Should believers celebrate Purim?
The Facts Behind the Celebration of Purim
Purim and its background history
Outline of the Book of Esther:
Esther 1: This book is presented to give us an insight into the domestic life of the Persian king from the pen of one who was evidently familiar with ancient Oriental customs. There is much dispute as to who this Ahasuerus was. The present text has indications that he must have reigned in the latter time of the Persian rule, and if so it fits in well with Xerxes, who undertook the expedition against Greece. Many have expressed their hope that Queen Vashti regained her former dignity in the latter part of Xerxes' reign, while others assume that she was executed for disobeying the king's order to reveal herself and dance lewdly for his drunken guests. The stately feast was in accordance with Mideastern customs.
Esther 2: How it came to pass that Esther was brought before the king. The pedigree of Mordecai is given. The whole of this story is unique; many things transpired from Vashti's dismissal to Esther's promotion, but the chapter has for its underlying theme the providence of Elohim, through Elohim is not mentioned once throughout the book.
Esther 3: If Saul had carried out faithfully Elohim's command, there would have been no Haman. There is a lesson here in Israel's history. If Israel had obeyed Yahuah as to the extirpation of the Canaanite idolaters, they would have saved themselves from false practices and ultimate destruction and exile. Haman despises Mordecai, and in consequence obtains a decree against all the Jews throughout the vast empire of Persia.
Esther 4: Mordecai's great mourning and the great wailing of Jews in every province. Esther is made acquainted with the trouble. She sends to ask of Mordecai the cause. He sends her a copy of the decree, and puts before her a great responsibility and assurance that she will not escape if by apathy she neglects her duty. Esther proclaims a fast for the Jews in Shushan, and also among her maidens.
Esther 5. Esther devises a plan upon receiving the king's favor. Her device is cleverly thought out to put Haman off his guard. Haman is lifted up with pride to think that he alone should be invited by the king to Esther's banquet, and not once but twice returns home and recounts his glory to his friends, but deplores that Mordecai the Jew treats him with such contempt. His wife advises him to quickly have Mordecai hanged.
Esther 6: Here surely is the hand of Elohim, and why is it not acknowledged? This seems to suggest that the story was not written by an observant Jew; besides, the Persian words used would scarcely have occurred to a born Jew. Mordecai's information, which led to the condemnation of the two would-be assassins, Bigthana and Teresh, is read to the king. Finding an honor had been given to Mordecai the king asks, "Who is in the court?" It so happens, not by chance surely, that Haman was there. The king asks, "What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honor?" Haman is caught, and has to pile upon his enemy all the glory he had prescribed for himself. Haman returns home mortified, and hears his own doom from the wise men about him. Haman goes to Esther's banquet.
Esther 7: Esther at the second banquet tells the king of the plot against her and her people. The king asks, "Who is he and where is he that dares presume in his heart to deprive the king of his lovely queen?" The adversary Haman is revealed. The king is angry and goes into his garden. On looking back, he finds Haman prostrate before Esther. Haman, soliciting the queen for his life, had ventured too near to Esther's couch. His action is mistakenly exaggerated by the king, and he himself is hanged on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai.
Esther 8: Mordecai is advanced into the position of Haman, and all of Haman's goods confiscated and given to Esther, who hands them over to Mordecai. The queen now intercedes for her people, that the handwriting and cruel purpose of Haman might be prevented. The king gives her a free hand with Mordecai to counteract the threat by another decree, but without contradicting what had gone before. Mordecai offers a wise plan to allow the Jews to defend their lives in defense. The posts hurry forward with the royal decree.
Esther 9: The Jews, now having the rulers of the several provinces on their side for fear of Mordecai, withstand all their enemies in Shushan and the Provinces. The king again grants a second day of reprisals in Shushan. We are told of the great numbers of the Jews' enemies who fell. Then we read an account of the establishment of the feast Purim.
Esther 10: This last chapter gives us another reason for supposing that the monarch of the story was Xerxes. His expedition into Greece must have emptied his treasury, and so a new taxation was called for. The reference to the isles of the sea is evidently the Grecian Archipelago.
