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The Holiday of Purim: From Salvation to Vengeance

Dr. David Frankel
| 12/03/2006
Symbols and Rituals

Toward the very end of the scroll of Esther, in Ix, 24-26, the essence of the story of Purim is encapsulated in the following words:

For Haman the son of Hamdatha the Aggagite, adversary of all the Jews planned to destroy all the Jews, and cast a Pur, that is, a lot, to terrorize them and destroy them. But when it came before the King, he proclaimed in writing: Let his evil plan which he planned against the Jews return on his own head. So they hung him and his sons on the stake. That’s why they called these days “Purim” – because of the Pur.

This passage constitutes what scholars call a “name etiology.” It comes to explain why the holiday is called Purim, just like other Biblical passages explain why Moses was called by his name, or why Jacob was called Israel. In spite of the fact that this passage follows this familiar biblical form, several questions arise upon closer reflection.

Why, in the first place, is it necessary to recapitulate the entire story? Anyone who has followed the storyline until this point is in no need to be reminded of the basic story. Even more significant, the summary of the story in our passage does not fully correspond to that which is told in the previous chapters. The most blatant difference is that our passage makes no reference to the terrible two-day battle in which the Jews defended themselves from their enemies and killed those who sought their misfortune. This battle was carried out in all the cities where the Jews lived.

On the first day, the thirteenth of Adar, seventy five thousand were killed throughout the provinces, and five hundred in Shushan. On the second day another three hundred were killed in Shushan (ix, 6, 12, 14-16). It was in the wake of these victories that the Jews rested from their enemies, and the time of anguish was turned into celebration. The Jews spontaneously held feasts on the days following the onslaughts, and these feasts were institutionalized into the feast of Purim for all time (ix, 17-18, 22). None of this is hinted at in our etiological passage. It is as if the story ended simply with the destruction of Haman and his sons!

Not only is the two-day battle against the enemies of the Jews glossed over in silence. It is basically precluded by what is said. According to our passage, the king ordered in writing that Haman’s plan against the Jews “return on his head.” This clearly implies a reversal of Haman’s plan by order of the king. According to the preceding story, however, the killing of Haman was never written, and was never presented as a reversal of the edict against the Jews (vii, 9-10). On the contrary, the killing of Haman was followed by a special request by Esther that “it be written to return the books of the plan of Haman” (viii, 5). This request was refused on the grounds that “a writing that is written in the name of the king and sealed by the king’s ring cannot be revoked” (viii, 8). This is the reason that the battle had to take place: the original edict could not be revoked, and the only way to save the Jews was for a second edict to be proclaimed, allowing the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies. All of this contradicts the simple implication of the sentence, “But when it came before the King, he proclaimed in writing: Let his evil plan which he planned against the Jews return on his own head.” It thus appears that the failure to mention the two day battle in our passage is not an incidental oversight, or the result of selective abbreviation (Hakham, Esther (Daat Mikra), p. 61; Carey A. Moore, Esther (AB), New York 1971, p. 94). According to our passage, the king indeed wrote an edict reversing the original one against the Jews. There was thus no need for the Jews to gather on the thirteenth day of Adar and go out to battle.

It is interesting to note that some of the unique ideas implied in our etiological passage are reflected in an ancient Greek version of the Esther scroll referred to by scholars as the A text (For an English translation of the A text cf. David J. A. Clines, The Esther Scroll (JSOTS 30), Sheffield 1984, pp. 216-247. Clines discussion of the relationship between the A text and the Hebrew one (the Masoretic text) is found on pp. 71-92). The idea that a decree sealed with the king’s signet ring cannot be revoked is never mentioned there. In the A text it is Mordechai, not Esther, who asks that Haman’s edict be revoked, and the king never refuses this request. Instead, he empowers Mordechai him to do as he sees fit.

And the king called Mordechai and bestowed on him all that was Haman’s. And he said to him, What do you want? I shall do it for you. Mordechai said, that you should revoke the letter of Haman. So the king put into his hands the affairs of the kingdom. And the king empowered Mordechai to write whatever he wished. And the epistle that Mordechai sent contained the following: “Haman sent you letters saying thus, Make haste swiftly to send the disobedient Jewish People to destruction for me. But I Mordechai inform you that the one who did these things has been hanged before the gates of Shushan and his household has been executed (viii, 15-17, 33-38).

The clear implication of all this is that no one was under any obligation to follow Haman’s edict. The passage in the A text is not an exact parallel to our etiological passage at the end of the Hebrew text. The written edict in the A text does not call for the killing of Haman (which occurs earlier). It only informs the citizens of the empire that he has been punished as a traitor, and that his edict no longer applies (This is also implied by the fact that the edict comes from the new second in command, Mordechai the Jew. In the “E addition” of the Septuagint the king sends the following written orders: “Therefore do well by not paying attention to the letters sent to you by Haman, because the man himself who did such things has been hanged at the gate of Shushan.”[/note] Still, the resemblance is close enough to indicate that the etiology in xi, 24-26 indeed refers to a written reversal of Haman’s scheme.

