great began a major building program in Susa and Persepolis. During this time he describes his new capital in the DSf inscription: “This palace which I built at Susa, from afar its ornamentation was brought. Downward the earth was dug, until I reached rock in the earth. When the excavation had been made, then rubble was packed down, some 40 cubits in depth, another part 20 cubits in depth. On that rubble the palace was constructed.” Susa continued as a winter capital and residence for Achaemenid kings succeeding Darius the Great, Xerxes I, and their successors.
The fact that the Jews were living within the Persian Empire during the Purim story means that this occurred after King Cyrus The Great had liberated them from the rule of Babylon.
The Babylonian Exile
The Megillah reminds us of the Babylonian exile when it introduces Mordechai in Chapter 2:5
There was a Judean man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exile that was exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled.
The exile of Jechoniah (aka Yehoyachin, Yechonia) occurred in 597 BC, and there is archeological evidence of his existence: Jechoniah’s tablets from the royal archives of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon were unearthed in the ruins of Babylon. On one of the tablets it says: “Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu”. These tablets were excavated near the Ishtar Gate in Babylon and have been dated to c. 592 BC.
King Nebuchadnezzar sent and brought him [Jeconiah] to Babylon with the precious vessels of the House of the Lord, and he made Zedekiah his brother king over Judah and Jerusalem.
The destruction of Jerusalem is described later in that chapter in verse 19 (as well as other places in the Bible):
And they burned the House of God, and they demolished the wall of Jerusalem, and all its palaces they burned with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.
And he exiled the survivors from the sword to Babylon, and they became vassals to him and to his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia.
Cyrus The Great
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen.
And in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, at the completion of the word of the Lord in the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the spirit of Cyrus the king of Persia, and he issued a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying: “So said Cyrus the king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of the heavens delivered to me, and He commanded me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judea. Who among you is of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him, and he may ascend.”
The Cyrus Decree is a real historical document, uncovered by archeologists and displayed in the British Museum in London:
The actual inscription is much more vague and does not mention the Jews specifically, but it still matches the facts of the Biblical narrative:
From [Babylon] to Aššur and (from) Susa, … as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings. In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon.
Who Was Ahasuerus?
King Ahasuerus from the Megillah is generally identified with Xerxes I of Persia. The Greek version (Septuagint) of the Book of Esther refers to him as Artaxerxes, and the historian Josephus relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks. Similarly, the Vulgate, the Midrash of Esther Rabba, I, 3 and the Josippon identify the King as Artaxerxes.
We know from the book of Nechemiah that the King of Persia in his time was Artaxerxes (in Hebrew: ארתחשסתא). The book of Nechemiah open with:
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. And it came to pass in the month of Kislev [in] the twentieth year that I was in Shushan the capital.
And Nechemiah 2:1 identifies the King:
Now it came to pass in the month of Nissan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, [that they brought] wine before him, and I carried the wine and gave [it] to the king. And I had never been sad in his presence.
Much like Mordechai in the Megillah, Nechemiah is a close confidant to King Artaxerxes and is able to “lobby” him to help the Jews in their attempts to safeguard Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. Whether King Artaxerxes is indeed the same as Ahasuerus or came after him, it is clear that the project of returning to Zion (Jerusalem) was well under way during the period of the Meggilah story. The following graphic shows the approximate chronology in the land of Israel and the Persian empire during the period from Cyrus to Artaxerxes:
From this graphic you can see that the return to Zion started immediately after the Cyrus Decree, although it was a very gradual flow of immigrants. The events of the early attempts to rebuild the Second Temple are recounted in the books of 2-Chronicles, Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, while the later events are recorded in the book of Nechemiah.
Did Persian Benevolence or Antisemitism Prompt The “Return To Zion”?
According to the Bible books mentioned above there were four waves of Aliyah in the Return to Zion of 538-444 BC:
Sheshbazzar’s Aliyah, had occurred near after Cyrus’s Declaration, in 538 BC. Approximately 1,000 young Jews made Aliya to redeem the land of Israel from its ruins and to re-establish the holy temple on the temple mount.