Leading Scholarship on the Purim Holiday:
Worshipful or Carnavalesque?
Adele Berlin, in "The Book of Esther in Modern Research," (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 380, T&T Clark, London, 2003) says, "The book [of Esther] is important in Jewish life, for without it there would be no Purim…apart from the book of Esther, there is no mention in the Bible of Purim and no reason for its existence." (p.10) She adds that the book and holiday are "carnavalesque…the book is meant to be funny, and I want people to appreciate its comic nature…it is likely that the rabbis viewed Esther as a comedy." (ibid. pp. 10, 12)
Dr. Barry D. Walfish, in "Kosher Adultery? The Mordecai-Esther-Ahasuerus Triangle in Talmudic, Medieval and Sixteenth Century Exegesis," tells us, "In general, playfulness and lightheartedness have been characteristics of Purim and the Esther story from the beginning. Transgressing boundaries, flouting Jewish practice, and mocking Jewish law are common practices on Purim. See Greenstein 1987:231.2." Should we choose to celebrate a wild holiday that mocks Scriptural morality and the Torah?
Dr. Ori Z.Soltes, in "Images and the Book of Esther: From Manuscript Illumination to Midrash," says, "…the demise of Haman and his sons, is, for the audience, laughable; and everyone celebrates by allowing the fun of the story's finale to spill off the stage (and off the narrative page) into a raucous festival…The entire emphasis, in celebrating the holiday, on the play between revelation and hiddenness—accentuated by the use of costumes and masks, and no doubt influenced by the Christian carnival celebrations (which more or less coincide on the calendar with Purim)—would have had a particularly strong appeal." (p.140) Purim should be compared with Mardi Gras, not with the Torah Holy Days.
In England, Dr. Stephanie Dalley related that a friend "took me to a Purim service in Oxford to witness the high spirits of a liberal tradition including whirling football rattles, men dressed in women's clothes and jewelry; and hissing, booing, and stamping at the sound of Haman's name…and brought me a selection of Haman's ears for delectation…" ("Esther's Revenge at Susa," p. vii).
How is Purim traditionally kept in America? Face painting, Esther's royal scepter replaced by "a magic wand from fairyland," Vashti "dressed in black as a Halloween witch" from the pagan early Celtic New Year festival. (Reference: Judith Neulander, "The Ecumenical Esther: Queen and Saint in Three Western Belief Systems," p.193)
Immoral and Offensive to Jews and Christians:
Adele Berlin says, "…there is no Purim in the Christian calendar and there is a stream of Christian exegesis that perceives the book as lacking in moral values and in literary merit…there are parts of it that modern Jews also find offensive." (p.10) Dr. Michael Fox bluntly states that Esther wins the king's favor in a "sex contest." (1991a:28)
Sidnie White Crawford, in "Esther and Judith: Contrasts in Character," summarizes the immorality in the Book of Esther well: "The lack of religious piety in the Hebrew version of Esther is notorious. God is not mentioned by name at all. Neither Esther nor Mordecai display any concern for any of the laws of Judaism, even though one of Haman's calumnies against the Jews is that they have a law different from every other people (Est. 3:8). Esther becomes the sexual partner and then the wife of a Gentile; she lives in his palace and eats his food with no recognition of the laws of kashrut; in fact, since Ahasuerus and his court, including Haman, have no idea that she is a Jew, she must be quite assimilated. There are no prayers, sacrifices or other acts of conventional religious piety…" (p. 67-68) Are we to uphold and celebrate Esther as an example for us to follow???
