ESTHER, BOOK OF
1. Place in the Canon . The Book of Esther belongs to the second group of the third division of the Hebrew Canon the Kethubim , or ‘Writings’ a group which comprises the Megilloth , or ‘Rolls,’ of which there are five, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lam., Eccles., Esther. It was not without much discussion that Esther was admitted into the Canon, for its right to be there was disputed both by the Jewish authorities and by the early Christian Church. As late as the 2nd cent. a.d. the greatest Jewish teacher of his day, Rabbi Jehudah, said, ‘The Book of Esther defileth not the hands’
. In some of the earlier lists of the Biblical books in the Christian Church that of Esther is omitted; Athanasius (d. 373) regarded it as uncanonical, so too Gregory Nazianzen (d. 391); Jacob of Edessa ( c
. 700) reckons it among the apocryphal books. It is clear that Esther was not universally accepted as a book of the Bible until a late date.
2. Date and authorship . The language of Esther points unmistakably to a late date; it shows signs, among other things, of an attempt to assimilate itself to classical Hebrew; the artificiality herein betrayed stamps the writer as one who was more familiar with Aramaic than with Hebrew. Further, the Persian empire is spoken of as belonging to a period of history long since past (cf. ‘in those days,’ Esther 1:2
); the words, ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom’ ( Esther 3:8
), show that the ‘Dispersion’ had already for long been an accomplished fact. Moreover, the spirit of the book points to the time when great bitterness and hatred had been engendered between Jew and Gentile. The probability, therefore, is that Esther belongs to the earlier half of the 2nd cent. b.c. Of its authorship we know nothing further than that the writer was a Jew who must have been in some way connected with Persia; the book shows him to have been one whose racial prejudice was much stronger than his religious fervour; it is extraordinary that a book of the Bible should never once mention the sacred name of God; the secular spirit which is so characteristic of the book must have been the main reason of the disinclination to incorporate it into the Scriptures, which has been already referred to.
3. Contents . The book purports to give the history of how the Jewish feast of Purim (‘Lots’) first originated. Xerxes, king of the Medes and Persians, gives a great feast to the nobles and princes of the 127 provinces over which he rules; the description of the decorations in the palace garden on this occasion recalls the language of the Arabian Nights . Vashti , the queen, also gives a feast to her women. On the seventh day of the feast the king commands Vashti to appear before the princes in order that they may see her beauty. Upon her refusing to obey, the king is advised to divorce her. In her place, Esther, one of Vashti’s maidens, becomes queen. Esther is the adopted daughter of a Jew named Mordecai , who had been the means of saving the king from the hands of assassins. But Mordecai falls out with the court favourite, Haman , on account of his refusing to bow down and do reverence to the latter. Haman resolves to avenge himself for this insult; he has lots cast in order to find out which is the most suitable day for presenting a petition to the king; the day being appointed, the petition is presented and granted, the promised payment of ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury ( Esther 3:9
) no doubt contributing towards this. The petition was that a royal decree should be put forth to the effect that all Jews were to be killed, and their belongings treated as spoil. On this becoming known, there is great grief among the Jews. Esther, instructed by Mordecai, undertakes to interpose for her people before the king. She invites both the king and Haman to a banquet, and repeats the invitation for the next day. Haman, believing himself to be in favour with the royal couple, determines to gratify his hatred for Mordecai in a special way, and prepares a gallows on which to hang him ( Esther 5:14
). In the night after the first banquet, Ahasuerus, being unable to sleep, commands that the book of records of the chronicles be brought; in these he finds the account of Mordecai’s former service, which has never been rewarded. Haman is sent for, and the king asks him what should be done to the man whom the king delights to honour; Haman thinking that it is he himself who is uppermost in the king’s mind, describes how such a man should be honoured. The king thereupon directs that all that Haman has said is to be done to Mordecai. Haman returns in grief to his house. While taking counsel there with his friends, the king’s chamberlains come to escort him to the queen’s second banquet ( Esther 6:1
ff.). During this Esther makes her petition to the king on behalf of her people, as well as for her own life, which is threatened, for the royal decree is directed against all Jews and Jewesses within his domains; she also discloses Haman’s plot against Mordecai. The king, as the result of this, orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai, the latter receiving the honours which had before belonged to Haman (ch. 7). Esther then has letters sent in all directions in order to avert the threatened destruction of her people; but the attempt is yet made by the enemies of the Jews to carry out Haman’s intentions. The Jews defend themselves with success, and a great feast is held on the 14th of Adar, on which the Jews ‘rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.’ Moreover, two days of feasting are appointed to be observed for all time; they are called Purim , because of the lot ( pûr ) which Haman cast for the destruction of the Jews (chs. 8, 9). The book concludes with a further reference to the power of Ahasuerus and the greatness of his favourite, Mordecai (ch. 10).
4. Historicity of the book . There are very few modern scholars who are able to regard this book as containing history; at the most it may be said that it is a historical romance, i.e . that a few historical data have been utilized for constructing the tale. The main reasons for this conclusion are, that the book is full of improbabilities; that it is so transparently written for specific purposes, namely, the glorification of the Jewish nation, and as a means of expressing Jewish hatred of and contempt for Gentiles (see also § 5 ); that a ‘strictly historical interpretation of the narrative is beset with difficulties’; that the facts it purports to record receive no substantiation from such books as Chron., Ezr., Neh., Dan., Sirach, or Philo (cf. Hastings’ DB
s.v .). Besides this, there is the artificial way in which the book is put together: the method of presenting the various scenes in the drama is in the style of the writer of fiction, not in that of the historian.
5. Purim . The main purpose for which the book was written was ostensibly to explain the origin of, as well as to give the authority for, the continued observance of the Feast of Purim; though it must be confessed that the book does not really throw any light on the origin of this feast. Some scholars are in favour of a Persian origin, others, with perhaps greater justification, a Babylonian. The names of the chief characters in the book seem certainly to be corrupted forms of Babylonian and Elamite deities, namely, Haman = Hamman, Mordecai = Marduk, Esther = Ishtar; while Vashti is the name of an Elamite god or goddess (so Jensen). Thus we should have the Babylonian Marduk and Ishtar on the one hand, the Elamite Haman and Vashti, on the other. Purim may, in this case, have been, as Jensen suggests, a feast commemorating the victory of Babylonian over Elamite gods which was taken over and adapted by the Jews. In this case the origin of the name Purim would be sought in the Babylonian word puru , which means a ‘small round stone,’ i.e . a lot. But the connexion between the feast and its name is not clear; indeed, it must be confessed that the mystery attaching to the name Purim has not yet been unravelled.
W. O. E. Oesterley.