Esther 3: 8 Haman’s accusation against the
Jews contains three parts: that the Jews are
scattered and dispersed; that the Jews have different customs; and that the Jews
observe imperial law. Fox points out the rhetorical strategy behind this
starts with the truth (that the Jews are scattered and dispersed); goes on to a
(that the Jews have different laws and customs); and ends with a lie (that the
Jews do not
observe imperial law).
But how should we understand this accusation in its historical context?
Although it is clear
that Haman’s accusation is pure fabrication, it rings so true in terms of later
claims that we are forced to consider if it has a basis in history—that is, to
Haman’s claim had currency in the Persian period (the time that most scholars
date the book).
It is difficult to find evidence for anti-Semitism (or, more correctly,
anti-Judaism) before the
Hellenistic period, for our written sources are meager. Peter Schäfer has traced
feeling back to Egypt and points to the destruction of the Jewish temple at
in 410 B.C.E. and to the Greek writings of two Egyptians, Hecataeus of Abdera in
about 300 B.C.E. and Manetho in the third century B.C.E. . .
3:13 Both of these authors gave an account
(not extant but preserved
in later authors’ works) of the Egyptian version of the biblical Exodus story.
is not elsewhere anti-Jewish, describes the Jews of having a way of life
different from all
the other nations. Manetho accuses the Jews of having laws completely opposed to
custom. This is not so different from Haman’s accusation that the Jews have
or customs. So we may have in Esther an early and milder form, already in the
period, of what was later to grow into the classic anti-Semitic argument that
the Jews are
xenophobic and misanthropic. As Schäfer notes, the Septuagint goes beyond the
Text of Esther in developing the anti-Semitic theme.14 Reading back into the
the anti-Semitism of its own time, Addition B 5 containing Artaxerxes’ letter
We understand that this people, and
it alone, stands constantly in opposition to every
nation, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is
our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain
scattered and dispersed Indeed, there were Jews
throughout the Persian empire, as
there were many other peoples. The concept of dispersion may have struck a nerve
postexilic Diaspora community, for it underlines their lack of cohesion and
The Jewish victory and celebration of Purim later in the story provide an
antidote, as it were,
through the picture of a united Jewry. It is not clear why the Persian king
would see the
dispersion of the Jews as undesirable in and of itself, as there were many
mixed ethnic populations. Perhaps the reason has to do with the absence of a
As Levenson points out, the book gives no notice to the Temple or to the return
In fact, there is a resounding silence about the re-establishment of a Jewish
jurisdiction in Judah.
Perhaps Haman is insinuating that the Jews do not constitute their own province,
they were not obligated to pay a separate “Jewish” tribute, for tribute was
to satrapies or provinces. This line of argument was more likely to convince the
they were dispensable.
whose laws are different Dat can mean “custom” or
“practice” and that is prob-
ably what is meant. Although the Masoretic Text avoids any mention of religious
rabbinic exegesis supplied the details of the distinctively Jewish religious
as eating kosher food, observing the festivals, and the like. Targum Sheni,
which is especially
expansive, gives a long list of Jewish observances as seen through the eyes of
non-Jews. It is
a humorous, pseudo-self-deprecating piece—a fine catalogue of Jewish practices
about how they could be perceived as inconveniencing non-Jews.16 The rabbinic
on religion per se is anachronistic. During the Persian period, religion was
just one aspect
of communal identity (others being ethnicity and language); religion did not
important distinctive marker until Greco-Roman times, especially in the
While the emphasis on the distinctiveness of Jewish practice sounds like an
Jewish argument, it seems unlikely that distinctive practices would have been
as negative during the Persian period; the empire contained diverse peoples with
customs and the attitude of the Persian government was tolerant toward them.
cusation should be understood as the exaggeration that it is.
who do not obey the king’s laws On a superficial level, this
could refer to the fact that
Mordecai refused to obey the royal command to bow to Haman. But the accusation
in different, and broader, terms. Verse 3 spoke of mitzvat ha-melekh, and here
it is a question
of dat ha-melekh, “imperial law.”
Imperial law extended over the entire Persian empire. The provinces were
retain their local laws as long as they were not in conflict with imperial law.
In fact, they were
urged to codify their local laws and to follow them. Imperial law was not a
separate law code
or juridical system superimposed on the provinces; it was essentially the
bringing together of
all the various law codes and customs under Persian sovereignty. It was a
political rather than
juridical system whereby everyone gave allegiance to the king. What Haman is
then, is that the Jews do not to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king; and
How did people show their lack of allegiance to the king? Aeschylus
summarizes the Greek
view succinctly in The Persians, 585–88:
Not now for long will they that
dwell throughout the length and breadth of Asia abide under
the laws of the Persians, nor will they pay further tribute at the compulsion of
their lord, nor
will they prostrate themselves to the earth and do him reverence.
These same three items—abiding by Persian law, paying tribute, and doing
seem to be at issue in our chapter, although they are not so neatly laid out.
refusal to do obeisance motivates Haman; Haman may be implying that the Jews do
pay tribute; and he states explicitly that they do not obey imperial law.
One or more of these three items figure in other references, also with the
sense of treason . . .