One of my writing goals is to investigate and write something about every major female character in the Bible, as well as some of the minor ones. Last month, I read the book of Esther in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament. So now seems like a good time to write about the woman who is at the centre of this book.
For this article, I primarily rely on the story based on the Hebrew text. This is the version many Christians regard as inspired and as canonical. But I will also refer to the Greek version occasionally. (An English translation of Greek Esther is here.) As well as several substantial additions to the Hebrew story of Esther, there are some small differences between the Hebrew and Greek versions that may be of interest. I’ll also refer to Josephus’s account of Esther’s story which is recorded in book 11, chapter 6 in his Antiquities of the Jews. (This can be read here.) Note that there is no mention of Esther, her story, or the festival of Purim elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, or in the New Testament.
What kind of story is Esther’s story?
The book of Esther is a well-written, cleverly constructed piece of literature. It is included among the historical books in Protestant Bibles and in the Ketuvim, the “Writings,” in the Hebrew Bible which include poetic and wisdom literature.
“The book of Esther tells one story with a single plotline and a short time frame.” And it is an entertaining read. The narrative covers the serious threat of Jewish annihilation but there are elements of comedy in the book, especially farce. For example, even though Haman is a villain, his circumstances become increasingly comical.
The book was written by an anonymous author, but it is evident he was an educated Jew, well acquainted with the geography of Persia and with the customs of the Persian court. He wrote about a world he knew and was possibly a part of. Esther was probably written sometime in the 300s BC, before Persia fell to the Greeks, as the author, writing in Hebrew, borrows words from the Persian language but not from Greek which became the lingua franca after 300 BC.
The story is set in the Persian metropolis of Susa (in modern-day Iran) during the reign of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is the name in the Hebrew Bible, but this king is typically identified as the famous and ruthless Xerxes I who ruled over the vast Persian Empire during the years 486 to 465 BC. In the Septuagint and in Josephus’s account, the king is identified as Artaxerxes, a son of Xerxes.
The author incorporates historical elements in the story, but there is no record of Xerxes having a wife called either Vashti or Esther. Rather, Herodotus, who wrote his history only 25 years after the death of Xerxes, relates that the king had a cruel wife named Amestris (Histories 7.114.2). There are also other elements in Esther that don’t match with what is known from historical records. (Karen Jobes briefly mentions these in a section entitled, “Historicity of Esther,” in her commentary on Esther. See postscript below.)
It seems Esther is a novel, a work of historical fiction rather than a historical account of actual events. The story’s structure with its focus on banquets, its humour (including lampooning the powerful Persian characters), the clever and suspenseful story-telling, as well the elements that do not match historical records, indicate Esther is fiction. Perhaps because it is a story and not history, the author has been reluctant to mention God.
It is often noted that God and Jewish religious practices are not mentioned in Esther. Furthermore, the book “has a total lack of interest in Judah and in particular its cultic institutions.” “Because of the absence of religious values and the presence of sensuality and brutality, the book of Esther has posed a problem for interpreters throughout its history.” The six additions in the Septuagint, written at a later time, make up for the lack of references to God; God is referred to numerous times and prayers are recorded. Josephus also mentions God in his rendering of Esther’s story. Nevertheless, divine providence is implicit in the Hebrew version. The Jews living in Babylon may have thought that God was distant, but he is still helping them.
Introducing Esther and Mordecai
We first meet the heroine Esther in chapter 2. She is a young teenager, an orphan, being brought up by her uncle Mordecai. Mordecai is from the tribe of Benjamin and, according to Josephus, was a principal person among the Jews. Much of the book of Esther revolves around uncle and niece who are Jewish exiles with Persian names living in the Persian capital far from Jerusalem.
Esther’s Hebrew name is Hadassah which means “myrtle,” a flowering plant known for its sweet scent. And in the early chapters of the book she is portrayed as sweet, young, compliant, and very beautiful. Mordecai, on the other hand, is an experienced and educated man; he can read and write. He has a strong personality and is employed in the king’s court. But before Esther and Mordecai appear in the story, we are told about Xerxes and his first wife Vashti.
First there was Vashti (Esther 1)
The catalyst for Esther’s story is Queen Vashti’s knockback of a summons from her husband. King Xerxes had been hosting an extravagant banquet for male dignitaries that lasted for 180 days. (In the Septuagint, this banquet is a wedding reception for the king and queen.) After months of feasting, Xerxes sends his eunuchs “to bring Queen Vashti before him with her royal crown. He wanted to show off her beauty to the people and the officials, because she was very beautiful” (Esther 1:11 CSB) (In the Septuagint, Vashti is summoned for her coronation.) But she refuses to come.
We are not told why Vashti refused the king’s summons to parade her beauty before his drunken male guests. Was she frightened? Was she insulted and wanted to preserve her dignity? Was she simply being obstinate? The biblical texts do not comment on her motivation and do not judge her. Josephus, however, writes that she declined to appear before the king’s guests because of a Persian law that forbids wives from being seen by strangers.
