Guest post in Honor of Purim: Was Mordechai a Zionist?
purported tombs of Mordechai and Esther in Iran
I am pleased to present this essay by my good friend, a gentleman and a scholar: Suleiman Shriki of New York. I hope this will be the first of many of his posts on this blog.
The narrative of The Book of Esther revolves around the lives of its protagonists, Mordecai and Esther, Judeans exiles living in Susa, possibly during the reign of either Xerxes I (“Ḫshayārshāh” in Persian–which simply sounds more authentic, as it ends with “Shah”, and “Aḥashwērosh” in Hebrew). In the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions, Mordecai and Esther often become larger than life figures, prophets even. There is a tradition that Mordecai not only served on (the equivalent of) the Syhedrion in Jerusalem not only before he came to Susa, but even after. Though there is no evidence in the scriptures to support this theory. Any critical inquiry into the personage of Mordecai must be done using only the scriptures and external information we have regarding the time and place in which he may have lived.
It’s clear that in order to pinpoint Mordecai’s life using scriptural evidence, we must find other instances where Aḥashwērosh or Susa are mentioned. Thus we find that Aḥashwērosh is mentioned only one other time in Tanakh by that name, in The Book of Ezra (4:6), there we find only a passing mention of Aḥashwērosh as being one of the Emperor’s of Persia to whom the Samaritans wrote ill-reports regarding the Jews, and having lived after Korēsh (Cyrus, 550-530) and Dāryāvesh (Darius, 521-486), yet before Artaḥshāshta (Artaxerxes I presumably), and who seems to have listened to the reports. Which would make Aḥashwērosh Xerxes I (in this analysis). If we examine the reign of Xerxes I, we find that he ruled only twenty years (485-465), that he was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, that he built a place at Susa, and that he was later assassinated.
The events described in The Book of Esther then, are coming to elaborate on this passing description in the Book of Ezra of the short reign of Xerxes I, and upon his apparent willingness of his opinion to be swayed by the Samaritans to take a harsh stance towards returned exiles of Judea, and the Temple, which had been rebuilt under the reigns of Cyrus and Darius (completed by 516).
The city of Susa, as it happens, is also mentioned in The Book of Daniel and The Book of Nehemiah, as the city in which they both served as government officials. It was a capital city under the Neo-Babylonians when the Judeans came there during the Babylonian Exile, and switched hands peacefully to the Persians when they entered the city at night in 540 BC. The Judeans also served high positions under Persian government. Daniel had been brought to Babylon as a youth, yet appears to have lived until the reign of Cyrus. Both Ezra and Nehemiah lived and served mainly during the reign of ArtaxerxesI, after Xerxes.
We see therefore that although Judeans such as Mordecai had not wandered far off from the capitals to which they were exiled, they also lived respectable lives in Exile while the Temple had already been rebuilt decades earlier. The Book of Esther itself makes no mention of neither Jerusalem, nor the Temple, and nor do Mordecai or Esther. The narrative ends with Mordecai leveling taxes and having his great deeds recorded in the Persian chronicles. And yet he is the one sending out letters commanding the Judeans throughout the world to celebrate the new feast of Purim, which was adopted and celebrated by the new community in Judea. It is this lukewarm approach to the Return to Zion of the originator of the feast which may have been the reason the Midrashic tradition was forced to have him returning to Jerusalem and serving in the Synhedrion.
Unlike The Book of Esther, we find that The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal solely with the question of the Return to Zion. Yet still, it would be hasty of us to brand Mordecai a non-Zionist and them as Zionist activists. Upon further inspection, we find that Nehemiah would not have thought much about the plight of the new community in Jerusalem had he not met an emissary from there, who seems to have inspired him to visit himself. Even Ezra, “the great Zionist leader”, was a scribe in Babylon (under Artaxerxes) until he was given permission and even told to travel to Jerusalem.
It’s clear therefore that while Mordecai had little interest in returning to Zion, the same could also be said of Ezra and Nehemiah, had they not been moved by external influences to the plight of Judea.