Book of Esther

ESTHER, BOOK OF. The last of the historical books of the OT. It was written after the death of King Xerxes (Esth.10.2; kjv “Ahasuerus”). Most scholars today agree that the KJV Ahasuerus was the Xerxes who reigned 486 b.c. to 465 b.c. Probably the book was written about 400. The author is unknown, but it is evident from the details of the record that he was well acquainted with the Persian court life. The Book of Esther has always been accepted as canonical by the Jews.

External proof of the career of Mordecai has been found in an undated cuneiform text that mentions a certain Mordecai (Marduka) who was a high official at the Persian court of Shushan during the reign of Xerxes and even before that under Darius I. This text came from Borsippa and is the first reference to Mordecai outside the Bible.

Outstanding peculiarities of the book are the complete absence of the name of God, the lack of any direct religious teaching, and no mention of prayer. These remarkable features can have occurred only by deliberate design. Probably the book was written for the Jews in the Persian Empire as an account that could be circulated without danger of offending the people of that land who ruled over many Jews.

The account contains many dramatic elements. King Xerxes gave a great feast for all the officials of his realm. Queen Vashti offended him when she refused to appear before the company at the command of the king. As a result he divorced her (Esth.1.1-Esth.1.22). Later, in order to procure another queen, he ordered all the beautiful maidens of the land brought together. Among them was Hadassah, who had been reared by her cousin Mordecai. Her name was changed to Esther by the Persians. This maiden was chosen by the king to be his queen. Mordecai discovered a plot against the king’s life (Esth.2.1-Esth.2.23). The king made Haman his chief minister. Everybody bowed down to him except Mordecai. This disrespect infuriated the high official. Knowing Mordecai was a Jew, Haman decided to destroy all the Jews in revenge for his hurt feelings. Lots, called Pur, were cast to find an auspicious day for the destruction. The consent of the king was obtained, and an official decree was written and publicized throughout the empire, setting the date for the slaughter of the Jews (Esth.3.1-Esth.3.15). Mordecai sent word to Esther that she must plead for her people before the king (Esth.4.1-Esth.4.17). At the risk of her life she went in before the king. He received her favorably. Instead of pleading with him at once she invited him and Haman to a banquet. There the king asked her to state her request, but she put it off and invited them to another banquet. Haman, rejoicing in his good fortune but incensed at Mordecai, had a gallows constructed on which to hang him (Esth.5.1-Esth.5.14). That night, unable to sleep, the king was listening to the reading of the royal chronicles. When the account of Mordecai’s discovery of the assassination plot was read, the king asked what reward had been given him and was told none at all.

It was early morning and Haman had come to ask permission to hang Mordecai. But the king asked him what should be done to a man he wished to honor. Being convinced that the king could have only him in mind, Haman suggested the greatest of honors he could imagine. At the king’s command he was obliged to bestow those honors on Mordecai (Esth.6.1-Esth.6.14). At the second banquet Esther told the king about the scheme to destroy her people and named Haman as the one responsible for it. The king became very angry and ordered Haman to be hanged on the gallows he had made (Esth.7.1-Esth.7.10). Another decree was sent out that enabled the Jews to save themselves (Esth.8.1-Esth.8.17). In two days of fighting they were victorious everywhere. Esther and Mordecai wrote letters to the Jews instituting the commemoration of these two days in an annual Feast of Purim (Esth.9.1-Esth.9.32). Mordecai, being next to the king, brought blessing to the people (Esth.10.1-Esth.10.3).

In the Septuagint, the Book of Esther contains several interpolations scattered through the account.

Bibliography: L. H. Brockington, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (NCB), 1969; A. M. Carey, Esther (AB), 1971.——CEH


ESTHER, BOOK OF

Outline

Background.


If Xerxes is the king, it is possible to bring together the Biblical and secular records. In the third year of his reign, he called together all the leading men to discuss a campaign against Greece (Herodotus VII. 8), where his father, Darius, had been defeated at Marathon in 490. This would be the assembly of Esther 1, which was in the third year (1:3). Although the search for Vashti’s successor begins in this year, Xerxes does not marry Esther until the seventh year (2:16). In the intervening period he was occupied with the Gr. campaign, taking four years to collect his armies (Herodotus VII. 21). He was ultimately defeated by the Greeks at Salamis in 480. The Biblical dating indicates that he married Esther on his return. Haman’s plot against the Jews took place in the twelfth year, which means that the Biblical story ends about 473. There is no record of how long Mordecai and Esther remained in power.

It has been objected that Herodotus and Ctesias speak of Amestris as queen, and she was certainly the wife of Xerxes before 482, for in this year their son, the later Artaxerxes I, was born. Amestris was queen mother (i.e. the widow of the former king) during the reign of Artaxerxes I. She also was with Xerxes during part at least of his Gr. campaign, and Herodotus relates an appalling incident at Saris (IX. 108f.). Xerxes had an affair with a married woman and her daughter, and Amestris seized the former and horribly mutilated her.

