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The Biblical Medes and Persians exemplified implacable inflexibilty

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Law, Religion on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Traffic warden, picture, image, illustration

Traffic wardens have become stereotypes of rigid inflexibility where the law is concerned

A motorist has pulled up on the side of the road marked with a yellow band. A Traffic Warden asks him politely but firmly to move on, and points to a vacant meter space nearby. The motorist tries to stay where he is. He only wants to stop a few minutes. The Warden insists that he can’t stay there, because if he does, he will be breaking the law.

“All right, all right!” mutters the driver. “But surely it’s not the law of the Medes and Persians, is it?”

Some laws are not always rigidly enforced. This strange phrase about the “Medes and Persians” refers to ones which are, and which allow no latitude at all.

The Bible, where the phrase is found, refers to “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” Once the king’s seal had been set upon any law in the ancient Persian kingdom, no one had the right to vary it in any way, nor to make exceptions to it.

The Jewish people had good reason to remember the rigidly severe laws of the Persian Empire, because for many years they were exiles from their homeland, forming what today we call a “minority” in the land of Babylon, which the Persians conquered. (The Medes, incidentally, were a people closely associated with the Persians.)

Under Persian rule, the Jews suffered many trials, particularly when one king tried to set himself above the invisible God to whom all the Jews were accustomed to pray. It was for continuing to pray to God instead of asking favours from the Persian king that the Jewish hero Daniel was imprisoned in a den of lions (from which he, nevertheless, emerged unharmed). The phrase in fact comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 6, verses 8 and 15).

It occurs again in the strange and little-known Book of Esther (chapter 1, verses 19). This is another story of the time of the Jewish exiles in the Persian kingdom of the 6th century B.C.

Esther, a Jewish orphan, became the Persian king’s favourite. In order to save her people from a savage law which the king had been deceived into signing, and which permitted the massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom, she had to show great courage.

Risking the king’s displeasure, and her own punishment, she caught his attention and talked him into a plan by which she hoped to convince him of the evil intentions of his advisers.

By charm, tact – and a splendid dinner-party – Esther succeeded in persuading the king that the law against her people was unjust. The man responsible for advising him was punished, and the Jews were given the right to defend themselves against anyone who dared to attack them.

This was as far as even the king could go in altering a “law of the Medes and Persians” to which he had already put his official seal!

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