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Who Is Ahasuerus?

by Tim O'Hearn

Ahasuerus. Who is this king? He appears in the book of Esther, but this Hebrew version of his name only appears there. Was he really like the picture that book gives of him? Should we know him?

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, says he is Artaxerxes. Josephus, probably based on that translation, says the same thing. Modern scholarship, however, almost universally claims that Ahasuerus is Xerxes the Great. He ruled Persia from 485-465 BC.

If Ahasuerus is Xerxes, and the Hebrew is an approximate transliteration of the Persian version of his name, that might explain some things in the book of Esther. Xerxes inherited power from his father, Darius the Great, of Battle of Marathon fame. His mother was a daughter of Cyrus the Great, who had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. (Did you ever notice how many kings of that time called themselves “the Great”? Even a Macedonian who adopted Persian ways after he conquered the world is known by that title.) Xerxes spent much of the first two years of his reign putting down rebellions in Egypt and Babylon. The first chapter of Esther, in which the king banishes Vashti, takes place in the third year of his reign. This might explain the massive party that the king put on, as well as his desire to show off his beautiful queen. This national party may have been ostensibly a celebration of his victories. More importantly, it may have been Ahasuerus’ way of gaining popularity with the populace. It may have been an early attempt at what the Romans later practiced regularly, keeping the people happy with “bread and circuses.” It seems to have worked, at least for a short while.

During the next three years, Xerxes was preoccupied with conquering Greece. When his first attempt to bridge the Hellespont failed, he had the water in the strait flogged and had shackles thrown into the strait. After that he successfully built a bridge into Europe. Xerxes’ army was dealt a blow at Thermopylae, but was successful in capturing Athens. He then lost a battle to the “wooden walls” of the Athenian navy at Salamis, as “predicted” by the Oracle at Delphi. But then, if he had been defeated at the city walls the oracle would still have been right.) He returned home to quell some unrest, but his army subsequently lost a crushing battle at Plataea. In the seventh year of the reign of Ahasuerus, the king decided to hold a beauty pageant for a new wife. This is the “Miss Persia” pageant that Esther won. Why did it take him four years to replace Vashti? Perhaps it was because he was out of the country fighting the Greeks. Everyone knows that kings would rather go to war than find a new wife.

The book of Esther pictures Ahasuerus as a pawn of his advisors. Memucan tells him how to deal with Vashti. He orders the genocide of the Jews on Haman’s advice, with seemingly little consideration. He even reverses this order at the request of Esther. This does not seem to be the same Xerxes who flogged the ocean into submission. It may be more like the Xerxes that followed the bad advice to fight at Salamis rather than waiting for his armies to destroy the Greeks on land. Again, though, the history of Xerxes may explain his apparent shift in character. During the first years of his reign, Xerxes was flying high. He was the emperor of the eastern world. In the incident with Vashti he followed good advice. Then he went to war with Greece. The war started well, but after Salamis nothing seemed to go right. Xerxes was listening to bad advice, and seemed no longer to trust his own instincts. When he got home, he was so beaten down that he listened to whomever he trusted, regardless of how good their advice truly was. That he virtually disappears from history after the Jews defend themselves and establish the feast of Purim lends credence to the idea that he was a crushed man. The war with Greece took everything out of Xerxes and left the man that appears in the book of Esther.

(Purim is March 21st this year.)