Introduction to Esther

By James M. Rochford

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Picture2Esther asks the question of what happened to the Jews who didn’t return from the exile (with Ezra and Nehemiah). It shows God’s sovereign protection over the evil enemies who try to destroy God’s people.

Authorship

It is difficult to know who wrote the book of Esther. The author must’ve had access to the chronicles of Xerxes in the royal palace (Esther 10:2). This means it would need to be Esther, Mordecai, or someone close to them:

Esther? This is certainly possible. However, Huey writes, “No one has seriously argued that Esther herself was the author.”[1] We aren’t exactly sure why this isn’t seriously considered.

Mordecai? Josephus and Clement of Alexandria believed that Mordecai was the author.[2] Commentators argue that Mordecai cannot be the author because of Esther 10:3 (“For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and in favor with his many kinsmen”).[3]

Men of the Great Synagogue? The Baba Bathra (15a) holds that “the men of the Great Synagogue” wrote Esther. Jobes writes that these men were “believed to be anonymous teachers who lived in the period between the last prophets and the later rabbinical scholars.”[4]

Anonymous authorship? Because the author never identifies him or herself, most commentators remain agnostic in regards to Esther’s authorship. Archer holds to anonymous authorship,[5] as does Huey,[6] Jobes,[7] as well as Hill and Walton.[8] We agree that it isn’t possible to know who wrote this book. R. Laird Harris writes, “We do not know the author of Esther, Chronicles, or Job, but they are found among the Prophets, and there is no reason to object to claiming their authors also as prophets.”[9]

Why doesn’t Esther mention God’s name?

It’s odd, but Esther never mentions God’s name. There are a number of observations that can be made regarding this difficulty:

First, Esther isn’t the only book to omit the term “God.” Song of Songs also does not use the term God, though it does use the name “Yahweh” in 8:6. So this isn’t strictly analogous. Moreover, Song of Songs is also criticized for its canonicity, so this doesn’t help answer the question very much.

Second, the author may have omitted God’s name for stylistic reasons. The Jews in Persia were not inheriting the covenant God made with his people. The Jews who returned with Ezra and Nehemiah inherited the covenant, but the Jews of the Persian exile “were no longer in the Theocratic line, so to speak, the Name of the covenant God is not associated with them.”[10] Because the Jews were in Persia—not the Promised Land—the author could be showing that God appears to be absent to them—even though he is still sovereign in all nations (Esther 4:14).

Third, the author may have omitted God’s name because this document was written for the Persian records. The mention of Persian annals and documents resounds throughout the book, and the author may have intended this book to enter into their records.

Fourth, God’s name might exist in a hidden acronym in the book. Geisler and Nix write,

Others have thought the omission of God’s name to be an intentional one, to protect the book from pagan plagiarization and the substitution of the name of a heathen god.[11]

In support of that contention is the observation of W. G. Scroggie, who indicates that the name of Jehovah (YHWH) may be seen four times in acrostic form in the book, in such a way and in such places that would place it beyond the realm of mere probability. In any event, the absence of God’s name is more than compensated for by the presence of His power and grace in the deliverance of His people, a fact which gives canonical worth to the book (cf. Esther 4:14; 9:20-22).[12]

Other scholars reject this explanation.[13]

Canonicity of Esther

First, the apocryphal additions to Esther could explain why its canonicity wasn’t widely accepted. Since the Septuagint included apocryphal additions to Esther (see “Non-Canonical Additions to Esther”), this could’ve thrown the book into disrepute. Harris writes,

The best explanation is that since in the Septuagint, Esther begins with apocryphal additions, Melito, probably reading only the first verses of each book, could not recognize it among the books which the Jews told him were canonical—Jewish books were named by their first words.[14]

Athanasius gives the clue to the difficulty about Esther which was mentioned above. He says, ‘Esther is noncanonical and begins with Mordecai’s dream.’ He refers, thus, to the Apocryphal addition with which Esther begins in the Septuagint copies. But, he continues, ‘Esther is canonical among the Hebrews; and as Ruth is reckoned as one book with Judges, so Esther with some other book.’ Perhaps Athanasius is wrong about details, but he probably gives the reason for Esther’s curious omission from a few of these lists. We may add the testimony of Basil the Great of Cappadocia, who speaks of the twenty-two Old Testament books, and the great Chrysostom, who declares himself for the Hebrew canon.[15]