The A text also refers to violent killings of the enemies of the Jews. Yet, since Haman’s edict was nullified, the killing of enemies is not ordered by Mordechai in his edict, and does not occur on the days that Haman planned the killing of the Jews as a counter-attack. Instead, Mordechai sends orders in writing, sealed with the king’s signet ring “that his people should remain each in his own place and should keep festival to God” (viii, 34) (Might this be a reference to Pesach, when no one was allowed to leave the house till morning? In the Hebrew version of the scroll the three day fast preceding Esther’s uninvited approach to the king falls on Pesach without any apparent concern for the holiday). It is Esther who requests, “Grant me permission to punish my enemies with slaughter. And the King said, So be it. And she smote the enemies in great numbers” (viii, 18-19). No date is given with regard to this act. By implication, it was carried out not by the Jews, but by the servants of the king. It would seem to be an act of pure vengeance rather than self defense. In any event, there is no connection drawn between this undated act and the feast of Purim (Later in the A text a closer resemblance to the Hebrew account is found: “And Esther said, Let permission be given to the Jews to slay and plunder whomever they wish. And he agreed. And they slew 70, 100 men.Wherefore these days were called Phourdaia (!), on account of the lots which fell out for these days for a memorial” (viii, 46, 49). This would appear to be a late duplicate of Esther’s acts in vii, 18ff. According to both Clines (above) and M. Fox (The Redaction of the Books of Esther, Atlanta 1991), it did not belong to the original A text, or “Proto – AT”).

How are we to account for all these variations? The first thing we should note is that the story of Esther and Mordechai appears to have grown and alternated throughout a long period of transmission. Aside from the variations in the A text, (Scholars disagree as to whether this reflects an earlier Hebrew version of the story or a later abbreviation based upon the Septuagint. We tend to agree with those who consider it to reflect an early Hebrew version. For a discussion cf. Clines and Fox). the standard Greek translation, the Septuagint, preserves two sets of expansions to the story. One set reflects a translation of Hebrew or Aramaic expansions, and another set was written from the start in Greek. This indicates that the story was not written in one official version, and sealed off from development at the time of its writing. Rather, various versions of the story were told and retold in each generation. This is only to be expected since we are dealing with a text that was used in the liturgy of Purim. Just as the Haggadah of Pesach was expanded over centuries of use, so was the scroll of Purim. And if the Greek versions of the story show evidence of growth, expansion, and variant accounts, there is no reason to assume that the Hebrew text is any different.

In light of the above, we would suggest that the etiological passage of Esther ix, 24-26 refers to and reflects a variant account of the story (So Lewis B. Paton, The Book of Esther (ICC), New York 1951, pp. 295-296). According to the version hinted at in the etiological passage of ix, 24-26, the danger against the Jews was removed with the destruction of Haman and his sons, and the holiday of Purim is celebrated because of the removal of that danger. Scholars have often argued that some of the etiological explanations in the Bible have been secondarily appended to the stories (I. L. Seeligman, Studies in Biblical Literature, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 11ff). In our case, the etiological passage would have been appended after the name “Purim” became so popular that an explanation as to its origin and meaning had to be offered (In 2 Macc. Xv, 36 the day is referred to as the “Day of Mordechai.”[/note] The etiological passage, which superfluously summarizes the story (but in different terms), was thus not written by the original author of our scroll in its present form. The passage indeed seems to be isolated and poorly connected to the flow of the text. It may have had an independent existence before being appended to its present context.

If this is so, how might we describe the relationship between the variant explanations for the celebration of the festival? What is the relationship between the explanation that the feast comes at the time that the Jews rested from killing their enemies throughout the empire, and the explanation that it comes in celebration of the killing of Haman and his sons, which served to reverse his decree? Our first inclination might be to say that the attempt to base of the celebration of Purim on the reversal of the edict against the Jews and the destruction of Haman and sons reflects a later apologetic tendency (So, apparently, A. Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary – Esther, Phil. 2001, pp. 89-90 who refers to the summary as reflecting a “sanitized” form of the story. For anti-Semitic diatribes that center of the book of Esther cf. H. Gevaryahu, JBQ 21 (1993), pp. 3-12). The account of the two-day battle in which the Jews killed so many Gentiles was undoubtedly a source of great discomfort for Jews, particularly in the face of non-Jewish Bible readers.

In spite of the plausibility of this explanation, we should not rule out the possibility that the etiological passage, even if written at a late stage, preserves an early tradition, and that the story reflected in the scroll of Esther, which accounts for the celebration of Purim in terms of rest and celebration after the two day battle, reflects a later development. Several considerations speak in favor of this possibility.

