Bible Book Number 17—Esther
Places Written: Shushan, Elam
Writing Completed: c. 475 B.C.E.
Time Covered: 493-c. 475 B.C.E.
1. What story unfolds in the book of Esther?
SIMPLY told, here is the story of Ahasuerus, king of Persia, thought by some to be Xerxes I, whose disobedient wife Vashti is replaced by the Jewess Esther, cousin of Mordecai. The Agagite Haman plots the death of Mordecai and all the Jews, but he is hung on his own stake, while Mordecai is advanced to be prime minister and the Jews are delivered.
2. (a) Why have some questioned the inspiration of the book of Esther? (b) In what form does God’s name appear to be used in the book of Esther?
2 Of course, there are those who want to say that the book of Esther is neither inspired nor beneficial but is simply a beautiful legend. They base their claim on the absence of God’s name. While it is true that God is not directly mentioned, in the Hebrew text there appear to be four separate instances of an acrostic of the Tetragrammaton, the initial letters of four successive words, spelling out YHWH (Hebrew, יהוה), or Jehovah. These initials are made especially prominent in at least three ancient Hebrew manuscripts and are also marked in the Masora by red letters. Also, at Esther 7:5 there is apparently an acrostic on the divine pronouncement “I shall prove to be.”—See footnotes on Esther 1:20; 5:4, 13; 7:7, as well as 7:5.
3. What events indicate faith in and prayer to God, and what events suggest God’s maneuvering of matters?
3 Throughout the record it is strongly evident that Mordecai both accepted and obeyed the law of Jehovah. He refused to bow down to honor a man who probably was an Amalekite; God had marked the Amalekites for extermination. (Esther 3:1, 5; Deut. 25:19; 1 Sam. 15:3) Mordecai’s expression at Esther 4:14 indicates that he expected deliverance from Jehovah and that he had faith in divine direction of the entire course of events. Esther’s fasting, together with similar action by the other Jews, for three days before she went in to the king shows reliance on God. (Esther 4:16) God’s maneuvering of events is also suggested in Esther’s finding favor in the eyes of Hegai, the guardian of the women, and in the king’s sleeplessness on the night that he called for the official records and found that Mordecai had not been honored for his past good deed. (Esther 2:8, 9; 6:1-3; compare Proverbs 21:1.) There is undoubtedly a reference to prayer in the words, “the matters of the fasts and their cry for aid.”—Esther 9:31.
4. How is the book of Esther established as authentic and factual?
4 Many facts establish the record as authentic and factual. It was accepted by the Jewish people, who called the book simply the Meghil·lahʹ, meaning “roll; scroll.” It appears to have been included in the Hebrew canon by Ezra, who would certainly have rejected a fable. To this day, the Jews keep the feast of Purim, or Lots, in celebration of the great deliverance in Esther’s time. The book presents Persian manners and customs in a lifelike way and in harmony with the known facts of history and archaeological discoveries. For example, the book of Esther accurately describes the way Persians honored a man. (6:8) Archaeological excavations have revealed that the descriptions of the king’s palace as given in the book of Esther are exact to the smallest detail.*—5:1, 2.
5. What exactness gives the account of Esther a note of genuineness, and with what period does the language harmonize?
5 This exactness is also to be noted in the account itself, in its careful naming of court officials and attendants, giving even the names of Haman’s ten sons. The lineage of Mordecai and Esther is traced back to Kish of the tribe of Benjamin. (2:5-7) References are made to the official records of the Persian government. (2:23; 6:1; 10:2) The language of the book is late Hebrew, with many Persian and Aramaic words and expressions added, which style matches that of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, thus harmonizing completely with the period in which it was written.
6. (a) What time period is indicated for the book of Esther? (b) What does the evidence suggest as to the writer, as well as the place and the time of writing?
6 It is thought that the events of Esther are set in the days when the mighty Persian empire was at its peak and that they cover about 18 years of the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes I). The time period, extending down to about 475 B.C.E., is indicated by testimony from Greek, Persian, and Babylonian sources.* Mordecai, eyewitness and a major character in the account, was most likely the writer of the book; the intimate and detailed account shows that the writer must have lived through these events in Shushan the palace.* Though he is not mentioned in any other Bible book, there is no question that Mordecai was an actual individual of history. Interestingly, an undated cuneiform text has been found that is described by A. Ungnad of Germany as referring to Mardukâ (Mordecai?) as a high official at the court of Susa (Shushan) during the reign of Xerxes I.* It was there at Shushan that Mordecai no doubt completed the record of the events of Esther immediately after they took place, that is, about 475 B.C.E.
