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The Archaeological Evidence of the Purim Battle
Howard Richman, 3/16/2019

According to the Book of Esther, two decrees were issued by Persian King Ahasuerus (Greek name: Xerxes; Hebrew name: Achashveirosh) within a short period of time. The first, written by Haman, gave people permission to kill and loot Jews. The second, written by Mordechai, gave Jews permission to defend themselves. Here is how the Book of Esther describes the fighting that took place in the provinces of the Persian empire:

And the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of them that hated them seventy and five thousand – but on the spoil they laid not their hand  – on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of fasting and gladness. (Esther 9: 16-19)

The archaeological evidence for the fighting comes from a dig at Shechem (Tel Balâtah), a Biblical town near present day Nablus located about half way between Samaria, the Samaritan capital, and Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. A paper by archaeologist Nancy Lapp dated the fire and temporary abandonment of Shechem precisely, based upon the imported Greek pottery that had been burned in the conflagration. She wrote:

The latest example of figured ware, No. 9, dates ca. 480 B.C. Allowing time for its importation into Palestine and consideration for its value, a conservative terminus for the end of Stratum V at Balâtah would be the end of the first quarter of the 5th century B.C. or ca. 475 B.C.

In a 1987 journal article, William H. Shea compared the date found by Lapp with the date specified in the Book of Esther and found that they were nearly identical:

Esther 9:16 dates the fighting that broke out “in the provinces of the king” to Adar of Xerxes' twelfth year, or March, 473. (p. 244)

So how did the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews begin? Ezra wrote that it began during the reign of Persian King Cyrus, about 70 years before this fighting took place, when the Jewish leaders refused a Samaritan offer to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple, saying:

“Ye have nothing to do with us to build a house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord, the God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”  (Ezra 4: 3)

In response, the Samaritans hired "counselors" (Ezra: 5) to lobby the Persian court against the Jews. According to a Talmudic story summarized in Complete Story of Purim:

The Samaritans and other enemies of the Jews further chose a man called Haman to represent them at the court and press the charges against the Jews. The Jews chose Mordechai to represent them and plead their cause.

Further evidence that Haman was a lobbyist comes from his readiness to spend money in order to further his proposed decree:

And Haman said unto King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries." (Esther 3:8-9)

Evidence that Haman was repeating the Samaritan propaganda line that the Jews were a rebellious people who don't obey the king's laws comes from this letter that a Samaritan governor sent to a Persian King:

Be it known now unto the king, that, if [Jerusalem] be builded, and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, impost, or toll, and so thou wilt endamage the revenue of the kings. Now because we eat the salt of the palace, and it is not meet for us to see the king's dishonour, therefore have we sent and announced to the king, that search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers; so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time; for which cause was this city laid waste. We announce to the king that, if this city be builded, and the walls finished, by this means thou shalt have no portion beyond the River [i.e., no tax revenue from this part of your empire].  (Ezra 4: 12-16)

So the battle in the Persian palace between Haman and Mordechai may have been an extension of the conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews. If so, it makes sense that the only Purim battle that was big enough to be detected by archaeologists took place in Shechem, a Biblical town that was about midway on the road between the capital of the Samaritans and the capital of the Jews.

[Quotes of The Holy Scriptures above are from the Jewish Publication Society's 1955 translation.]

[For more historical background of the events related in the Book of Esther, see my blog posting: Historical Background of Purim.]

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