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Introduction to the Book of Esther

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General Info

The Book of Esther is named for one of its principle characters, a Jewish orphan girl named Hadassah (aka Esther) who had been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.  When her parents had died, her cousin Mordecai adopted her into his family and raised her as his own daughter (Es 2:5-7).  The events take place in Susa, Persia (now the location of modern day Shush, Iran).

In the Greek and English versions of the Bible canon, Esther is the last book in the collection of Old Testament Historical Books, just after Ezra and Nehemiah, the other two post-exilic history books.  In the Hebrew canon, the book is one of the five Megilloth (“rolls” or “scrolls”) located in the third and final section known as the Kethuvim (“Writings”).  The other four books on the scroll are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.  Because of Esther's popularity among the Jews, the book itself was often referred to as the Megillah (the “scroll”).  Many Jews consider Esther to be secondary in importance only to the five Books of Moses.

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Brief Survey

The Book of Esther opens with God orchestrating the circumstances by which the Persian King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) replaced Vashti with the Jewish Esther (who kept her ethnicity a secret) as Queen of Persia.  Haman was later made the chief noble and began to plot against Mordecai and the Jews because Mordecai refused to bow down to him.  Haman bribed the king to issue a decree that the Jews be destroyed (Es 3).

When Mordecai learned of the decree, he contacted Esther, who agreed to intercede at the risk of her own life (Es 4).  The king granted Esther’s request that he and Haman dine with her.  While they were drinking, Esther revealed Haman’s plot to her husband the king, who ordered Haman hanged on the very gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai (Es 7).

King Xerxes then promoted Mordecai, who issued a decree that the Jews be allowed to defend themselves (Es 8).  The Jews then destroyed their enemies and instituted the Celebration of Purim to commemorate their deliverance from certain annihilation (Es 9).

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Key Verses

When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested.  And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her...  Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins.  So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.  And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials.  He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality...  But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up. (1:15,17-18,20)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged.  Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai.  Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.  In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, the pur (that is, the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman to select a day and month.  And the lot fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar…  Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.  (3:5-7,13)

When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.  And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”  (4:12-14)

Key Chapter: 4 - Esther to Help the Jews at the Risk of her own Life

His [Haman's] advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!”  (6:13)

[After Esther reveals Haman's plot to the King:]  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits stands by Haman’s house.  He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”  The king said, “Impale him on it!”  So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai.  Then the king’s fury subsided.  (7:9-10)

The king took off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and presented it to Mordecai.  And Esther appointed him over Haman’s estate.  (8:2)

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves… The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them.  No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them.  The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them.  (8:11; 9:2,5)

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.  (10:3)

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Author and Date

The author of Esther does not identify himself/herself in the text.  The most popular candidate among scholars is Mordecai.  We know from Esther 9:20 that Mordecai recorded at least some of the events of the book, but others could have drawn from his writings.  Whoever wrote Esther possessed considerable detailed knowledge of the palace layout (1:5-7), as well as Persian history, protocol and traditions.  In addition, he or she was very familiar with Hebrew customs.  Mordecai would qualify on all counts, including being an eyewitness to the most of the events, and having direct contact with other eyewitnesses.  As second only to the king in authority, he would also have access to Persian official records.  His authorship was favored by the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Clement of Alexander, and a host of other Jewish and Christian scholars from the first few centuries.

Other suggested authors are Ezra (favored by the 4th/5th century theologian St Augustine), Esther, or an anonymous Persian Jew.  The Talmud credits the book of Esther to the members of the Great Assembly (aka the Great Synagogue), a group of scribes and prophets established by Ezra and Nehemiah, that also included Mordecai, Haggai, Zechariah, Daniel, Zerubbabel, and many others.

The date of writing would depend on the identity of the author.  If Mordecai, he probably wrote it ~465-450 BC.  If one or more members of the Great Assembly wrote the book, it was probably completed by ~400 BC.  The most popular argument against Mordecai’s authorship is that he would not have written the glowing descriptions of himself in the final chapter.  One likely possibility is that Mordecai wrote the first nine chapters, ending with the establishment of Purim, then Ezra or another writer added what is now chapter 10 as a footnote or summary of the greatness of Xerxes and Mordecai.

The initial audience for the book consisted of the Jews who stayed behind in Persia.  It was about this time that the term “Jew” and “Jewish” (Hebrew Yehudi from Yehudah [English “Judah”]) became popular.  Its biblical use began near the end of the Southern Kingdom (2Kings and Jeremiah) and continued through post-exile Nehemiah, but over half of the total uses are found in Esther.

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Historical Background

After the defeat and exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, the Southern Kingdom of Judah likewise continued to disregard God’s covenant commandments, resulting in their final defeat and exile to Babylon in 586 BC.  These events are found in the Books of the Kingdoms (Samuel and Kings), with a priestly parallel account recorded in the Chronicles.

