There is no name attached to the book of Esther. Therefore, we cannot know who wrote the book. The best that we can do is to say that the author was someone who knew something about Persian court life. Moreover, this person lived after the events, as he writes from the vantage point of a later time.
The dating of the book is as elusive as authorship. All we can say is that the book was written before 114 or 78 B.C., as a Greek translation of the book exists. With this said most scholars date the book somewhere in the fourth or third century B.C. They arrive at this range of dates based on language, sentiments, and other incidental details that are in the text.
c. Historical / Biblical context
It is helpful to know something about the historical context of the book of Esther. A good starting point is 586 B.C when the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. From a theological point of view, this was the outcome of Judah’s disobedience to the covenant. An exile ensued.
As kingdoms rise and fall, Cyrus II rose to power and defeated the Babylonians. The Persians were now in control and they proved to be benevolent rulers to the Jews. In 539 B.C., there was a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their land and he even financed their return and rebuilding project. We read of this in Ezra 1. For this reason, Cyrus is seen as a “savior” figure (Isa. 44:24-45:2). Zerubbabel with many others return and start the rebuilding process with the temple. Later we read of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. In Esther we read of the community that did not go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple or the walls of the city. In many ways Esther’s community is secularized. Perhaps this is why there is no mention of God or even prayer. The events described in the book take place from 486-465 B.C. during the reign of Ahasuerus, the Persian King.
If we turn our gaze elsewhere, this epoch was truly an amazing time. In China, Confucius was born (551-479 B.C.). In India, Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) was born at Kapilavastu. Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism was born somewhere in modern Iran. In Greece, it was there was flowering under the likes of Solon, the Peisistratids, and Pericles, who would in time produce a civilization that would boast of the luminaries of the West like Thucydides, Sophocles, and Socrates. This synchronic look at history shows a great irony. Matters of eternal significance were actually taking place in the most unlikely places through obscure people – Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah and even the less righteous Esther and Mordecai. We can see hidden glory, God’s inscrutable divine way of working, and surprising grace. God has not forgotten his people.
To talk about the historicity of Old Testament books in particular is tricky. What scholars want to do usually is to confirm the historicity of books with non-biblical sources and archaeology. This is good historical method. However, it is important to keep in mind that much has been lost and what we do have also needs to be interpreted, not to mention that our other sources, like Herodotus, are also filled with biases.
Moreover, the ancients thought about the writing of history very differently than we in the modern world. Their history was theological history. Therefore, there was a lot of freedom in reporting history to create dramatic effect, make theological points, and introduce other literary nuances to tell a good story. That said, to say that there is no historical basis is to go too far. Events that took place can be written with a theological point of view. In truth, there is no other option, as all history is intended to make a point.
In this short commentary, I take the position that Esther is a historical figure. However, the author took many liberties to make theological points. Hence, it is important to follow the literary devices and flourishes that the text offers.
One final issue should be mentioned. There are two versions of Esther – the Hebrew version as recorded in the Masoretic text (MT) and the Greek version as recorded in the LXX. While it is interesting to read the Greek version of Esther with its additions, the Greek should be judged as a later redaction.
e. How should I read Esther?
There is no one particular way to read Esther. However, here are some suggestions that will help.
First, the major theological theme of the book is the providence of God. For readers to pick up on the details of God’s providence, close reading of the whole book in one sitting is preferable. To study it piecemeal loses the sense of the story. In light of this, I suggest reading the book a few times in one sitting and then studying the parts but always being cognizant of the whole.
Second, keeping the difference between modern and ancient conventions of writing in mind will help a reader not impose modern categories on an ancient text. More importantly, it will allow a reader to ask better questions and follow the logic of the text.
Third, it is most important to keep the historical context and progressive redemptive context in mind. In other words, we should read Esther in the context of God’s covenant to Israel and through the lens of Christ in the New Testament.
f. Outline of the study:
1. Esther 1:1-2:18
2. Esther 2:19-3:15
3. Esther 4:1-4:17
4. Esther 5:1-14
5. Esther 6:1-7:10
6. Esther 8
7. Esther 9-10:3
g. Works Consulted:
-Breneman, Mervin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Nashville, B & H Publishing, 1993.
