ESTHER, BOOK OF
A book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the title of which is taken from the name of its principal character, although some copies of the Latin Vulgate call it “Ahasuerus” after the Persian king who figures prominently in the account. The Jews call it Meghil·lathʹ ʼEs·terʹ or simply the Meghil·lahʹ, meaning “roll; scroll,” because for them it constitutes in itself a very highly regarded roll.
The Book’s Writer. The Scriptures do not say who wrote the book of Esther. Some scholars credit the book to Ezra, but the weight of evidence points to Mordecai. Mordecai was in position to know all the minute facts that are related in the narrative about the personal concerns of himself and Esther, the doings of the members of Haman’s family, and particularly what went on in Shushan the castle. After his promotion to the prime ministership of the Persian government he would have access to the official documents mentioned in the account, and just as Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah held official positions in the government of Persia during other periods and wrote Bible books describing the relation of the Jews to that world power, so Mordecai, with Jehovah’s blessing, was the most likely one to write the book of Esther.
Historical Circumstances. The account sets the time for its events during the reign of the Ahasuerus who ruled while the Persian Empire extended from India to Ethiopia and included 127 provinces or jurisdictional districts. (Es 1:1) These facts and its inclusion in the canon by Ezra confine its coverage to the period of the reign of one of the following three kings known to secular history: Darius I the Persian, Xerxes I, and Artaxerxes Longimanus. However, both Darius I and Artaxerxes Longimanus are known to have favored the Jews before the 12th year of their respective reigns, which does not fit the Ahasuerus of the book, as he apparently was not well acquainted with the Jews and their religion, nor was he inclined to favor them. Therefore, the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther is believed to be Xerxes I, son of the Persian king Darius the Great. Some translations (AT, Mo) even substitute “Xerxes” for “Ahasuerus” in the text.
In the book of Esther the regnal years of this king apparently are counted from the coregency with his father Darius the Great. Because the first events related in the book of Esther occurred in the third year of his reign and the rest of the account covers the remainder of his reign, the book evidently covers the period from 493 B.C.E. to about 475 B.C.E.—See PERSIA, PERSIANS (The Reigns of Xerxes and of Artaxerxes).
The book of Esther was committed to writing sometime after the 12th year of Xerxes and evidently by the end of Xerxes’ reign (c. 475 B.C.E.). The book’s vivid style of writing suggests that the writer was an eyewitness. Moreover, the strong implication that the writer had access to governmental documents (Es 10:2) makes it most likely that the book was written in Shushan in the province of Elam, which was then part of Persia. Its Persian and Chaldean words mixed in with Hebrew fit the above-mentioned time of writing as well as the land of Persia for the place of writing.
Ezra could have brought the book from Babylon to Jerusalem in 468 B.C.E., for the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem had it in the canon before its period ended about 300 B.C.E.
Authenticity and Canonicity. Canonical authority for the book of Esther is doubted by some because it is not quoted or alluded to in the Christian Greek Scriptures. But this is no conclusive objection, for the same circumstance exists with other books of well-established canonicity, such as Ezra and Ecclesiastes. Melito of Sardis, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius are among those who omitted it from their lists of canonical books. However, Jerome, Augustine, and Origen refer to the book by name. It is in the Chester Beatty collection, the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther being found in one codex, which was likely compiled in the first half of the third century C.E. It does not appear that its authority was ever doubted by the Jews or by early Christians as a whole. In their Bibles the Jews most often place it among the Hagiographa (the Writings) between Ecclesiastes and Daniel.
Apocryphal additions were later inserted into the book. Some scholars date their origin at approximately 100 B.C.E., about 300 years after the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was fixed, according to the traditional view.
The book of Esther is accused of exaggeration in its mention of a banquet lasting 180 days in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus. (Es 1:3, 4) However, it has been expressed that such a long feast may have been held to accommodate the numerous officials from the many provinces who could not, because of their duties, have been there for all of it and all at the same time. Actually, the text does not say the banquet lasted that long, but that the king showed them the riches and glory of his kingdom for 180 days. A banquet is mentioned at 1:3 and 1:5. It may be that two banquets are not meant, but that the seven-day banquet for all in the castle at the end of the great assembly is the one referred to in verse 3.—Commentary on the Old Testament, by C. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 1973, Vol. III, Esther, pp. 322-324.