In 539 BC, Babylon was conquered by Persia, and the following year, Persian King Cyrus the Great issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland.  The first group returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel.  Other exiles would later return under Ezra (458 BC) and Nehemiah (445 BC).  The events associated with the returning exiles formed the historical basis for the original book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

While Ezra-Nehemiah was set primarily in Jerusalem, the book of Esther depicts key events in the lives of the Jews who chose to remain in Persia.  The events occur during the reign of Persian King Xerxes (486-465 BC).

For more Information:

See OT History Books for the position of the Exile and return to the land within the context of the OT historical periods.

See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.

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Timeline

See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

The events in the Book of Esther take place in Persia over the decade from from Xerxes' 3rd year (483 BC - Es 1:1-3) to the end of Xerxes' 12th year (473 - Es 3:7).  This time period also falls during the re-occupation of Jerusalem by the first wave of returning Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel, probably between the events of Ezra 6 and 7.  Most dates in this list can be accurately fixed within a year or so.

586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Jewish Population
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
490 BC Darius the Great (father of Xerxes) loses famous battle of Marathon to the Greeks
485-465 BC Reign of Persian King Ahasuerus (called Xerxes by the Greeks)
483-473 BC Events in the Book of Esther
~ 478 BC Esther and Mordecai Foil a Plot to Exterminate Jews in Persia
470 BC The Persians defeated by the Greeks
465 BC Xerxes Assassinated by the Captain of his Bodyguards
~465-400 BC Probable writing date of the Book of Esther
458 BC Ezra and other Exiles Return to Jerusalem
331 BC Darius III of Persia Defeated by Alexander the Great
330 BC Death of Darius III; End of Persian Empire

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The historical purpose of Esther is to record the major events involving the Jewish people in Persia during the mid-fifth century BC such as rise of Esther as Queen, the foiled attempt to exterminate the Jews, and to document the institution of the feast of Purim.  The theological purpose is to demonstrate the sovereignty of God and His providential care for His chosen people in each of these events.

Likewise, the main theme of the book is God's sovereign providence over what may appear to some as an implausible series of circumstances.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Some of the most common questions/difficulties that arise regarding the Book of Esther pertains to its canonicity, supposedly secular nature (no direct mention of God), and genre (allegory or history).  We’ll address the latter first.

Genre

Although the majority of Bible scholars interpret Esther as being historical and biographical similar to the book of Ruth (the only other Biblical book named for a woman), some doubt its historicity based on a number of high improbabilities.  One frequent objection is that a Jewish woman could not become queen of Persia, but Esther kept her ethnicity a secret.  Another objection involves Xerxes’ order to exterminate the Jews.  Persian kings (as compared with the Assyrians and Babylonians) were relatively tolerant and humane toward the non-Persians.  Many historians have written that Xerxes was somewhat of a tyrant, but it appears the primary reason for the edict was that he was deceived by Haman, his prime minister.

The compounded series of improbable “circumstances” makes the story difficult to believe for some.  Yet, the events are no less improbable than those found elsewhere in other scripture where one of the main themes and purposes is to demonstrate the sovereignty of God in history, such as in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-48 (also in the aforementioned book of Ruth, the story of Moses etc).  Many who object to these events generally object to anything in the Scriptures that can't be explained by natural means.

Another objection is the lack of historical evidence found outside of the biblical accounts.  We’ve seen many of these objections withdrawn in the past as additional archeological discoveries are made.  With Esther, we have the additional problem that, after the death of Xerxes in 464BC, most records were lost in the fire that consumed his palace.  A cuneiform writing has been discovered however, that refers to a high ranking official during Xerxes’ reign named “Marduka”.  This is believed by many to be Mordecai.

The internal evidence also corroborates the view that the book was written as biographical history.  Esther 10:2 (also 2:23 and 6:1) mentions that the events were recorded in the “Book of the Annals of the kings of Media and Persia”.

Finally, the institution of the annual festival of Purim strongly attests to the historicity of the Book of Esther.  It is highly doubtful that the Jewish people would continue to celebrate a festival based on a fictional story that lacked either historical or covenantal precedence.

Canonicity

The admission of the Book of Esther into the Biblical canon has been the subject of debate among Christians and Jews alike.  The most common objection is its omission of God’s name (Song of Solomon is the only other canonized book that omits God’s name), but God’s providence is unmistakable throughout.  There is also no mention of Jewish religious practices, but we’ll address this along with the secularist aspect below.

Although some debate would continue, the canonicity of Esther appears to have been widely accepted by the time of the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD.  It was included in the Baraitha in Baba Bathra, a second century AD Talmudic tractate that contains the oldest known list of the Jewish canon.  Early Jewish and Christian historians and fathers that accepted Esther as Canon included Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish-Roman scholar and historian, Clement of Alexandria (~ 155-220), Origen (~ 185-254), the historian Eusebius (~ 265-339), St Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), Cyril of Jerusalem (~ 310-386) and St Augustine (354-430).

