🔼The name Mordecai in the Bible
It's not clear how many separate men named Mordecai there are in the Bible, but most onomasticons and commentaries list two:
- The heroic uncle of Esther and son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish of Benjamin (Esther 2:5). According to the Book of Esther, this Mordecai and his niece Esther managed to not only avert a holocaust, but also to convert the king to Judaism and occupy the most important political positions in the empire; Esther as queen and Mordecai as second-to-the-king (Esther 10:2).
- A man of unspecified genealogy who joined the second wave of return from exile led by Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2, Nehemiah 7:7).
These two Mordecais are obviously contemporaries of each other, but it appears that Esther's Mordecai operated slightly later than the second return. This would mean that there are two of them, or else that after his trip with Zerubbabel, Mordecai went back to Persia. This is not unthinkable as for instance letters, especially important ones, were hand-carried by runners (Esther 3:13) or emissaries (Jeremiah 29:3, 2 Kings 20:12). A correspondence between the restorers of Jerusalem and the royal court in Persia is preserved in Ezra 4-5, and from Esther 9:20 we learn that Mordecai was a record keeper and epistler.
Much more likely, however, is that neither Mordecai the returnee nor Mordecai the hero were human individuals the way we presently understand human individuality. There is quite a bit of extra-Biblical literature left from that period and that area, but no one other than the author of Esther mentions a substantial upheaval related to Jews or a substantial change in policies or even the dramatic fall from grace of Haman and the instatement of the Jew Mordecai as second-to-the-king.
Here at Abarim Publications we hold that the story told in the Book of Esther is not a report on political history but a report on theological history (just like the rest of the Bible is). Within Persia's base religion there was considerable diversity, easily as much as there was within Judaism in the first century AD. We're guessing that Mordecai stood for a school of thought within Persia's theocratic structure, which searched for Truth much rather than religious compliance or nationalism (see our article on the name Haman).
It's doubtful (or frankly: highly unlikely) that the political government of Persia abruptly abandoned the worship of their national deities and converted to Judaism (as some commentators derive from Daniel 4:2-3 and 4:34-37). It seems much more plausible that the stories of Esther and Daniel convey Persia's quest for Truth; an endeavor which brought that particular Persian school in direct alignment with Yahwistic Jews. It also, per definition, annulled the need of either to revert to the religious expressions of the other.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Mordecai
The name Mordecai could be regarded as an adjective based on the name Marduk, who was the principle deity of Babylon. Following that assumption would render Mordecai the meaning of Mardukish, or Pertaining To Marduk, or Belonging To Marduk.
For a full discussion on the etymology and meaning of both Mordecai and Marduk, please see our article on Marduk. The name Marduk is obviously not Hebrew, but can be constructed from Hebrew elements to represent a few telling meanings. One way to see the name Marduk is to derive the first part from the verb מרר (marar), meaning to be strong or bitter (see the names Maria and Mara). The second part could then be drawn from the adjective דך (dak), meaning crushing. The difference between Marduk and Mordecai, namely the final yod, could then be ascribed not to an adjective but to the noun דכי (doki), meaning a crushing. This noun occurs only in Psalm 93:3, where the ever changing sea pounds at the firmly established throne of YHWH:
🔼Mordecai in Persepolis Texts: the Marduka Tablet
In his wonderful article The Quest For The Historical Mordecai, emeritus professor David J.A. Clines reviews the discovery of the name Marduka on a cuneiform tablet (Amherst 258) found in Persepolis, and the subsequent discussion on whether Marduka could be the Mordecai of the Book of Esther (most scholars appear to cheer at the possibility, but professor Clines is less enthused and that for compelling reasons).
Here at Abarim Publications we are less concerned with the historical veracity of Biblical characters and events because it seems to us that the Bible writers weren't. To us it seems that the characters of the Bible are often based on historical figures, but they always serve the greater discussion on how Truth came to the world. Or in the words of professor Clines: For what, we may ask, would a kernel of truth look like?
The tablet reveals that Marduka was a sipir; a scribe or high ranking administrative functionary, probably stationed not in Susa but in Borsippa. The Book of Esther tells that Mordecai resided in Susa and enjoyed daily access to the court of the king's heavily guarded harem (2:11), and that he sat in the king's gate (the place of official business; 2:19, 2:21).
A few other instances of the name Marduka have been found on contemporary artifacts from Persia (kept in the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago) but at best they reveal that Marduka was as common a name as the name Jesus would be in first century Palestine.