First, the idea that the edict was removed is certainly sufficient to turn the time of anguish into a time of celebration. This would make the festival center on salvation, not vengeance. It is also difficult to explain why the Greek text would consistently remove the idea that the edict of the king was irreversible, and replace this with an account of the reversal of the edict. This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that the Greek version does report that Esther slaughtered her enemies. Much more plausible is the assumption that the contrived idea that the Jews begged for the edict of Haman to be revoked, but that that request was denied so that a bloody battle of “self-defense” (in which not a single Jew was injured) was forced upon the Jews is an apologetic justification of Esther’s aggressive onslaught against her defenseless enemies as reported in the Greek text. The justification in which it is claimed that war was forced upon the victor, who unsuccessfully tried to avoid it is not the invention of contemporary international politics. It is already used by Jephtah, who claims that the Israelite occupation of the territory of Sihon was forced upon Israel, since Sihon refused Israel’s offerings of peace (Ju. Xi, 19-22; cf. Num. xxi, 21-24). A less apologetic account in Deuteronomy ii, 24ff tells us that the Israelites initiated a provocation so that they could capture the area.

Several aspects of the Hebrew text itself may preserve hints that the motif of the irreversibility of Haman’s edict (which resulted in Mordechai’s edict that the Jews may defend themselves and kill their enemies) does not reflect the earliest version of the story. The idea of irreversibility is never mentioned when Haman writes and sends his edict against the Jews in chapter 3. This is surprising, since, if the motif were original, its mention would significantly serve to heighten the narrative tension, and prepare for the unavoidable battle of chapter 9. Nor is there any historical evidence that would indicate that Persian edicts were not reversible. The idea that Mordechai the Prime minister, himself condemned to death by Haman’s edict, could give an edict concerning his own right to defend himself from his own subjects seems inherently absurd. Perhaps, then, in an earlier version of the story the king’s ring was required to authorize edicts, not to make them irreversible.

It has long been my own sense that with the hanging of Haman and the rejoicing of the Jews, the story is basically over, and that much of the additional material at the end of the book is anticlimactic.

The idea that Haman’s edict against the Jews is still in effect in spite of the fact that the king has just hung Haman in fury over the offense against his own wife surprises, I suspect, many a reader. After the hanging of Haman, we are told that Mordechai appeared before the king, that Esther explained to the king her relation to Mordechai, that the king placed Haman’s authority in the hands of Mordechai, that the king gave Esther Haman’s property, and Esther handed it over to Mordechai (viii, 1-2). Everything here sounds like things are winding down. Suddenly, Esther falls at the feet of the king, weeping and begging that he spare the Jewish people (vv. 3-6). This reflects a radical change of mood from the previous material, where Mordechai and Esther exhibit total composure (Nor is it clear why the king has to stretch forth his golden rod at this point (v. 4), since Esther obviously is not appearing before him now for the first time in thirty days (iv, 11)). And why, if the assumption is that the hanging of Haman and appointment of Mordechai do not reverse the edict against the Jews, is the king so complacent after the hanging? Why is he not eager to protect his queen and new Prime minister? How can he give to Mordechai his signet ring, and to Esther Haman’s estate without first ensuring that they be somehow protected from the edict calling for their destruction?

It is also worth noticing that no mention is made before chaps. Viii-ix of any enemies of the Jews other than Haman. He alone is presented as the “adversary of the Jews” who compels others to annihilate the Jews by his fiat. Were the motif of vengeance against the enemies of the Jews an original element in the story, we would have expected these enemies to be mentioned sometime before their downfall.

It is precisely this idea, we suggest, that is implied in the wording of ix, 25: “But when it came before the King, he proclaimed in writing: Let his evil plan which he planned against the Jews return on his own head.” The celebration of Purim was originally about salvation. The motif of “vengeance from enemies” (viii, 13) may reflect the spirit of a later time (According to Paton, Esther, p. 63, “The bitter hatred of gentiles, and the longing for their destruction that this book discloses, were first induced by Antiochus’ resolve either to Hellenize or to exterminate the nation.” Kaufmann, on the other hand, brings significant arguments in favor of a pre-Hellenistic setting for the story (Toledoth, vol. viii, pp. 439-443). We suggest attributing the motif of “vengeance from enemies” alone to the later period. As noted by Fox (pp. 217-218), the gentiles of Shushan seem to be depicted as identifying with the Jews from the very start (cf. iii, 15 and the comments of Hakham ad. loc.). We should also note that Esther’s maidens, presumably gentile, join in her fasting (iv, 16)).

David Frankel is Senior Lecturer of Bible, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

David Frankel has served as a senior Bibile lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 1992. He earned his PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School: and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.”  From 1991 to 1996, Rabbi Dr. Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.

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