S. Dalley, Esther's Revenge at Susa: From Sennacherib to Ahasuerus

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Dalley, Stephanie, Esther's Revenge at Susa: From Sennacherib to Ahasuerus (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Pp. xv+260. Hardcover. US$99.00. ISBN 978-0-19-921663-5.

Esther's Revenge at Susa: From Sennacherib to Ahasuerus aims to show that the story of the Book of Esther is based on religious and cultural issues of the Late Assyrian period, which survived through the centuries down to the Hellenistic period, when the story was written down and placed in an Achaemenid context, more specifically, during the reign of Artaxerxes I. To achieve this, Dalley divides the task into two parts. Part I focuses on the historical background, describing and analysing issues related to Assyrian history (chs. 1–4), Assyrian literature (ch. 5) and the goddess Isthar-of-Nineveh (ch. 6). This is done in order to demonstrate the identification of Ishtar with Esther, and Mordechai with Marduk, ultimately to show that the actions attributed to the deities have been transferred to humans. Part II discusses the appearance of Assyrian words, phrases and customs in the Hebrew Book of Esther (ch. 7), provides the seventh century BC historical background of the story (ch. 8), and finally, in chapter 9, presents the argument as to how the story evolved from history to myth. The book features an extensive list of figures, a family tree of Assyrian kings, a bibliography, a glossary, a general index, and an index of Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic words.

As Dalley states in her introduction, her study builds on previous work which makes the connection between 7th century Assyria and the events described in the Book of Esther. For example, calendar references in the Book of Esther can be related to the cultic calendar of Ishtar-of-Nineveh (p. 6), which in turn suggests that the figure of Esther ought to be identified with this particular goddess. Additionally, links between Assyrian and Israelite cultures are readily found in Upper Egypt, with other, comparable adaptations being found in the story of Tobit and Ahiqar, thus confirming the Egyptian link. According to this view, the Persian connection with the Book of Esther diminishes considerably, but Dalley proposes that this merely shows the extent of the Assyrian influence on Persian culture (p. 7). This argument, however, is not pursued any further by Dalley, who emphasises that the focus of her study lies in the Assyrian connection.

Dalley delves deep into Assyrian history and culture to achieve the aims she set herself in the book, to the extent that the first four chapters take up almost half of the volume. After the discussion of the cultural links between Israel and Egypt and the discussion of the literary genre, not much space remains to discuss the transmission of the Assyrian traits into the Hebrew story. For the reader, this can be trying at times since not all the information provided for the history of the reigns of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal seems immediately relevant to the discussion. As much as the author needs to provide the reader with a background which enables him or her to place the Esther story into a possible context, its extent seems imbalanced. Of course, understanding the narrative of Assyrian history is valuable for Dalley's discussion, but the weight she gives to this discussion threatens to distract from her overall argumentation.

Of more concern is the way Dalley makes her case. Repeatedly, she makes assertions about possible parallels, without providing arguments for them. For example, the destruction of Susa by the Assyrians in 647 BC is seen as a direct parallel to the two massacres described in the Hebrew Book of Esther (p. 52). Additionally, revenge taken by an Assyrian king is equalled to the revenge motif in the Book of Esther (p. 53). At the beginning of Chapter 5 Dalley identifies Esther with Ishtar-of-Nineveh and Mordechai with Marduk, without ever offering a discussion of this assumption. It was mentioned in the introduction, but this identification at no point receives any critical discussion. Instead, the whole argument of the book is based on the unquestioned acceptance of this identification. Yet, all the historical background provided does not replace a thorough argument as to why the reader should accept this identification. This is not a view upon which scholarship is unanimously agreed. Therein lies the central problem with the book. It presents a view to the reader without sufficient evidence to support it. Assertions replace argument, and as a result, the strength of the view expressed here, is weakened. To give an example, on p. 135 Dalley writes: “The Assyrian occupation was at a time when Egyptian artistic traditions would have become more widely known in Assyria. In literature too the rise of the royal heroine may possibly be due to influence from Egypt, but coming at an earlier period via Anatolia and North Syria. The Assyrian examples, commemorated in public descriptions, dating between about 800 and 670 BC, show the beginning of the tradition of heroines to which Esther belongs.” Apart from the assumption made here about Assyrian literature and its Egyptian influence, Esther's place within that “tradition” is stated as fact, rather than argued. On pp. 147–148 a story about the religious ceremony involving Ishtar-of-Arbela is paralleled with the union between the Persian king and Esther. This is simply not sufficient to convince the readership of the identification of Ishtar with Esther. On p. 160 we read about lot-casting performed by Ishtar-of Nineveh, and, without further discussion, this is paralleled with the casting of lots in the Book of Esther. Statement replaces argument here, and this cannot result in convincing scholarship. As very little scholarly criticism appears in the footnotes, the reader is not alerted to other points of view, scholarly opposition, or alternative forms of interpretation of the evidence.

In addition, nowhere is an explanation given as to how an Assyrian story about divinities could have been transferred to humans. Nobody would dispute the existence of literary traditions and the adoption and adaptations of literary motifs, of cultural and religious elements from one culture into another. There may be variants in the way stories are being written down over the centuries, from Gilgamesh to Dionysus, but the identity of the figures, be they humans or gods, always remain the same. Thus, what seems out of place and, ultimately, remains unconvincing in the book, is the reason why a story which relates to Ishtar and Marduk—and only to the divine figures themselves, as there is no parallel Assyrian story line to the one narrated in the Hebrew story—was altered so much that the dramatis personae became human beings. Individual story elements taken from a variety of Assyrian textual evidence from myth, religion, and historical chronicles cannot suffice to explain the story of the Book of Esther as originating in Assyrian tradition.

This does not dispute the existence of an Assyrian connection obvious in the use of Assyrian words and elements of the Babylonian calendar. But their presence does not amount to placing stories about Ishtar-of Arbela and Ishtar-of-Nineveh, actions of revenge by Assyrian kings or elements of the sacred marriage ceremony as evidence for the story we find in the Hebrew Book of Esther. Recent scholarship has looked successfully into the question of Greek sources for the book of Esther and into story variants from Greek historical sources. This aspect is not covered in the present book, but does deserve discussion, as it has implications for the claims made here.

The Persian court also does not receive much mention. As Dalley states in her introduction, this is not her concern here, yet the reader ought to know at least that there is a debate as to whether the king in the Book of Esther is Xerxes or Artaxerxes (opinion is still divided), why the story is set in a Persian context and what that means for its understanding. By omitting the Persian context from the discussion, the overall quality of the work is not served well.

A final note: The book is amply illustrated, but the reader will fail, for the most part, to find any direct references to these figures in the text. Presumably they are incorporated in order to illustrate a point or illuminate the reader on aspects of Assyrian culture, but this opportunity gets lost in the lack of context provided for these images in the text.

Maria Brosius, Newcastle University