Reading Esther


ORIENTING DATA FOR ESTHER
  • Content: the story of God's providential preservation of Jews throughout the Persian Empire through Mordecai and his niece, Esther. 
  • Historical coverage: most of the story takes place during a single year during the reign of Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), a generation before the events recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah. 
  • Emphases: God's providential care of the Jews in a context of a pogrom against them; Jewish remembrance of their survival through the feast of Purim.   


OVERVIEW OF ESTHER

    As with the book of Ruth, Esther appears among the Writings in the Hebrew Bible, but in the Septuagint it was placed in its basic historical setting, although after Ezra-Nehemiah. With a marvelous display of wit and irony, and with obvious literary skill, the author tells the story of how Jews in the Persian Empire were saved from genocide instigated by a member of the royal court, who may himself have been a non-Persian possibly an Amalekite who carried with him their ancient hatred for God's people

    The story revolves around the actions of its four main characters: (1) the Persian king Xerxes (mentioned by name 29x), an arrogant Eastern despot who serves as God's foil in the story; (2) the villa in Haman (48x), a foreigner who has been elevated to the highest place in the empire, next to Xerxes himself-who is even more arrogant than Xerxes, and full of hatred for the Jews; (3) the Jewish hero Mordecai (54x), a lesser court official who uncovers a plot that saves the king's life, but whose refusal to bow to Haman sets in motion the basic intrigue of the plot plan to kill all Jews in the empire, which ultimately backfires on Haman; and (4) the heroine, Mordecai's younger cousin, Hadassah, given the Persian name Esther (48x), who by winning a beauty contest becomes Xerxes' queen and the one responsible for unraveling Haman's plot, thus saving the Jews from annihilation.

    The story line itself is easy to follow It begins with a lavish feast given by Xerxes and the deposal of his queen Vashti, who had refused to come and be put on display; this leads in turn to Esther's becoming queen (1:1-2:18).The basic plot of the story, with its various intrigues, unfolds in the central section (2:19-7:10), which climaxes at two private feasts that Esther holds for Xerxes and Haman. The rest of the story primarily has to do with the Jewish defeat of their enemies (the holy war again) and their celebration that eventually becomes the feast of Purim (chs. 8-9). Inside this basic plot is the story of Mordecai, who represents God's favor toward his people, so that the book concludes with Mordecai's exaltation to Haman's position, where he achieved much good for the Jewish people (ch. 10; cf. Daniel's role the century before).



SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR READING ESTHER

    As you read this story of Jewish survival, you will want to be looking for two factors that help make the story work. The first is literary. The author is a master storyteller, evidenced not only by the way he unfolds the characters and plot but especially by his inclusion of details that provide humor and irony. Who wouldn't smile at the thought of a king whose response to his wife's defiance is an empirewide decree that "every man should be ruler over his own household" (1:22)-as though that would solve the king's own problem! After all, he had been advised that, on the basis of this decree,"all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest" (1:20)!

    You will hardly be able to miss other, although less humorous, touches of irony: Haman, who intends to destroy the Jews, ends up destroying himself and his family; the gallows erected for Mordecai are those on which Haman himself is hanged; Haman's edict was intended to plunder the wealth of the Jews-instead his own estate falls into Jewish hands; Haman, in writing the script for his own honor and recognition, in fact writes the script for Mordecai, and instead of receiving honor Haman must lead Mordecai through the streets of Susa on horseback. And these are not all of them, so be looking for other such moments as you read.

    The second factor rs religious.Although the book of Esther is known for the fact that God is never mentioned in the book (cf. Song of Songs), the author nonetheless expects his intended readers to see God at work at every turn in the story. First, Xerxes himself is portrayed as God,s
foil: He who displayed "the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty" (Esth 1:4 )turns out to be something of a puppet, manipulate d at will by those around him-while the reader knows that the God of eternal glory and majesty is behind everything that happens in the story. Thus, what the unschooled reader might regard as "Just happening" is to be recognized instead as God's own sovereignty lying behind, for example, Esther's being chosen as queen (2:15- 18), the king's sleepless night in which he discovers that he had failed to honor Mordecai (6:1-3), the fact that after a three-day fast Esther receives the gold scepter when she approaches the king unbidden (4:11; 5:1-2), and so on throughout the book.