CONTENTS OF ESTHER
7. What crisis develops at Ahasuerus’ banquet, and what action does the king take as a result?
7 Queen Vashti deposed (1:1-22). It is the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus. He holds a mighty banquet for the officials of his empire, showing them the riches and glory of his kingdom for 180 days. Next, there is a grand seven-day feast for all the people in Shushan. At the same time, Vashti the queen holds a banquet for the women. The king boasts of his riches and glory and, merry with wine, calls on Vashti to come and show her loveliness to the people and the princes. Queen Vashti keeps refusing. On the advice of court officials, who point out that this bad example can cause the king to lose face throughout the empire, Ahasuerus removes Vashti as queen and publishes documents calling on all wives to “give honor to their owners” and every husband to “be continually acting as prince in his own house.”—1:20, 22.
8. (a) What events lead up to Esther’s becoming queen? (b) What plot does Mordecai uncover, and what record is made thereof?
8 Esther becomes queen (2:1-23). Later on, the king appoints commissioners to seek out the most beautiful virgins in all the 127 provinces of the empire and to bring them to Shushan, where they are to be prepared by beauty treatment for presentation to the king. Among the young women selected is Esther. Esther is a Jewish orphan, “pretty in form and beautiful in appearance,” who has been reared by her cousin Mordecai, an official in Shushan. (2:7) Esther’s Jewish name, Hadassah, means “Myrtle.” Hegai, the guardian of the women, is pleased with Esther and gives her special treatment. No one knows that she is a Jewess, for Mordecai has instructed her to keep this a secret. The young women are brought in to the king in turn. He selects Esther as his new queen, and a banquet is held to celebrate her coronation. Shortly afterward, Mordecai hears of a conspiracy to assassinate the king, and he has Esther make it known to him “in Mordecai’s name.” (2:22) The plot is uncovered, the conspirators are hanged, and a record is made in the royal annals.
9. How does Mordecai anger Haman, and what royal decree does the latter obtain against the Jews?
9 Haman’s conspiracy (3:1–5:14). About four years pass by. Haman, apparently a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag whom Samuel slew, becomes prime minister. (1 Sam. 15:33) The king exalts him and orders all his servants in the king’s gate to bow before Haman. These include Mordecai. However, Mordecai refuses to do so, making it known to the king’s servants that he is a Jew. (Compare Exodus 17:14, 16.) Haman is filled with rage and, finding out that Mordecai is a Jew, sees in this the grand opportunity to get rid of Mordecai and all the Jews once and for all. The lot (pur) is cast to determine a good day for annihilating the Jews. Using his favor with the king, Haman charges lawlessness against the Jews and asks that their destruction be ordered in writing. Haman offers a contribution of 10,000 silver talents (equivalent to about $66,060,000) toward financing the slaughter. The king consents, and written orders, sealed with the king’s ring, are sent throughout the empire, setting Adar the 13th as the day for the genocide of the Jews.
10. How do Mordecai and Esther proceed with faith in Jehovah’s power?
10 On hearing the law, Mordecai and all the Jews go to mourning in sackcloth and ashes. There is “fasting and weeping and wailing.” (Esther 4:3) On being informed by Mordecai of the Jews’ plight, Esther at first hesitates to intercede. Death is the penalty for appearing uninvited before the king. However, Mordecai shows his faith in Jehovah’s power by declaring that if Esther fails them, she will die anyway and deliverance will “stand up for the Jews from another place.” Moreover, may it not be that Esther has become queen “for a time like this”? (4:14) Seeing the issue, she agrees to take her life in her hands, and all the Jews in Shushan fast with her for three days.
11. How does Esther use her favor with the king, but what does Haman plot against Mordecai?
11 Then, dressed in her royal best, Esther appears before the king. She gains favor in his eyes, and he holds out to her his golden scepter, sparing her life. She now invites the king and Haman to a banquet. During the feast, the king urges her to make known her petition, assuring that it will be granted, “to the half of the kingship,” whereupon she invites the two to a further banquet the following day. (5:6) Haman goes out joyful. But there in the king’s gate is Mordecai! Again he refuses to do Haman honor or quake before him. Haman’s joy turns to anger. His wife and friends suggest he build a stake 50 cubits (73 ft) [22.3 m] high and get an order from the king to hang Mordecai on it. Haman has the stake built immediately.
12. What turn in events results in Ahasuerus’ honoring Mordecai, to Haman’s humiliation?
12 The tables are turned (6:1–7:10). That night the king cannot sleep. He has the book of the records brought and read to him, and he discovers that he has not rewarded Mordecai for saving his life. Later, the king asks who is in the courtyard. It is Haman, who has come to ask the king’s warrant for Mordecai’s death. The king asks Haman how one who pleases the king should be honored. Thinking that the king has him in mind, Haman outlines a lavish program of honor. But the king commands him: “Do that way to Mordecai the Jew”! (6:10) Haman has no alternative but to clothe Mordecai in regal splendor, seat him on the king’s horse, and lead him round the public square of the city, calling out ahead of him. Humiliated, Haman hurries home mourning. His wife and friends have no comfort to offer. Haman is doomed!
