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Esther

Mary Joan Winn Leith
Stonehill College

Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Related Courses: Women in the Bible, The Bible as Literature, Introduction to Gender Studies
Syllabus Section: Esther
Intended Audience: undergraduates or advanced high school student

The lesson plan presented here is designed for a lecture–based, introductory undergraduate course on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The lesson plan first covers basic introductory material about the book of Esther such as plot, date of composition, place within the biblical canon, and role in the Jewish festival of Purim. The Greek translation of the Hebrew version of Esther includes six extra passages and these will be introduced where relevant.

The lesson plan also provides a variety of approaches to the study of the book of Esther. These may serve as the basis for individual paper assignments or group projects meant to focus solely on the text of Esther. They may also work in conjunction with other books of the Bible. The professor or student may wish to focus on one or several of the following dimensions:

  1. I. Historical/Political: Esther as a Jewish Diaspora response to the challenges of life as a minority/people in exile
  2. II. Literary: Literary genre and the role of irony and humor in the structure of the Esther story
  3. III. Theological: The book of Esther never mentions God. Is God absent from the narrative? The Greek Additions to Esther provide a supplementary voice in this context.
  4. IV. Gender dynamics: Gender roles in Esther including an exercise critiquing portrayals of Esther in the visual arts
  5. V. Ethical: Tension between "law" and "justice" in Esther

In Christian Bibles the book of Esther follows Ezra and Nehemiah because all three are set in approximately the same era, the Achaemenid Persian period (550–330 BCE). In the Jewish Tanakh, Esther belongs in the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the last of the five Megillot (festival scrolls). Unlike Ezra and Nehemiah, Esther focuses exclusively on the experiences of Diaspora Jews living in Persia. All three books address issues of Jewish identity, but Esther's perspective is quite different. In Ezra and Nehemiah, political power depends upon one's claim to be what the authors define as an authentic Jew. In Esther, Jewish identity is fraught with danger and must sometimes even be kept secret. Many scholars have suggested that Esther features a woman hero because the marginalized status of Diaspora Jews was comparable to that of women in ancient patriarchal societies. Finally, although Esther is part of the Bible, the book famously never mentions God by name; perhaps paradoxically, this peculiarity has stimulated rich discussions over the centuries concerning the book's theological perspective.

In preparation for class, the students should do the following background readings:


  1. 1. Introduction to the book of Esther; the following are recommended:

    • From the New Oxford Annotated Bible, the shortest summary introduction
    • From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Books of the Bible, this fuller introduction also summarizes the six Greek Additions to the text of Hebrew Esther
    • From the Jewish Study Bible, this provides supplemental information about the Jewish festival of Purim and the rabbinic interpretive tradition
  2. 2. The full text of Esther (New Revised Standard Version) side by side with the commentary (which may be skimmed).

I. Historical/Political Context:

Esther is best understood as historical fiction. Esther's setting, however, is grounded in historical, geographical, and cultural realities. An appreciation of these realities will enhance students' grasp of the complex nuances of the Esther story.

First, Esther and her fellow Jews are second– or third–generation members of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish communities "scattered" over the Near East as a result of the Babylonian Exile of 586 BCE.

Students will gain an understanding of how over the ensuing centuries the circumstances of exile informed Jewish religious and cultural traditions by reading the section entitled "Metaphorization" in the article, Exile and Dislocation

Second, Esther, Mordecai and all the Jews in the story are subjects of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (pronounced: "uh–KEE–muh–nid" or "a–kuh–MEE–nid"). The Achaemenid Persians (550–330 BCE) also threatened Greece in the fifth century BCE, at one point even sacking the Athenian Acropolis before their defeat at the Battle of Marathon.

Persians: Longer article

Persians: Shorter article


Map and Visual Work

(potential images for PowerPoint presentation)

The Persian Empire

To appreciate the geographical framework of Esther, a story in which the vast territories of the Achaemenid Persian empire play a role of their own (i.e., "Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty–seven provinces from India to Ethiopia," " Esther 1:1), consult the map of the Persian Empire

Esther's city, Susa

Students can find the city of Susa, Esther's primary setting, close to the exact center of the map. For information about the archaeology of Susa, read the paragraph on Achaemenid Susa

This archaeological plan of Susa illustrates the distance between the city proper and the royal quarters, highlighting the fact of Esther's isolation from her family and community once she becomes queen.

Persians and Luxury

Esther begins with a magnificent banquet and the story is punctuated at key moments by other banquets. Chapter 1 offers a veritable catalog of luxury and opulence, precisely the qualities for which the Persians were renowned in both the Bible and Classical Greek literature. In Esther, such details enhance the story's realism, but wealth as a measure of power also contrasts ironically with the different forms of powerlessness experienced at some point not only by the Jews but by almost every character in the story.