-Jobes, Karen. Esther. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
-Levenson, Jon Douglass. Esther: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
1:1-8. The book of Esther begins with feasting in Susa, which was one of the four capitals of a vast empire. In fact, feasting plays a prominent role in the book. (2:18; 5:4-12; 6:14; 7:8; 8:17; 9:17-22) The irony of all this pomp is that the Persians were not able to take a much smaller people in battle, the Greek. In fact, Darius, Ahasuerus’ father recently has failed in his attempt to take Athens. Perhaps this was a time to lick his wounds and try to gain the loyalty of those of his empire for another campaign – hence feasting.
1:9-12. Another great irony is that Ahasuerus, for all his power and pomp, cannot even win the favor of his wife, Queen Vashti. As Levenson writes: “[Ahasuerus] is portrayed as a man of inordinate official power but no moral strength.” She refuses to come to be paraded around. At her refusal, Ahasuerus is furious and this starts a chain of events ultimately to deliver the Jews. Who would have guessed?
1:13-22. In this section the law is mentioned (which will play a prominent role in the book) as Ahasuerus seeks counsel. Memucan offers his counsel and it is a counsel based on fear. He argues that if the women of the Persian empire hear about what Vashti has done, then other women will revolt against their husbands and general discord will ensue. In light of this, Memucan argues that Vashti must never be allowed to enter into the presence of the King and a search for a better queen should be started immediately.
The irony here is that by making this into a decree the actions of Vashti are made known even more! “…He compound the problem by treating his personal deficiency through official means, promoting an embarrassment into a state crisis…” Also we see the Ahasuerus so far is a passive king. Rather than making decisions, he takes the counsel of others. This will be a pattern in the book.
The emphasis that the decree of the king is irrevocable will appear throughout the book. The historical curiosity is that this aspect of royal decrees is not found elsewhere. Perhaps it is an example of dramatic tension.
A note on power is not inappropriate here. Just because Ahasuerus lost face, he deposes his wife and starts an empire wide search for a new queen. In a few chapters, Haman will seek to kill a whole people because one man would not bow. All of this suggests the evil of pride. Furthermore, the wise man or women will seek accountability when they have power and even seek to give up power. The only one who is perfect in the use of power is the true king, Jesus.
2:1-4. Ahasuerus is portrayed as passive once again. An unnamed attendant suggests that Ahasuerus in essence ought to conduct a beauty contest to gain a new wife. This counsel pleases Ahasuerus and therefore the machinery of the vast Persian Empire is moved to please the desire of one man. All of this might seem ridiculous, but in a fallen world those with power rarely consider the needs of the powerless, especially when it will cost them much. How else can we explain how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
This idea of collecting virgins for the pleasure of the king is distasteful to our sensibilities. It should also be noted that many boys were gathered to serve as eunuchs. According to Herodotus 500 boy were taken every year. That’s nuts.
2:5-7. Mordecai is introduced for the first time and he is introduced as one who was carried off into exile under Nebuchadnezzar. He is also described as a Benjamite and more significantly as from the line of Kish – an allusion to the first king of Israel. This will be very significant, because there will be a show down between Mordecai of the descendents of Kish and Haman an Agagite, a descendent of the Amalekites (at least symbolically). More will be said about this connection.
2.8-11. Esther is chosen and immediately wins the favor of Hegai. He provides her with a regime of beauty treatments and special foods. All of this sounds good and well, but there is no mention of Esther keeping dietary restrictions. The contrast between her and Daniel is stark. For example, when Daniel is taken into captivity in Babylon, he determines to follow God. Daniel 1:8-9 states:
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore, he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of eunuchs…”
There is little of this moral fiber in Esther. What exacerbates the situation a bit is Mordecai does not allow Esther to even reveal her identity. He actually forbids her. The author of Esther does not make any moral judgments. The book of Esther is tantalizingly only descriptive. This begs the question of how we should interpret Esther.
Moreover, to apply the book to our lives, we need to ask how Christians should live in the world today. There will undoubtedly be many opinions. We are truly a people between two worlds. In the end, grace and charity must undergird this conversation.
