Purim’s Historical Background – 5774
We are a little less than three weeks from Purim, so I will give a bit of the historical background to the festival and in the upcoming weeks, I will present some of the more philosophical ideas behind the festival.
The Purim story begins about 900 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The Jews had been living in Israel continually, since they first entered with Joshua in about 1270 BCE. For 410 years, King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem had been the focal point of Jewish spiritual and national life in Israel. The first major tragedy that the Jews of this era experienced was the division of the country into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea. The northern kingdom, which was populated by ten of the twelve tribes, was eventually invaded by the Assyrians under Sennacherib, who then exiled the inhabitants. Sennacherib’s policy of forced exile and assimilation directly caused the loss of the ten tribes to the Jewish people, through assimilation. Less than a hundred years later, the Jews were dealt another terrible blow. This time, the Babylonian Empire under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple and exiled almost all the remaining tribes (Judah, Benjamin, the Priests and the Levites) to Babylon (modern day Iraq).
Jeremiah the prophet had warned the Jewish people that there would be destruction and exile, but he also predicted that the Jews would return to Israel and rebuild the Temple and their homeland. Jeremiah even put a date on the return, declaring that the Temple would be rebuilt 70 years after its destruction. Nevertheless, there were many who did not believe that they would ever return to Israel, and felt that this exile signified the end of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Jews quickly became acclimated to the condition of exile and built a well-organized Jewish community in Babylon and neighboring Persia (modern day Iran).
The Persian Empire eventually took over Babylon, and a military leader by the name of Achashverosh (Xerxes in English or Chashiarsh in Persian) usurped the throne and became the supreme ruler of the Persian Empire. Based on a miscalculation, he believed that the 70-year deadline of Jeremiah’s prediction had already passed, and that the Jews were therefore doomed to remain in eternal exile. Since the Jews had outlived all previous empires (Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians and Babylonians) except his own, he became convinced that his was the eternal empire. In his mind, the permanent exile of the Jews was an indication of his empire’s immortality.
To celebrate this victory, he threw a colossal party in classic sultanate style, using the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Even more tragic than the party itself was the fact that the Jews in the capital city, Shushan (modern day Sussa in Iran), also participated in Achashverosh’s celebration, over the strong objections of their religious leadership. The Talmud states that it was this sin that caused the subsequent nearly fatal threat to the Jewish people.
One of the most ancient and persistent enemies of the Jewish people was the nation of Amalek, the first enemy to attack the Jews after the Exodus from Egypt. A descendant of the Amalekites, Haman, had ascended to the position of “prime minister” of the Persian Empire. This rabid anti-Semite planned an empire-wide pogrom to eliminate the Jewish people. He chose the date for this mass murder by casting lots. In Persian, the word for lot is pur, the plural form is Purim, hence the name of the holiday.
The heroine of the Purim story is Esther, a devout Jewish woman who was forcibly taken as a wife for Achashverosh. She and her uncle Mordechai, one of the religious leaders of that generation, were instrumental in saving the Jewish people from annihilation. After uniting the Jewish nation in repentance and prayer, they set about exposing Haman’s plot to the king. Haman and his equally wicked sons were executed when Achashverosh learned that he had planned to kill his beloved Queen Esther’s nation. The Jews were permitted to defend themselves against their enemies on the appointed day of annihilation, and they were totally victorious. Mordechai and Esther recorded the events of Purim in the prophetically inspired Megillat Esther (literally, Scroll of Esther). The Megillah is read publicly on the night and day of the Purim festival. Only three years after the events of Purim, King Darius, the son of Esther and Achashverosh, allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. The Temple was rebuilt exactly 70 years after its destruction, as predicted by Jeremiah.