Saturday, February 25, 2012

Herodotus:  Contrasting with the book of Esther

My reading of classical books started with Herodotus perhaps a dozen years ago when I was preparing to teach the Bible's Book of Esther.  An atheist scholar blurted that the book of Esther was systematically in conflict with Herodotus, thus, I bough The Histories, read it cover to cover, and started collecting notes.  As usual, the facts were exactly the opposite of what the atheist scholar claimed, thus, it was a real treat to do the comparison and to learn more of the character and deeds of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes.  Some stories have to be taken with a grain of salt like the story of the ants of India being larger than a fox, but smaller than a dog.

Since I am thinking to teach Esther and Daniel again, I have been listening to the audio version of Herodotus and am now up to book 3 of the 9 books.  It is good to refresh the memory since I am always afraid of getting things scrambled.  So far so good.  A tidbit in passing is the following regarding the usurper king, Smerdis who was killed by Darius:

" ... There was one Otanes the son of Pharnaspes, in birth and in wealth not inferior to any of the Persians. This Otanes was the first who had had suspicion of the Magian, that he was not Smerdis the son of Cyrus but the person that he really was, drawing his inference from these facts, namely that he never went abroad out of the fortress, and that he did not summon into his presence any of the honourable men among the Persians: and having formed a suspicion of him, he proceeded to do as follows:—Cambyses had taken to wife his daughter, whose name was Phaidyme;  ... " - The Histories, III.68

At this point there are clearly a number of parallels to the Book of Esther.  When Cambyses (son of Cyrus) died and Smerdis took the throne, all Cambyses wives and concubines were taken by Smerdis.  Cyrus had another son Smerdis who could rightfully be king, but there was also a Magi named Smerdis who looked similar to the son of Cyrus and Herodotus tells us that Cambyses had his brother secretly killed.  The Magi, Smerdis, however, had had his ears cut off, but Persians all wore their hair long so it wasn't easy to see this.  Otanes is trying to find out which Smerdis is within the palace by means of his daughter and messages are exchanged to accomplish this.  As the exchange proceeds, Phaidyme agrees to do what she is asked to do, but fears for her life:

" ... To this Phaidyme sent an answer saying that, if she should do so, she would run a great risk; for supposing that he should chance not to have his ears, and she were detected feeling for them, she was well assured that he would put her to death; but nevertheless she would do this. ..." - The Histories, III.69

And so Esther said, "If I perish, I perish" - Esther 4:16.    I have a sense that Esther's risk was greater, but the good character of Esther seems present in Phaidyme as well.  The main reason to highlight this is one of Biblical hermeneutics.  If the main lesson we derive from Esther is to honor her good character, than why not treat Herodotus as scripture also?  Of course there are other more important lessons in Esther.

2 comments:

Delirious said...

I particularly like Mordecai's urging, "who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" I've thought of that principle often in my life.

Looney said...

Certainly I look at things the same way ... the God is giving me opportunities. Herodotus is all filled with the concepts of the Fates, who are the celestial beings that determine everything that will happen, but in a manner that seems to have no sensible purpose.