2:12-20. Esther wins favor. This is one of the themes of the early chapters. Esther gains the favor of Hegai, the chief eunuch (2:9), the favor of everyone who saw her (2:15), and finally the favor of the king (2:17). It is not explained how this favor was granted. The implication is that God granted favor. Genesis 39:3 might be a good example of this point. Joseph finds favor, because all know that God is with Joseph. In light of this, can we say that Esther has the favor of God?
With this stated, we should also not sugar coat things. Esther, a Jew, had to sleep with a pagan king, which went against the law. If we compare this act with Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s call for repentance at intermarrying in Ezra 10:9-15; Nehemiah 10:30, 13:23-27, then we can see a contrast. However we interpret it all, in the end we are able to see God’s providence.
2:21-23. The theme of the providence of God is perhaps most pointed in these verses. Mordecai finds himself at the right place and the right time. He overhears a plot of two of the king’s officers, Bigthana and Teresh, to kill the king. When Mordecai tells Esther, who is now the Queen, she informs the king. After the investigation is found to be true, everything is recorded in the annals. What is not mentioned is the honoring of Mordecai for discovering this plot. It is only human nature for Mordecai to angry at having been overlooked, even if this is not stated. From a literary point of view, this is all the more pronounced as the next verse speaks of the honor of Haman for doing apparently nothing, at least nothing is mentioned.
3:1-15. A new character is introduced – Haman. He is called an Agagite. This name is significant and readers or hears of the ancient world would have known that the king of the Amalekites during the time of King Saul was named Agag. The history of the Jews and Amalekites is a long one. Here is a brief outline:
-Exodus 17 – The Amalekites were the first people to oppose the people of God after the exodus.
-Numbers 14 – The Amalekites fight and defeat the Israelites in the wilderness.
-Deuteronomy 25:17-19 – God says not to forget what the Amalekites did and that the Israelites should blot of their name forever. The context is holy warfare. More will be said on this topic later.
-Judges 6-7 – The Amalekites with other people attack the Israelites.
-1 Samuel 14, 15, 28 – Saul defeats the Amalekites; he was supposed to spare nothing, but Saul disobeyed and saved the king, Agag, and some of the livestock. This is where we read of Samuel’s famous word and the rejection of Saul as king. 1 Samuel 15:22-23.
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”
-2 Samuel 30 – The Amalekites attack David’s men and take their families and possessions. David counterattacks and defeats the Amalekites.
As one can see, the Amalekites are the paradigmatic enemies of the people of God. A Karen Jobes states: “Over the centuries after Saul spared Agag’s life, other perennial enemies of Israel were called Agagites even though they had no ethic relationship to the Amalekites.” In light of this, the dramatic tension is set.
We also see the overweening pride of Haman. Just because one man, Mordecai, would not bow himself, he is enraged to the point of desiring the death of a whole people group. To persuade the king of this course of action, he promises to put 10,000 talents of silver into the royal treasury. Ahasuerus is completely nonchalant; he does not even want the money. The chapter ends with Ahasuerus and Haman sitting down for a drink – without batting an eye, no pang of conscious, and no compassion that he decreed the death of a people on account of the pride of one man. Sounds incredible. However, is this not how our world works today in many ways?
Events are in motion. We can see the dynamics of spiritual warfare, even if the text does not mention it. The foes of the covenant people of God plot to eradicate them. We see this in the first attack of the Amalekites and even in the attack of the Amalekites of David. Now we see it in Haman who wants to destroy all Jews everywhere, which includes the people who went to rebuild the temple and wall under Ezra and Nehemiah. However, God’s people unwittingly are in positions of influence.
Esther is the Queen and Mordecai has foiled a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus. In light of these points, we must not be naïve. Behind the physical is a spiritual realm. Commenting on Haman’s plot, Mervin Breneman says, “Its source is satanic: the attempt to defeat God in his redemptive purposes.” So, on the one hand, we can say that Satan seeks to devour the people of God. We must be sober-minded and alert. On the other hand, God will always prevail. God’s people must be a praying people, who realize that their battle is mainly spiritual. Ephesians 6:10-20.
