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offices and functions in accordance with the Mosaic precepts. In the next month (Nisan), the Feast of Passover was celebrated with feelings of deep gratitude for the important advance that had been made towards re-establishing a theocratic commonwealth.
154. THE HISTORY OF ESTHER.
[BOOK OF ESTHER.)
During the long reign of Darius, the Jews, both those who had returned to Palestine and those who had settled in the eastern countries, lived in peace and unmolested security. When Darius died (485), he was succeeded by his son Xerxes, whom we find mentioned in the Bible by the name of Ahasverus. According to Greek historians, Xerxes was a most unworthy successor of the great Cyrus: enervated by luxury from his youth, surrounded by base flatterers, immoderately vain of his tall and fair person, he was the type of the eastern despot, utterly regardless of everything but the gratification of his humour, whimsical, headstrong, fond of pomp and pageantry, yet cowardly and incapable of understanding heroism in others. Who can fail to recognise in the Ahasverus of the Book of Esther the weak and capricious Xerxes of the Greek and Persian wars?
In the third year of his reign (482)—so relates the Book of Esther--Ahasverus, then residing in the royal capital of Susa, invited all his princes, nobles, and high officials to a splendid feast which was to last for one hundred and eighty days. At this banquet the wealth of the wealthiest of all ancient courts was gorgeously displayed. Afterwards the great king entertained for seven days all the people of Susa in the garden houses of his palace. The banqueting hall was hung round with curtains of
various colours, fastened by means of cords and silver rings to large marble pillars; the pavement consisted of marble and alabaster slabs, inlaid with pearls and tortoiseshells, and the couches upon which the guests reclined were of gold and silver. The choicest wines were abundantly supplied in drinking vessels of varied and exquisite design, and all of pure gold. At the same time, the queen
Vashti gave a feast for all the women of her household. On the seventh day, Ahasverus, flushed and elated, sent for his queen, in defiance of all Eastern notions of propriety; for he wished to see how the people admired her beauty. Vashti shrank from leaving the seclusion of her own chambers and from appearing in public, and she declined to comply with the king's request. Ahasverus was enraged, and upon asking the counsel of his wise men, he was recommended to repudiate the disobedient Vashti, to dismiss her from his palace, and to choose a worthier queen; lest, said his advisers, other women should follow her refractory example, and there arise contempt and dissension in every household of the empire. This foolish advice was approved of by the king; the modest Vashti was discarded, and in order to assert the superiority of husbands over their wives, a decree was published throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the Persian monarchy, that every man should bear rule in his own house.'
Not long afterwards, the attention of Xerxes was absorbed by his great expedition against the Greeks, rendered ever memorable by the battles of Thermopylæ and Salamis, of Platææ and Mycale (480 and 479). But after his return from this disastrous campaign, preparaLions were made for selecting a successor to Vashti. From all parts of his vast empire the most beautiful maidens were brought to the capital Susa, and from them the king was to make his choice. There lived at that time in the
royal city a Jew of the name of Mordecai, who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, and whose family had, in the time of king Jehoiachin, been carried away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Mordecai had adopted his orphan cousin, a maiden of surpassing beauty. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah (Myrtle), but by the Persians she was called Esther (Star). She was brought to the royal palace with the other young maidens, yet by Mordecai's injunction she concealed her Jewish origin. Her grace and beauty charmed Ahasverus; he chose her for his wife, placed the royal crown upon her head, and surrounded her with all the luxury and magnificence of a Persian queen (478). The marriage was celebrated with the lavish pomp and public festivities befitting the occasion.
Esther had not long been proclaimed queen, when Mordecai, who came daily into the court of the palace, discovered a conspiracy against the king's life, originated by two of his chamberlains; he revealed the plot to Esther, who in her turn related it to the king in Mordecai's name. The crime was proved, and the traitors suffered death upon the gallows. In accordance with custom, all these events were duly chronicled and preserved in the royal archives.
Amongst the courtiers of Ahasverus, Haman, probably a man of distinguished family, was a special favourite. He was raised high above all other officials, and a royal decree was issued that all the king's servants should prostrate themselves before him. Mordecai, who bowed down before God alone, firmly refused to comply with the edict. Haman, both vain and vindictive, was enraged, and when he learnt Mordecai's Hebrew descent, he resolved to take revenge not only upon him but upon his entire nation. Confident of his absolute influence over the weak king, he addressed him in these words: “There is a certain people scattered and isolated among the
nations in all the provinces of thy kingdom, and their laws are different from those of all people, nor do they keep the king's laws; therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the officers to bring it into the king's treasuries. Ahasverus took his signet ring from his finger, and giving it to Haman, said, “The silver is given to thee, and the people also, to do with them as seems good to thee.' Then Haman summoned the king's scribes, and ordered them to write the decree in all the languages of the empire, and to send it out to the satraps of every province, bidding them: “Destroy, kill, and exterminate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, and take their wealth for a prey. The messengers went out, and the edict was published both in the capital Susa and in the other towns of the realm.
• And in every province whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting and weeping and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. But the king and Haman sat down to drink.'
When Mordecai heard the terrible and fatal mandate, he rent his clothes, put on garments of mourning, and with a bitter cry of distress rushed through the city, till he came before the gate of the king's palace; within that gate none were permitted to enter except in festive attire. In the seclusion of her own palace, Esther had remained in ignorance of the impending doom of her countrymen. When she was told that Mordecai was sitting before the gate in sackcloth and ashes, she was full of anxiety, and sent to him one of her chamberlains with garments which she desired him to exchange for those he had on. When this request was refused, her alarm
grew, and she sent again to learn the cause of his affiliotion. Mordecai told the man all that had passed, bade him give to the queen a copy of the royal decree, and urge her to present herself without delay before the king, and to implore his mercy for her people. Esther trembled at these words, for no one was allowed to approach the Persian monarch unbidden under penalty of death, and Ahasverus had not summoned her into his presence for thirty days : how could she venture to appear before him with her prayer? But Mordecai sent her this reply:
Think not within thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house more than all the Jews. For if thou keepest quiet altogether at this time, help and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed ; and who knows whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this ?'
Then Esther, dismissing all doubts and fears, heroically resolved upon the perilous enterprise. "Go,' she sent word to Mordecai, assemble all Jews that are present in Susa, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast, and so will I go to the king, though not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.' On the third day of the fast, Esther arrayed herself in her royal garbs, and appeared within the inner court of the king's palace. Ahasverus was seated upon his throne, facing the palace gate, from whence he saw her approach. She knew full well that she had boldly transgressed the law, and she trembled with fear. But the king extended towards her the golden sceptre, which signified that she had obtained grace and pardon. Then she advanced to the steps of the throne and touched the sceptre, and Ahasverus asked, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request ? were it even half of the kingdom, it shall be given to thee.' There was a