The biblical book of Esther keeps the reader’s attention with details of the exotic richness, extravagance and intemperance of the Persian court, as well as through the drama and pace of the central plot. Some details, especially relating to the lives of the main dramatis personae, are not revealed, however. These include, the age of Esther when she came to the throne, how long she lived, the circumstances attending the last years of her and Ahasuerus’s reign and how Mordechai lived out the remainder of his life.
The talmudic sages had some curious traditions regarding the age of Esther when she succeeded to the throne, with suggestions as varied as 40, 80 and 74. The fact that the latter was based on the numerical value of the letters of her Hebrew name, Hadassah, demonstrates just how few facts have survived.
An historical approach to the biblical account may, however, reveal an unexpected twist to the lives of the main characters. If we accept the scholarly consensus identifying Ahasuerus with Xerxes I, we know he came to the throne in 486 BCE and met an untimely and violent death in 465 BCE as a result of a court revolution. This was instigated by one of his own ministers, Artabanus, with a view to enabling Artaxerxes — Xerxes’s son by his first marriage to Vashti — to succeed to the throne.
It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that those around the king — Queen Esther and Mordechai who was “ranked next to King Ahasuerus” (10:3) — would have met that same tragic end. Artaxerxes would have sought revenge on them for having usurped his mother’s throne, while also resenting their having imported an alien religion into the palace.
So, what biographical details can we glean about Esther’s life? Well, we are told that Ahasuerus married her in the seventh year of his reign (Esther 2:16), and we know that Xerxes I reigned for 21 years. Given that only virgins were selected as candidates to become the king’s wife, we may suppose that Esther had not yet reached marriageable age.
Had she been older, Mordechai would have either married her himself or arranged a suitable marriage partner. We may assume, therefore, that she was about 14 years of age when she succeeded to the throne. As Ahasuerus enjoyed only 14 more years on the throne, we conclude that Esther was but 28 years old when the couple met their deaths.
Given that the Haman episode began in the 12th year of the king’s reign is five years into his and Esther’s marriage, they would have enjoyed just nine further years together before their assassination. Since, for about four of those years Esther and Mordechai would have been preoccupied with leading the attempt to frustrate the evil machinations of Haman and with organising the armed Jewish resistance, it is understandable that we are left with no details of any specific efforts on their part to reorganise the community after the traumas of the Haman insurrection.
If the midrashic tradition is accurate regarding Persian Jewry’s high level of assimilation, and its active participation in the king’s bawdy and drunken revelry, then Mordechai and Esther’s chief priority, once peace and security was restored, would have been to initiate a widespread and intensive religious and moral revival. That there is no hint of that in the Book of Esther supports the view that they had tragically run out of any time to chalk up such achievements.
This situation may also be inferred from the Megillah’s final statement: “All his mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness to which the king advanced Mordechai, are recorded in the annals of the Kings of Media and Persia. For Mordechai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren. He sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.”
The emphasis here is primarily on the illustrious status to which Mordechai was elevated by the king. He was mentioned in the royal dispatches as the king’s most trusted minister of state, while at the same time remaining “highly regarded” and “popular” within the Jewish community. Only after listing those personal achievements are we told that he pursued the “good” and the “welfare” of his community. But this suggests no more than a commitment to securing its material needs and security, rather than the achievement of any dramatic enhancement of religious life and observance.
In the light of our reconstruction of events, however, we may appreciate that his and Esther’s failure to achieve that long-term project is not surprising, given they were left with a mere nine years during which to make any meaningful contribution to the quality of Persian Jewry’s religious life.
Behind Purim’s joy and celebration, and the apparently carefree denouement of the Megillah’s account of events, there clearly lies an untold postscript regarding the tragic fate of its courageous central characters.
Rabbi Cohen is author of The Book of Esther: A Poetic Reading for Purim, available through Amazon