Beckwith believes that Esther was accepted in the Western Christian church from the beginning. But because of Melito’s rejection, this could’ve resulted in “mixed reception for it in Eastern Christendom.”[16]

Second, Josephus includes Esther in his canonical list. Beckwith writes, “Josephus’s attestation of Esther is direct. He tells us that the 22 canonical books trace the course of history from the Creation to the time of Artaxerxes the successor of Xerxes, whom he identifies with the Ahasuerus who married Esther.”[17]

Third, Aquila (~AD 135) includes Esther in his canonical list. According to Jerome (Commentary on Isaiah, on 8:11ff), Aquila was a Jewish proselyte and a pupil of Rabbi Akiba. Epiphanius claims that Aquila made a literal translation of the Hebrew Scriptures around AD 128 (De Mensuris et Ponderibus, 113-16).[18] In the surviving fragments, there is “no hint of it including any apocryphal book” and it “included all five of the disputed books.”[19] He cites Esther in Greek which is found in a midrash of Esther (Rabbah 2.7). Beckwith claims that Aquila’s “rabbinical credentials are unimpeachable.”[20]

Fourth, the Mishnah includes Esther as canonical. Beckwith writes, “It is quoted in the Mishnah and the other tannaitic literature, in the latter case with standard formulas for citing Scripture, in the former case only to mark the extent of the reading of Esther at Purim (M. Megillah 2.3). However, there is no doubt that the Mishnah also regards Esther as Scripture, since it includes a whole tractate (Megillah) on the duty of reading the book at Purim. By contrast, the similar minor festival of the Rededication of the Temple has no tractate devoted to it, and there was no duty to read any of the books of Maccabees at it.”[21]

Fifth, the rabbis at Jamnia (~AD 90) includes Esther as canonical. While the rabbis at Jamnia originally disputed Esther, they eventually held that it was, in fact, inspired (see “The Council of Jamnia”).

Sixth, multiple early Christian theologians considered the book to be canonical. Clement of Rome cites the book as early AD 95 (1 Clement 55). Clement of Alexandria cites Esther by AD 250 (Pedagogue 3.12.5; Stromata 1.21). Hippolytus includes the book in the canon by AD 231, when he wrote his Commentary on the Psalms 1-25.[22] Beckwith comments, “Clearly Esther was used from the earliest times at Rome, and if in the capital city, then probably elsewhere in the western world.”[23]

Themes of Esther

God’s Sovereignty: This book demonstrates the sovereignty of God, as he works through horrible circumstances.

Anti-Semitism: Ever since God chose the Jewish people, Satan has worked to oppose and persecute them—just as he did with Jesus and Christian believers. The Abrahamic covenant, however, is still in effect (Gen. 12:1-3). God will curse anyone who hates the Jewish people.

Irony: Haman goes in to ask the king how to kill Mordecai, and the king asks Haman how he should honor Mordecai instead. Haman seeks to kill the Jews, but he ends up begging for his life from Esther—a Jewish woman. At the beginning of the account, it’s dangerous to be a Jew—by the end, it’s dangerous to not be a Jew!

Purim: This annual festival of the Jewish people originates from this book (Esther 3:7; 9:26). Jewish people still read Esther every year at the Feast of Purim (“lots”).[24]

Who is Xerxes?

The Persian king Xerxes reigned from 486-465 BC. The Harper’s Bible Dictionary writes of Xerxes:

Xerxes (zuhrʹksees), the name of several rulers of the Persian Empire. 1 Xerxes I, who ruled 486-465 b.c. and is known from Greek history for his attempts at conquering the Greek mainland. He is probably the ruler referred to in Ezra 4:6 (there called Ahasuerus, from the Persian form of his name), a passage out of chronological context, who received a complaint against the Jews who had returned to Palestine from the Exile. In Dan. 9:1, an Ahasuerus is mentioned as the father of Darius the Mede (but see 2). The Persian ruler of the book of Esther (1:1, etc., there also called Ahasuerus) is presumably based on Xerxes I.[25]

History

This entire account takes place after Daniel 1:1, when Nebuchadnezzar looted and pillaged Jerusalem. Mordecai—as well as the rest of the Jews in Persia—were in Exile during this time (Esther 2:5-6).