Dr. Timothy S. Laniak, in "Esther's Volkcentrism and the Reframing of Post-exilic Judaism," states, "What should a reader think of the Jewess whose daily ritual consists of cosmetic baths in preparation for a night [of sin!] with a pagan king? What of one lost in a courtly crowd whose suspicions are never aroused by any distinctively Jewish behavior? Instead of challenging the king's diet as Daniel did, she prepares the king's food! This is the one known not for her religious habits, but for her beauty and charm—and her erotic capacities. Her choice is not to reveal her Jewishness, but to avoid risk by concealing it. Esther seems flagrantly anti-Torah…There is no concern for ritual purity and little concern for…'moral absolutes'." (p.83)
Professor Elizabeth Groves, in her study, "Double Take: Another Look at the Second Gathering of Virgins in Esther 2:19a," is equally blunt in her assessment that Esther was merely a sex object: "Esther was a "sex object only, whose nationality—Persian or otherwise—was so unimportant that it did not even need to be known." (p.103) Groves adds the interesting fact that the Hebrew used in Esther 5:1, where Esther "comes to the king 'royally'…suggests that her royal robes were designed for sex appeal."
The recent Christian film, "One Night With The King," glorified Esther's illicit co-habitation with a heathen monarch as if it were something wonderful to emulate. The truth of the situation is far different than the rosy picture presented by the evangelical community. Professor Groves tells us, "The end of [Esther] 2.14 seems to me to recount a tragedy. Girls were rounded up and deflowered by the king for his pleasure and his vanity, probably by the hundreds, according to Phipp's estimation (as cited by Wyler 1995:119), and then would linger, forgotten, in the harem for the rest of their lives…The king's sexual indulgence represented a 'theft' of sorts, which affected the girl's families even to future generations."
Dr. Barry D. Walfish, in "Kosher Adultery? The Mordecai-Esther-Ahasuerus Triangle in Talmudic, Medieval and Sixteenth Century Exegesis," says, "The book of Esther presented a challenge for Jewish religious leaders in the Second Temple and rabbinic periods. Its lack of religious sentiment, mention of religious practices or any reference to God raised serious questions about its suitability for inclusion in the biblical canon (Moore 1992:636-9). Indeed it has been suggested by some that its unreligious nature is the very reason why a copy of the book has never been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran." (p.111) He adds, "The rabbis in the Babylonian tractate Megillah (10b-17a)…portray Esther not as a young virgin, but as a mature woman who was already married to Mordecai when she was taken to the king's harem. This interpretation… raised the level of transgression from one of intercourse with a gentile to possible adultery." (p.113) Dr. Walfish adds that in Esther 2:17, women as well as virgins appear in the Hebrew text. "If women and virgins are mentioned in the same verse, the king must have tried out married women as well." (p.123)
Professor Stephanie Dalley asks why Esther wants to slay 510 people in Susa and 75,000 people in the provinces for essentially a personal vendetta? And why did the king allow so many of his people slain, instead of only Haman? Dalley says that this is "a tale reminiscent of the Arabian nights" stories. ("Esther's Revenge At Susa," pp. 195, 197)
Let us list a few of the morally repugnant customs that are a part of the Purim celebration: 1. Transvestitism, men dressing as women contrary to Deuteronomy 22:5, which calls it "detestable." 2. Drunkenness. Celebrants traditionally get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between saying, "Cursed be Haman," and "Cursed be Mordecai." Dr. Stephanie Dalley states, "Indeed, this behavior is positively recommended in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b)" (ibid. p.187). Ishtar was the goddess of sexual love, as well as drunken feasts and wild carnal pleasure (Dalley, ibid. p.137). 3. Cannabalistic ritual; eating cakes and loaves in the form of Haman's ears. What is the possible origin of this? Ishtar was the pagan goddess of wisdom; in Akkadian wisdom was "hasisu" meaning ear (Dalley, ibid. p.152). Dr. Dalley says, "This can be interpreted from an anthropological viewpoint, as sublimated cannibalism, in which the victor consumes a part of his enemy." This is contra to Deuteronomy 14:3-8, "you must eat nothing that is detestable." 4. Torah-breaking, or irreverence and mocking of Torah and Scripture, as noted previously. 5. Paganism. Dr. Dalley states that there are "features in the feast of Purim which have led scholars, both Christian and Jewish, to suppose that a pagan, non-Jewish festival lies behind…" (ibid. p.188)
Finally, Dr. J.B. McFadyen, in "Introduction to the Old Testament," sums it all up well in saying, "All the romantic glamour of the story cannot blind us to its religious emptiness and moral depravity." (p.315)
Sidnie White Crawford, in 'Esther and Judith: Contrasts in Character," tells us that the setting of the Book of Esther in the time of King Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), "in fact contradicts what we know of the reign of the historical Xerxes (e.g. his queen was one Amestris throughout his reign.)…The fictional nature of Judith is much more apparent, since the book begins with a whopping historical blunder, identifying Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians ruling from Nineveh (Judith 1.1)." The ancient Persian tablets have been found and translated, and show that there was no "Queen Vashti" in Persian history, nor an "Esther." That Amestris was queen throughout the reign of Xerxes is now a proven fact.
