The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.