Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who was Achashveirosh?

by Rabbi Dov Kramer

Who was Achashveirosh? For generations, scholars and historians have discussed and debated the identity of the Persian king that married Esther, allowed Haman to issue a decree to wipe out the Jewish people, and eventually allowed a counter-decree that enabled the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies instead. I am neither a historian nor a scholar (although sometimes I play one on the radio), but being that at this time of year "Purim Torah" is appropriate, I figured it would be okay to share some of my thoughts on the matter. (Some might say I write "Purim Torah" all year long anyway.)

The whole premise of identifying which Persian king was Achashveirosh presupposes that we have a list of Persian kings to choose from that coincides with the Persian kings listed in Biblical and Rabbinical sources. However, there are only four names of Persian kings listed in the traditional literature. Since one of the Persian kings is Achashveirosh, (Koresh, Daryavesh and Artachshasta being the other three names) it would seem rather straightforward which king is being referred to in the Purim story. Since it is universally accepted that the name Koresh=Cyrus and Daryavesh=Darius, and almost universally accepted that Achashveirosh=Xerxes and Artachshasta=Artaxerxes, we should easily be able to identify Achashveirosh as Xerxes. If only it were that simple! There were several kings with each of those names, so matching the Biblical name with the name assigned by Greek historians cannot be enough.

Click here to read moreThe first clue we should probably look for in order to pinpoint which king was Achashveirosh is the timing of the Purim story. Our sages (Megilah 11b) tell us that one of the reasons Achashveirosh threw the big party that opens the story was that he had miscalculated the end of the 70 year period of the exile after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. If we count 70 years from its destruction and see who was the King of Persia, we should have found our man, right? Here's where it starts getting more complicated, as the year of the first Temple's destruction is not universally accepted. Mitchell First has written a wonderful book that discusses the issues surrounding the number of Persian kings that ruled between the Babylonians and the Greeks, the amount of years they ruled, and the year of the Temple's destruction, titled "Jewish History in Conflict." Many of these issues directly affect identifying the king in the Purim story (he discusses this as well), so there is no point in trying to figure out which of the kings listed by secular historians was Achashveirosh unless you are willing to work within their framework of history. That doesn't mean you have to necessarily accept their framework, and certainly not everything about it, but if your starting point in reconciling history is matching the names of the kings in the traditional and secular literature, you have to be willing to think it through on both terms. For those who see no point in trying to match the Achashveirosh of the Purim story with a particular Persian king, there is no problem with simply stating that Achashveirosh came between Koresh and Daryavesh, who was also known as Artachshasta. However, those who are curious about a possible connection between Achashveirosh and a king in secular Persian history, please read on, bearing in mind that we are starting from a traditional standpoint.

The two basic timeframes given for the destruction of the first Temple are 586 BCE and 420 BCE. Seventy years after the destruction would therefore be either 516 BCE or 350 BCE. Darius I ruled in 516 BCE (from 522-486), while Artaxerxes III ruled in 350 BCE (from 358-338). However, since Achashveirosh was off by more than 10 years, as his party to "celebrate" the end of the 70 years was in his third year as king (Esther 1:3) while the decree was to be carried out in his 13th year (see 3:7), it could have been the kings that preceded them, Cambyses II (529-522) or Artaxerxes II (404-359). Although we are working within the framework of secular history, there is no reason to assume that their years are precise; it would be safe to say that even if they are in the ballpark, they are off by a few years. This would mean including Cyrus II as a possibility, as he ruled from 559-530.

