Sunday, September 11

Book Overview: Esther

The Book of Esther. The book itself is ten chapters long. It relays the account of Esther, a Persian Israelite who became the Queen of Persia, and proceeded to protect and save the Jewish people living in the Persian empire. One of the two books bearing the title of a female name, Esther is, unlike books prior to it in Scripture, not necessarily theological. God's name is not mentioned in the book of Esther, though His hand and work is clearly seen throughout, particularly with Esther being in the "right place at the right time." As such, some secular historians have been less hesitant to approach this record, as God's name is absent from the book. However, this book explains the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim (February-March). (Photo credit: [1] Philippe Chavin, [2] Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

This is the seventeenth Book Overview in a series of 66 Books. These overviews are written so that it may provide readers with details about the book, things that they may have missed, and will hopefully peak your interest so that you will read the book, the entire Bible in fact, as God wants us to do. If we do not stand on Biblical truth, our starting point for all areas of life. Now, onto the Book of Esther.

Title: Book of Esther (English), אֶסְתֵּר, (Hebrew), 'Estēr (Tiberian)
Authorship/Written: The book itself notes that the reign of King Ahasuerus (likely Xerxes) had ended, or rather when he died, in 465 BC. This, among other historical allusions, leads us to conclude that Esther was written ca.465-455. Esther also shows a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the Persian court as well as its customs. It appears to written by a Persian Jew. When considering the authorship of this account, we must consider the following:
  • Ezra and Nehemiah have been suggested as the author, but the style and vocabulary are not similar nor do they bear a resemblance to the style and vocabulary of Ezra and Nehemiah.
  • Some have suggested that Mordecai, Esther's cousin, is the author. Esther 9:20 notes that Mordecai kept a record of these events, but others point out Esther 10:2-3 which appears to indicate that Mordecai's career had ended. This does not, however, preclude Mordecai from continuing a record. 
  • Whoever wrote Esther appeared to have behind-the-scenes knowledge as well as a detailed witness of the Persian records and the events describe within. We can reasonably conclude that, given the pro-Jewish attitude of this work along with the demonstration of details concerning Jewish customs, that this writer was a Jew.
Tomb of Esther and Mordecai [1]
It is held by many that Esther was written by Mordecai. There is nothing biblically, historically or spiritually wrong with Mordecai being the author. It is possible that Esther was compiled by a group of Persian historians, but it is more likely that Mordecai was the author. 

Summary: "Esther is a book that never mentions God by name, but overwhelmingly shows that his spirit is ever present and that his will shall always be done regardless of human plans. Esther is an intriguing story of faith, courage, obedience, drama and romance." (Source: NIV)

Esther 1 - Ahasuerus dethrones Queen Vashti
Esther 2 - Esther becomes Queen; Mordecai uncovers a conspiracy  
Esther 3 - Haman's Nefarious Anti-Semitic Plot 
Esther 4 - Esther discovers Haman's plot; Mordecai persuades Esther to help 
Esther 5 - Haman and the King invited to dinner 
Esther 6 - Ahasuerus rewards Mordecai 
Esther 7 - Haman's deception revealed to the King; Haman's hanging 
Esther 8 - Mordecai's promotion; The King's Edict and Jewis Vindication 
Esther 9 - The Jewish victory; The Origin of Purim 
Esther 10 - Historical Notes; Mordecai's Greatness

In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus (Greek, Xerxes), the Persian emperor who reigned from 486-465 BC, had thrown a banquet which his wife Queen Vashti did not show at. Instead, Vashti had thrown her own banquet for women. On the seventh day of the banquet, the king, who was "in high spirits with wine" (1:10), requested the presence of his wife, who subsequently refused. As proposed by one of his wise men, Memukan, Xerxes declared that Vashti was never again to enter into his presence, and issued an edict "proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household." After the Greek War, the king remembered what he had decreed about Vashti, and at the recommendation of his attendants, issued an edict that ordered many young women to be brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Mordecai, a Persian Jew, had taken in his younger cousin Hadas'sah after father, Abihail, and mother died. Hadas'sah (which means "myrtle") went under the name of Esther. "Esther had not revealed her nationality and her background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so" (2:10). 

After twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for women, Esther was taken to the king in the seventh year of his reign. "Now the king was attracted to Esther more than any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther's banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality" (2:17-18). Esther kept quiet about her nationality, and in the meantime, her cousin Mordecai uncovered and foiled a conspiracy against Xerxes. Haman the Agagite was honored by the king and given a high position, but Mordecai would not bow to him. After finding out he was a Jew, Haman grew more and more hateful toward Mordecai.

