The Book of Esther

Ronald L. Ecker


Queen Esther fresco, 1450
Andrea Del Castagno




The story of Esther, set after the Babylonian exile when Persia rules over Judah, is that of a Jewish maiden who becomes queen of Persia, and how she uses her position to avert an annihilation of her people. The book explains the origin of the popular Jewish festival of Purim, and is also notable as the only book in the Bible that makes no mention of God.

As the book opens, Persia's King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, 486-465 B.C.), his heart "merry with wine" at a palace feast in Susa, orders that Queen Vashti, who is holding a separate feast for the women, come and present herself. The king wants to show her off, for she is "beautiful to look at." But Vashti refuses to appear, infuriating Ahasuerus, who asks his wise men what action to take (1:1-15).

Vashti must go, they say, lest women everywhere follow her example and start disobeying their husbands. "Let fair young virgins be sought for the king," the wise men advise; let them be brought to the eunuch Hegai, in charge of the royal harem, and be given their cosmetics; and "let the maiden who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti." (1:16-2:4).

Ahasuerus so decrees. Of the many virgins brought to the palace and placed in Hegai's care, one is a "fair and beautiful" Jew (a person from Judah or, in the Greek-Latin form, Judea). She is Esther ("star," Jewish name Hadassah, "myrtle"), the adopted daughter of her cousin Mordecai, a Benjaminite and one of the captives taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The eunuch Hegai is so pleased with Esther--instructed by Mordecai not to reveal she's a Jew, though no reason for this is stated (May and Metzer call it "a literary device")--that Hegai gives her the best living quarters in the harem and assigns seven maidens to serve her (2:5-11).



Esther and the other virgins undergo twelve months of beautification. Each virgin is then taken to spend a night with the king. Each is afterwards placed in the custody of the eunuch Shaasgaz, keeper of the king's concubines. Each will not be called in again unless Ahasuerus has "delighted in her."

When Esther's turn comes to spend the night with the king, Hegai gives her some advice, presumably about the king's sexual preferences. She is taken in to Ahasuerus, and the king delights in her indeed, loving Esther above all the others. Ahasuerus thus crowns Esther queen, replacing Vashti (2:12-17).

Queen Esther later learns from Mordecai of a plot by Haman the Agagite, the king's top official, to destroy all the Jews because Mordecai won't bow down to him. Here the plot involves old enmity between the Hebrews and Amalekites, going back to the time of Moses (Ex. 17:16, Num. 24:20, Deut. 25:17). This hatred culminated in Israel's Benjaminite king Saul personally hacking to pieces the Amalekite king Agag, after Saul's defeat and slaughter of the Amalekites by order of the Lord God of Israel (I Samuel 15:1-33). Mordecai is a Benjaminite and Haman a descendant of Agag.

When King Ahasuerus promotes Haman to grand vizier, but Mordecai alone of all the king's servants does not bow down to Haman, the furious Agagite begins plotting to destroy all Jews in the kingdom. Haman and his cohorts cast lots (Akkadian purim) to decide an appropriate date for the pogrom, then Haman approaches the king about "a certain people" in the kingdom who are "different" from others and do not obey the king's laws. Haman offers a fabulous sum as a bribe, to be paid to the king's officials, if the king will issue a decree that these people be destroyed. Ahasuerus turns down the bribe, but authorizes Haman to "do with (the people) as it seems good to you" (3:1-11).


Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld
Esther Made Queen


An edict in the king's name is issued, commanding that all Jews, young and old, women and children, be slain on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar (the date determined by the lots or purim). Learning of this, the distraught Mordecai sends a copy of the decree to Queen Esther through the eunuch Hathach, and asks her through Hathach to go to the king and make supplication for the Jewish people.

Esther reminds Mordecai through their messenger that anyone who goes into the king's inner court without being summoned is subject to execution, and she has not been summoned by the king in the last thirty days. Mordecai replies that she should not expect to escape death in the palace any more than all the other Jews. And who knows, Mordecai asks her, "whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Esther then asks Mordecai to have all the Jews fast for three days, and she will go to the king unsummoned, despite the law against it. "If I perish," Esther says, "I perish."

