Who Was King Xerxes?

Author of Someplace to Be Somebody
Who Was King Xerxes?

The Bible is the supreme source of our history, yet it does not include every fact about certain events and rulers who played a role in God’s redemptive history, which is the core of the Bible. We can research history and find there’s always a link to what God was doing in that era. Tied alongside the biblical chronicles are reputable extra-biblical sources which give facts about people mentioned in the Bible. For example, Josephus (37/38 BC-AD 100) served such a capacity to add to the richness of God’s New Testament narrative. He wrote Antiquities of the Jews, and biblical scholars use his accounts for knowledge about the New Testament age.

What is added to biblical records about the Old Testament period can be found in the records and inscriptions of different dynasties and by ancient historians acting with a ruler’s court.

We have implicit and explicit information about Xerxes from the book of Esther, but the extra-biblical archives aid our understanding about this man and how God used him. Herodotus (490-425 BC) was one such historian who included Xerxes in his writings.

Who Was King Xerxes?

Xerxes served as a king of Persia during the Achaemenid dynasty. Born about 519 BC, Xerxes reigned in Persia from 486-465 BC He died in Persepolis in 465. Xerxes succeeded his father, Darius I, as king. As Britannica says, for a time he ruled the “mightiest power in the ancient world.” 

King Xerxes was around thirty-five years old when he began his reign and had ruled the satrap of Babylonia for over ten years. Xerxes’ notoriety as a leader stems from his vast offensive against Greece (480 BC). His defeat hastened the deterioration of the Achaemenian Empire. After that defeat, Xerxes retired to Susa and Persepolis.

Xerxes depleted his amassed resources with a huge building program that contained an enormous audience hall, a palace, a treasury, and monuments. His projects initiated the growth of gigantic and ostentatious building endeavors.

As a man, Xerxes was known to be one of the most disreputable Persian kings. He carried a reputation for cruel punishments, womanizing, and, as we saw, emptying the assets of the empire for his lavish lifestyle and building projects.

As an example of Xerxes’ cruelty, Edd Hodsdonof the Canterbury Archaeological Trust writes, “To build his army for the Greek invasion, King Xerxes enforced conscription throughout his empire. Among those conscripted were the five sons of Pythias, a Lydian governor. Pythias requested that his eldest son be allowed to remain as his heir. Xerxes took offense, believing that Pythias doubted the success of the invasion. He reportedly had Pythias’ son cut in half, displayed the corpse on either side of the road, and marched the army between the grisly markers.”

In a play, The Persians by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, Xerxes is characterized as an extremely prideful man.

Are Xerxes and Ahasuerus the Same Person?

The name Ahasuerus is derived from ancient Hebrew (ḥašwerōš) and seems to represent the old Persian language which rendered it as Xšayaršā. The Greeks, under Darius I, translated Ahasuerus as Xerxes (Herodotus 7.2-3).

Most translations use Ahasuerus, the name closest to the ancient Hebrew (ESV, KJV, NKJV, CSB, NASB, etc.) The NIV and NLT use the Greek translation, Xerxes. Note that the NIV and NLT are dynamic equivalence translations (thought-for-thought), as opposed to the more literal (word-for-word) ESV, NASB, etc.

Where Do We See Xerxes in the Bible?

The first mention of Xerxes is in Ezra 4:6, noted as king of Persia when accusations flew from enemies of Judah and Benjamin against the Jews regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.

Other than a major role in the book of Esther, Xerxes is mentioned in Daniel 9:1 as the father of Darius of Babylon. The text says he was a Mede by descent.

In the book of Esther, whose probable authors include Mordecai, Ezra, or Nehemiah, Xerxes plays a prominent role. At the time of Esther, Xerxes ruled from Susa, and that’s where we meet him. In his third year as king, he hosted a huge six-month long banquet for his military leaders, princes, and other nobles. Xerxes displayed “the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty” (Esther 1:4). After that party ended, a seven-day banquet commenced “for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa” (Esther 1:5). To say Xerxes boasted an opulent display is an understatement (Esther 1:6-8), and the beverages flowed liberally, as much as each person desired.

Enter Queen Vashti, who gave a comparable banquet for the women in the royal palace (Esther 1:9). On the seventh day of the second banquet, Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti be brought to him, wearing her royal crown, “in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at” (Esther 1:11). The general consensus among biblical scholars is King Xerxes wanted her to be brought in naked before his guests. Whatever the case, Queen Vashti refused and the king “became furious and burned with anger” (Esther 1:12).

Xerxes followed cultural tradition and consulted his experts in law and justice about what must happen to Queen Vashti for her impertinence (remember, they were dealing with a megalomaniac). His advisors told him she must be removed from her position because other women may mimic her behavior. Xerxes issued an irrevocable edict stating Vashti could never again appear before him.

