The Book of Esther is perhaps the oddest work included within the canon of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The story is set in Iranian Susa—far away from ancient Israel and Judah, and the biblical God is not mentioned even once in the text. Rather, we encounter a folkloristic narrative in which a murderous plot against the Jews of the Persian Empire is thwarted and turned back upon its originator without the aid of divine intervention, solely through the efforts of a virtuous, beautiful, and courageous woman. While there is still much debate among practitioners of biblical studies as to the historical veracity of many of the tales contained in the Books of the Pentateuch, Samuel, and Kings, few outside of fundamentalist circles seriously maintain that the widespread massacre of anti-Semites described at the conclusion of the Book of Esther—and mentioned in no independent ancient source—actually took place. And it was already recognized more than a century ago that the names of the protagonists of the work, Esther and her uncle Mordecai, are not ordinary Hebrew personal designations, but rather mutations of the names of the Mesopotamian divinities Ishtar (goddess of love and war) and Marduk (patron deity of the city of Babylon).
In this ambitious book, Stephanie Dalley, a cuneiform scholar from Oxford, sets herself the task of explaining just how this work came into being and why it entered the sacred literature of the Jews. She is well prepared to tackle this problem, having over the past decade devoted particular attention in her research to the precipitation of Assyrian and Babylonian traditions in both Classical Greek and biblical sources, discussing, for example, the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” Semiramis, and the wives of Sargon II of Assyria (see bibliography, pp. 230-31).
Dalley’s key insight is that although the story is set in the court of the Achaemenid emperor “Ahasuerus” (= Artaxerxes?), the text reveals the influence of the late Assyrian culture of the seventh century B.C.E. more strongly than that of the Persian civilization of the sixth through fourth centuries (7-8, 181-82). Beyond details of vocabulary and material culture, this is manifest in the very prominence of the heroine. We know of few important women in the upper echelons of Persian society, while the Assyrian queens Sammu-ramat (ninth-eighth centuries) and Naqia (sixth century) exercised real power, if indirectly through their husbands and sons (133-35).
In order to support her argumentation regarding the Assyrian background of Esther, Dalley presents a concise sketch of the history of Assyria under the Sargonid kings (chapters 1-4; see also the genealogical chart, p. xvi). These hundred or so pages constitute an engaging and up-to-date introduction to the events of this period in Western Asia and Egypt and are to be recommended to the general reader curious about happenings in the east at the time of the rise of the Greek polis. In this section of the book, Dalley’s reconstruction of events, exemplified by her indictment of Esarhaddon as a co-conspirator in the murder of his father Sennacherib (37-40), is judicious and on the whole convincing.
But in reimagining the process through which Assyrian rulers, deities, cult, and the events affecting them were transmuted into the elements of the Hebrew tale as we know it, Dalley is necessarily on less secure ground. In a nutshell, she speculates that in Assyrian religion, significant historical incidents could be translated to the divine plane, incorporated into mythology, and reenacted in turn by humans in ritual, as documented in the obscure Akkadian-language liturgical scripts known to scholars as “Cultic Commentaries” (113-20). In particular, Dalley further postulates that the wars of Assurbanipal against the Elamites, whose capital was at Susa, were reflected in a festival of Ishtar of Nineveh (156). Consequently, the cultic calendar pertaining to this avatar of the goddess and various elements of her worship were passed on in oral and written tradition after the fall of Assyria, to reappear in altered form in the story of Esther. The resultant narrative entered the lore of the Jews as an aetiology for the festival of purim“lots,” the etymology of whose designation unquestionably points to an Assyrian origin (167).
It is not possible to summarize adequately Dalley’s argument in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that, given its complexity and the exiguous nature of the available evidence, each reader will react to this scenario according to his or her own standards of proof. As the author herself admits, “no direct descent can be claimed with certainty for any one detail” of the Book of Esther (162). As one of skeptical bent, I personally would render a verdict here of “not proven.”
From my own viewpoint as a Hittitologist, I must in particular make the following critical observations: There is no indication in the Hittite sources that the pastries featured in the rites of Ishtar of Nineveh represented her defeated enemies (153). Furthermore, I am unaware of any incident in the mythology of Hatti in which a god consumes the flesh of a slain enemy (153; cf. the discussion of “sublimated cannibalism” on p. 188). Perhaps Dalley has misremembered the passage in the “Kingship in Heaven” in which Kumarbi swallows the genitalia of his displaced predecessor Anu. Finally, it is questionable whether the practice of referring to the beneficiary in a generic ritual text as “so-and-so” (analogous to our “fill in the blank”) would lead to the replacement of one king by another in a historical narrative, a different genre altogether (131-32).
That said, Dalley has produced an intriguing and thought-provoking book that will be read with pleasure by cuneiformists, biblicists, and classicists alike.