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Old Testament: Esther

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Esther, Millais (1865)Ahasuerus, all powerful king of Persia, banishes his queen Vashti for failing to appear before him when bidden. The new chosen queen is Esther, cousin and adopted daughter of Mordecai, the Jew. Mordecai's bitter enemy at court is the wicked Haman, the king's right-hand man. Because Mordecai fails to bow before him, Haman plots not only Mordecai's death but also the extermination of all the Jews. Mordecai calls on Queen Esther to save her people. Esther heroically risks the king's wrath by appearing unbidden before him. She invites King Ahasuerus and Haman to two banquets where she persuades the king both to save her people and also to hang Haman on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. The king's edict to kill the Jews is reversed, and the Jews instead get revenge on their would-be persecutors and celebrate, initiating the festival of Purim.

So What?

The book of Esther teaches indirectly rather than directly four lessons: (1) Maintaining community and religious identity in foreign territory is a tricky but terribly important task. (2) Through wisdom, wit, and courage, people can live productively in a foreign land, even when subject to the whims of a foreign power. (3) Even when God remains hidden, unnamed, and seemingly absent, as in the book of Esther, one can detect the presence of the divine in favorable coincidences and in the bravery of leaders who step up when needed. (4) All of this is taught through irony and humor, which provides the book's final lesson: laughter gives life.

Where Do I Find It?

Esther is the seventeenth book of the Bible. It follows Nehemiah and precedes Job.

Who Wrote It?

The book of Esther gives no real hint as to who wrote the book. It was possibly written by a Jew living in the Diaspora, perhaps in a foreign court, as a way of entertaining and inspiring his or her Jewish community and establishing the festival of Purim.

When Was It Written?

The book of Esther describes events that purportedly took place during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus, probably a reference to Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.E) or possibly Artaxerxes I or II (465-358 B.C.E.). Given the language used, certain factual discrepancies, and the opening verse of the book that looks back in time, the book was probably written sometime between 400 and 150 B.C.E. This makes the book of Esther one of the latest writings of the Old Testament, close in time to two intertestamental books about women: Judith and Suzanna.

What's It About?

The book of Esther tells the story celebrated at Purim of how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai saved the Jewish people from the plot of the wicked Haman, who was advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus and who tried to have the Jews destroyed.

How Do I Read It?

The book of Esther is best read as a satiric melodrama to be recited or dramatized each year during the Jewish festival of Purim, which this book both establishes and celebrates. The story is filled with entertaining reversals, ironies, parodies of the great Persian court, and exaggerations that invite the reader to cheer on the heroes Esther and Mordecai, to laugh at the foolish king Ahasuerus, and to boo the wicked villain Haman. Esther can also be read as a wisdom tale that teaches people how they might live in a foreign land, subject to the whims of a foreign power, and how to discover the presence of God when God appears to be absent.

AUTHOR: Diane Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament

1. King Ahasuerus Banishes Queen Vashti (Esther 1:1-22)
Ahasuerus, king of all Persia and Media, orders Queen Vashti to appear at his lavish banquet to be admired for her beauty, but she refuses. King Ahasuerus, guided by his officials, worried lest all women follow Vashti's example, banishes Vashti and commands all the women in the kingdom to honor their husbands.

2. Esther Becomes Queen (Esther 2:1-18)
King Ahasuerus has all the beautiful young virgins in his kingdom gathered into his harem so that he might choose a queen. Ultimately he chooses Esther, adopted daughter of a Jewish exile named Mordecai.

3. Mordecai Saves King Ahasuerus (Esther 2:19-23)
Meanwhile Mordecai, while sitting at the gate, overhears two of the king's eunuchs hatching a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther, who tells the king, and the two men are hanged.

4. Haman Plots to Destroy All the Jews (Esther 3:1-15)
Haman, the king's chief official, is angered by Mordecai's refusal to bow down before him and convinces the king to issue a proclamation that on the thirteenth day of Adar, the day chosen by lots called purim, the Jews would be destroyed and their goods plundered. While the city of Susa was thrown into confusion by the decree, the king and Haman sat down to drink.

5. Esther Agrees to Speak for Her People (Esther 4:1-17)
After Mordecai sends word to Esther that she should appeal to the king to spare her people, Esther sends word back that she has not been summoned into the king's presence for thirty days, and the punishment for appearing without being summoned is death. Mordecai responds that if she does not do this, deliverance will come from somewhere else, whereupon Esther asks that all the Jews fast and pray on her behalf for three days, and then she will go unbidden before the king.

6. Esther Invites the King and Haman to Two Banquets (Esther 5:1-8)
Esther goes before King Ahasuerus who welcomes her, inquires as to her request, and offers her half of his kingdom. She issues an invitation to the king and to Haman for two banquets on two successive nights.

7. Haman Builds a Gallows for Mordecai (Esther 5:9-14)
Haman, puffed up by his exalted position and the queen's attention, as well as continually angered by Mordecai's lack of respect, follows the advice of his wife Zeresh and his friends to have a huge gallows built for the purpose of hanging Mordecai.