This may be linked to the Esther story, if Amestris is Vashti. Xerxes would have taken at least one wife with him, and, although he had deposed Vashti from being queen during his drunken stupor, he retained her as his wife for the time being. Her mutilation of Xerxes’ mistress would have led to her falling out of favor, or even to temporary banishment, and, on his return, Xerxes was ready to take Esther as his new queen. Amestris was clever enough to wait her time and work her way back into favor, perhaps taking advantage of a reaction against Esther and Mordecai after the Jews had killed so many of their enemies. We do not know what happened to Esther eventually. See Esther; Vashti.

Unity.

The only section in the Heb. which some believe to break the unity is 9:20-10:3. This is largely a section that shows how the previously recorded facts of history gave rise to the specific observance of the Feast of Purim. The historical narrative has shown what actually happened on certain vital days, whereas this section tells how Mordecai selected two of these days for special observance. The recapitulation (Esth 9:24, 25) is intended as no more than a summarizing of the main facts, and cannot fairly be said to be out of harmony with the main body of the book.


Authorship and date.

The book is anonymous. Such references as it contains to writing are to the official court records (2:23; 6:1; 10:2) and to what Mordecai wrote when he “recorded these things” (9:20) and set down the regulations for Purim (9:20, 23, 29-32). It is possible that Mordecai himself was the author. His omission of the name of God would be accounted for if he wished to have his book inserted among the court records. There is no reason to regard Mordecai as a devout man, though he was certainly a strong nationalist. If he is to be identified with Matakas, who is mentioned by Ctesias, he had plundered the temple at Delphi on Xerxes’ behalf, when others refused to do so (XIII. 58). He would have been glad at the opportunity to insult a Gentile god.

It is possible that a later author used the Pers. chronicles when he wanted to write the story of the origin of Purim, and, since the official records would naturally not speak of the Jewish god, the Jewish copyist chose to let them stand as they were.

Various periods have been suggested for the writing of the book. It must have been in circulation for some time before the LXX tr. appeared toward the end of the 2nd cent. b.c., but neither Esther nor Mordecai is listed in Ecclesiasticus 44-50 (180 b.c.). Many believe that it was written under the stress of the persecutions in the time of the Maccabees in the middle of the 2nd cent. It is, however, difficult to account for the total omission of the name of God if the book were composed by an enthusiastic Jew at such a time.

One further suggestion must be noticed, that this book derived from a cultic story that centered in a conflict of deities, namely Ishtar (Esther), Marduk (Mordecai), who were both deities of Babylon, and Humman (Haman) and Mashti (Vashti), of Elam. Since some Jewish exiles, such as Daniel and his friends, bore Babylonian names, it is quite possible that Mordecai’s name is the equivalent of the common Babylonian personal name, Mardukaia, which contained the name of Marduk, and Esther’s name could be linked with Ishtar also. This is not to say that the story was originally cultic. The real objection to the cultic theory is the unlikelihood of the Jews using a polytheistic Babylonian tale as a ground for a Jewish festival of deliverance; there is no evidence for Purim ever being other than a Jewish feast, which the Jews might have adopted.

The earliest post-Biblical reference to the Feast of Purim (2 Macc 15:36) records the victory of Judas Maccabeus in 161 b.c. on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is said to be on “the day before Mordecai’s day.” The date of 2 Maccabees is prob. the first half of the 1st cent. b.c. Presumably the Book of Esther was known by that time.

Purpose.

The primary purpose is to relate the origin of the Feast of Purim. The book gives the historical occasion, the reason for the dates, and the origin of the name. The latter is connected with the Assyrian puru, which is used for a small stone suitable for the casting of lots (Esth 3:7; 9:24, 26).

Canonicity.

The book comes in the third division of the Heb. Scriptures, and is grouped with Ruth, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, as one of the Five Scrolls. It was one of the books to which the rabbis at Jamnia (c. a.d. 100) gave special consideration as to whether it should continue to be counted among the inspired books. The chief argument against it was that it instituted a new festival as obligatory, whereas the law of Moses was believed to have laid down all the festivals. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 70d), the solution found was that the book was revealed to Moses on Sinai, but not written until the time of Mordecai.

Special problems.


One therefore approaches problems with a bias favoring the historicity of the book. The following objections may be noted:

(a) Herodotus and Ctesias make no mention of Esther or Vashti, but Amestris appears as queen and later as queen-mother. Vashti and Amestris could be the same person (see Section 1).

