What is the Book of Esther?
The Book of Esther is part of the "Historical Books" of the Christian Old Testament but part of the "Writings" of the Jewish Bible. Is is a story about a Jewish woman named Esther who becomes queen in Persia and uses her position to stopped a planned genocide against the Jews. The story in the Book of Esther forms the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Facts About the Book of Esther
- The name "Esther" probably means "Star"
- The Book of Esther contains 10 chapters and 167 verses
- One of just two biblical texts named after a woman
- Yahweh is not named once through the entire text
- Contains the longest verse in the Bible: Esther 8:9
Important Characters in Esther
- Esther: An orphaned Jewish girl who marries Ahasuerus, king of Persia; Esther is probably a Persian name and her Hebrew name is Hadassah.
- Ahasuerus: Persian king, usually identified as Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II
- Mordecai: Esther's cousin who raised her and who saves the life of Ahasuerus
- Haman: Prime Minister of Ahasuerus who decides to have all the Jews in Persia killed
Who Wrote the Book of Esther?
The author of the Book of Esther is unknown, but Jewish tradition has ascribed the text to Mordecai. The text is noteworthy for the fact that a lot of time is spent describing the practices and customs of the Persian court but no time is spent describing the practices and customs of the Jews — especially Jews in Judah. There are no references to any Jewish dietary laws, sacrifices, or even prayers.
This suggests that it was written by and for Jews still in exile in Persia — Jews who had become as much Persian as they were Jewish. The ending of Esther helps support this because rather than achieving independence or overthrowing their masters, the "victory" is that Jews become more appreciated by and better integrated in the dominant culture.
When Was the Book of Esther Written?
Although it was probably edited more than once, the original text of the Book of Esther was probably created during the 3rd or 4th century BCE and edited into its final form in the 2nd century. The absolute earliest the text could have been written is during the reign of Persian ruler Xerxes I (486-465 BCE), but it's unlikely to be quite that early.
Scholars have concluded that the language shows enough similarity to the Hebrew of the Books of Chronicles to come from the same general time frame.
Is the Book of Esther Historically Accurate?
The Book of Esther is fiction, not history, and in fact it's categorized with the "Writings" of the Jewish scriptures, not the "Historical Books". Many of the details about the workings of the Persian court and Personal customs are not accurate, for example, and there are inconsistencies in Mordechai's age. There is also no independent evidence of any attempts to kill all Jews throughout the Persian empire.
It's more likely that the Book of Esther was written as a "historical novella" — a work of fiction set in the past with known historical figures and conditions — rather than as a work of history.
Book of Esther Summary
Esther Becomes Queen (Esther 1-2): Persian queen Vashti fails to obey king Ahasuerus the way she should, so he seeks a new queen. He picks Esther, an orphaned girl whom he doesn't realizes is Jewish.
Mordecai vs. Haman (Esther 3-4): Esther's cousin and foster-parent Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill Ahasuerus and so becomes a member of the court. Because he refuses to bow to the prime minster, Haman, he becomes a target for persecution. When Haman discovers that Mordecai is a Jew, he decides to have all Jews in the Persian empire killed — specifically, he decrees that on a certain date Persians may kill Jews with impunity and take their property.
Esther Saves the Jews (Esther 5-10): Mordecai convinces Esther that she has to intervene with the king to save the Jews, which she must do without also causing insult and earning a death sentence. First she butters up king Ahasuerus with food and sex, then she reveals that as a Jew she's been sentenced to death by Haman. Ahasuerus has Haman executed on gallows intended for Mordecai.
The original decree to slaughter the Jews cannot be rescinded, so Ahasuerus adds a new one: Jews may defend themselves with impunity. They are not only allowed to kill anyone who attacks them, but they can kill their attackers' entire families as well. The decree is reminiscent of the orders from from Yahweh to commit genocide in the Book of Joshua. This leads to a slaughter of 75,000 Persians, including Haman's family. To commemorate this Jews today celebrate Purim.
Book of Esther Themes
Yahweh Working Behind the Scenes: Yahweh is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the text of the Book of Esther. At no point is Yahweh described as giving anyone advice, hardening anyone's heart, or moving anyone to act. One might think that Yahweh has disappeared entirely, but some traditional interpretations are that he is working behind the scenes rather than overtly like in other texts.
Thus the Jews are still dependent upon Yahweh and still obligated to uphold their part of the covenant, but it they can't assume that they will always be able to see how and when they are being supported or helped. Still, the lack of overt theology in the text was the primary reason why it took so long for Esther to be accepted as canonical by both Jews and Christians.
Divided Loyalty and Identity: The entire story in the Book of Esther revolves around the fact that Jews are a minority group scattered throughout an empire dominated by a much larger group that has a different culture, religion, and ethnicity. The Jews are, in many ways, foreign subjects living within the Persian empire. They are separate enough to be easily distinguishable, but they do not have any control over their own destiny. Thus an important theme in Esther is how Jews living in such conditions can not just preserve their traditions and religion, but preserve their very existence.
The reason for Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman is never stated, but it does suggest a theme that is exists throughout the text: competing loyalties or identities between being Jewish and being a Persian subject. It's never stated whether Mordecai bows before king Ahasuerus, but for the purpose fo the story Haman becomes the temporary ruler whom the Jews are able to thwart and even overthrow. Yet at the same time, they remain true to the "real" ruler, Ahasuerus, increasing in status in his eyes. Thus the tension between the two loyalties is resolved because the Jews get to have their cake and eat it too.