8. Mordecai Is Honored (Esther 6:1-13)
Meanwhile the sleepless king is reminded that Mordecai once saved him from an assassination attempt and asks Haman how he might honor one deserving of recognition. Haman, assuming he is the deserving one, advises parading the honoree through the city clothed in the trappings of the king. Thus, Haman is forced to lead his enemy with honor through the streets rather than seeing him hung on the gallows.

9. Queen Esther Appeals to the King and Haman Is Hanged (Esther 6:14-7:10)
At the second banquet, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, pleads for her people, and names Haman as the villain. The king, mistaking Haman's appeal for mercy at Esther's feet for an attempted seduction of the queen, orders Haman hung on the very gallows he has had built for Mordecai.

10. The Edict against the Jews Is Reversed (Esther 8:1-17)
Esther persuades the king to issue a new decree reversing the king's earlier unalterable decree to annihilate the Jews. Now the enemies of the Jews are to be annihilated instead, and there is much rejoicing.

11. The Edict Is Carried Out and Purim Is Established (Esther 9:1-10:3)
On the very day when the initial slaughter of the Jews was to be carried out, the Jews instead take vengeance on their enemies. The Jewish festival of Purim is established in memory of these events, and King Ahasuerus elevates Mordecai to the position previously held by Haman.

AUTHOR: Diane Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament

The book of Esther invites the reader into the world of the powerful and wealthy Persian royal court. The Persians came into power throughout the ancient world under Cyrus the Great (560-530 B.C.E.) and continued their dominance until the conquest of the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.E. Under Persia, the Jews were subject to yet another powerful empire, as they had been subject to the earlier empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon prior to the Persians, and as they will soon be subject to the later empires of Greece and then Rome. The Persian court as described in Esther is rich and powerful beyond imagining, and, as with all empires, the people must deal with palace intrigues, with the whims of power and foreign law, and with the inevitable scapegoating of foreign peoples. The book is written with irony and humor for the purpose of encouraging the Jewish people in such a situation. The Jews are now a people in Diaspora--that is, scattered throughout the ancient world--and Esther provides inspiration (and a bit of fun) as they try to discern how to live in a foreign land. They must balance the call to assimilate and to serve the capital city of Susa, where they now live, with the continued need to maintain their own separate identity as a people. And in all of this, the book of Esther helps them to discern the presence of God in a time and place where God seems quite absent.

AUTHOR: Diane Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament

The canonical status of the book of Esther. The book of Esther never mentions God, ends with excessive retributive violence, and has a very secular feel (see Theological Themes). For these reasons, the book has been, from antiquity, among the most disputed books for both Jews and Christians. No part of Esther was found among the writings at Qumran. Some parts of the early Eastern Church did not include Esther in the canon. The Roman Catholic Church includes the Greek "Additions to Esther" as part of the book, insuring that God is mentioned and that prayer is more directly included. These same issues continue to make meaningful interpretation of the book of Esther difficult.

Literary importance of feasting and fasting. Drinking and eating is a frequent motif in biblical narration, from the narratives and laws of the Pentateuch to the meals in the Gospels, and finally to themes of communion. At issue is often who is host and who are guests, what and how much is eaten, abundance or scarcity, and who rises or falls on the occasion of the meal. Throughout the book of Esther the various groups and leaders feast (1:3-4, 5, 9; 2:18; 3:15; 5:4-6; 6:14-7:2; 9:22) or, in symbolic opposition, fast (4:3, 16; 9:31). King Ahasuerus entertains his courtiers with two lavish banquets matched both by Vashti's own banquet and Esther's double banquets used to win the king's assent. After the issuing of Haman's wicked decree, the city of Susa is thrown into confusion as the king and Haman sit down to eat and drink. This feasting is matched by Mordecai's lamentation upon learning of Haman's decree, as he sits in sackcloth and ashes, and Esther's call for a fast, as she prepares to go unbidden to the king in hopes of saving her people. The book ends with Jewish feasting (9:17-22), thus signaling through this important theme the hope and joy of celebration.

Poetic justice and the theme of reversal. Part of the humor of the book of Esther is bound up in the precise reversals and the numerous doublets found throughout the book. Among the examples are these: Vashti is matched by Esther, who moves from orphan to queen. Esther obeys Mordecai (2:20), who then obeys Esther (4:17). Feasts occur in pairs and are matched by fasts, and then reversed. Those who rise then fall, and those who fall then rise. Letters sent are then rescinded, and their opposites are posted. The gallows intended for Mordecai are used to hang Haman (5:14; 7:9-10), and Haman's ten sons are actually killed twice (9:7-14). The final grand reversal is the intended slaughter of the Jews that becomes the slaughter of their enemies, bringing the theme of reversal in line with an exaggerated theme of poetic justice and the workings of a hidden God.

