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10

Esther

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.

Commentary

2:10

Esther must have abandoned the Jewish food laws and become fluent in the local language and customs.

2:20

Esther must have abandoned the Jewish food laws and become fluent in the local language and customs.

3:1

Haman "the Agagite" was a descendent of Agag so the Jews would have been spared the trouble told in Esther 3f had Saul been obedient in 1 Samuel 15:9–11.

4:14

This story shows how important the right of access to the king was. How much more important is our right of access to God; we should use it to the full.

4:16

"Because Esther was prepared to perish, she was able to save her people from perishing".[1]

4:17

It is ironic that Esther is calling the shots in this kingdom where women were to obey their husbands (1:20).

5:1

When the king saw Esther waiting outside in her royal robes, he could see that she wanted to come in (see 4:2).

5:3

The phrase "half of my kingdom" seems to have been a standard formula in ancient courts and should not be taken literally.

5:6

The phrase "half of my kingdom" seems to have been a standard formula in ancient courts and should not be taken literally.

5:8

The effect of these banquets was to distance Haman from his supporters in the court, creating a three-way relationship in which the King was with Esther and Haman. She could then force him to choose between them. But at the end of the first banquet Esther sensed that the time was not yet right to make her main request. And perhaps she reckoned that if she gave Haman enough metaphorical rope, he would hang himself.

5:14

Some translations say the gallows was designed for the victim to be impaled rather than hanged.

6:1

Perhaps the king's sleeplesness was a direct result of Esther's banquet, on account of the amount he had eaten and drunk. The royal chronicles might be so boring as to lead one to fall asleep, and therefore a suitable choice if the king wanted to sleep. Esther's plan was beginning to take effect, with God's help, but in a surprising way.

6:13

Zeresh and his friends had urged Haman to deal with Mordecai (5:14) but she was fickle and now sided with the advisers who advised that it would fail.

6:14

The consequence of these events was that Haman came into the king's presence in a very bad mood.

7:2

The phrase "half of my kingdom" seems to have been a standard formula in ancient courts and should not be taken literally.

7:6

Esther's blunt statement forced the king to choose between her and Haman. And Haman guessed that he would choose her rather than him; he had (perhaps inadvertently) set in train a process that would result in the Queen's death, which was a serious matter.

7:7

The king was so angry that he left the banquet for a while and went into the garden. That is a good tactic when one is so angry that one might say or do the wrong thing.

7:8

It is still common practice today to cover the face of someone facing imminent execution, though some translations say Haman covered his own face.

7:9–10

Hanged: see comment on 5:14.

8:1–2

Haman, being dead, could no longer own his house; but we are not told what happened to his family. Perhaps verse 2 means that Mordecai provided for them.

8:5–8

Esther asked for Haman's decree (signed with the king's ring in 3:12) to be cancelled, and he seems to grant the request. However, the verses that follow show that such a decree could not be cancelled, but the destruction of the Jews must be avoided in other ways.

8:9–14

Haman's decree for the destruction of the Jews (signed with the king's ring in 3:12) could not be cancelled, so the new decree gave the Jews permission to defend themselves.

9:10–16

These verses say three times that the Jews did not take plunder from their victory over their enemies. Thus they put behind them the sin of Saul who took plunder from Amalek (1 Samuel 15:9) despite having been specifically ordered to destroy everything (1 Samuel 15:3).

References:

  1. David Winter in NewDaylight 21 February 2014
  2. Collins, J.J., Evans, C.E., McDonald, L.M. Ancient Jewish and Christian Scriptures—​New Developments in Canon Controversy Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2020

© David Billin 2002–2021