Text Additions

Further evidence of Esther’s acceptance is the book’s inclusion in the Septuagint, the first Greek translation (3rd and 2nd century BC) of the Hebrew canon.  By the time of this translation, there were actually two versions of Esther in existence, the original and a redacted version containing six additions totaling 107 verses (verse numbers would not be added until the mid-1500s AD).  The additions included a symbolic dream of Mordecai containing a fierce battle between two dragons, the text of the king’s edict to kill the Jews, prayer of Mordecai for God to rescue the Jews, Esther’s prayer for courage and success in her appearance before the king, description of Esther’s suspenseful approach to the king’s court in which she overcomes a fainting spell, the king’s second edict proclaiming a festival for the Jews, and an interpretation of Mordecai’s aforementioned dream recognizing God’s sovereign deliverance of His people.

More than likely, these verses were added in an attempt to create a more explicit religious tone (over fifty additions of the name of God), but to most readers, God’s involvement and sovereignty in the events was already obvious.  Because these additions were not in the original Hebrew text, they are considered apocryphal, of less importance and non-authoritative.

When Jerome published the Roman Vulgate, the late 4th / early 5th century Latin translation of the Bible, he separated these additions that had been interspersed within the Septuagint translation, and placed them at the end of the book.  In some modern Bible translations, these additions are included in the Apocrypha under the title, “The Additions to the Book of Esther”.

Secular Nature?

As we mentioned before, some throughout history have objected to the perceived secular nature of the book of Esther and its characters, particularly Mordecai and Esther.  The apparent secular nature should not cause a problem since, even in God's periods of silence (as with portions of other books), His sovereignty over the events is inescapable.  Still, if we ask, “Why wasn’t the author more explicit in his description of God’s involvement” or “Why did he write with such a secular tone”, many possible suggested solutions have been offered.

One explanation is that the author took the story almost verbatim from official Persian records.  Some others have proposed that the author was primarily interested in the Jewish nation rather than their religious practices.  Still others suggest that Esther and Mordecai actually possessed strong faith, but Esther in particular kept her faith secret in order to not reveal her true ethnicity, which in turn would have prevented her from being queen.  Like other Bible histories, the author is selective in his choice of material, so we can't know for sure.

The other possibility is that Mordecai and Esther were actually somewhat secular in their beliefs.  We know of many periods throughout biblical history that the Jews would sometimes go generations without observing the covenant rituals before a revival and reforms would occur (such as under Josiah, see 2Kings 22-23).  The fact that Mordecai and Esther remained in Persia rather than returning to Jerusalem might suggest possession of a secular nature.  If this is the case, the primary theme of the book would be God’s faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of His people.  Even during periods of judgment, God was always faithful to preserve a faithful remnant.

On the other hand, the conversation between Esther and Mordecai in chapter 4 makes a strong statement about their faith.  Mordecai acknowledges God’s sovereignty in providing an alternate deliverer if Esther falters, and Esther calls for a three-day fast (purposeful fasts were always accompanied by intense prayer in Jewish religious practices) for her success and life to be spared when she would appear before the king.

We also have the statement from Haman’s wife and advisers, who warned Haman, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!” (6:13).  These Persians would not have feared the Jewish people that they had conquered and exiled, but foreigners often had a healthy fear of Israel’s God (see the account of the Canaanite Rahab in Joshua 2:8-13 for one example).

So, it appears the author is likely using a kind of “less is more” writing technique in the book.  We must also note that, what many modern readers might consider to be an improbable set of circumstances, the book’s original audience would simply recognize as God’s divine providence.  To the original audience, the silence surrounding God would have been deafening.

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Outline

The book of Esther can be divided into three sections.  In the first two chapters, God moves the major characters into position.  In chapters 3-7, we witness the struggle between Haman and Mordecai with the fate of the Jews in the balance.  Finally, chapters 8-10 narrate the deliverance of the Jews.

1:1 – 1:11 Persian Queen Vashti Dethroned
2:1 - 2:18 Esther Selected as Queen of Persia
2:19 - 2:23 Mordecai Uncovers Plot against Persian King Xerses
3:1 - 3:15 Haman's Plot to Destroy the Jews
4:1 - 4:17 Mordecai Convinces Esther to Attempt to Help the Jews
5:1 - 5:8 Esther Appears before the King
5:9 - 5:14 Haman's Plot to Kill Mordecai
6:1 - 6:14 King Xerxes Honors Mordecai
7:1 - 7:10 Haman Executed
8:1 - 8:17 The Royal Edict Allowing Jewish Self-Defense
9:1  - 9:19 Victory of the Jews
9:20  - 9:32 Celebration of Purim
10:1  - 10:3 Greatness of Xerxes and Mordecai

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