Quotation of tradition. One indication of the late date of the book of Esther is the clear reference to other biblical stories. Principle among these are the stories of Joseph and of Saul and the Ammonites. Joseph's story also takes place in a foreign royal court in which the ingenuity of the Jewish advisor is at issue. The portrait of Ahasuerus recalls Pharaoh who gives feasts (Genesis 40:20) and likes advice (Genesis 41:37). The signet ring, which King Ahasuarus first gives to Haman (Esther 3:10, 12) and ends by giving to Mordecai (Esther 8:2, 8, 10), recalls the signet ring that Pharaoh gives to Joseph (Genesis 41:42). The relationship between Haman, the Agagite (Esther 3:1), and Mordecai, the Benjaminite (Esther 2:5), recalls the relationship between Saul, the Benjaminite, and his enemy Agag (1 Samuel 15). Significantly, Saul's fatal error of taking plunder from Agag is pointedly avoided by the Jews in Esther (compare Esther 3:15 and 8:11 with 9:10, 15-16). These quotations are part of the clever and humorous way in which Esther is written and indicate as well a piety whereby the inherited written tradition is held in high regard.

The rule of law. How law functions is of particular importance within the book of Esther. Law is an important category for the Jewish people in the late postexilic period, with a variety of interpretations and uses under discussion and practice. Notably, neither Esther nor Mordecai is concerned with keeping the dietary or cultic aspects of Jewish law; for example, Esther doesn't reveal her Jewish identity, breaks dietary laws, and marries a Gentile. The book of Esther regularly spoofs the way law functions in the Persian empire with numerous references to law, commands, decrees, edicts, and authoritative writing (see particularly chapters 1, 3, 8, and 9). The king comically reacts to Vashti's disobedience of his command by sending letters throughout the kingdom "declaring that every man should be master in his own house" (1:22). The advisors "who knew the laws" (1:13) speak of the unalterable law of the Medes and the Persians (1:19), and under such an understanding, Haman sends out royally binding letters that all of the Jews are to be destroyed (3:12-14). Yet, when Haman is brought into disfavor, Esther and Mordecai are told they may then write similarly irrevocable letters that say precisely the opposite of the letters sent out under Haman's direction (8:8-14).

Women as heroines. Throughout the Old Testament and notably in the intertestamental period, named women emerge as heroines who save their families and/or the Jewish people. Among these women are Tamar, Deborah and Jael, Ruth and Naomi, Susanna, Judith, and here Esther. Often these stories both make reference to previous stories of women and mark their own telling with qualities uniquely needed for the time in which the story takes place. Esther is like Deborah and Judith, who both take on a leadership role when needed by their people. Esther, frequently referred to in the book as queen, takes on the mantle of leadership at the turning point in the book in 4:12-16. Through her courage and willingness to risk, her adaptation to her circumstances, her single-mindedness, and her grasp of leadership once given to her, Esther saves both her family and her people.

AUTHOR: Diane Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament

Ambiguity of violence. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the book of Esther is the excessive retributive violence apparent in the end when the Jewish people destroy all of the enemies who intended to destroy them, and then they rejoice. One can read this theme as part of the exaggeration of the book, never intended to be taken literally, and providing the hope of satire and fantasy. Or one can note that when the reader comes to celebrate the very violence feared from the enemy, then the finger is ironically pointed back at the reader.

Community and accommodation. The book of Esther subtly shows how one might live and form community when living under a foreign power. Esther and Mordecai work for the best interests of the foreign king until such interests come into conflict with the needs and concerns of their community. They then risk everything for the good of the community.

The cost of discipleship. Discipleship always carries with it a degree of risk. This reality is highlighted by Esther's act of bravery in standing in defense of her people and risking the consequences of the king's displeasure.

God as both absent and present. For many, the most notable issue for the book of Esther is that God is never mentioned (except in the Greek additions to Esther found in the Apocrypha). But the hidden God can be intuited as present and active in various details of the book: in the coincidences, as highlighted in the name of the Purim ("lots") holiday; in the lamenting and fasting; in the reversals; in the presence and leadership of Mordecai and Esther; and even in the misconception of Haman's plea (Esther 7:7-8). Detecting God when seemingly absent is one way for a people without power to live faithfully in the midst of a foreign culture.

Humor in the face of fear. One of the complex challenges of reading the book of Esther is how to find meaning in, with, and under the humor and exaggeration found throughout the book. Everything in the book is writ large: the palace trappings are overly pompous; the feasting takes place over exaggerated spans of times; the king's law is both unassailable and changeable; the good folks are very good and the bad are very bad; and even the violence is over the top. Such satire can be uplifting to folks who live in fear that those in power might turn against them, showing that laughter in the face of fear offers subtle encouragement, helps to form community, and gives courage where needed to face an unknown future.

Unrestrained use and abuse of power. Unrestrained power can be dangerous, particularly when combined with ignorance and discrimination. The book of Esther unmasks this reality and describes in exaggerated detail the dangers of such power.

AUTHOR: Diane Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament