Ahasuerus, Ahasuwho?

This morning, I thought I would follow up with some posts about the book of Esther, beginning with the king Ahasuerus who figures so prominently in the story.

The name Ahasuerus appears in only two places outside of the book of Esther, and it is completely absent from contemporary history. This is surprising because of the extent of the known records of the day.

That we don’t know who he is may very well have been the intention of the author. Most sources say that the name (ACHAŠ-VĒRÔŠ in Aramaic) means “silent one” or “poor one” but it is also a play on the Persian title for ruling. In the Persian empire, the prefix ACHAŠ- indicates the administrative power of the king. For example, the provincial governors were called ACHAŠ-DARPĀN. Since I don’t speak Persian (or own any sources on it), I am not sure of its exact meaning but the play on words is unavoidable.

In Daniel 9:1, the text says that Babylon was captured by “Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes”. But Xenophon, writing in the 4th century BCE, says that Babylon was captured by a general named Gobryas.

The name Darius means quite literally “the good guy”, so it is likely that Daniel’s narrative is using the name as a label rather than as an actual regnal name. We might paraphrase it as “The good guy, son of a ruler no one would know of the Medes.”

If that is the case, it sets a precedence for the use of the name Ahasuerus as a literary title rather than as a name. Daniel is not so concerned about providing a historically verifiable name for the guy because he was not really the king. He was simply governor of Babylon at the time.

Esther’s Ahasuerus is obviously a different person, since the events of the book would have taken place much later, but it is very possible that the name is being used more in the sense of “someone no one would know” rather than as a proper name.

Commentators are always trying to equate Ahasuerus with someone. This is a mistake, in my opinion. There is every possibility that the Esther narrative is intended to fit in-between the official story, dealing with an easily forgettable and insignificant king.

The name does appear in one other place, in Ezra 4:6 where he is sandwiched between Darius the Great (522-486 BCE) and Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE). Since this period corresponds with the reign of Xerxes I, some modern translations of the Scriptures substitute Xerxes for Ahasuerus.

Much of the first decade of Xerxes’ reign was consumed with crushing a rebellion in Babylon and then invading Greece. He was a very active ruler who was always with the armies.

Beside that, we know that Xerxes’ chief wife was named Amestris, Xerxes’ first cousin. Although the chroniclers considered her a bad person (even crediting her with human sacrifice), there is no indication that she wasa Jew.

These involvements would have made it impossible for Xerxes to have married Esther. Even if he is the Ahasuerus of Ezra, he is not the Ahasuerus of Esther.

Thus, we have the title Ahasuerus applied to no fewer than two people in the Achaemenid (Persian) empire who are not the Ahasuerus of Esther. So, who was he?

First, we need to suggest the very real possibility that the author of Esther does not have a particular king in mind. It is possible that Esther does not contain history but rather is a dramatic enactment – using composite characters to represent major geopolitical themes. This kind of suggestion always upsets people, but it is possible that God could have inspired the book as a dramatic representation instead of as a historical record.

But if Esther is a historical book, there is no reason for Ahasuerus to be one of the great Achaemenid kings. He may very well have been one of the less significant kings who ruled late in the empire, which may account for the use of the title Ahasuerus – that this is an insignificant king. He could have even been a weak usurper of some kind.

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