In view of the absence of any direct mention of God in the book, some charge that the book is irreligious. Nevertheless, it tells of fasting and a “cry for aid” on the part of the Jews, implying prayer. (Es 4:3, 16; 9:31) Also, there is indication of God’s maneuvering of events in the sleeplessness of the king at the opportune time (6:1) and possible allusion to divine purpose in Esther’s attaining to the queenship. (4:14) Furthermore, the fact that Mordecai strictly refused to bow before God’s enemy Haman, who as an Agagite may have been a royal Amalekite, is evidence that Jehovah was worshiped by Mordecai.—3:1-6; Ex 17:14.
Evidence of history and archaeology. Historical and archaeological findings have added their voice in confirming the authenticity of the book of Esther. A few examples will suffice. The way Persians honored a man is described authentically. (Es 6:8) White and blue (or violet) were the royal Persian colors. At Esther 8:15 we read that Mordecai wore “royal apparel of blue and linen” and a cloak of reddish purple.
Esther “took her stand in the inner courtyard of the king’s house opposite the king’s house, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the royal house opposite the entrance of the house. And it came about that, as soon as the king saw Esther the queen standing in the courtyard, she gained favor in his eyes.” (Es 5:1, 2) Excavations have revealed that the detail of the description is exact. A corridor led from the House of the Women to the inner court, and at the side of the court opposite the corridor was the hall, or throne room, of the palace. The throne was placed in the center of the farther wall, and from this vantage point the king could look over the screen that intervened and could see the queen waiting for an audience. Further details in the book show an intimate knowledge on the part of the writer with the palace. It is evident that objections to the book on the grounds of its being unhistorical and inaccurate as to Persian manners and customs are unfounded.
Very strong evidence for the book’s authenticity is the Festival of Purim, or Lots, commemorated by the Jews down to this day; on this anniversary the entire book is read in their synagogues. A cuneiform inscription evidently from Borsippa is said to refer to a Persian official by the name of Mardukâ (Mordecai?) who was at Susa (Shushan) at the end of the reign of Darius I or the beginning of the reign of Xerxes I.—Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1940/41, Vol. 58, pp. 243, 244; 1942/43, Vol. 59, p. 219.
The book of Esther is in complete accord with the rest of the Scriptures and complements the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah by telling what took place with the exiled people of God in Persia. As with all Scripture, it was written to provide encouragement, comfort, and instruction for us.—Ro 15:4.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF ESTHER
A vivid account of how Esther, with guidance from her older cousin Mordecai, was used by God to deliver the Jews from extermination
Written evidently by Mordecai, and apparently covering 493–c. 475 B.C.E.
Esther becomes queen in Shushan
When King Ahasuerus (evidently Xerxes I) calls for Queen Vashti during a royal banquet, so he can show off her loveliness, she persistently refuses to come; the king removes her as queen (1:1-22)
Esther is chosen above all the other beautiful virgins in the realm and is made queen; at Mordecai’s direction, she does not reveal that she is a Jewess (2:1-20)
Haman conspires to have the Jews exterminated, but the tables are turned
Haman the Agagite is exalted by the king above all the other princes, but Mordecai refuses to bow to him (3:1-4)
Enraged over Mordecai’s refusal, Haman schemes to annihilate all the Jews in the empire; the king is induced to agree, the date is set, and the decree is issued (3:5-15)
Mordecai instructs Esther to appeal personally to the king, though her life may be endangered by appearing before him uninvited (4:1-17)
Esther is received favorably by the king; she invites the king and Haman to a banquet; then she requests that they return for another banquet the next day (5:1-8)
Haman’s joy is marred, however, because Mordecai again refuses to bow to him, so Haman puts up a very tall stake and plans to urge the king to hang Mordecai on it before the banquet the next day (5:9-14)
That night, when the king is sleepless, he has records read to him, and he learns that Mordecai has not been rewarded for reporting a scheme to assassinate the king; when Haman arrives in the morning, the king asks him what should be done to honor a man in whom the king takes delight; thinking he is the man, Haman offers lavish suggestions; then Haman himself is commanded to confer that honor publicly on Mordecai (6:1-13; 2:21-23)
At the banquet that day, Esther makes known to the king that Haman has sold her and her people to be destroyed; furious, the king orders Haman to be hung on the stake he put up for Mordecai (6:14–7:10)
Mordecai is promoted, and the Jews are delivered
Mordecai is given the king’s signet ring that was taken from Haman (8:1, 2)
With the king’s approval, a decree is issued permitting the Jews to defend themselves and to annihilate their enemies on the day that had been set for their own destruction; many thousands of the Jews’ enemies are slaughtered (8:3–9:19)
It is decreed that this deliverance be commemorated each year (9:20-32)
Mordecai comes to be second to the king and works for the good of his people (10:1-3)