On the third day, Esther goes and stands in the inner court. King Ahasuerus sees her from his throne. He holds out his golden scepter toward her, which signifies that she has found favor in his sight. Esther approaches and touches the top of the scepter. "What wilt thou, Queen Esther," Ahasuerus asks, "and what is thy request?" Esther requests that Ahasuerus and Haman join her for a dinner that she has prepared for the king. The king agrees, and at the dinner with Esther and Haman he asks her, "What is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee." Esther asks that the king and Haman attend a dinner that she will prepare for them the following day, at which time she will give the king her petition.

Haman leaves the dinner in high spirits, which are promptly spoiled when he spots Mordecai, who again makes no show of respect. Haman orders that a gallows be constructed, 83 feet high, which he will ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged upon. But during the night the king, unable to sleep, has the book of meritorious deeds read to him. He hears from the book how Mordecai had informed on two eunuchs who were plotting against the king. When he asks, the king is told that Mordecai had received no reward for this deed. "Who is in the court?" the king says, wanting advice from any noble available, and who has just arrived but Haman, to ask the king about having Mordecai hanged. "What shall be done," the king asks Haman, "to the man whom the king delights to honor?" Haman, thinking that this man is himself, says the man should be given royal robes and a royal crown to wear, and should be led on horseback through the city square by one of the king's most noble officials, with it being proclaimed, "Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king delights to honor." The king tells Haman to make haste and "do so to Mordecai the Jew." Haman honors Mordecai as ordered, then hurries home "mourning" and with "his head covered" (6:12).



When the king and Haman later join Esther for dinner, the king again asks Esther, "What is thy petition, queen Esther?" Esther requests that her life and the lives of her people be spared, "for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish." When Ahasuerus asks who and where is he who would presume to do such a thing, Esther replies, "The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman" (7:1-6).

Beside himself with rage, Ahasuerus goes out into the palace garden. Haman, fearfully pleading with Esther for his life, falls down beside her on the couch--an act that the king misinterprets as he returns to the room: "Will he even rape the queen, right in front of me here in my house?" (7:7-8).

Ahasuerus has Haman hanged on the same gallows that Haman had ordered constructed and on which Haman had meant to execute Mordecai.



Ahasuerus gives to Esther the house of Haman, over which the queen sets Mordecai. But since by Persian law an edict of the king cannot be revoked, the Jews are still scheduled to be slain on the thirteenth day of Adar. Esther pleads with Ahasuerus to issue an edict to revoke what she characterizes as the edict "devised by Haman." The king can't revoke the previous edict, but he grants Esther the authority to devise an edict of her own: "write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king." The resulting edict allows the Jews to defend themselves in view of the previous edict, and to slay all who might attack them, on the thirteenth day of Adar (8:3-17). On the thirteenth and fourteenth (the Jews being granted an extension at Esther's request), the Jews kill a total of 800 enemies, including the ten sons of Haman, in the capital city of Susa, and 75,000 elsewhere in the kingdom (9:1-19).

On the fifteenth day the Jews rest, feast and rejoice. In chapter 9, the annual festival of Purim, in celebration of Esther's deliverance of her people, is institutionalized, which some see as the purpose of this non-theological book. It has also been suggested that Purim reflects a Persian New Year's festival, which included casting of lots to foretell events of the coming year, and that the story of Esther adapts this festival to a Jewish context. In any case, in synagogues the book of Esther is annually read aloud at Purim.




Sources:

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998, pp. 548-552.

Ecker, Ronald L. And Adam Knew Eve: A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock, 1995, pp. 54-56.

Hirsch, Emil G.; Prince, John Dyneley; and Schechter, Solomon. "The Book of Esther" in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906 (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

Humphreys, W. Lee. "Esther" in The HarperCollins Study Bible, ed. by Wayne A. Meeks. New York: HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 736-737.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., eds. "The Book of Esther" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 612-622.

Miller, Madeleine S., and Miller, J. Lane. "Esther" in Harper's Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 174.

Tucker, Gene M. "The Book of Esther" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 198-201.




Copyright 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker


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