Esther, like Ezra and Nehemiah, lived during the period when the Persians dominated all of western Asia and Egypt and imposed a high degree of organization on their vast empire. Cyrus, their great empire-builder, had permitted exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylon in 539 bc (Ezr. 1:1–4), and from then on exiles did go back to rebuild, first their homes, then the temple and later, under Nehemiah, the walls of Jerusalem. They were a minority, however, and large numbers of Jews remained, scattered throughout the area we now know as Iran and Iraq (see map of ‘The Persian Empire’ in Ezra and Nehemiah).
At the time of Esther, Susa, the Persian royal city (modern Shus÷h in SW Iran), was enjoying its heyday under King Xerxes, known in Hebrew as Ahasuerus, who came to the throne in 486 bc. He enjoyed the lavish buildings put up during the reign of his father, Darius (521–486). Little remains of them, but Shiite Muslims visit the village to venerate the alleged tomb of the prophet Daniel. Archaeological excavation of the ancient city in the mid-nineteenth century identified the main features of the palace, including the throne room, the harem and the ‘enclosed garden’ mentioned in 1:5.
The book of Esther tells of the favourite of King Xerxes, the courtier Haman, who had a grudge against a Jew call Mordecai. For this reason he plotted to kill all Jews living within the Persian empire. Such was the extent of the empire at that time that virtually the whole race would have been wiped out if he had been successful. Providential intervention came through Esther, the Jewish girl who had been chosen by the monarch as his queen. Circumstances so worked out that Haman became the victim of his own plot, whereas the Jews escaped. Their enemies were liquidated and Mordecai replaced Haman as the king’s right-hand man. Such a remarkable role-reversal provided a gripping theme for the story-teller. For the Jews, whose history was to include many tragic incidents, the book became a source of hope, and the events it records are celebrated annually in the festival of Purim. Throughout the centuries the public reading of this book at Purim has kept alive nationalistic expectations. Even today, every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the Purim liturgy congregations respond with loud banging, shouting and stamping of feet, and ‘Haman’s hats’ (triangular cakes) are eaten during the celebrations. Not surprisingly the story of Esther is better known to the ordinary Jew than any other part of the Old Testament.
The book of Esther in Christian history
This is one of the books of the Bible that is often passed over by Christians. In the early Christian centuries the book was best known in Greek versions. These had extra passages added, which had the effect of building up hostility towards Gentiles and keeping Jews isolated, whereas Christians were trying to integrate believers from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Understandably, therefore, Christians did not make use of the book in the form they received it because it worked against their purposes.
It has often been pointed out that the name of God does not occur in the book of Esther. A superficial reaction to this omission is to question the book’s inclusion in the Bible. The great Reformation expositors, Luther and Calvin, left no commentaries on Esther, and those who write the history of the Old Testament period rarely refer to this book. This is because its claim to be a factual report of events tends to be treated with scepticism. Why then should Christians study it today?
In practice most Christians accept the book because it is bound together with the other sixty-five books that make up the Bible. It deserves attention because it is there, and part of our heritage. Historically it helps to fill in the picture of post-exilic life among Jews of the dispersion during the fifth century bc, and explains the origins of one of the festivals that Jews have observed annually from pre-Christian times to the present day. Anyone who wishes to understand the culture of our Jewish neighbours will want to read this account of the origins of Purim.
These, however, are educational rather than personal reasons, and though they are important, they do not necessarily satisfy the readers’ desire to find a light for their path and understanding of God. Indeed, can the book have a theology in view of its omission of the name of God?
Theology in Esther
Esther is a book of theological inferences rather than plain statements. It speaks of fasting, but not of the prayer that always accompanied fasting, nor does it mention the answers to prayer that are clearly part of the story. Again, when Mordecai challenged Esther to rescue her people he told her that if she failed to act, relief and deliverance for the Jews would arise ‘from another place’, implying that God was sure to work out deliverance for his people. Faith in God can be implicit in people who, for whatever reason, scarcely ever let their faith be known.
Life in Persia under the rule of King Xerxes was oppressive for minority groups like the Jews and, according to the writer of Esther, perilous. It may seem unlikely that a ruler would decree at a whim the execution of a whole people, as Xerxes did (3:9–11), but Herodotus, the contemporary historian, confirms that Xerxes was cruel and despotic towards his own household, not to mention foreigners. The author, conscious of the need to be diplomatic lest history should repeat itself and his people be put in jeopardy of their lives again, was careful to be factual and objective, avoiding references to supernatural help. Nevertheless, he found ways of indicating that God was directing events. Indeed the events spoke for themselves; he simply needed to narrate them.
The book describes life at the Persian court with all its extravagance. King Xerxes ruled over 127 provinces, but he did not succeed in ruling his wife, Vashti. Perhaps the author had his tongue in his cheek when he ended the first episode with the king’s decree that, ‘every man should be ruler over his own household’. The implicit question, where does authority ultimately lie, raises a theological issue.
Haman made an ambitious bid for power, successful at the start, except that Mordecai the Jew would not bow down to him. Haman wished to use his authority, and his influence with the king to eliminate not only Mordecai but all his race. All that was needed was one decree sealed with the king’s signet ring, and the plot could be put into effect. There was only one precaution: the date needed to be auspicious or fate could thwart his plan. The author pits fate against the authority of the one worshipped by the Jewish people.
The idea of a predetermined fate, operating in all aspects of life, from that of the individual to the decisions of a country’s rulers, was widespread and persistent. A die from the reign of Shalmaneser (858–824 bc) survives as a reminder that each new year’s day the year’s diary was drawn by casting the lot to determine auspicious dates. This die bears the inscription pur, so confirming the meaning of the word purim given in 9:24. The people of these Near-Eastern lands not only believed in fate but acted accordingly. What happens when those who believe in the Creator God live among those who live by fate? The writer of Esther expects his readers to observe and take note.
Not everything in the outworking of the situation could be attributed directly to God, for each of the main characters took initiatives. Mordecai entered his ward, Esther, for the selection contest, hoping she would be chosen as the new queen. Only later when she was queen did the advantage of her status provide opportunity for her to record Mordecai’s loyalty in the king’s annals and discredit Haman before the king. Mordecai could not have foreseen that such a need might arise. Esther, for her part, had to risk her own life in order to petition the king, and used guile by inviting him and Haman to her private dinner party, not once but twice. She could not have known how the episode would end, but since her action had been preceded by fasting (and prayer), she evidently expected an opportunity to arise for her to plead the cause of her people. Human initiative alone would not have provided the necessary opportunities, but divine providence together with human watchfulness and timely action brought about the desired end.
In short, the book of Esther strongly supports and illustrates the doctrine of divine providence, as it operated at a particular time of danger to the Jewish people who lived under Persian domination. Mordecai’s question, ‘And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ (4:14), posed at the moment of crisis, leads the reader to expect Esther to intervene successfully, because providence had already been at work in her selection as queen. This impression is confirmed when the king extended his sceptre to Esther and received her request. As events unfolded and Haman was hanged on his own gallows, while Mordecai was promoted to high office, the dramatic reversal is so unexpected as to require supernatural explanation. Even people of other nationalities came to the same conclusion (8:17), which involved them in accepting that the God who worked justice for his people must be the true God. They therefore declared their faith in him.
Mysterious though the implications of belief in divine providence undoubtedly are, God’s sovereignty involves care for all his creation, but especially for his people who put their trust in him. Jesus confirmed God’s fatherly care for the natural world (Mt. 6:26–30), and urged his followers to count on their Father to supply every need. That did not mean that disasters would be ruled out. Betrayal, hatred and death awaited Jesus, and he warned his disciples that they could expect no less (Mt. 10:21–25). Pain and conflict do not cancel out the providential care, for God’s concern for the sparrow is declared in the same breath as ‘even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Mt. 10:29–31). In the book of Esther the death of the Jews was replaced by the death of their enemies. Jesus stated that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Mt. 10:34). God’s providence embraces his justice and his love as he orders the affairs of this far-from-perfect world, hence the part played by the sword.
The book of Esther is one to ponder in any attempt to relate biblical values to life in an increasingly secular world. Belief in an inflexible fate survives today, as witnessed by the popularity of horoscopes. This book demonstrates that fate is not unchangeable when it runs counter to God’s eternal purpose.
The book of Esther is the work of a literary artist who uses his gifts as a vehicle for his deepest convictions. His introductory episode effectively depicts King Xerxes as ruler of his vast domain but unable to control his wife. Implicitly a question is raised about leadership and authority. The king appointed as his deputy Haman who was totally taken up with his own importance, so presenting another aspect of leadership. The partnership did not work well for the empire because the king left power in the hands of his deputy, without bothering to check what was happening. All this is conveyed without any hint of disapproval. A very different concept of responsibility is presented in Mordecai the Jew, who weighed up the worth of those in authority, saved the king from an assassination plot and refused to submit to self-important Haman. The contrast between the two men raises the question, (see Fowler p. 4962) how right can prevail when those who do right have no power.
The contrast between Haman and Mordecai becomes more marked as each pursued his chosen strategy. Mordecai fasted and lamented while the king and Haman sat down to drink (3:15; 4:1). Mordecai revealed his faith (4:14) while Haman completed his happiness by building a gallows for Mordecai (5:14). Thus a life-and-death struggle developed. The turning point was the king’s sleepless night (6:1), when he was reminded of his debt to Mordecai and determined to reward him. From this point on a dramatic reversal begins. Haman was forced to bestow honours on Mordecai and then was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for him. Mordecai took Haman’s place at the king’s side, and a new edict was issued. Suddenly justice has prevailed. The threat to the Jews raised in the first five chapters fails to materialize and their fortunes are reversed in the last five; the structure of the book thus matches the message of the contents.
This artistic awareness is apparent also in the skilful characterization. Both male and female characters are finely drawn, and consistently act according to type. The king impressed his subjects by his wealth rather than by a concern for just rule. He enjoyed his privileges, passed new laws without a second thought and handed over his authority to a deputy, whom he trusted implicitly. Queen Esther was in many ways the antithesis of the king. Early on she was subject to Mordecai, but when danger threatened she was the one who suggested that all the Jews should fast for three days. Esther acknowledged a power greater than her own, and found assurance to take an initiative. She approached the king with her invitation, but could not have known how she would achieve her goal. Her concern was for her people, and for justice. The fact that the people were delivered and, under Mordecai, prospered brings the book to an end, and the reader is left to ponder on the outcome. Has divine providence been at work?
Both Mordecai and Esther faced a conflict of loyalties, arising out of their faith. Mordecai could not pretend to accept Haman’s unprincipled leadership, and Esther risked disobeying the king for the sake of her people. Civil disobedience is justified in the greater cause. The author makes frequent use of irony, drawing attention to the king’s ostentatious feasting, his stupidity in passing laws without due attention (1:21–22) and his abdication of duty (3:8–11). The author also uses particular words and phrases to call attention to certain themes. The feasts in the book have dire consequences, whereas the fasts (4:1–3, 16) work for good, so that ultimately the Jews themselves feast. This is an example of the way the author seeks to ‘tie up the ends’.
Fact or fiction?
Such artistic features could be thought to suggest that the book is to be classified as fiction, and some scholars have argued that the story is improbable in several details. They cite the 180 days of the king’s feast (1:4), the queen’s refusal to attend (1:12), the appointment of non-Persians like Esther and Mordecai to positions of importance in the land, and the king’s permission for a whole people to be wiped out. In addition, the characters are said to be recognizable role-types rather than individuals. Such judgments, however, are made from a modern standpoint. In view of the lack of literature surviving from this period in Persia it is impossible to verify what happened or to appreciate the account in its literary environment. Historians have verified the author’s accurate knowledge of Persian royal palaces and customs, and independent evidence has come to light that a certain Marduka (?Mordecai) was in authority in Susa, serving as an accountant in the early years of the reign of Xerxes. Evidence of the use of lot-casting or ‘pur’ has also tended to support the historicity of the narrative. The part played by irony and satire in the author’s narration accounts for some of the book’s ‘improbable’ aspects.
When might the book have been written? There are no known references to it in other literature, so a judgment has to be based on internal evidence. The subject matter and the frequent occurrence of Persian words in the Hebrew suggest a date in the Persian period, some time after the reign of Xerxes, which is referred to as if it were in the past. The author was concerned that Jews should never forget their deliverance from empire-wide massacre, hence his book establishing the annual observance of Purim, duly authorized by royal command. This could well have been needed early in the reign of Artaxerxes I, say around 460–450 bc, after the death of Xerxes. The author evidently had access to the annals of the Persian kings (6:1; 10:2), and was a Jew involved in affairs of state in Persia and its empire.
The place of the book in Scripture
In our English Bibles the book of Esther follows the history books, and adds its contribution to the history by illustrating life in the fifth century bc among Jews in western Asia. In the Hebrew canon it is among the ‘Writings’, and is usually the last of the ‘five scrolls’ allocated to festivals. Esther is the text for Purim, celebrated in the twelfth month of the Jewish year, and therefore the last. The popularity of this festival caused many copies of the book to be needed, and early translations contain a variety of readings different from the Hebrew. The lxx, probably translated as early as the second century bc, contains over 100 verses that are not in the Hebrew. They were probably added to introduce a more obviously religious emphasis, and can be found collected together in the Apocrypha.
The amazing deliverance of the Jewish people from death in the time of Xerxes has been instrumental, through the annual Purim celebration, in keeping Jewish faith alive through many another persecution, even to the present day. Jewish identity has been preseved amid the multitude of other cultures, and has survived despite the holocaust. God has not cast off his ancient people, but continues to be gracious to them. His plan is to save the world, however, and Gentile Christians owe their salvation to God’s covenant, initiated with Abraham, and fulfilled in Christ. The book of Esther should stir a spirit of thanksgiving in Christian as well as Jewish hearts, and remind Christians of their debt to faithful Jewish leaders like Mordecai and Esther. As Christians enter into the aspirations of the Jewish people in the light of their past sufferings, and repent of cruel misunderstandings and victimization on the part of the Christian church in the past, they may earn the right to commend to Jews the Lordship of Jesus Christ, ‘who is the Head over every power and authority’ (Col. 2:10).
(See the booklist on Ezra and Nehemiah)
J. G. Baldwin, Esther, TOTC (IVP, 1984).
G. A. F. Knight, Esther, TBC (SCM, 1955).
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
TBC Torch Bible Commentaries
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Est 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.