13. What does Esther reveal at the banquet, leading to what doom for Haman?
13 It is now time for Haman to attend the banquet with the king and Esther. The queen declares that she and her people have been sold, to be destroyed. Who has dared to perpetrate this wickedness? Says Esther: “The man, the adversary and enemy, is this bad Haman.” (7:6) The king rises up in a rage and walks out into the garden. Alone with the queen, Haman pleads for his life, and the king, returning, is further infuriated at seeing Haman on the queen’s couch. Forthwith he orders that Haman be hung on the very stake Haman had prepared for Mordecai!—Ps. 7:16.
14. How does the king reward Esther and Mordecai, and with what written decree does he favor the Jews?
14 Mordecai promoted, the Jews delivered (8:1–10:3). The king gives Esther all of Haman’s possessions. Esther makes known to Ahasuerus her relationship to Mordecai, whom the king promotes to Haman’s previous position, giving him the royal signet ring. Again, Esther risks her life in going in before the king to request the undoing of the written decree to destroy the Jews. However, “the laws of Persia and Media” cannot be annulled! (1:19) The king therefore gives Esther and Mordecai authority to write a new law and seal it with the king’s ring. This written order, sent throughout the empire in the same way as the previous one, grants the Jews the right ‘to congregate themselves and stand for their souls, to annihilate and kill and destroy all the force of the people and jurisdictional district that are showing hostility to them, little ones and women, and to plunder their spoil,’ on the same day that Haman’s law goes into effect.—8:11.
15. (a) What is the outcome of the fighting, and what feast does Mordecai institute? (b) To what position is Mordecai exalted, and to what end does he use this authority?
15 When the appointed day, the 13th of Adar, comes, not a man can stand before the Jews. On Esther’s petitioning the king, the fighting is continued on the 14th day in Shushan. All together, 75,000 of the Jews’ enemies are killed throughout the empire. An additional 810 are killed in Shushan the castle. Among these are Haman’s ten sons, who are killed the first day and hanged on stakes the second day. No plunder is taken. On the 15th of Adar, there is rest, and the Jews give way to banqueting and rejoicing. Mordecai now gives written instructions for the Jews to observe this feast of “Pur, that is, the Lot,” every year on the 14th and 15th of Adar, and this they do to the present day. (9:24) Mordecai is magnified in the kingdom and uses his position as second to King Ahasuerus “for the good of his people and speaking peace to all their offspring.”—10:3.
16. What divine principles and worthy pattern do Christians find in the book of Esther?
16 While no other Bible writer makes any direct quotation from Esther, the book is completely in harmony with the rest of the inspired Scriptures. In fact, it provides some splendid illustrations of Bible principles that are stated later in the Christian Greek Scriptures and that apply to Jehovah’s worshipers in all ages. A study of the following passages will not only show this to be so but will be upbuilding to Christian faith: Esther 4:5—Philippians 2:4; Esther 9:22—Galatians 2:10. The charge made against the Jews, that they did not obey the king’s laws, is similar to the charge raised against the early Christians. (Esther 3:8, 9; Acts 16:21; 25:7) True servants of Jehovah meet such charges fearlessly and with prayerful reliance on divine power to deliver, after the splendid pattern of Mordecai, Esther, and their fellow Jews.—Esther 4:16; 5:1, 2; 7:3-6; 8:3-6; 9:1, 2.
17. How did Mordecai and Esther exemplify the proper course in subjecting themselves to God and “the superior authorities”?
17 As Christians, we should not think that our situation is different from that of Mordecai and Esther. We too live under “the superior authorities” in an alien world. It is our desire to be law-abiding citizens in whatever country we reside, but at the same time, we want to draw the line correctly between ‘paying back Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God.’ (Rom. 13:1; Luke 20:25) Prime Minister Mordecai and Queen Esther set good examples of devotion and obedience in their secular duties. (Esther 2:21-23; 6:2, 3, 10; 8:1, 2; 10:2) However, Mordecai fearlessly drew the line at obeying the royal command to bow low before the despicable Agagite, Haman. Moreover, he saw to it that appeal was made to seek legal redress when Haman conspired to destroy the Jews.—3:1-4; 5:9; 4:6-8.
18. (a) What proves the book of Esther to be “inspired of God and beneficial”? (b) How does it encourage the defense of God’s Kingdom interests?
18 All the evidence points to the book of Esther as being part of the Holy Bible, “inspired of God and beneficial.” Even without directly mentioning God or his name, it provides us sterling examples of faith. Mordecai and Esther were no mere figments of some storyteller’s imagination, but they were real servants of Jehovah God, persons who placed implicit confidence in Jehovah’s power to save. Though they lived under “superior authorities” in a foreign land, they used every legal means to defend the interests of God’s people and their worship. We today can follow their examples in “the defending and legally establishing of the good news” of God’s Kingdom of deliverance.—Phil. 1:7.
Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, page 764; Vol. 2, pages 327-31.
McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia, 1981 reprint, Vol. III, page 310.
A. Ungnad, “Keilinschriftliche Beiträge zum Buch Esra und Ester,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, LVIII (1940-41), pages 240-4.