Esther 1 (Xerxes Banishes Queen Vashti)

This story takes place during the reign of Xerxes (v.1). He threw a banquet for the nobles of Media and Persia (v.3), so that he could show off (v.4). It lasted six months (v.4). He poured the wine liberally (vv.7-8). He told his wife—Queen Vashti—to come and show off her beauty (v.11), but she refused (v.12). He was angry and asked for wisdom from counselors. They warned him that all women would rebel like her, if he didn’t do anything (vv.17-18). They called on him not to allow her to come in his presence (v.19), and Xerxes agreed (v.21).

Esther 2 (Esther Becomes Queen)

Later, when he cooled off (v.1), he had his men bring young virgins for him (v.2). There would be a beauty contest, and the winner would be the new queen (v.4).

Mordecai was a captive from Israel (v.6). He had taken in Esther as an adopted daughter (v.7). Esther won the approval of Xerxes (v.9). Esther didn’t reveal that she was Jewish (v.10, 20). They prepped the women for six months with beauty treatments (v.12). Xerxes’ fell for her and made her queen (v.18).

Bigthana and Teresh tried to lead a coup (v.21). Esther gave the credit for finding this out to Mordecai (v.22). The men were killed, and this led to Mordecai getting in good with Xerxes.

Esther 3 (Haman Moves to Kill the Jews)

Xerxes commanded that the men kneel before Haman (vv.1-2). Mordecai wouldn’t kneel though (v.2). He refused. Haman was enraged (v.5), and he used this as an excuse to kill all of the Jews (v.6). He called on Xerxes to exterminate the Jews (vv.8-9). He promised to bribe him. Xerxes consented without taking the money (v.11). He called on the Jews to be killed all at once (v.13). The chapter ends on the brink of genocide, where the evil Haman and Xerxes were drinking and being ready to watch a massacre. Haman was an Agagite, which is from the Amalekites. If Saul had killed these people, then this never would’ve happened (1 Sam. 15).

Application

Were Mordecai’s actions righteous? Would it just have been better to bow down to Haman? When we’re in a secular context, shouldn’t we concede with the customs to a certain degree? Was this pride that caused Mordecai to stand tall? This is something to ponder and discuss.

You can look back later in your life and see all of the problems that were in front of you, but then you get to see God’s plan and protection. God is our shield and rock.

Esther 4 (Esther Plans a Solution)

Mordecai mourns over this (v.1). Esther tried to get him to stop mourning and wear normal clothes, but he refused (v.4). Esther told Mordecai that she might be able to get in with the king, because he had summoned her recently (v.11). Mordecai wonders if she was put into royalty for this very purpose (v.14). Was this a coincidence, or was it because of God!? Esther was willing to go and risk her life to plead with Xerxes.

Application

This passage speaks about the sovereignty of God (v.14). Was it really a coincidence that Esther would be in the right place at the right time? Doubtful. God set this up for her to act out in faith.

Esther was willing to step out in faith based on the right circumstances. God didn’t command her to go, but she saw an opportunity, and she took it.

Esther 5 (Haman Plans to Kill Mordecai)

Esther stands before the king (v.1). Xerxes was willing to give her half of the kingdom (v.3). She asks for Xerxes and Haman to come to a banquet (v.4). Publicly, she asks for them to come to a banquet the next day together (Why is she waiting to ask?). Haman leaves the banquet, and he sees Mordecai. He gets angry again, because Mordecai won’t bow down to him (v.9). He plans to build a gallows to impale Mordecai on the following day (v.14)!

Esther 6 (Mordecai Honored)

Xerxes couldn’t sleep so he had his chronicles read to him (v.1). In the chronicles, Xerxes remembered that Mordecai had saved his life (v.2). This reminded Xerxes about Mordecai’s faithfulness, and he wondered how he could repay him (v.3). He tells Haman that he wants to honor a man, and Haman says that they should bring out the royal robe and praise him. But who is it? Xerxes tells him that he wants to honor Mordecai the Jew! (v.10) This was incredibly embarrassing (v.12). Haman went home and cried to his wife about it (v.13).

