The story of Esther is set towards the end of the exile, when Persia was the major power. Esther was a Jewess who through a curious series of events became Queen of Persia. Though it does not mention God, his hand is clearly at work in this very readable story.
In some ancient manuscripts Esther follows the Pentateuch directly, implying fundamental importance. Yet it was not recognised as a holy book until the third century before Christ; it was the last book to be added to the Hebrew Canon, and no copies were found at Qumran[2 p.35]. Perhaps it seemed fundamental to some and dubious to others! The problem may be that Esther was the wife of a pagan, acting as Queen in a pagan land, which was anathema to people like Nehemiah and Ezra, despite the fact that Moses, David and Daniel also served in foreign courts.
It is set in the time when Persia over-ran Babylon where the Jews were in exile, i.e. 539–533 B.C.E., but was written much later. No supporting historical evidence has ever been found to confirm its version of history. Its purpose seems to be to explain the background to the festival of Purim; it is traditionally read in synagogues at that feast (and acted out noisily by the congregation). The Purim celebrations resemble the Persian new year celebrations. It might also be seen by some as an allegory of Israel's history, in that a refugee becomes Prime Minister and an orphan becomes Queen. It alerts the Jews to the tension that their presence can cause.
Esther's career parallels that of Joseph in Genesis. Both were taken captive (Genesis 37:28, Esther 2:8); both adopted local customs (Genesis 42:7 and 23 and 43:32, Esther 2:10 and 20); both gained respect in captivity (Genesis 39:4 and 21, Esther 2:9), eventually coming to the notice of the monarch (Genesis 41:14, Esther 2:15); both became the monarch's number two (Genesis 41:41, Esther 2:17); and both were able to use that position for the benefit of their people (Genesis 44:1, Esther 7:3).
Though, famously, God is not mentioned in the book, his working is fundamental to it. It is clearly addressed to an audience of mature faith to whom God's working is obvious from the events described. He is shown as working though foreigners as well as Jews, implying late Universalist theology. The book is also full of irony, such as Haman's fate. Some see parallels with the Persian gods: Mordecai = Marduk; Esther = Ishtar etc. but this seems far-fetched.
Nehemiah addressed his requests to King Artaxerxes (or Xerxes) and an unspecified Queen; this may have been Esther but this cannot be confirmed because he had a harem. Nehemiah might have regarded Esther as a pagan, because he was in favour of Jews separating themselves from the pagans, not concealing their nationality as Esther did.
© David Billin 2002–2021