During the Persian era, it was popular for authors to write fictional romances based upon actual historical events. The same is true today, and a majority of Christian books sold at the present are "historical romances." This is what the Book of Esther was intended to be, not actual history. In Esther 2:6 we are told that Esther and Mordecai were part of the Jewish exile from Jerusalem in 587 B.C., which would make Esther somewhere over a century old when Xerxes came to the throne! Yet we are told that she was selected from among the young virgins in the Persian Empire. It is obvious that this story is a romantic tale, a loosely historical-based novel, not an actual historical account.
Few are aware that there are several different versions of the Book of Esther besides the version in our King James Bible. Esther was transformed into a much more religious person "…thanks to the LXX [Greek Septuagint translation], whose enhancement of her religiosity allowed the Council of Trent to canonize her book, and to cite her as a fitting role model for Christian women." (Dr. Judith Neulander, ibid., p. 182). The Roman Catholic Council of Trent met between 1545 and 1563 in Trento, Italy to counter the Protestant Reformation. The Book of Esther thus was not included in the Biblical canon until the late Middle Ages, and it was the much different Greek version, not the Masoretic (Authorized /King James Version) that was approved for canonization! The Hebrew version of Esther is dated by scholars to about 150 B.C., and the Greek version about fifty years later (i.e. 100 B.C.) per Neulander, ibid. p.179. If this were so, it was written many centuries after the events it describes; however, another possibility (see below) is that it was revised by a later editor centuries after it was first composed.
A fascinating conclusion has been proposed and amply documented by Professor Stephanie Dalley in her book, "Esther's Revenge at Susa," published by Oxford University Press in 2007. She states, "The Hebrew book of Esther contains more Akkadian and Aramaic loanwords in proportion to its length than any other book in the Hebrew Bible…and in a few cases we can show that they fell out of use before the Persian period" (p.165). Was the book of Esther actually first written in Assyria BEFORE the exile of the two tribes of the House of Judah in the Persian period? Was it actually originally a story relating to the earlier exile of the ten tribe House of Israel in Nineveh? Dr. Dalley presents some interesting facts to establish this surprising suggestion. She adds, "Between 612 [B.C.] and the Persian occupation, therefore, came at least seventy-two years during which Assyrian was no longer used in Babylonia, and Persian had not yet become current. A text that combines Assyrian and Persian vocabulary must have been revised at least once, allowing Persian words to enter into an earlier text" (p.166).
The title of the book itself is neither Hebrew, nor Persian, but pure Assyrian! The word "lot" is "puru" in Assyrian, "isqu" in Persian, and "goral" in Hebrew. The Assyrian word "puru" simply had the plural ending "im" added to it to form the word, "purim." Notice the helpful explanation given in Esther 3:7 and 9:24, "they cast the pur (that is, the goral/lot)." Goral was the common familiar Hebrew word for "lot." The game of casting "lots" itself is not of Hebrew origin, but was a part of the Assyrian Akitu festivals. The name "Esther" is derived from the Assyrian, "Ishtar," the goddess of love and war. Ishtar was not Persian! It is often mistakenly assumed that Esther's secondary name, "Hadassah," is a Hebrew word for "myrtle." Actually, it is derived from the Assyrian, "hadassatu," a bride of a deity. The Hebrew word for myrtle is "hedas," and Dr. Dalley states, "there are no Hebrew noun formations comparable with hadassah as a feminine noun form linked to hedas." The name "Vashti" is derived from the Assyrian "Bashti," meaning dignity, and was used as an Assyrian feminine personal noun. The name "Mordecai" has long been recognized as derived from Marduk, a god of Babylon also worshipped by the Assyrians. The name "Haman" is derived from "Humban," a god of the late Assyrian period.