Through persuasive speech and wit, Haman convinced the king to give Haman the power to exterminate all of "a certain people [who]... do not obey the king's laws" (3:8) - Jews. Through a chain of events, Queen Esther averted this catastrophe and exposed Haman for who he truly was, along with revealing her nationality to the king. Haman was hanged on the gallows which he built to hang Mordecai, and the Jews established the annual feast of Purim in memory of this deliverance and protection. The king wrote an edict on behalf of the Jews, retracting Haman's issue, giving the Jews the right to "destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality of province who might attack them and their women and children" (8:11). Mordecai was given a position of authority and made a scribe, faithfully recording these events (9:20), and we find that Mordecai used his power for good, and through the hand of God in the life of Esther, the Persian Jews were saved. 

Points: According to Norman L. Giesler, "Several suggestions have been offered in effort to explain the absence of God's name in Esther. (1) Some have suggested that because the Persian Jews were not directly associated with the theocracy, God's name was not associated with them. But this seems unlikely; God's name was associated with the exiles in Daniel and it is promised even to Gentiles who trust Him (Isa. 60-61). (2) There is no doubt some basis for the fear of using God's name in a document written in a foreign country - the name might be profaned or the story changed by the simple substitution of a pagan god's name. (3) It is also plausible that the book was compiled from the Persian royal records (9:20; 10:2); surely the name of the Jewish God would not be found in the Persian records. (4) It should be pointed out, however, that although the name of God is absent, yet God Himself is everywhere present in the book. (a) The providence of God is clearly evident (4:14). (b) Prayer is offered to God (4:16). (c) A religious festival is instituted (9:31). (d) Many people of the land become proselytes to the Jewish religion (8:17). (5) Finally, it seems to more than accidental that at four crucial junctures in the book (1:20; 5:4; 5:13; 7:7) the name of God is found in acrostic form in Hebrew (see William Scroggie, Unfolding Drama of Redemption, Vol. 1, p.470)."

Inscription of Xerxes the Great near the Van Citadel [2]
King Ahasuerus ruled over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia over the Persian, Median, and Babylonian empires. He reigned for twenty-one years. Ahasuerus (Xerxes) invaded Greece with his army, allegedly of over 2,000,000 soldiers, only 5,000 of whom returned with him. With his infamous 300, King Leonidas of Sparta, arrested his progress at the Pass of Thermopylae, and he was then defeated by Themistocles at Salamis. It was after his return to Persia from this invasion into Greece that Esther was chosen as the next queen.

The name of Purim is explained in Esther 9:24 and 26, "For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction... Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur." Archaeologists have further investigated the ancient games played during these times, and many believe that this was probably the Royal Game of Ur from which Haman cast lots. Esther 3:7 reveals, "In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, the pur (that is, the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar." The word pur is the Assyrian word for "lot," or "fate." Without originally intending to, by casting lots, Haman determined the day of the Jew's deliverance, the opposite of what he had planned.

Concerning Esther and historicity, "Some Jews remained in Babylon, as shown in the Book of Esther. The type of 'unchanging' laws of the Medes and the Persians shown therein (Esther 1:9) is endorsed from Aramaic documents recovered from Egypt." As noted in the Zondervan Handbook to the Bible, "For the Jews, Esther is a book of instruction (law) and history (narrative). Some Christians regard it as purely fiction. Others see it as a historical novel or short story based on genuine history. Others again think that the knowledge we have of Persian affairs in the 5th century BC - the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, Persian inscriptions and tablets from Persepolis - give good grounds for treating Esther essentially as history. Certainly many background details - court customs, the use of couriers, the forbidding of mourning, execution by hanging - accurately convey the Persian world at that time. Quite recently the word puru has been found inscribed on a dice, confirming what the writer says about the origin of Purim." It is the contention of this ministry that Esther is accurate history, contrary to the claims of some. 

Esther 2:5-6 says, "Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shmei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah." It has been claimed by skeptics of Esther that these two verses contain a historical contradiction. Mordecai would have been around 120 years old if he was personally taken captive in 597 BC. However, by re-reading the text, we find that Mordecai is not specifically stated as the one who had been carried into exile, but the name of his great-grandfather Kish is mentioned, followed by a reference to the exile. This is likely intended to mean that his family was among the captives. No contradiction is present, simply a misreading of the text.