You may have noticed that none of the kings named "Xerxes" were included in that short list, as Xerxes I didn't start his rule until 485, more than 100 years after the destruction, and Xerxes II ruled for less than two months in 424. Nevertheless, there are several that suggest that Xerxes I was Achahsveirosh, mostly because of the name. Prominent among them is Daat Mikrah, which in its introduction to Esther agrees that he ruled after the 2nd Temple was already built, and associates the "animosity written against those that lived in Judah and Jerusalem at the beginning of Achashveirosh's reign" (Ezra 4:6) with the need to repair the walls around Jerusalem rather than with taking away the previously granted permission to rebuild the Temple that is traditionally associated with him. Because I am attempting to be as consistent as possible with the traditional literature, I have a hard time accepting the Daat Mikrah's substitution. There are other issues with this suggestion as well. As the Daat Mikrah points out, if Xerxes I was Achashveirosh, Mordechai and Esther would be extremely old (Mordechai was among those exiled from Jerusalem before its destruction, see Esther 2:6). Additionally, Xerxes I's rule over Egypt was tenuous at best, not the complete control "from India to Ethiopia" indicated by the Talmud (Megilah 11a). As a matter of fact, since the king in the Purim story "ruled from India to Ethiopia," meaning that Egypt had to be part of the kingdom, we can rule out Cyrus II as well, since Egypt was first captured by his son, Cambyses II, as well as ruling out both Artaxerxes II and III, since the 31st Egyptian Dynasty didn't begin until 343 BCE, 7 years after the Temple would have been rebuilt.

There is another, more blatant, reason why Xerxes (and Artaxerxes and Cambyses) can't be the Persian king in the Purim story. Each and every one of them succeeded their father to the throne, while Achashveirosh was not of royal descent (Megilah 11a) and married Vashti, whose father had been king, in order to legitimize his ascent to the throne. As a matter of fact, every king of the Achaemenian Dynasty succeeded his father (often by killing other siblings) except for one, Darius I. Not only did Darius I rule within the time frame of 70 years after the destruction, but he became king when he murdered Cambyses' brother (or the person Darius claimed was an imposter pretending to be Cambyses' brother) and married Cambyses' sister (Cyrus II's daughter). (It should be noted that there is more than one opinion as to which king was Vashti's father; see Targum on Esther 1:1.)

Darius I took over the Persian Empire a few years after Cambyses II had conquered Egypt, and exercised strong control over it and the rest of his empire (which stretched from India to Ethiopia), until he tried to conquer Greece (about 490 BCE). He moved the capitol of the empire to Susa (Shushan, see Esther 1:2), and among his major accomplishments was setting up a system to collect taxes from all of the provinces under his rule, which would explain why the Megilah ends by telling it (10:1). His many accomplishments would certainly justify the description of "his mighty and powerful activities" referenced as being "recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia" (10:2). The only aspect that would seem to be an apparent inconsistency would be his name, Darius (and not Xerxes)

Although had his name been Xerxes there would be, in my mind, no question that he was the Achashveirosh of the Purim story, the other factors far outweigh his being known as Darius. Besides, other kings had more than one name (for example, see Ezra 6:14, where Rashi says Artachshasta is Daryavesh and Ibn Ezra says that Artachshasta is Achashveirosh). There were several kings named Xerxes (and instances where a son took the father's name, i.e. Artaxerxes II and III), and the name Xerxes was around before Darius I (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Daniel 9:1). For all we know, after Esther had a positive impact on "Xerxes" he changed his named to Daryavesh, the name he became known as to historians. (It should be noted that not every traditional source has Esther and Achasveirosh having a son named Daryavesh; see Torah Shelaimah 5:8, quoting the Zohar, that Esther was never intimate with Achashveirosh, rather, a demon took her form and went instead of her. Considering that students are considered like children, this could explain why the "new and improved" Xerxes, nee Darius, is considered her "son.")

I would therefore suggest that the king referred to in the Purim story is the Persian king who took the throne by force about 60 years after the destruction of the first Temple, married Cyrus II's daughter (possibly promising that their first son together would be named successor to the throne in order to convince her to marry him), moved the capitol to Shushan, strengthened the empire built by his predecessors, and found a way to effectively collect taxes from the very ends of his far flung kingdom, i.e. the king known as Darius I.

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