We celebrated Purim last week, one of the most beloved Jewish festival. On the face of it, it seems to be just some kind of Carnival based on some Jewish-Oriental fairy tale. But the « Book of Esther » is also the most accurately relevant text about the life of Jews in Exile that has ever been written.
There is an ongoing debate about the historicity of the events described in the Book. On one hand, well, we have no other sources about them from the period. There apparently used to be a cult in Iran that venerated Haman, but we can’t be sure it was not created after the Purim story.
We don’t know exactly when the events happened because we don’t know exactly who « Ahasuerus » was supposed to be. Traditionally he has been identified as Artaxerxes II, but more modern commenters thought he was Xerxes (nowadays of the « 300 » movie fame but I doubt he looked like a drag queen). He could also have been Xerxes II or Artaxerxes I, or even a great general or ally of Nebuchadnezzar. There is some evidence for any of them.
The fact is, we don’t know and probably never will because we don’t have a lot of information about this period. When you listen to historians, you get the feeling that they know exactly everything of the past, but the truth is that the more we go back in time, the less we have – archeological artifacts or texts – and the more is conjecture. Our sources about the period are much fewer than we could think: royal archives from Assyria, Babylon or Persia, writers like Herodotus and a few other stuff. And Herodotus, for example, was known for not being very reliable to say the least.
We can also add the issue of the « 100 missing years » from the Jewish calendar. There is a strange discrepancy of up to 163 years between the modern historical dating and the traditional Jewish one from Seder Olam Rabbah – a discrepancy that occurs mostly in the Persian period when the Jewish dating counts some 50 years and 4 kings and the modern historical dating sees some 200 years and 10 kings. For example, the date of destruction of the First Temple is 586 BCE for the regular modern dating and 423 BCE for the Jewish traditional one. I have read once a very convincing case explaining why the Jewish dating was right and the modern one was wrong. On the other hand, many rabbis have also agreed that the Seder Olam Rabbah, which had only partial information and was not written according to modern scientific codes, could have made a mistake. But the fact is that we have a strange dark century in Eretz Israel, between Nehamia and Alexander, in which nothing happens if we go with the modern dating. And this is very weird.
So did the events of Purim really unfold as written ? We know that the text is at least from the 4th Century BCE and that Purim was celebrated very early – very close to the date of the supposed events. It seems obvious that something did happen and that Purim is based on some historical event even if it is not exactly what is written in the Book of Esther.
But whatever really happened, the story of Purim continues to impress because it is so relevant to our lives and our modern history. The story of Purim is the story of the Shoah that was barely avoided and we are the Jewish people that survived the Shoah that did really happen. The arguments of Haman to justify the extermination the Jews sound so modern and taken from the 1930’s that we can only understand the Book of Esther as a warning about the dangers of the life in exile. The nazis themselves had a special obsession about Purim – they wrote a lot about it. At the end of the first Nuremberg Trials in 1946, 12 nazi war criminals were condemned to death, but one was condemned in absentia and one, Goring, committed suicide the day before his execution. At the end, on 16th of October 1946, the day of Hoshanna Rabba, 10 were executed, by hanging, exactly like the sons of Haman, and exactly as Esther asked from « the King » – to hang once again the 10 sons of Haman. One of them, Julius Streicher, shouted « Purim Fest 1946 » just before dying.
Today, as a new Haman seats in Persia and wants once again to exterminate the Jewish people, we know that this time, we have the strength and the power to stop him before he even tries. We came back to our land and built a strong and proud country. We did learn the lesson from Purim and the 20th century.