There are three main reasons why this book was written. The more obvious reason is that Esther explains to the Jew and Gentile alike the origin of the Feast of Purim, celebrated by Jews between the 13th and 15th Adar (February-March). The book also demonstrates the hand of God in control of events which transpire, showing that He cares for His chosen people even when all hope seems lost. The third reason is a clear warning against anti-Semitism. Seen in the Exodus, the Exile, the Return, the Holocaust, among other events, the Jews possess a unique place in history and an incredible ability to survive the odds. Esther is one such event in the Jewish history that demonstrates God's protection and preservation of His people. This can be seen all throughout Esther - He even made Xerxes have a restless night when it was necessary (Esther 6:1). Also note Esther 4:14

Apocryphal material, "additions to Esther," was not finalized until ca.114 BC. These additions did not stabilize until relatively late, several centuries after the actual events occurred, and scholarly research indicates that these additions were composed at different times and by different people, as opposed to the actual book of Esther found in the Bible. There are several differences between Esther and the non-canonical additions. According to the Oxford Companion to the Bible, "Whereas the book of Esther does not mention God, the additions constantly refer to the deity, to prayer, and to the sacred traditions and practices of Judaism... The authors of the additions must have been offended by all the story's pomp and circumstance, for they present Esther belittling her royal position and apologizing for her royal garb. In the additions, one finds a significantly different understanding of history. In the first place, the story is now set between Mordecai almost apocalyptic dream and its interpretation. This framework tells the reader that... Ahasuerus issued his second proclamation because 'God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness' (15.8)."

By considering a timeline of relevant dates, the historical context of the book of Esther becomes clearer: (derived from the AXIS NKJV)
  • 538 BC - The return of the Jews to Judea begins under Cyrus.
  • 530-522 BC - Persia builds a naval fleet with Ionians and Phoenicians.
  • 521-486 BC - Darius I reigns in Persia.
  • 494-406 BC - Greek tragedian Sophocles lived and worked in Athens.
  • 486-465 BC - Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) reigns in Persia; events of Esther.
  • 464-424 BC - Artaxerxes Longimanus reigns in Persia.
  • 428-347 BC - Greek philosopher Plato lived and taught in Athens, Italy, Sicily, and northern Africa.
  • 459 BC - Ezra leads a group of returnees to Jerusalem.
In Esther 4:3 we read, "In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes." Fasting (Hebrew tsum) was a common practice in the ancient world, generally associated with mourning for the deceased, times of distress, repentance of sin, intercessory prayer, and the like. The Hebrew root word means "to abstain from food." There were times when fasting meant not only fasting from food, but also refraining from drinking, bathing, marriage relations, or anointing with oil. The length of fasts varied, with strict fasts lasting from sunset to sunset, with some going from sunrise to sunset, although some fasts went on for seven days and on some occasions could last up to forty days.

As noted by Got Questions Ministries, "In Esther, we are given a behind-the-scenes look at the ongoing struggle of Satan against the purposes of God and especially against His promised Messiah. The entrance of Christ into the human race was predicated upon the existence of the Jewish race. Just as Haman plotted against the Jews in order to destroy them, so has Satan set himself against Christ and God’s people. Just as Haman is defeated on the gallows he built for Mordecai, so does Christ use the very weapon that his enemy devised to destroy Him and His spiritual seed. For the cross, by which Satan planned to destroy the Messiah, was the very means through which Christ “having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:14-15). Just as Haman was hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, so the devil was crushed by the cross he erected to destroy Christ."

The book of Esther teaches us to have confidence and trust in God, to do what is morally right and leave the remainder to Him, to be brave regardless of the cost, to resort to prayer in times of crisis, to care for minority racial groups, and to remember God's special care for the Jewish people.

Next Book Overview: Book of Job
Previous Book Overview: Book of Nehemiah

Geisler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978. 171-176. Print. 

Various. Zondervan Handbook To The Bible. Zondervan, 1999. 3rd ed. 340-343. Print.

Wilson, Clifford and Ham, Ken. The New Answers Book 1. 12 ed. Master Books Books, 2006. 315. Print. 

Hughes, Gerald, and Stephen Travis. Introducing the Bible. 1st ed. New York: Lion Publishing, 1981. 77. Print.

"Ahasuerus." WebBible Encyclopedia. Christian Answers Network, n.d. Web. 10 Sep 2011.

Balchin, John. Opening Up God's Word: The Compact Survey of the Bible. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985. 83-85. Print.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 201. Print.

"Book of Esther - Bible Survey." Got Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 10 Sep 2011.

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