Application

This shows that we need to wait for God’s timing to be honored and protected. This shows God’s sovereignty that the king would just so happen to read the chronicles this particular night, and “just so happen” to ask Haman advice, and “just so happen” to honor Mordecai.

Esther 7 (Haman Killed)

They have the banquet, and Esther finally asks her petition (vv.3-4). She asks for Xerxes to spare the Jews. Xerxes asks who did this (v.5). Esther rats out Haman (v.6)! Haman begs Esther for his life (v.8). They impaled Haman on the pole he had given for Mordecai (vv.9-10).

Application

What irony! Haman was hoisted on his own petard!

Esther’s (and God’s!) timing was just right. If she had asked the favor earlier, it wouldn’t have worked.

Haman “just so happened” to fall on top of Esther at the wrong time—just as Xerxes walked in (v.8). Haman probably looked shocked: “Wait! Let me explain!” This feels like a Ben Stiller movie, where there is awful timing, where the protagonist gets caught with his pants down.

Esther was very tactful in how she operated. This shows a balance between God’s sovereignty and human agency. She sets up the petition for protecting herself—not the whole Jewish nation. This was a slick way of navigating this situation.

Esther 8 (The Jews Protected)

Haman’s estate came over to Esther (v.1). She pleads for the lives of the Jews (v.5). The king protected the Jews right to assemble and defend themselves (v.11). They held a celebration as a result (vv.15-16). This had an evangelistic effect on the nations (v.17). The people were probably afraid of what happened to Haman, so they caused them to turn to become Jewish. This entire edict of killing the Jews on a certain day feels like the plot to the movie The Purge. Now that the tables were turned, some people may have been repentant for their murderous rage.

Application

Esther’s job wasn’t done with this dramatic event. She may have remembered the king’s tendency to forget important events. This shows that she needed to finish the job, and not just let events play out.

There is another level of irony here: In the previous chapter, it was dangerous to be a Jew; now it is dangerous not to be a Jew! (v.17)

Esther 9 (The Jews Defend Themselves)

The Jewish people successfully defended themselves (vv.1-5). They killed the people who were going to be aggressive (v.2). Moreover, Xerxes allowed the Jewish people to take plunder (Esther 8:11), but the text states they refused (v.10, 15, 16). Esther asked for Haman’s sons to be killed as well (v.13). This is where the feast of Purim originates (v.26).

Esther 10 (Mordecai in Charge)

Mordecai is second in command to Xerxes (v.3).

[1] Huey, F. B., Jr. Esther. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 776.

[2] Jobes, Karen. The NIV Application Commentary: Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1999. 29.

[3] Huey, F. B., Jr. Esther. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 776.

[4] Jobes, Karen. The NIV Application Commentary: Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1999. 29.

[5] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed. Chicago: Moody Press. 464.

[6] Huey, F. B., Jr. Esther. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 776.

[7] Jobes, Karen. The NIV Application Commentary: Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1999. 28.

[8] Hill, Andrew, & Walton, John. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (2nd Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 2000. 282.

[9] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 169.

[10] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 260.

[11] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 260.

[12] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 260.

[13] Huey writes, “Some scribes claimed to find the divine name YHWH (“The Lord”) in acrostics based on the initial and final letters of successive words in 1:20; 5:4, 13; and 7:7. The four letters YHWH are written larger than others in some MSS to reveal the “hidden name” (cf. Browne, p. 381; Moore, Esther, p. 56; Paton, Esther, p. 8). However no one today takes these rabbinic devices seriously.” Huey, F. B., Jr. Esther. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 784-785.

[14] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 184.

[15] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 184.

[16] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322-223.

[17] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322.

[18] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 277.

[19] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 277.

[20] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 277.

[21] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 322-223.

[22] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 296.

[23] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 296.

[24] Hill, Andrew, & Walton, John. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (2nd Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 2000. 285.

[25] Peter Ackroyd goes on to claim that Esther is referring to Xerxes as “more a legendary than a historical figure.” Conservative scholars would disagree with this statement for obvious reasons. Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row.