(b) The writer is so confused over the time scale that he holds that Mordecai was one of the original captives in 597 (2:5, 6). This would make him more than 100 years old. The text could equally refer to his great-grandfather, Kish, the relative pronoun being attached to the last name in the series (2 Chron 22:9; Ezra 2:61).

(c) Esther 1:1 mentions 127 provinces, whereas Herodotus (III. 89) speaks only of 20 satrapies. Inscriptions of Darius vary between 21 and 29 provinces. There is no doubt that the larger regions, whether called satrapies or provinces, were divided into smaller units, and, if the Bible is interpreted by itself, the small unit of Judah is regularly designated by the same word as is used in Esther 1:1 (מְדִינָֽה).

(d) According to Herodotus III. 84, the king had to choose his wife from one of seven families. It is not clear from Herodotus whether this was a permanent rule, or merely a temporary agreement to satisfy the six other conspirators besides Darius who had dethroned the previous usurper. Certainly Darius himself married other wives besides one from the seven, and his son Xerxes, who succeeded him, was not the son of this wife.

(e) If Purim had really been instituted by Mordecai, why is it not mentioned until it occurs as “Mordecai’s day” in 2 Maccabees 15:36? Why are not Mordecai and Esther included in the praise of famous people in Ecclesiasticus 44-49? It is difficult to see where it could have been mentioned in extant lit. In Ezra’s day, it would not yet have established itself on an equal footing with the Mosaic festivals, and the Book of Ezra does not mention even all of these. One cannot argue too much from the silence of Ben Sirach in Ecclesiasticus, since he also omits Ezra. As a Wisdom writer, he was not esp. concerned with individual festivals, and he may not have approved of Mordecai’s methods nor of Esther’s marriage to a pagan king.

The above are the chief objections that have been brought against the historicity of the book. One cannot here consider subjective objections based on opinions of whether such and such an incident is likely. There is therefore no adequate reason for rejecting the Book’s presentation of itself as genuine history.

Contents.

Chapter 1. The Pers. king at a seven-day feast at Susa for all his chief men deposes queen Vashti for refusing to come in and display her beauty before the men.

Chapter 2. Esther, the adopted daughter of a Jew named Mordecai, is chosen as Vashti’s successor. Mordecai discovers a plot to murder the king, and passes on the information to Esther, with the result that the plot is foiled.

Chapter 3. Mordecai offends Haman, the new vizier, through refusing to bow down to him, and Haman plans his revenge by massacring all the Jews in the empire. Experts cast the lot (pur) to fix a lucky day for the massacre, and a date is chosen eleven months ahead. Haman sends decrees for the massacre throughout the empire.

Chapter 4. Mordecai persuades Esther to intervene, and she explains how dangerous it could be for her to approach the king unbidden. She agrees, on condition that the Jews in Susa fast, and presumably pray, for three days.

Chapter 5. Esther approaches the king and invites him and Haman to dinner. When they come, she repeats the invitation for a second dinner next day. (Did her courage fail her?) Haman’s happiness is marred by Mordecai’s refusal to honor him, but his wife suggests that he build a gallows and obtain the king’s permission to hang Mordecai in the morning.

Chapter 6. The king, suffering from insomnia, reads the records of his reign and finds that Mordecai had not been rewarded for revealing the plot against him. He makes Haman lead Mordecai in honor through the city the next day.

Chapter 7. At the second dinner, Esther reveals the plot against the Jews, and names Haman. The king hangs him on the gallows prepared for Mordecai.

Chapter 8. The king puts Mordecai in Haman’s place, and authorizes him to write further decrees allowing the Jews to resist on the day of the massacre.

Chapter 9. The Jews take advantage of this and kill any enemies who attack them. Esther obtains permission for the Jews in Susa to attack their enemies on the next day also. Mordecai then institutes the Feast of Purim on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar, which had been days of rejoicing after the abortive massacre on the thirteenth.

Chapter 10. A summary of the greatness of the king and of Mordecai.

Theology and morals.

The absence of the name of God does not mean the absence of the hand of God. The whole book traces how the right person was in the right place at the right time. This did not happen automatically, but 4:16 shows that fasting, which would include prayer, was part of the working out of God’s plan. One is not bound to approve of the extra massacre that Mordecai ordered in Susa, with the hanging of Haman’s sons (9:13-15). Mordecai was a strong nationalist, and a brave man, but his concealment of his Jewish ancestry at first (2:10) may indicate that he was more opportunistic than devout.

Bibliography

L. B. Paton, ICC (1908); J. Hoschander, The Book of Esther in the Light of History (1923); A. T. Olmstead, History of Palestine and Syria (1931) and History of the Persian Empire (1948); B. W. Anderson, IB (1954); S. H. Horn, “Mordecai, A Historical Problem,” Biblical Research, Chicago Society (1964); J. S. Wright, “The Historicity of the Book of Esther” in New Perspectives on OT (1970).