Book of Esther


Authorship, date, and background Who authored the book of Esther is unknown. Tradition has accorded this role to Mordecai or Ezra or Nehemiah. The latter two are hardly credible possibilities when any survey of the books attributed to them is compared with Esther. The name Esther is derived from a Persian word meaning "star"; her Hebrew name, Hadassah, means "Myrtle." The book itself is the last of the five books of the Megilloth (Five Scrolls) which include Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. Esther is thought to be the greatest of them all.

The writer of this book knew a great deal about Persian life and customs. The setting was the king's palace in Shushan (Susa), which was the Persian capital. The incident occurred during the reign of Xerxes (the Greek rendering of his name) or Ahasuerus as recorded in Esther. Ahasuerus or Xerxes died in 465 B.C., so scholars have dated the composition of the book somewhere in the latter half of the fifth century. This means that the Jews involved in the incident were the ones who had not returned to Jerusalem with the first remnant. They had either lost their attachment to the faith of their fathers, or had been so successful that they preferred remaining in their new environment.

Mordecai (whose name had a Bebylonian equivalent of Mardukaia) was Esther's guardian. She was his Uncle Abihail's daughter whom Mordecai adopted. He occupied a position of importance in the Persian court. Nothing is known about his spiritual commitment. He was a strong nationalist, a brave man, and one who kept his Jewish identity hidden for what may have been opportunistic reasons.

Characteristics and content Nowhere in the book of Esther does the author mention the name of God. Fasting, which always includes prayer, is part of the story. In any event, the hand of a sovereign God at work in the lives of his people is everywhere evident. The book speaks of the Feast of the Purim (the word Purim comes from the term puru, meaning lot, found in Assyrian inscriptions), which marks the deliverance of the Jews from extinction. Ahasuerus' wife, Vashti, refuses to make a public appearance before the males of the kingdom at a drunken revelry. She is demoted from her queenship and a successor is sought for her. Esther is chosen. Later Haman, in anger over the refusal of Mordecai to bow before him, plans the massacre of all the Jews. The king assents.

When Mordecai learns of the plot, he seeks the help of Esther, asking her to intercede with the king. She willingly risks her life by entering the king's presence without being summoned. She arranges a first and second banguet with the king, herself, and Haman. Between the first and second banguet, Haman prepares the gallows on which to hang Mordecai. Before this comes about, Mordecai discovers a plot against the king's life which he reports and the assassins are apprehended and executed. Mordecai goes unrewarded.

As the story reaches its climax, Haman gained the king's unchanging commitment to execute all Jews. When Haman hears his plot disclosed to Ahasuerus by Esther, he pleads with her after the king has left the room. The king upon his return finds Haman on the couch of his queen and interprets it as an assault upon his wife. He orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordecai. Mordecai takes over the vacant position of Haman. Orders are given for the Jews to defend themselves when the day of reckoning comes, since the king's edict cannot be annulled. The Jews successfully defend themselves. Mordecai ends up as Prime Minister next to King Ahasuerus, 'great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed" (10:3). The Feast of Purim is instituted as a reminder of God's great deliverance of his people.