Some Historical Background for Esther--The Persian Empire

I don’t know about you, but I am very excited about our new sermon series on Esther that is going to take us through the summer. Esther’s story is one of the most remarkable stories from the Ancient Near East world—it is one of the few stories we even have from that era in any language or culture. It is dramatic, emotional, scary, and tense! Pastor Chuck has compared it to a summer blockbuster movie and that’s a pretty apt comparison!

But unlike most summer blockbusters, Esther’s story is not fiction—the people in it really lived and really performed the actions described in the story. These are historical figures acting within a recognizable historical period. So to help us understand it better, it is helpful to look at the historical context. We will start by looking at the Persian Empire.

The Persian Empire is probably best known for the clashes it had during the 5th century BC with the Greek city-states. Most people today are familiar with some of the great victories that the Greeks won over the invading Persian armies. There is the story of Thermopylae and the delaying effort of the 300 Spartan warriors. There is the victory at Marathon after which a Greek soldier ran 25 miles back to announce the victory in Athens and promptly fell dead. Other battles are less well-known—the naval victory at Salamis and the great decisive battle of Platae. Because we know these battles from the Greek records of Herodotus and their later mythologization by Greek poets and dramatists, the Persians tend to come off rather bad. The odds against the Greeks are lengthened and the virtues that the Greeks prided themselves on—manliness, individualism, independence—is contrasted with the effeminacy and slavishness of the Persians. This stereotype prevails today (watch Zach Snyder’s 300 for example, or better yet, don’t watch it) but it is highly inaccurate. The Greek victories need to be contextualized by the fact that the Persians gave up mainly because they didn’t think the Greek city-states were rich enough to be worth conquering!

In fact, the Persian Empire was one of the most remarkable in the ancient world. Let’s start with its genesis.

The creator of the Persian Empire was Cyrus the Great (600-530 BC). Cyrus is one of those genuinely remarkable historical figures; he conquered nearly as much territory as Alexander while organizing it far more efficiently into an centrally administered but regionally devolved empire that lasted for nearly 300 years. Cyrus started by conquering the Medes, than the Lydians, and finally the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Over the course of thirty years, he managed to unite these far-flung territories and left them nearly complete in the hands of his son. The secret to the longevity of his empire, and a feature that many future empires would copy, was the toleration he showed for the religions and customs of the people’s that he conquered. He allowed high degrees of regional autonomy. For our purposes, this policy had significant consequences for the history of the Jewish people. It was Cyrus that restored the Jews to Jerusalem and permitted them to rebuild the temple.

Cyrus left the empire to his son Cambyses II (530-522), who in an 8-year reign added Egypt and Cyrene to the list. At his early and somewhat unexpected death, there was a brief power struggle that led to a change in the dynasty. The new king, Darius (522-486), featured in the book of Daniel, would lead the Persian empire to its greatest geographic extent and initiated the wars against the Greeks. His lineage would continue all the way down to the final overthrow of the empire at the battle of Guagamela in 331 BC and its replacement by the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.

Where does Esther fit into this? There is some question as to who exactly the name Ahasuerus refers to, as it is a Hebrewization of a Persian name. Usually, it is considered to be Xerxes, the king who followed Darius and ruled from 486-465. Some ancient sources, like Josephus and the Greek translation of Esther, attribute the events to the reign of either Artaxerxes I (465-424) or II (404-385). It is not clear one way or the other from the contents of Esther which one of those options it is, but thankfully this does not effect our interpretation of the passage.

Steven CrawfordEsther