The Book of Ezra 1:7–8,11 depicts Sheshbazzar’s Aliyah as a consent and encouragement of the Persian King Cyrus:
7 And King Cyrus took out all the vessels of the House of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of Jerusalem and had placed them in the temple of his god;
8 Now Cyrus, the king of Persia, took them out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and he counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah…
11 All the vessels of silver and gold were five thousand, four hundred; Sheshbazzar brought up [ He’ela / Aliyah ] everything when the exiles were brought up [ He’alot / Aliyah ] from Babylon to Jerusalem.
The second wave of Aliyah, known as Zerubbabel’s Aliyah, was led by “Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel”, the grandson of Jeconiah, king of Judah, and a descendant of the house of David as well as “Joshua the son of Jehozadak” who was appointed as high priest (Kohen Gadol), in 538 BC.
According to the account in the book of Ezra, 42,360, not including servants or handmaids, made Aliyah in this wave of Zion returnees to Jerusalem and Judah. Among them, there were 24,144 ordinary men (57.12%) and 12,452 women and children (29.46%). There were also 4,289 priests (10.15%), 74 generic Levites (0.18%), 128 Singers (0.3%), 139 Gatekeepers (0.33%) (Singers and gatekeepers were specific roles of Levites in the holy temple in Jerusalem that had been passed from one generation to another), 392 Nethinim (0.93%), and 652 people who could not tell their fathers’ houses and their ancestry (1.54%). 90 other people (0.21%) appear to have joined in, to complete that count of 42,360. In addition 7,337 servants and handmaids joined in, boosting the population to 49,697. They also brought up their working animals: 736 horses (one for about every 68 people), 246 mules (one for every 202 people), 435 camels (one per 114 people), and 6,720 donkeys (one for every 7 people). A smaller portion of this wave of Aliyah was well born, possibly one-sixth of the returnees, whereas the rest were of a lower class and poor. The Zion returnees, in this Aliyah, were of the Tribe of Judah, Tribe of Levi and the Tribe of Benjamin, and settled in their cities and places from before the destruction of the first temple, Solomon’s Temple, as many of them kept scribed documents indicating their land tenure status of land ownership in various places.
The third Aliyah was led by Ezra the scribe, in 458 BC. Around 5,000 Jews were in this wave of Zion returnees. Ezra made Aliyah with an official approval of the Persian government and license to take out all donated money from exiled Jews and government officials to the holy temple and Jews living in Israel.
The fourth Aliyah was led by Nehemiah in 445 BC. Prior to that, he served as the royal cupbearer to the king of Persia and as Man of the Great Assembly. It is not clear how many Zion returnees joined him, but the Book of Nehemiah depicts a strong army escort supplied by the king. Nehemiah requested a temporary leave of absence to go to Judah, to the place of his forefathers, in order to rebuild Jerusalem and repair its city walls and his request was approved by the king. For this purpose, he was given permission to cut down woods and was escorted by the army. In Nehemiah’s time, Jerusalem’s Jewish population had grown considerably and peaked at around 300,000.
Since we know that the story of Purim occurred in Persia between the third and fourth wave of immigration back to the land of Israel, it is reasonable to assume that the increased in antisemitism in Persia during the days of Xerces may have incentivized more Jews to make Aliyah. Even if Haman never existed, and even if there was no actual evidence of state-backed genocide, the mere fact that such a story emerged during this period is evidence that the Jews felt threatened, and did not feel confident that the Persian King would protect them in case of physical danger.
State Sponsored Genocide Against The Jews of Alexandria
Besides the story of Purim, there is one more story of state-sponsored genocide against the Jews which is told in the 3rd Book of Maccabees. As I have noted in another post, the four books of Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Biblical canon, but are considered Apocrypha or External Books.
The contents of 3 Maccabees have a legendary character, which scholars have not been able to tie to proven
historical events, and it has all the appearances of a romance. According to the book, after Ptolemy’s defeat of Antiochus III in 217 BC at the battle of Raphiah, he visited Jerusalem and the Second Temple. However, he was miraculously prevented from entering the building. This led him to hate the Jews and upon his return to Alexandria, he rounded up t
he Jewish community there to put them to death in his hippodrome.