The archaeological record provides evidence of Persian architecture, precious vessels, clothing, and jewelry. Entering "Achaemenian vessels" in Google images will access images of gold and silver Persian banqueting vessels. The ruins of the city of Persepolis illustrate Persian royal architecture. At Persepolis, rows of relief carvings along the stairway into the Apadana (royal audience hall) depict Persia's subject peoples bearing tribute to the Great King. The quasi–anthropological details of the reliefs bring to life the multicultural nature of the Persian Empire. They also indicate the broad geographical impact in Esther of first the king's and then Esther and Mordecai's edicts addressed to the entire empire in multiple languages. For emikssaries from Cappadocia (southeast Turkey), click here. A representative panoply of the many ethnic groups who made up the Persian empire may be viewed by entering "Persepolis Apadana procession" in Google Images.

Both chapters 1 and 7 feature a banquet, respectively in a garden and in a pavilion within a garden. In the ancient Near East, more than vegetables and flowers, gardens most often symbolized and demonstrated royal power. Read the brief entry, "Gardens in Preclassical Times " in Gardens from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. The famous Assyrian "Garden Party" relief at the British Museum (Google "Assyrian Garden Party Relief British Museum") provides a nice illustration of an ancient banquet in a garden.

Visualizing Persian Esther

What did Esther look like? What did she wear? Women are rarely featured in Persian art, but they are portrayed on a small subset of personal seals. Entering "classical art research center Greco–persian gems persian subjects domestic" in Google Images will provide images of elite Persian women. An anachronistic (Roman–era) image of Esther, Mordecai, and the King decorated the walls of the famous third–century CE synagogue at Dura Europos, a Roman garrison town in eastern Syria.


Questions:

  1. 1. How does understanding the historical context of Esther enhance one's appreciation of the story?
  2. 2. Identify the theme or themes of the book of Esther.
  3. 3. What challenges did Jews face in the Persian Empire as members of a minority?
  4. 4. Give examples of the tensions between wealth and power in Esther. Identify the wealth/power dynamics of King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, Esther, Mordecai, Haman, Zeresh.
  5. 5. Discuss the role of banquets in the plot and message of Esther. Consider, for example, where in the story banquets occur, who presides over each banquet, how much detail is provided for each banquet; the role of women their absence in each banquet episode.
  6. 6. How does the garden setting of the banquets in Esther 1 and 7 relate to the larger themes of the story?

II. Literary Considerations: Genre

To fully understand a biblical text, the reader must first identify its genre. Introductions to Esther classify its genre roughly as "historical fiction" or "Jewish court novella."

Read the Focus On essay Jonah and Genre, and then "Definitions" in the entry Novella.

Another important generic aspect of Esther recognized by literary critics is humor, an underappreciated element in biblical studies. Esther's exaggerations and hyperbole relate to the rowdy, carnival quality of the festival of Purim whose origin the book of Esther explains.

Read Novella – Entertainment, which includes a discussion of Esther, and the final section (on Esther) in the Focus On essay Humor in the Old Testament.


Suggested Class Exercise:

In small groups list the various textual genres we encounter in daily life. How might someone unfamiliar with these genres interpret them?

Questions:

  1. 1. What suggestions have been made for the genre of Esther? What reasons are given for the different identifications?
  2. 2. Cite the criteria suggested for humor in literature and identify episodes and details in Esther that have been characterized as humorous. What aspects of Esther might be misunderstood if the reader were unaware of the story's humor?
  3. 3. How does humor function in Esther?

III. Theological Considerations:

As all the commentaries on Esther point out, the book never mentions God, and though its Jewish characters fast, mourn, and celebrate, they never pray, nor do they mention Jerusalem, the Temple, or the Torah. Review the commentaries (see above, I.) for their discussion of the seeming absence of God. See also, from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, Megillot (scroll down to the short but compelling section on Esther and Theology).

Not surprisingly, the absence of God and distinctively Jewish traditions in Esther has stimulated centuries of debate. A Hellenistic–era Jewish translation of Esther into Greek preserves a valuable example of inner–Jewish debate since the translation inserted the name of God throughout the text and added six substantive passages of prayer and other expressions of Jewish piety, the so–called Greek Additions to Esther.

Many commentaries note that Esther is the only biblical book not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This may indicate that some Jews excluded Esther from the category of scripture. Sidnie White Crawford's entry on Esther in the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls points out that the issue more complex than a simple matter of presence or absence.

Group Activity: Class Debate

Once the class has reviewed the story of Esther and consulted the commentaries, the question of God in Esther is an excellent subject for a class debate.

Discussion/Paper Topics:

  1. 1. Does the text of Esther contain clues that suggest God is actually at work behind the scenes?
  2. 2. Is Esther actually a secular work, misplaced in the Bible? If Esther is a secular text, why was it included in the Bible?
  3. 3. It has been suggested that King Ahasuerus functions in Esther as a parody of the Jewish God. Does this suggestion affect the question of God's presence or absence in the text?
  4. 4. How do the Greek additions to Esther resolve some of the problems presented by the Hebrew text? Do you find these solutions to be theologically satisfactory or do they oversimplify an arguably more complex Hebrew version of the story?
  5. 5. The rabbis recognized parallels between the Exodus story and the book of Esther. How might this perspective offer a theological reading of Esther?

