“Ancient Persia and the Book of Esther” by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


On the Jewish festival of Purim, revelers are encouraged to get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and the villain of the Book of Esther. Sobriety is required to appreciate Llewellyn-Jones’s erudite and encyclopedic retelling of the story. By piling detail upon detail, Llewellyn-Jones brings to life the sumptuous feasts and intrigues of the court of Susa, the seat of Persia’s great kings. While a veritable renaissance in the study of ancient Persia has been going on for a while, this is the first time a scholar has used the Jewish Bible as a primary source. The Book of Esther is easily dismissed as a trite, orientalizing fairytale. What if it turns out the author wrote from direct experience of the great king’s court?

There is no doubt he or she is an experienced story teller. The Book begins with a teaser episode , about the tipsy king insisting his queen expose her beauty to his drinking companions, followed by her refusal to obey and her banishment. This proves to be only a prologue. The newly single king launches a beauty contest to select his new queen. His heart goes out to the lovely Esther, who, for some mysterious reason, hides her Jewish religion from him. Her secret provides the last minute, happy ending to foil a plot to kill all the kingdom’s Jews. The author also proves to be a master of psychology, deftly characterizing, in a few words, each of the protagonists: the impulsive young king, in the third year of his reign; and the shy but perspicacious Esther, who quickly learns the protocol of the harem; the judicious and farseeing Jew Mordechai, and the almost comically overweening villain, Haman.

Dramatic tension is provided by protagonists’ struggle with rigid court protocol. The first queen must submit to the orders of the king, but she must not show herself unveiled. Esther must speak to the king, but she cannot enter the audience hall unbidden upon pain of death. The villain asks for mercy by embracing the feet of the queen, but is forbidden to touch her royal person. Mordechai and Esther long for justice, “Din va Dâta”; this is the main responsibility of government, but, oh how hard it was to secure in Artsxeres’s court, or indeed, in modern Iran where “Din” has come to mean religion; “dâd” still means justice.


Ancient Persia and the Book of Esther: Achaemenid Court Culture in the Hebrew Bible, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (IB Tauris, April 2023)
Ancient Persia and the Book of Esther: Achaemenid Court Culture in the Hebrew Bible, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (IB Tauris, April 2023)

Along with its qualities as a work of imagination, the Book provides a plausible picture of the royal life in Susa. It describes the inlaid marble floors that resembled Persian carpets, the thrones and footstools that the king used to assert his supremacy, the crowns and garments of the royals, the councilors and eunuchs who crowd the reception hall. The author clearly knew Susa, and indeed the Book’s description of the layout of the palace was confirmed by archaeologists who excavated the site in modern-day Khuzistan Province in Iran.

One of the great strengths of this book is Llewellyn-Jones’s extensive use of archaeological evidence, which he references with the help of exceptionally clear line-drawings, taken from stamp seals, parietal art, sculpture and other artifacts. By comparing Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian material, he provides rich context for the Persians, connecting them to a larger, older tradition of royal palace life. Greek sources, too, often very fragmentary ones, corroborate Llewellyn-Jones’s recreation of Artaxerxes’s court.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Book of Esther, and one that has troubled Jewish and Christian commentators for centuries, is not historicity of the story, nor the marriage between the Zoroastrian king and the Jewish heroine, but the total absence of the Jewish religion. God, prayer, dietary rules are nowhere to be found in the text. If the text had not survived as part of the Jewish Scriptures, but only as on a cuneiform tablet, we might have treated it as a unique piece of literature surviving from the times of the ancient Persians. We might even have speculated that the author was a counselor or an important noble at the court (though not contemporary with Artaxerxes who comes off so poorly in this story). This is a likely persona for the author, and this is how we should read the Book.

Llewellyn-Jones makes a convincing case that scholars should be mining not only the Book of Esther, but other books of the Jewish Bible, including Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, which were all composed under the Persian Empire. Meanwhile Ancient Persian and the Book of Esther is a treasure trove of insights into the times of Artaxerxes and the latest scholarship on this important period of history. A drink may be in order, after such an exhaustive survey, though Mordecai and Haman will remain distinct in the reader’s mind.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.