4:1-8. The tearing of clothing and putting on sackcloth and ashes was a common feature in times of distress in the ancient world. (Num 14:6, 2 Sam. 1:11; 3:31, Isa. 36:22, Ezra 9:3) Any reader would have known this point. More importantly, Jobes argues that there is an allusion to Joel 2:12-14.
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing —
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.
The author intended to echo the sentiment of Joel to call the reader to repentance in view of the grace, compassion, and love of God. This calling of repentance is always appropriate in our broken world. Genuine repentance is an act of God and therefore an act of grace.
Too often repentance only takes place when people are forced to confront their sins. God, it seems, is always a last resort. In this context, only God can bring salvation. So, Mordecai and the other Jews humble themselves before God.
4:9-17. Mordecai sees the gravity of the situation and calls Esther to go to the king to seek mercy. Esther is understandably fearful. To go before the king without being called can end very badly. Moreover, Esther has not been called into Ahasuerus presence in thirty days. The implication is that he will not call her any time soon. Esther will have to act herself – the very thing she is not willing to do.
In this interchange, Mordecai reminds Esther of the dire nature of the situation. She will die also, as a Jew, if she does nothing. Mordecai also shows some faith by saying that deliverance will come from another place, if Esther does not act. Moreover, he states perhaps Esther has become the Queen for such a time as this? All of this persuades Esther and she asks for further fasting. Esther will risk her life and she emerges as someone resembling a heroine.
In the end, Esther seeks to do the “right thing.” However, what forces her? It might be the thought of her own death. Can we say that here is something in human nature that will only do the right thing, when it is too painful to do the wrong thing? If so, can we say that suffering, in part, is God’s way of maturing us? Also from a practical point of view, we should not be too harsh on Esther – we are all fearful and have a difficult time taking steps of faith.
5:1-8. Esther musters up the courage to come before the king and when the king sees her, he is favorably disposed towards her. He would even give up to half of his kingdom. (5:3, 6) Esther asks the king and Haman to come to a banquet. At the banquet, Ahasuerus asks her about her request and she asks him along with Haman to come to another banquet. There she will ask her request. In all of this, Esther gains favor again, which has been a theme so far. (2:9; 2:15, 2:17). Again Esther shows courage and possible suffering.
5:9-14. Haman is a child. Haman’s pride in himself and his hatred for Mordecai presage destruction. Pride comes before the fall. The reader gets the impression that Haman is the poster-boy for this principle. Haman calls his wife, Zeresh, and his friends and boasts about his wealth, sons, and king’s friendship. He even boasts that he is the only one invited by Queen Esther. In the same breath he says that none of these gives him satisfaction, because he sees Haman. What makes Haman happy though is the suggestion of his wife and friends to have gallows built to kill Mordecai.
6:1-14. We see another unlikely chain of events. Out of the blue, the king could not fall asleep. Literally this portion of text reads: “The sleep of the king fled.” So, he orders the book of the chronicles of his reign to be brought out and read. It so happens that what is read is the episode of Mordecai’s service to the king in exposing an assassination plot. When the king read this, he asked if anything has been done for Mordecai and the servants of Ahasuerus say that nothing has been done. So, Ahasuerus asks Haman, who happens to be in the court what should be done for the man whom the king desires to honor. Haman thinking that the king was speaking about him states that this person should be given a robe and a horse and paraded through the city as an act of honor. Ahasuerus, then, tells Haman to hold nothing back – honor Mordecai. At these words, Mordecai and his wife know it is all over.
The Greeks coined a literary device called peripety, which means that there is a sudden turn of events. This chapter and the next have one of the greatest examples of this. Haman, who was honored, will be disgraced. Mordecai, who was overlooked, will be now honored. And more broadly put, the Jews, who had a death sentence, will find salvation.
We are also able to see the hidden providence of God. Ahasuerus happens not to be able to sleep. He happens to ask for a reading of the king’s chronicles instead of something else like taking a walk. His servants happen to read of Mordecai’s act of saving his life. Haman happens to be the only one in the court. Haman happens to unwittingly honor Mordecai and seal his own fate. Even though God is not mentioned, he is everywhere.