There are many Assyrian words and phrases sprinkled throughout the Book of Esther, such as "bitan," a pavilion; "bira," a fort; "sharbit," a scepter (Esther 4:11; 5:2; 8:4); "keter," a crown; "pahat" for a high official, instead of the Persian word "satrap." In Esther 7:7, the king stalked off to his garden/yannah; the Persian word "paradeisos" (from which we get the word, "paradise") was not used. The use of Assyrian month names in the book of Esther, instead of Hebrew or Persian, is a direct connection. In Esther 3:8, Addar is stated to be the end of the year, which matches the Assyrian calendar, not that of Elamite Susa, where it is the first month of the year. Scholars have also determined that the dates of the pagan holidays in the book of Esther do not match up with the now-known Persian holy days, but instead match Assyrian holy days (ibid. pp. 146, 168, 169, 190).
The book of Esther is the story of a Hebrew girl who marries a pagan king. This could not have happened in Persia, whose laws required the king to only marry from within the Persian royal families. However, it DID HAPPEN in Assyria more than once. The Assyrian tablets recorded that King Sargon II, who deported the House of Israel in 721 B.C., married a Hebrew Ephraimite girl of the ten-tribe House of Israel named Athaliah (or Atalya), but who was not the same person as the daughter of King Omri in Second Chronicles chapter 22. In addition, Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, or Pul (2 Kings 15:19), who exiled the Israelite trans-Jordan tribes in 732 B.C., married a woman named Yaba who bears a West Semitic Name, probably Hebrew ("Prosophy of the Neo-Assyrian Empire," Helsinki, 2002). Dr. Yehezkel Kaufmann says, "From cuneiform writings we know that some of the important officials of the kingdom of Assyria were Israelites" ("The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah," p.9). In fact, it is now known that Hezekiah, king of Judah, was related to Assyrian king Sennacherib, who attacked Jerusalem in 701 B.C. (S. Dalley, ibid., p.29). Two of Hezekiah's daughters also married into the Assyrian royal family (S. Dalley, ibid., p.94). The weight of evidence leads to the supposition that the book of Esther was originally a religious novel with a loosely-based historical framework written by a member of the ten tribes taken in the Assyrian exile. After the ten tribes disappeared from history, Judean priests appropriated and revised it into a story of the Babylonian exile of Judah. However, the Judean exile was to the city of Babylon and vicinity; it was instead the House of Israel that was exiled to northern Assyria and "the cities of the Medes" in Persia (2 Kings 17:6). Dr. Lawrence Geraty of Andrews University states, "there is no evidence for a bona fide Persian period occupation" by Jewish exiles ("The Word Shall Go Forth," 1982, p.546). Dr. Stephanie Dalley says, "…the deportees who came into Assyria in the time of Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II, and Sennacherib, [were] taken from northern Israel, from Samaria, and from Judah. They were settled in various parts of the Assyrian homeland…All of them had reason to call the festival by an Assyrian word and to relate it to a story which was linked to the cultic calendar of Ishtar-of-Nineveh" (ibid. p.189).
Should we keep Purim? Dr. Iain Duguid advises, "It was established as an ordinance by edicts from Esther and Mordecai (Esth. 9:20-22, 29-32), not from God." (Westminster Theology Journal 68, 2006, "But Did They Live Happily Ever After? The Eschatology of the Book of Esther," p.93). The bottom line is that Purim is a man-made holiday, not a Divinely-commanded Holy Day, and as such should not be practiced as a required holy rite by believers.