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Athens: The Cause of the Esther Saga

There is much more to the biblical account of Esther than the Bible spells out.

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to AG News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Jeremy Stein, the CHLS Content Development coordinator, takes a deeper look into the remarkable story of Esther.

One of the destinations that the Center for Holy Lands Studies takes its trip participants is the city of Athens, the capital of Greece both in modern days and the days of the Ancients. For over two millennia, Athens has served as the seat of civil democracy, art, and culture, and therefore, has been the lure of man throughout the ages, but specifically in the days of the later Old Testament. Often when we lead groups in Athens, our attention usually focuses on Paul, and his time there. We see in Acts 17:16–34 that he preached to (and reasoned with) the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Aeropagus, also known as Mar’s Hill, just below the world renown Acropolis. We often think that this is the only true biblical significance that the city plays, as it is not mentioned anywhere outside the book of Acts. However, the city indeed played an influence in an area much earlier in the biblical timeline that is often overlooked.

One of the most read books in the month of March, because of its place in the Jewish calendar, is the Book of Esther. Often celebrated around this time (on the 14th of Adar [although, some cities, such as Jerusalem, celebrate it on the 15th] according to the Jewish calendar) is the festival of Purim. In Jewish circles, families have a celebration similar to our modern understanding of Mardi Gras, with masquerade carnivals, music, dancing in the streets, and lots of food.

The setting of the book of Esther takes place in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire located in modern-day Iran. The author opens the book stating, “in the third year of the Reign of King Xerxes” (Esther 1:3). The purpose of the author relating this information as to the year of the Xerxes reign is not only for later audiences to identify historical year but also for their audiences in the then present day of authorship to recall the events that surround the event being written.

The audiences of the day of authorship would undoubtedly know the historical context of the events that took place in the few preceding years. Only about five years before the reign of Xerxes, his father, King Darius decided to conquer Athens and add it to his Empire. However, he was defeated at the Battle of Marathon and driven back to Susa. He died a few years later in 485 BCE, leaving his fourth born son Xerxes as his heir. Xerxes had no desire to follow in the ways of his father at first; however, he was soon persuaded by those around him, to follow in his father’s footsteps and do what his father could not, conquer the Athenians. Xerxes however was not foolish. Witnessing the defeat of his father’s armies at the hands of the Athenians, Xerxes knew he needed a much greater army than before. This brings us to Esther 1.

Historically, no other ancient author went into as much detail into the reign of Xerxes as the Greek historian Herodotus who recounted that it was Xerxes goal to amass the largest army ever created — 5,283,220 men[1] — in his conquest force. For reference of the expense of simply feeding this size of an army, Herodotus recorded that the men consumed 110,340[2] medimnoi of wheat a day. A single medimnoi is about 55 liters (14.53 gallons), and served as the government pay for a single day for a Satrap or regional governor. From this, we can estimate of the cost of King Xerxes’s undertaking at about six million liters (about 1.6 million gallons) of wheat in a single day.[3] Herodotus recorded that Xerxes spent four years (483–480 BCE)[4] preparing to sack the city of Athens.[5] During this time, Herodotus revealed that Xerxes would hold assemblies, feasts, and banquets for all of the Persian nobilities in order convince them to give their own resources towards the war effort, enticing them with promises of taking part of the bounty.[6]

When we look at Esther 1, we see that Xerxes was doing just what Herodotus was describing, although the biblical narrative leaves out that detail (as the audiences in its day would already know precisely the purpose for the banquet):

In the third year of his reign [Xerxes] gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king's palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict:“There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired (Esther 1:3–8, ESV)

The King’s reasoning for showing his splendor and glory to his subjects was nothing more than an ancient pep-rally: “Come see all the marvelous things I have. If I as your king am great, then we as a people are great, and you as person of importance in my kingdom are great. Won’t you come and increase my glory so that yours will be increased as well?” This method was incredibly effective as we see an example of one Satrap giving two thousand talents (a single talent was about 110 pounds) of silver and 3,993,000 darics (a daric was a single coin about eight to 10 ounces in weight) of gold from his jurisdiction as well as an additional seven thousand darics of gold from his own pocket. But Xerxes’s ambition to take the city of Athens was what drove him to call his wife, Vashti, out of the place from her normal duties (which one will note that she is already attending to in Esther 1:9) in order to make a carnal spectacle to convince his governors to give even more toward the war effort. Most know what happened next, as the queen, not wanting to degrade herself to level meant for the king’s harem, refused Xerxes’ demands.