7:1-10. Esther shows great wisdom and rhetorical sophistication. While things are going well at the dinner and Ahasuerus is in a good mood, as evidence by is word that he would give up the half his kingdom (7:2), Esther opens her mouth and asks for the deliverance of her people. She even tells the king she would not ask for his intervention if her people were only made slaves, as she does not want to bother the king. Ahasuerus asks who this person is who concocted a plot to kill her people. At this point she divulges that Haman is that man.
Ahasuerus is furious and leaves. Haman knows that his fate is sealed and he reasons the only salvation will be the Queen’s intercession. So, he stays to plead his life by falling on the couch where the Queen is. The irony cannot be missed – proud Haman on his knees before a Jew! When Ahasuerus sees this, he construes this as Haman molesting the Queen. It is all over. Haman will be hanged on the gallows he made – a fitting end. In this way, the author shows the inscrutable working of God’s providence of God in exercising his justice even through non-believing agents.
8:1-14. There has been a sudden change of fortunes in the court of Ahasuerus (peripeteia). Haman and Mordecai have essentially swapped roles. Moreover, the fall of Haman is quicker than his meteoric rise. Solon’s reported words to Croesus seems apt: “count no man lucky until he is dead.” From a Christian point of view, Psalm 2 is appropriate:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron
you will dash them to pieces like pottery. ”
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
All this said, there is still danger for the Jews. Esther now addresses this issue and once again she wins the favor of the king. It is noteworthy to mention that all throughout the book, Esther has been characterized as one who won the favor of people. She does so again. Ahasuerus allows Mordecai to write a decree in the king’s name to allow the Jews to defend themselves.
The idea of warfare will probably be distasteful to many modern readers. However, we need to bear four points in mind. First, the ancient world and its sensibilities are very different than ours. War was in many ways part of their culture. Second, the concept of holy war is something that is a part of the Old Testament. Israel as a theocratic nation was God’s instrument of judgment. To have a God only of love without justice is really to rob God of his love as well. Will not love act to administer justice in the face of evil?
Third, from theological point of view, Esther 8 is the fulfillment of Exodus 17:14 and 1 Samuel 15. Finally, Jesus is the ultimate divine warrior, who wages perfect warfare and paradoxically also becomes the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In Christ we see divine reconciliation. Now the church is called to engage in spiritual warfare against powers and principalities through prayer, worship missions, and acts of love.
8:15-17. Mordecai leaves wearing royal garments with a large crown of gold. It is tempting to see Mordecai and Esther as the king and queen of Israel.
9:1-12. Here we see the outflow of Mordecai’s decree and the destruction of the enemies of the Jews. The fear of Mordecai (the Jews) spread. (9:3) This is reminiscent of what happened to the inhabitants of the land of promise as Joshua was about to enter it. For example, Rahab says: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.” (Joshua 2:9) The context of holy war also makes this interpretation more fitting. In connection to this, it is also important that the Jews did not take any of the plunder. This, too, is a sign of holy war. All one needs to do is to remember the sin of Achan at Ai.
9.13-19. Esther asks for another day of killing. Why? The author of Esther offers no explanation. However, from the context, it does seem excessive. Most commentators are in agreement as well. One of the most amazing aspects of the Bible is that it does not minimize the sins and weaknesses of the people of God. Think of Abraham, David, Solomon, Paul and Peter. God works through imperfect people. We all need a savior.
9:20-32. Mordecai records these events for posterity and this becomes the basis for the festival of Purim. The word, “Pur” or the plural form “Purim” is also very appropriate. It is a non-Hebrew word, which means lot or die (plural – dice). What seems like chance is really the sovereign control of God. As Jobes states:
“Even though the word pur and its plural purim occur only in the book of Esther, the equivalent Hebrew word, goral, occurs frequently throughout the Old Testament. Note for example, Proverbs 16:33: ‘The lot [goral] is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.’”
10:1-10:3. It is hard to see Mordecai and Esther as consistent models of faith. Hence, it is best to say that God delivered the Jews during a very precarious time in spite of Esther and Mordecai. It really is all about him.
Also from a literary point of view, it is tempting to see a restored monarchy. Esther is the queen and Mordecai is the king.Tags: Commentary, esther