The scroll of Esther is full of surprises. It is the nearest thing in the Old Testament to a comedy (albeit with a serious message). The name of God is never mentioned; and the story on the surface seems thoroughly secular and nationalistic. The heroine is a Jewish girl in exile who marries the pagan king as a result of a “beauty contest” in which each of the contestants spends a night with the king!
The book takes its name from the heroine of the story, Esther, the Jewish girl who becomes Queen of the Persian Empire and who saves her people from the threat of extermination under the Emperor Ahasuerus (commonly identified with Xerxes).
The book opens with the extravagant feasting which followed Ahasuerus’ accession. Queen Vashti refuses to be ‘exhibited’ to a party of drunken menfolk and is deposed as Queen. This leads to the ‘beauty contest’, in which Esther, cousin and ward of Mordecai, is chosen as Queen in her stead. Meanwhile, Mordecai, a middle-ranking imperial official, refuses to bow down to Haman, the imperial first minister. Haman’s ancestor Agag had long ago done battle with Mordecai’s ancestor, King Saul. Mordecai’s refusal leads to a diabolical plot by Haman for the extermination of all Jews in the Persian Empire, by means of a decree signed, but probably not read, by the Emperor. Esther is eventually able to save the day by exposing Haman and winning the support of Ahasuerus. However, the decree for extermination still stands as “an edict sealed with the King’s ring cannot be revoked.” So Esther persuades the King to sign a supplementary decree authorising the Jews’ right of self-defence on the day appointed for the slaughter. The Jewish community is then engaged not just in immediate self-defence but in an extensive ‘pre-emptive strike’ against their enemies. The events of the book form the basis of the Jewish festival of Purim—a festival instituted on the authority of Esther.
Date and authorship
The events described in the book belong to the Persian era. If Ahasuerus is to be identified as Xerxes, then the events take place during the years following his accession in 486 BCE. Little is known of the author or of dating of the writing of the book but presumably it belongs to the late Persian period, some time after 400 BCE, or possibly the early Hellenistic period, before 200 BCE. It seems to have been already known at the time of the Maccabees, ca. 164 BCE.
Much scholarly discussion has focused on seeking to identify earlier sources underlying the text, some seeking to explain the present form of the book as an amalgam of what were originally two or three separate stories. The historicity of the story is much debated. Some view the scroll as a straightforward historical account; others prefer to describe it as more akin to a historical novel. Others understand the book as a fictional account which functions more as parable than history. In particular there are a number of difficulties in reconciling the events of the book with what is known from elsewhere of the history and customs of the Persian Empire.
The literary artistry of the book is much celebrated, by which comedy and irony are deployed to probe serious issues of gender and power, of the right of revenge, of the providence of God (God is never mentioned but often said to be ‘conspicuous by his absence’ in the book), and of the Jewish struggle for survival in the diaspora. In particular, questions of authority are raised, for example: the almost absurd fear that Vashti’s action will lead to women everywhere rebelling against their husbands; the king, whose virtually worldwide authority is strongly asserted, is in fact ignorant of events and constantly manipulated by others; Mordecai’s authority is not sufficient to establish the new religious feast of Purim, which requires an authoritative word from a woman (Esther).
The canonical status of the book has been questioned since earliest times (e.g., by some Rabbis in the late 1st century CE)—primarily because there is no mention of God in the Masoretic text but also because the book seeks to authenticate a feast not authorised in the Torah. The Septuagint preserves a longer (presumably later) version of the book, in which there are references to God and a religious explanation of events is given. The book is not mentioned in the oldest Christian canonical catalogues nor is there a copy of it found at Qumran. At one extreme, some Jews have considered the book to be second only to the Torah. At the other extreme, the comment of Martin Luther is well known (of Esther and 2 Maccabees): “I could wish that they did not exist at all; for they judaise greatly and have much pagan impropriety.”
With regard to the religious purpose and significance of the book, various views have been held. As already mentioned, the book of Esther is seen to authenticate the feast of Purim. Theologically, some argue it underscores God’s providence and affirms the Jews as God’s chosen people. It has been used to legitimise pre-emptive violence against enemies, and to acknowledge that as God’s people, the Jews, can expect persecution
Brenner, Athalya. Ruth and Esther. Feminist Comparison to the Bible: Second Series 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.
Bush, Frederic W. Ruth / Esther. Word Bible Commentary 9. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1996.
Jobes, Karen H. Esther. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
Larkin, Katrina J. A. Ruth and Esther. Old Testament Guide. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Levenson, Jon D. Esther. Old Testament Library. London: SCM Press, 1997.
Reid, Debra. Esther. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 13. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2008.