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Introduction to the Book of Esther

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Historical background

There were three returns from exile in Babylon

536 BC First return led by Zerubbabel Temple rebuilt
457 BC Second return led by Ezra Reforms
444 BC Third return led by Nehemiah Walls rebuilt

Chronology of Esther

539 Fall of Babylon & decree of Cyrus, Jews allowed to return
536 First return led by Zerubbabel, Temple started. Altar built, sacrifices within ruins of temple
535 Temple reconstruction started, then stopped
520 Haggai and Zechariah encourage temple building
516 Temple completed
482 Vashti deposed
478 Esther became queen
473 Jews saved by Esther
457 Second return led by Ezra
444 Third return led by Nehemiah

Position of Esther in Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew bible has three parts: the law, prophets and writings. Esther is in the Writings (Hagiographa), the third part of Hebrew scriptures. The Writings also had three parts

Book of truth Job, Proverbs, Psalms
Megilloth Song of Solomon, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Lamentations
Historical books Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles

Esther was in the Megilloth, which consisted of five scrolls, used in Hebrew worship. Each scroll was connected with one of the Jewish festivals

Song of Solomon (canticles) Passover
Ruth Pentecost
Ecclesiastes Tabernacles
Esther Purim
Lamentations Destruction of Jerusalem

Greek additions to the book of Esther

The version of Esther in the Hebrew Bible has 163 verses, but in the Greek translation, there are an extra 107 verses, making a total of 270 verses. The extra verses were added when Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation was made. A footnote to addition F dates the translation into Greek in the fourth year Ptolemy & Cleopatra (114 BC). In the Latin Vulgate translation, all the extra sections were collected together at the end of the book, and at the Reformation they were removed to the Apocrypha.

Addition LXX & Apocrypha Vulgate
A. Dream of Mordeca Prologue 11:2 - 12:6
B. Edict of Artaxerxes against Jews after 3:13 13:1-7
C. Prayers of Mordecai and Esther after 4:17 13:8 - 14:9
D. Esther before King Xerxes after 4:17 15:1-16
E. The Edict of Defence after 8:12 16:1-24
F. Meaning of Mordecai’s dream after 10:3 10:4 - 11:1

Main characters

Ahasuerus - King of Persia

In Greek, his name is Xerxes, normally identified as Xerxes I (485-465). In the Septuagint (LXX) he is called Artaxerxes, which is probably not correct. Herodotus, the Persian historian describes Ahasuerus as an ambitious, bold warrior with vision and confidence, but suffering from superstitious fears. He often sought advice from others and followed it, and was known for his exploits with women.

His court was at Susa (200 miles east of Babylon), the winter residence of the Persian kings, the ancient capital of Elam, a beautiful palace complex has been dug up by archaeologists, much gold, colour and marble. The throne room, harem and garden have all been identified from the ruins. Even one of the dice for casting lots has been found.

In 484 BC, his second year, he attacked Egypt and subjugated it

In 483 BC, his third year, he called an assembly together to consider a military expedition against Greece. This was probably the great feast of Esther (ch 1). He deposed Vashti before he left.

From 483 to 480 he made a disastrous invasion of Greece, which was a great failure. Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in 480 BC. His sons accompanied him on this trip (from a previous marriage before Esther). He married Esther on his return.

This accounts for the chronological gap in the book
1:3 third year of reign (483) - the banquet and Vashti's refusal
2:16 seventh year of reign (478) - king marries Esther

Herodotus says that the unhappy king consoled himself with members of his harem on his return from battle against Greece. This would match the period when Esther was chosen to be queen (2:16ff)

Ahasuerus is also mentioned in Ezra 4:6. This part of the book is later than the rest of Ezra as an example of opposition to the rebuilding of the walls.

Esther - the heroine of the story

Esther was the orphaned cousin of Mordecai. Her name in Hebrew was “Hadassah” (2:7), which means “myrtle”. Her Persian name was Esther, either from the Babylonian goddess Isthar, or from “Sitar”, meaning “star”. The use of her Persian name helped keep her Jewish nationality secret. Esther's son was probably king Artaxerxes I, Esther may be the queen referred to in Neh 2:6.

Herodotus describes Xerxes's wife as being Amestris (7:61), the daughter of a Persian general renowned for her cruelty, who accompanied the king on the campaign to Greece. He divorced her because she attacked the mother of one of the king's mistresses and nearly started a revolution. This could be a discrepancy, but there are three possible ways of explaining it:

The first is that Amestris is Esther, the names sound similar. However the son of Amestris and Xerxes (Artaxerxes I) was born before 483 BC and accompanied the king on the battle against Greece. He must have been born at least twenty years before Esther became queen. The second is that Amestris is Vashti. This is more possible, but Amestris went to Greece after the events of chapter one, when Vashti was deposed. The third, and most likely suggestion, is that the king had more than one wife. Amestris was not described as a queen by Herodotus so probably, Vashti, then Esther, were queens, and Amestris was the concubine currently in favour!