In its correct context, this action goes further than one might think of simply a refusal of a wife against her husband. According to Herodotus, during the reigns of the Persian kings, the queens held remarkable power in the courts of the nobles.[7] Vashti’s actions to deny the command of her husband to parade her about could have been viewed in a very different way by the crowds then present than how we may read it today. Her actions may have seemed like statement of opposition to Xerxes conquest of Athens.

Herodotus recounted that Xerxes had trouble gaining the momentum in his early gatherings of nobles who had already witnessed defeat at the hands of the Athenians and did not want to attempt this again. Vashti’s apparent lack of desire to come out to the “fundraiser” would have made her husband look weak and foolish and could have cost him valuable funds and support.

The very banquet described in the book of Esther may even be the banquet Herodotus recorded in Book 7 of Histories. While entertaining a special assembly of Persian nobility, the king was noted to become enraged due to lack of support for the war effort, threatening his own uncle, one of closest advisors, with death.[8] But he regretted his actions once his anger had abated and he had pondered what had been said and done[9] (See Esther 2:1).

Even if this is not the same gathering of nobles, the situation is equally as interesting because both the extra-biblical account and the biblical narrative paint replica portraits of the character of Esther’s husband. Regardless, Xerxes actions at this banquet set into motion a series of events that became the plot line for the Book of Esther. Vashti was banished, and the search began for a new queen.

The search for the new queen took time. Four years passed from the time that Vashti was banished until Esther finally appeared before the king (Esther 2:16; although the text relates that Esther was only in preparation for about one year). It is in this time that not only is the king out of the country attacking Athens (an undertaking in which he succeeds, but only briefly, before being pushed back to Susa after the Battle of Salamis). During this time, God was preparing his servant Esther both spiritually and physically for the task that she was about undertake.

Upon his return to Susa, Esther found the favor of the king and was made queen over Persia. In her position of power, not only was she able to reveal to the king the plot against her people — which would have resulted in the annihilation of the Jewish people in the empire of Persia — and thus saving them, but also gain favor for the Jewish people.

We often may believe that God works all things in the fullness of His own time and His own plan, but at times we may forget just how much that means. Could it not be said that the Lord allowed a pagan city such as Athens to flourish in its own wickedness, in order to draw such a passionate desire from a pagan king from another country to be so strong that he removed his queen as a result of the war effort? It would also seem that the Lord engineered these circumstances to supernaturally place His servant in a place of power to not only save His people from imminent destruction, but also to gain them favor in the pagan empire which they were subjected to. Perhaps, without the draw of the majesty and beauty of the city of Athens during the biblical period, we would not have the book of Esther and God’s triumph through her.

[1]Herodotus, Histories, 7.187

[2]Histories, 7.187

[3]Herodotus does note however that this does not account for the pack animals that were used in the transportation of the military which would drive this number significantly higher, however that number would be unknown.

[4]Histories, 7.20

[5]Histories, 7.8

[6]Histories, 7.7.

[7] Herodotus even goes as far to suggest that Darius’ wife Atossa was the true ruler behind her husband, holding all the power.[7] This may therefore also explain a peculiar mention of “the queen sitting beside him [Artexerxes — Xerxes son and successor]” signifying that Artaxerxes wife had some involvement in the decision (possibly she was a sympathizer of the Jewish plight), or it has been also been suggested that, since Esther and Nehemiah are contemporaries, the “queen” mentioned is the queen mother, Esther, who was guiding the king, similarly to how Atossa interacted with her son after the death of his father and his assentation to the throne.

[8]Histories, 7.11.

[9]Histories, 7.12.

Jeremy Stein

Jeremy Stein is the Content Development coordinator for the Center for Holy Lands Studies.