Later, the king thought of Vashti and her disloyal act. His personal attendants suggested a kingdom-wide search be made for “beautiful young virgins for the king,” and had them brought to Susa to be prepared for a review of worthiness by the king’s eunuch (Esther 2:1-4). One of the young women chosen was Hadassah (also known as Esther), the cousin of Mordecai, a Benjamite and relative of the first king of Israel, Saul (1 Samuel 9:1). Mordecai was one of the exiles taken to Babylon, and he raised Esther after her parents died.

Esther, forbidden by Mordecai to reveal her nationality and family background, was taken to Susa along with other women and was placed under the care of the king’s eunuch, Hegai. Hegai found her most pleasing and assigned Esther to the best place in the harem. Mordecai kept a close watch on her from the courtyard of the harem. Only after twelve months of beauty treatments could a member of the harem be presented to the king. If he was pleased with a woman, she received an invitation back. Esther won the favor of the king because he was attracted to her more than the other women and Xerxes made her his queen. Once again, Xerxes held a banquet, this time in Esther’s honor, and he proclaimed a holiday and generously distributed gifts.

Meanwhile, Mordecai, while sitting at the king’s gate, overheard a conspiracy to assassinate King Xerxes. He told Esther, who told the king and “gave credit to Mordecai” (Esther 2:22). Xerxes responded by investigating and then having the two conspirators impaled on poles.

Xerxes, for some unknown reason, decided to honor Haman the Agagite with a “seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles” (Esther 3:1), and all were to bow to him. “But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor” (Esther 3:2). He refused to honor Haman and, when questioned, told the royal officials he was a Jew. Mordecai’s behavior enraged Haman, and instead of just targeting him, Haman sought a way to eradicate all Mordecai’s people (Esther 3:6).

Haman proved to be a sly man and spun a tale to King Xerxes that piqued the king’s pride. He told Xerxes it was best for him to not tolerate the Jews, for they “do not obey the king’s laws” (Esther 3:8). Haman offered money to the king, but Xerxes sloughed it off and said, “Keep the money and do with the people as you please” (Esther 3:11).

The king bowed to Haman’s wishes and issued an edict to “destroy, kill, or annihilate all the Jews — young and old, women and children — on a single day…” (Esther 3:13). When Mordecai learned of it, he enlisted Esther’s help. In Xerxes’ court, a woman (even the queen) could only go before the king if he summoned her. But Esther asked the Jews to fast for her for three days, and only after that did she approach the king.

Esther donned her royal robes and stood outside the king’s hall. King Xerxes, because he was pleased with her, bid her come to him by extending his gold scepter (Esther 5:2). He was so taken with her he told her he’d give her anything, “up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3). Knowing by now how King Xerxes liked to be made much of, Esther hosted a few banquets for the king, pleasing him and setting Haman up. After two banquets and a fully pleased king, the subdued sycophant, Haman, went to his home and consulted with his family and friends about how to eliminate Mordecai. They suggested he set up a pole upon which to impale Mordecai and it would be ready when Haman asked the king to kill him.

That night, however, Xerxes had insomnia and had the record of his reign brought to him and he discovered the account of Mordecai unveiling the plot to murder him. He inquired if Mordecai had been honored and once he found he had not (Esther 6:1-11), he ordered Haman the next morning to bestow upon Mordecai all the honors Haman thought he himself was to receive (Esther 6:1-11). Xerxes, it appears, lavished all sorts of honor and gifts on those who honored him. Haman was grieved and in the midst of complaining to his wife and friends, was whisked off to the banquet prepared by Esther.

Esther had presented the king with the promise of a request once the banquets were complete. On the second day, she revealed her national identity and told the king, “I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated” (Esther 7:4). Because the king so highly favored Esther, he became livid and asked who the perpetrator was. Esther pointed to Haman and said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!” The king left the room in a rage and when he returned, found Haman pleading with Esther and falling on her couch.

Xerxes protected his property, and when he witnessed Haman in this position, he said, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?” (Esther 7:8). Haman’s crafty move took a deathly turn toward his own demise and King Xerxes had Haman impaled on the very pole he erected for Mordecai. The king went even further and had Haman’s ten sons impaled on poles.

King Xerxes was moved by Esther’s peoples’ plight, which infers he had compassion, yet he could not revoke his edict against the Jews. He did, however, issue another which stated the Jews could defend themselves and do exactly to their attackers what the first edict said would happen to the Jews. It was a time of celebration and it became the feast of Purim, a Jewish national holiday still observed to this day.

Mordecai became a man of importance in King Xerxes court and his account was included in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia (Esther 10).

What Happened to Xerxes?

Xerxes was assassinated in 465 B.C. (along with his oldest son) by members of his court, and his minister, Artabanus was one of the assassins. One of his other sons retained power as Artaxerxes I.

God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, but He is truly all in it because this is an account of His people and their preservation by God working through the actions of a gentile king. This is God’s Word, and it is true.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/tomertu

Lisa Baker 1200x1200Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.