King Darius died in 486 B.C.E. and was succeeded by Xerxes I (486–465 B.C.E.), the same Persian king who invaded Greece and sacked Athens, only to be defeated by a Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E. The outcome was far from decisive, however, and for the next two centuries, Persia and Greece would remain implacable foes while engaging in several proxy wars. The reason was largely economic: Both Greece and Persia vied for control of the lucrative Mediterranean trade, especially in the largely Helenic territory of Asia Minor, which was experiencing rapid growth.
Many scholars believe that King Xerxes is the same as “King Ahasuerus” who appears in the Book of Esther. The book is unique in the Hebrew canon for several reasons, not in the least because it features a woman as the heroine in a story that is as skillfully written as any modern novel. Set amid the intrigue of the Persian court, the story relates how Esther, the adopted daughter of a Jewish exile living in “Shushan” (Susa), was introduced to the Persian king because of her extraordinary beauty. This was King Ahasuerus, who had decided to set aside his first wife, Queen Vashti. Esther “won his favor and devotion,” and the king “set the royal crown on her head” (Esther 2:17).
Her stunning rise led to envy at the Persian court. The newly appointed grand vizier, an Ammonite named Haman (Ammon being the ancient enemy of Israel) began to plot “to destroy all the Jews … throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (Esther 3:6). He ordered magicians to cast pur, or lots, in order to pick the right day for the planned massacre, and placed the provincial military on alert. Queen Esther, warned of the conspiracy by her foster father Mordecai, broke the news to the king, and identified Haman as the instigator. Enraged, Ahasuerus turned to Haman and cried, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” (Esther 7:8). (From Ancient Egypt to today, see the women who rule the world.)
Haman and his sons were dragged out to be hanged, but nothing could be done about Haman’s planned massacre, because it had been issued as a royal decree. Moved by Esther’s tearful pleading, the king then gave out another decree, authorizing all Jews in his kingdom to bear arms so as to defend themselves. Thus equipped, Jews were prepared when the militia came to murder them, and they “struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them” (Esther 9:5). Ever since, that happy deliverance has been celebrated during the Jewish feast of Purim, “on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, as a day for gladness” (Esther 9:19).