Esther - Introduction
The book of Esther tells the story of how two wise and courageous Jews, Mordecai and Queen Esther, aided by the providential hand of fate, foil the genocidal schemes of Haman, the “enemy of the Jews” ( 3.10 ). The ensuing victory celebration on the fourteenth and fifteenth of the month of Adar (February–March) becomes the occasion for inaugurating a new Jewish festival, Purim. On both the evening and morning of Purim, Jews have traditionally read aloud the entire book of Esther, the last of the five festal scrolls (Megillot) in the Hebrew Bible, coming after Ecclesiastes.
The story of Esther (or Hadassah, her Jewish name) unfolds in the royal court at Susa, the Persian capital, during the reign of Xerxes I (“Ahasuerus,” 486–465 BCE), king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Esther and Mordecai belong to the Jewish Diaspora community in Persia where the story originated and whose concerns are the focus of the book. In Christian Bibles Esther is placed after the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which recount aspects of Jewish history in the same century.
Despite the setting and the author's familiarity with Persian customs, vocabulary, and names, Esther is not a work of history but a historical novella, that is, a fictional story within a historical framework. Its purpose is to entertain, but also to demonstrate the inevitability of retributive justice and, paradoxically, the need for the oppressed to act shrewdly and boldly for that justice to prevail. The seemingly historical presentation also serves to legitimate the festival of Purim, which was probably a Babylonian or Persian holiday adopted by Diaspora Jews, and which is not found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
The version of Esther found in the Hebrew Bible was probably composed in the early Hellenistic period (late fourth‐third century BCE), before Jewish antagonism toward Gentiles was exacerbated by the struggles of the Maccabean period (167–135 BCE). Later in the Hellenistic period, the translation of Esther made for Greek‐speaking Jews lengthened the book by the addition of 107 verses and extra phrases intended to make it a more conventionally religious book. The King James Version (1611) included these Greek “Additions to the Book of Esther” (which are not accepted as canonical by Jews or Protestant Christians) among the books of the Apocrypha. A translation of the full Greek text of Esther, including these additions, is included among the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books in most editions of this Bible.
No other book of the Hebrew Bible has received such mixed reviews from Jews and Christians alike. Not until the third century CE was Esther fully accepted into the Jewish canon of scripture, and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) wished it had never been written. Some have criticized the book for what it contains; others, for what it lacks. The Persian king, for instance, is mentioned 190 times, but the God of Israel not once; nor are such basic Jewish themes as the Law, covenant, prayer, dietary regulations, or Jerusalem. Because fate is an acknowledged factor in the story, some readers suggest that God, though hidden, is arranging the events. Others see fate as impersonal and the heroes’ triumph as a measure of their individual resolve and quick‐wittedness.
Jews and Christians have also been troubled by the story's enthusiastic account of the violence of the Jewish community's response to their enemies, which involved not only self‐defense but also the slaughter of women and children, including the sons of Haman ( 8.11–12; 9.9–10 ). The bloodthirsty language, however, derives from the story's symmetric pattern of reversals, not from any historical reality. Furthermore, the Hebrew version of Esther, in contrast to the Greek version, does not view all Gentiles negatively.
The author of Hebrew Esther may have been a Persian Jew determined to live a full Jewish life within the Diaspora. This perspective could account for the story's neglect of Jewish themes as it focuses instead on an innovative Diaspora tradition, Purim. Esther herself, as a woman, represents the marginal and sometimes precarious status of Diaspora Jews who were obliged to accommodate their lives to an alien environment. The point of view, therefore, differs markedly from the outlook of Diaspora Jews like Ezra and Nehemiah.
Having acknowledged what makes Esther unusual in the Jewish canon of scripture, it should be noted that the book is steeped in the literary traditions of ancient Israel. In this way Esther resembles such later Jewish compositions as Daniel and Judith. Most notable are the allusions to the Joseph story (Gen 37–50 ), but either obliquely or directly, the author also alludes to the Exodus story (Ex 1–15 ), to the conquest of Canaan (Josh 1–12 ) by the principles of holy war as found in Deuteronomy (Deut 20 ), to the career of King Saul (1 Sam 15 ), and to the story of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21 ). Esther contains quotations from the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Third Isaiah, and Zechariah. Moreover, Esther contains vivid practical demonstrations of maxims found in Israel's wisdom tradition; Proverbs, for example, cautions against anger and boastfulness, distinguishes between true and false joy, and advises the proper treatment of superiors, especially kings.
In Esther one encounters a surprisingly modern tension between comedy (satire, irony, farce) and tragedy. These the author has adroitly bound together and balanced within the narrative by complex patterns of symmetries, reversals, foreshadowing, and recurring motifs. For example, the story begins and ends with feasts, while additional banquets punctuate the narrative at key moments. Royal edicts similarly mark the course of the action, but they are also highly ironic, particularly in relation to each other. At different points in the story, the leading characters variously resemble each other directly or in reverse; the disobedient queen Vashti is deposed, but Esther, the new queen who replaces her, triumphantly defies the law. Esther successfully begs the king for the lives of her people whom Haman has doomed; Haman in vain supplicates Esther for his own life. The most cleverly constructed moment of the story occurs in ch 6 when Haman suddenly finds himself in the humiliating position of presenting the royal reward he expected himself to his hated nemesis, Mordecai, instead.
While the main characters in Esther are essentially familiar stereotypes without distinctive personalities, one character does change over the course of the story. Esther begins as a passive figure notable only for the beauty that gains her entry into the royal citadel and for her obedient nature. Once in the royal harem, Esther's charm wins her special advantages. After Mordecai's challenge to Esther in 4.13–14 , Esther seems to embrace her Jewishness anew; with this self‐recognition, Esther becomes the decisive actor in the story, risking her life, issuing orders to Mordecai and, later, to the king himself. Ultimately it is on Esther's authority, albeit in concert with Mordecai, that Purim is established, making Esther the only woman to authorize a Jewish religious tradition.