However, Egyptian law required that the names of all those put to death be written down, and all the paper in Egypt was exhausted in attempting to do this, so that the Jews were able to escape. Ptolemy then attempted to have the Jews killed by crushing by elephant; however, due to various interventions by God, the Jews escaped this fate, despite the fact that the 500 elephants had been specially intoxicated to enrage them. Finally, the king changed his mind and bestowed favor upon the Jews, with this date being set as a Festival of Deliverance.
When compared to the Purim Megillah, the book of 3 Maccabees is remarkably similar in spirit (though not in detail): a foreign King turned against the Jews in his kingdom and decided to round them all up and kill them in one day.
The decree to kill all the Jews in 3 Maccabees Chapter 4 is given in a similar manner to the one in the Purim Megillah:
 Therefore we have given orders that, as soon as this letter shall arrive, you are to send to us those who live among you, together with their wives and children, with insulting and harsh treatment, and bound securely with iron fetters, to suffer the sure and shameful death that befits enemies.
 For when these all have been punished, we are sure that for the remaining time the government will be established for ourselves in good order and in the best state.
 But whoever shelters any of the Jews, old people or children or even infants, will be tortured to death with the most hateful torments, together with his family.
 Any one willing to give information will receive the property of the one who incurs the punishment, and also two thousand drachmas from the royal treasury, and will be awarded his freedom.
 Every place detected sheltering a Jew is to be made unapproachable and burned with fire, and shall become useless for all time to any mortal creature.”
 The letter was written in the above form.
And, just like the story of Purim, King Ptolomy changes his mind and the Jews are saved from genocide. In this drama, the role of Mordechai is played by a Jewish elder named Eleazar in 3 Maccabees Chapter 6
 Then a certain Eleazar, famous among the priests of the country, who had attained a ripe old age and throughout his life had been adorned with every virtue, directed the elders around him to cease calling upon the holy God and prayed as follow:
 Just as Eleazar was ending his prayer, the king arrived at the hippodrome with the beasts and all the arrogance of his forces.
 Then the king, when he had returned to the city, summoned the official in charge of the revenues and ordered him to provide to the Jews both wines and everything else needed for a festival of seven days, deciding that they should celebrate their rescue with all joyfulness in that same place in which they had expected to meet their destruction.
Once again, this story surely has fictional elements to it, but the point is that it must have reflected a clear and present threat that the Jews of Alexandria (like the Jews of Persia) felt, either instigated by the King, or at least not prevented by him.
Just as in modern Zionism, the Return to Zion of 538-444 BC (and the much, later Maccabean revolt) were most probably influenced by threats of violence and genocide against the Jews in the diaspora of Persia and Egypt.
In both cases, the Jews tried to integrate into the local populations, but were still hated and despised as outsiders.
In the case of Esther, we know that she did not disclose her Jewish background, and the King did not know that she was Jewish until she finally told him. Clearly, she was well assimilated into the language and culture of Persia, otherwise the King and his helpers would have immediately realized her foreign status. Similarly, in Alexandria, we know that most Jews were Hellenized, both in language and in culture.
Yet, in spite of assimilation into the ruling Empire’s language and culture, these documented accounts of extreme antisemitic violence and state-sponsored genocide attempts have emerged within both of these societies. As we unfortunately know, such incidents of state-sponsored expulsion and genocide would continue to plague the Jewish people throughout ancient and modern history.
Fast forwarding through history, here is a short film about Jan Karski, a non-Jewish Polish underground fighter who volunteered to enter the Jewish Ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland in order to see the atrocities first-hand and then fly around the world and report them to the leaders of the free world. As we know, the world did not listen. You can also find Jan Karski’s actual video testimonies on Youtube.
Ironically, the current Islamic Mullahs of Persia (now Iran) are still trying to inflict state-sponsored genocide on the Jews of Israel through their Nuclear program.
History has come full circle, but once again Mordechai will prevail over Haman.