IV. Gender:

Esther has struck some readers as a stereotypical female heroine, a one–dimensional character whose sole strength lies in her beauty. Readers should keep in mind, however, that Esther is the only female biblical character credited with inaugurating a Jewish festival. Does Esther act within the gender restrictions of her world or does she transcend them? Do Esther's circumstances and choices offer guidance or a helpful perspective on problems and challenges in modern culture?

Read the paragraph about Esther in the "Novella," subsection Messages from the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies.

Read the brief entry on Feminist Criticism in the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies.

Read the discussion of Esther and Judith with regard to contemporary migrants in the Catholic Study Bible.


Activities/Paper Topics

  1. 1. Map the development of Esther's character.
  2. 2. Make a catalog of Esther's activities over the course of the book and consider how they reflect upon her character.
  3. 3. At the end of Esther, the social conventions of patriarchal and royal power seem to be restored. How does this affect one's reading of the story?
  4. 4. Compare the stories of Esther and Ruth as women and outsiders. How are the challenges they face similar and different?
  5. 5. Consider the theme of spatial and social boundaries in Esther. How do they function in the story and message of the book?

Esther and the Visual Arts:

It can be quite illuminating to examine the way Esther has been portrayed by artists over the centuries. Alternatively, a simple Google Images search reveals much about Esther's place in contemporary imagination.

Discussion Questions/Paper Topics

  1. 6. Compare Dutch painter Aert de Gelder's Esther and Mordecai Writing the First Letter of Purim (1685, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) with Edwin Long's Victorian–era (1879) Queen Esther (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia). (These images are also found in the Wikipedia entry on Esther or you may use Google images to locate the images.) What aspects of the Esther story does each painting seem to highlight? Discuss whether you think one (or neither) painting is truer to your reading of the story of Esther and explain why.
  2. 7. Search Google Images for contemporary images of Esther. You may choose to select random examples or limit your search to works from a particular period (Medieval Manuscripts, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic). What aspects of the character of Esther seem to dominate? Why do you think this is the case? If you were to portray Esther in some form of visual medium, what qualities of Esther's character would you wish to communicate and how would you do so?

V. Ethics and Law

In the story of Esther one encounters a dynamic tension between law and justice, and a fruitful approach to Esther involves considering the nature of the various laws and acts of lawmaking. At different points in the story laws are made and laws are broken; laws may lead to justice or to evil. Does the Esther story engage with the central concept of divine law in the Hebrew Bible?

Read the discussion of Justice and Ethics in Esther in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics.

Read Ideology and the Struggle for Power in the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies.

Discussion Questions/Paper Topics

  1. 1. Discuss the role of laws and rules in the Esther story. Suggestion: By noting who makes laws and who breaks laws (or rules) in the story the student will begin to see a set of patterns and themes.
  2. 2. Does the literary genre of Esther as humor and/or as historical fiction (see "Genre " above) exempt the book from consideration as a guide to morality?
  3. 3. Does the Esther story taken as a whole suggest avenues for the empowerment of marginalized people or does the story simply reinforce norms of patriarchy?
  4. 4. What, if anything, does the story of Esther have anything to say about civil disobedience?

Further Suggestions for cross–biblical paper topics:

  1. 1. Compare the character and actions of King Ahasuerus in Esther with those of the Pharaoh in Exodus.
  2. 2. The author of Esther alludes at several points to the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–47). Compare and contrast the two stories, focusing on the protagonists' outsider status. This topic may also consider gender dynamics in the two stories.
  3. 3. Compare the stories of Esther and Ruth as women and outsiders. How are the challenges they face similar and different? You might also choose to consider the topic of sexuality (male and female) in one or the other or both stories.
  4. 4. Compare and contrast the stories of Jael (Judges 4–5), Esther, and Judith, in which a woman's encounter with a militarily powerful man is narrated with full awareness of female sexuality. Focus not just on plot, but also on underlying gender assumptions and the use of language in the storytelling.

Further Reading:

Images: link to chapter–by–chapter illustrations of the book of Esther.

The following bibliography lists more recent studies of Esther and should be used as a supplement to the bibliographies in the commentaries cited at the beginning of the lesson plan.

Timothy Beal, "Who Filled His Heart to Do This?' Conceptual Metaphors of the Self in the Book of Esther, "Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40 (2015) 97–111.

Michael J. Chan, "Ira Regis: Comedic Inflections of Royal Rage in Jewish Court Tales, " Jewish Quarterly Review 103 (2013) 1–25.

Martien A. Halvorson–Taylor, "Secrets and Lies: Secrecy Notices (Esther2:10, 20) and Diasporic Identity in the Book of Esther, "Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012) 467–85.

Rebecca S. Hancock, Esther and the Politics of Negotiation: Public and Private Spaces and the Figure of the Female Royal Counselor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

Jonathan Grossman, Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading (Winona Lake, Ind.; Eisenbrauns, 2011).

Sara R. Johnson, "Novelistic Elements in Esther: Persian or Hellenistic, Jewish or Greek? " Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67 (2005) 571–89.

Andre LaCocque, Esther Regina: A Bakhtinian Reading (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2008).

Johnny Miles, "Reading Esther as Heroine: Persian Banquets, Ethnic Cleansing, and Identity Crisis, " Biblical Theology Bulletin 45 (2015) 131–43.

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