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, volume,” 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 as the writer. According to the Great Synagogue of the Jews, Josephus, and Clement of Alexandria, the writer was 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.
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. (Esther 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 twelfth 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 inclined to favor them. Also, the fact that Xerxes I is known to have held a great feast and council of war in the third year of his reign before setting out against Greece tends to confirm the conclusion that the King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther must have been Xerxes I. (Esther 1:3) An American Translation and Dr. James Moffatt’s translation even substitute Xerxes for Ahasuerus in the text. Xerxes I began to reign in 486 B.C.E., and according to the writings of Thucydides (of the fifth century B.C.E.), considered in conjunction with a table of chronology by Diodorus (of the first century B.C.E.), his reign terminated about 474 B.C.E. So he ruled about twelve years, probably into his thirteenth year, as indicated by Esther 3:7; 9:1 and the events described in 9:15 to 10:3. 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 covers the period from about 484 to 474 B.C.E., approximately ten years.—See AHASUERUS No. 3.
Undoubtedly the book of Esther was committed to writing about 474 B.C.E., shortly after the events occurred. The book’s vivid style of writing suggests that the writer was an eyewitness. Moreover, the strong inference that the writer had access to governmental documents (Esther 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 early Christians as a whole. In their Bibles the Jews place it after the Pentateuch and between the books of Joshua and Ecclesiastes, and sometimes 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. (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. (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, “Esther”) That such a great assembly and festival were held agrees with a statement of Herodotus about Xerxes beginning to make preparations for his expedition to Greece.
In view of the book’s absence of any direct mention of God, it is charged with being irreligious. Nevertheless, it tells of fasting and a “cry for aid” on the part of the Jews, implying prayer. (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. (Esther 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.” (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 to 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 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 and on which anniversary the entire book is read in their synagogues. A cuneiform inscription found at 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.
The book of Esther is a very moving drama that could be divided into three acts. However, it should be remembered that, far from being fictional, these acts are part of a real-life drama. After a brief description of the setting, chapter 1 presents a scene in the courtyard of the garden of the king’s palace, where a great banquet is being held for all the people of Shushan the castle. At the height of the merrymaking King Ahasuerus orders Vashti the queen to appear and show the people and princes her loveliness. At her persistent refusal, and on recommendation of his princes, he deposes her and makes announcement of this to all the peoples of the empire.
Scene 2 of the first act, described in chapter 2, takes us into the king’s house, where arrangements are being made to gather to the castle all the beautiful virgins of the empire and give them beauty treatments before presenting them to the king. From these the king is to select his new queen. The selection turns out to be Esther, a Jewish girl, the cousin of Mordecai her caretaker and a servant in the king’s gate.
In the third scene, chapter 3 tells of the promotion of Haman and his success in obtaining authority from the king to issue a decree ordering the destruction of all the Jews in the empire.
Act 2 opens with a scene in front of the king’s gate, in which Mordecai counsels and exhorts Esther to intercede for her people even though she would be jeopardizing her life thereby.—Esther 4:2-17.
Scene 2 of this act is in the throne room of the palace. Esther appears uninvited before the king with the request that he and Haman be her guests at a banquet that day. After the banquet the scene shifts to Haman’s house, where Haman and a group of his friends are gathered. They decide on the erection of a fifty-cubit stake on which to hang Mordecai.—Esther 5:1-14.
The king’s house is the setting for scene 4 of this act. Haman is approaching the king to ask for the hanging of Mordecai. The king, instead, has Haman honor Mordecai for his service in revealing a plot to take the king’s life. He is obliged to clothe Mordecai in royal apparel and lead him around the city square on horseback, calling out: “This is how it is done to the man in whose honor the king himself has taken a delight.” The act ends back in the house of Haman, to which Haman had rushed after this humiliating experience.—Esther 6:4-14.
Chapter 7 introduces the third act with a second banquet in Esther’s quarters. At the king’s irate demand Esther exposes Haman as the instigator of the scheme to massacre all the Jews in the empire, including herself. Thereafter the king has Haman hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordecai.
For scene 2 of this act we are back at the king’s house. Since the decree of death for the Jews is unchangeable according to the Medo-Persian custom, a counterdecree, allowing the Jews to defend themselves, is sent out.—Esther 8:1-17.
Consequently, chapter 9 reports that the Jews destroy their enemies in Shushan and throughout the provinces, including the killing and then the hanging of Haman’s ten sons. Mordecai and Esther issue the command to commemorate this deliverance annually on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, called the days of Purim, because of the Pur, or lot, used by Haman as a form of divination to select the time auspicious for destroying the Jews.
Chapter 10 concludes the account briefly mentioning Mordecai’s greatness and energetic work in behalf of his people.
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.—Rom. 15:4; see the book “All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial,” pp. 91-94.