Herodotus also wrote that the wife of the king was required to be chosen from one of the seven noble families (3:84). These are the seven princes of the Medes and Persians (1:14). Ahasuerus seemed to have quite a reputation with women, so this regulation was almost certainly ignored.

Mordecai - the hero of the story

Mordecai was great-grandson of Kish. He was a Benjamite, the same tribe as Saul. Someone called Kish had been taken to exile with king Jeconiah (Jehoiachin) in 597 BC (2:6). This was 124 years earlier, so could have been Mordecai's great-grandfather.

Some inscriptions from Persia mention a certain Markukaya (a Babylonian name similar to Mordecai) who was a high official in the royal court of Susa during the reign of Xerxes I. There is another Mordecai mentioned in Ezra 2:2 and Neh 7:7, one of the leaders of the exiles who returned with Zerubbabel in 536 BC. He is also mentioned in 1 Esdras 5:8.

Haman - the villain of the story

He was a very superstitous man, chosing the day of the massacre of the Jews by casting lots to find a 'lucky day' (3:7). He is described as an Agagite (3:1). This could possibly mean that he was a descendent of king Agag of the Amalekites, spared by Saul in disobedience to God (1 Sam 15:9). If that is true, then this story is a continuation of the conflict with the Amalekites started in Ex 17. Josephus describes Haman as an Amalekite. Otherwise Agag may describe a district in the Persian empire, which is mentioned in an Assyrian inscription of Sargon. Haman's father's name Hammedatha is a Persian name.

The Feast of Purim - 13-15th Adar

In Jewish synagogues the book of Esther is read during this feast, there are boos and shouts from the congregation when Haman's name is mentioned. The word “pur” (Est 3:7, 9:24,26) means 'lot'. It is not a Hebrew word, but is from the Assyrian 'Puru', meaning “pebble”, which were used for casting lots.

The feast of Purim is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. After the Maccabean revolt, a decree was made to celebrate Judas Maccabeaus defeating Nicanor on 13th of 12th month (Adar) in 161 BC. This was the day before Mordecai's day, or Purim, on 14th Adar (2 Macc 15:36). In the parallel passage in 1 Maccabees, Nicanor's day was on 13th Adar, but Purim is not mentioned (1 Macc 7:49). Josephus wrote that Nicanor's day was on 13th Adar, and Purim on 14th Adar. After the seventh century AD, Nicanor's day not celebrated, and 13th Adar became part of Purim:
13th - day of fasting (Esther's fast)
14-15th - days of feasting

Author

The author is unknown, but could perhaps be Mordecai himself (9:20, 32). Much of the material was written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia (10:2, 6:1). This would explain the omission of the name of God and prayer, although God's influence is alluded to.

Date of writing

The book must have been written sometime shortly after the end of the reign of Ahasuerus, after 465 BC, as his reign is referred to in the past tense (1:1).

Theology of the book of Esther

Although God’s name is never mentioned, there is a veiled reference to God (4:14), and others places. Although fasting is mentioned, there is no mention of prayer, worship or praise. The Greek translators added passages to make God's work more explicit: guidance by dreams, prayers and prayers answered, giving it an increased religious content. Other people excluded it from the canon, even though it was (always accepted in Hebrew canon and by Josephus. Luther rejected it as being too Jewish. Others ignored it. No Christian commentary was written on it until the seventh century.

This book has great significance to Jews, as it describes the origin and reason for the Feast of Purim, but what significance does it have to us today? It gives assurance of God's protection over his people, however severe the threat to their existence, as well as demonstrating that God directs events even when unseen and unmentioned.

Esther shows us two conflicting world views: Haman represents the atheist, believing in fate and chance, someone who uses power to his own ends, being petty minded and self-important. Mordecai represents someone who takes initiative, but is involved in the pattern of history that God is directing. Esther becoming queen was not a random chance event, but this was through the work of God, the unseen ruler of world affairs (4:14)

Structure

Esther has a chiastic structure set around the turning point of the king's sleepless night (6:1)

A. Power of Ahasuerus (1:1-3)
    B. Ahasuerus's feast (1:4-6)

        C. Ring given to Haman (3:10)
        C. First decree of king - to destroy Jews (3:14)

            D. Esther's 1st banquet, Haman builds gallows (ch 5)

               E. King's sleepless night (6:1) TURNING POINT

            D. Esther's 2nd banquet, Haman swings from gallows (ch 7)

        C. Ring given to Mordecai (8:2)
        C. Second decree of king - Jews to defend themselves (8:13)

    B. Jews' feast of Purim (ch 9)
A. Power of Mordecai (ch 10)

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