    The other religious factor you will want to watch for is the author,s recognition that the action of Mordecai and Esther-and the Jews who are spared from annihilation-is an expression of the holy war. This comes out first in the conflict between Haman and Mordecai, who catty on the centuries-old conflict between the Israelites and the Amalekites. As the first to attack Israel after her deliverance from Egypt (Exod 17:8-16), the Amalekites came to be viewed as the epitome
of the surrounding nations that stood against her. But especially this story needs to be read against the background of I Samuel 15. It is probably not incidental to this story that Haman is regularly called an Agagite (an intentional link to the Amalekite king in 1 Sam 15 whom Saul refused to slay?), whereas Mordecai Saul was-is a Benjamite who also belongs to the line of another Kish (1 Sam 9:l-2)'This "son of Kish" (Esth 2:5) does indeed land the telling blow on
this "Agag."

    This is how you are also to understand the narrative in chapters 8- 10. In a way similar to the narrative of Joshua, the Jews assemble in all the cities of the empire and "no one could stand against them,, (9:2). That they saw this as a continuation of the holy war is highlighted by the
author in his repeated notation that they would not touch the plunder (9:10, 15, 16; cf. Saul's action in 1 Sam 15:7-9), even though the king had decreed that they should have it (Esth 8:11). In the holy war the first fruits of the plunder belong to God (cf. Deut 13: 16).



A WALK THROUGH ESTHER

1:1-2:18 The Setting: Xerxes, Vasti, Mordecai, and Esther

    The story begins in the palace complex at Susa, where Xerxes gives a great state banquet as a display of his wealth and splendor, while his queen, Vashti, is giving a banquet for the women. Her refusal to also be
put on display leads to her being deposed as queen, which sets the stage for Esther. Enter the hero and heroine (2:5-7). Mordecai's-and Esther's-actions in this matter are not without their ethical flaws, but both Esther's beauty and her keeping her origins quiet are crucial to the story that follows. Note how this first section ends with yet another banquet, this time in Esther's honor-but especially as a way for the king to show off his new queen.
 2:19-3:15The Plot Thickens: Mordecai and Haman  

    Observe how this section begins by repeating Esther's readiness to follow her cousin's instructions. The plot itself begins with Mordecai using Esther's position as his way of warning the king about an assassination plot. Enter the villain (3:1), who is elevated to his high position and thus demands homage of all others, but Mordecai will not bow down or pay him honor. With his pride pricked, Haman sets in motion
the plot to exterminate Mordecai and his people from the empire. Note how this "chapter" concludes with the king and Haman sitting down to drink (in contrast to the Jews, who will proclaim a fast).
 4:1-7:10The Plot Unfolds: Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Xerxes
 
    Again Mordecai turns to Esther for help, this time urging that she has "come to royal position for such a time as this" (4:14). Note especially the literary skill of the author in chapters 5-7,where he encloses the irony
of Mordecai's and Haman's reversals, including Xerxes' sleepless night and the recall of the matter in 2:21-23, within the framework of Esther's two banquets. At the end of the second banquet, the ultimate irony is narrated: Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai!
8:1-17 Xerxes's Edict in Behalf of the Jews  

    Since Xerxes cannot repeal his former edict, he does the next best thing: Mordecai assists in framing a new decree in which the Jews are  allowed to defend themselves against all attacks on the day of the pur
(the day "the lot" fell for the extermination of the Jews; see 3:7).Notice how the decree is sent to all the provinces in their own languages and that the end result is the conversion of many Gentiles (further fulfilling
the Abrahamic covenant, Gen 12:3).
 9:1-10:3The Triumph of the Jews

    Here you will see the three ways the story is wrapped up: (1) The Jews engage in the holy war and slay many of their enemies, (2) the final feast in the book is narrated-the feast of Purim that will be celebrated
annually on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar--and (3) Mordecai is promoted to a position where he is able directly (not through the less certain means of the queen) to benefit the Jews.
 
The book of Esther tells the story of God's providential protection of his people during a bleak moment in the Persian Empire, thus preserving them for the future gift of the Messiah