Michael V. Fox has a plausible explanation. He writes, “If Vashti had appeared before the males, including commoners—especially when the king himself ‘was lightheaded with wine’—she would be behaving like a mere concubine. Therefore, she stands on her dignity and refuses to come.”
Xerxes is furious at his wife’s behaviour. He consults with his wise men who are in a dither and are worried that when Vashti’s rebuff becomes public knowledge other wives will treat their husbands with contempt and refuse their wishes. So Vashti is removed as queen, banished from the court, and a decree is sent throughout the Persian empire which states, “Every man should be master of his own house” (Esther 1:22). Interestingly, this edict of pagan King Xerxes is the only time it says anywhere in the Protestant Bible that the man is, or should be, the master or ruler of his home.
The stage is set for Esther. In part 2 we look at her entrance into palace life and at the animosity between Mordecai and Haman.
 The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is divided into three sections: 1. Torah, the “Law” (the first five books of the Bible); 2. Neviʾim, the “Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and the major and minor prophets except for the book of Daniel); 3. the Ketuvim, the “Writings” (poetic and wisdom literature, as well as Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah and Chronicles). Within the Ketuvim, the book of Esther is one of the five Megillot (the Five Scrolls). The five books included in the Megillot are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.
 Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 201-207, 201.
 Adele Berlin discusses Esther as comedy here. Esther is read aloud during the Jewish festival of Purim, and the audience responds with rowdy booing and cheering. Purim is a fun festival, not a sombre occasion.
 Xerxes I succeeded his father Darius I Hystaspes who had provided finances for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem (Hag. 2:1–9; Zech. 7:1; 8:9).
 Sidnie White Crawford explains, “The genre of the book of Esther is most easily described as an early Jewish novella. A novella is a fictional piece of writing in prose that is not designed to meet any tests of historical accuracy. It is written by a single author and meant to be read, not recited.” Crawford, “Esther,” 202.
 There are ten banquets in the book of Esther, and they are the settings for significant plot developments in the story: Esther 1:3-4, 1:5-8, 1:9; 2:18; 3:15, 5:5-6; 7:1-10; 8:17; 9:17, 9:18.
 Ronald W. Pierce suggests that God is not mentioned “to highlight the secular nature of the people of God in the ancient diaspora,” distanced from the Holy Land. Pierce, “The Politics of Esther and Mordecai: Courage or Compromise?” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2 (1992): 77.
 Crawford, “Esther,” 201.
 Karen H. Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan Academic) Kindle Edition, location 297. Furthermore, Sidnie White Crawford notes that “Esther did not achieve undisputed canonical status in Judaism until after the third century CE. The Western church accepted the book as canonical in the fourth century CE, while the Eastern church did not accept it until the eighth century. The reason for the difficulty in achieving canonical status is the book’s perceived lack of religiosity.” Crawford, “Esther,” 203.
 The Hebrew text says that Mordecai brought up Esther as his daughter. The Greek text says that he brought her up so that she could become his wife. Endogamous marriages were common among the ancient Jews and it wasn’t unusual for a Jewish bride to marry an uncle.
 The Babylonian exile was officially over, and Jews were permitted to return home to Jerusalem, but many stayed in foreign places scattered throughout the Persian Empire.
 It seems that Mordecai has the name of Marduk the god of Babylon, and Esther has the name of the goddess Ishtar.
 The ancient rabbis constructed a backstory to Vashti and Xerxes’ relationship. They believed it to have been a contentious one. Furthermore, one rabbi has suggested that Vashti refused Xerxes’ summons because the king wanted her to appear naked wearing only her crown: “Rabbi Abba said, ‘That she should appear with nothing on her but the crown, that is, naked.’” (Midrash Abba Gorion 1) But neither the Hebrew or Greek biblical texts, or Josephus, plainly presents this scenario. Rather, the biblical story indicates that Xerxes wanted Vashti to appear in full royal regalia, complete with her crown.
 Many people understand Paul’s statement “the husband is the head of the wife” in Ephesians 5:24 to mean “the husband is the authority in the home.” But this is a misunderstanding of the text. More on this here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2020
All Rights Reserved
You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!
Postscript: March 16 2022
Someone asked what the historical issues are in the book of Esther. Here’s what Karen Jobes has written.
Several problems usually raised against the book are the following:
(1) The names of Vashti and Esther do not agree with Herodotus, who refers to Xerxes’ wife by the name Amestris.
(2) If Mordecai was really taken into captivity with Jehoiachin as Esther 2:6 suggests, he would be over one hundred years old at the time of Xerxes.
(3) The number of satrapies (i.e., administrative regions) specified in Esther is inconsistent with the number found in other sources. The number given in 1:1 is 127, but Herodotus and inscriptions from the reign of Darius, Xerxes’ father, give the number as 20 and 23–30 respectively. The inscriptions from Darius’s reign do not agree on the number, but it is never close to 127. Daniel gives the number as 120 (Dan. 6:1).
(4) Persian kings collected their harem indiscriminately, but they usually took wives only from one of seven noble families; therefore, Esther’s marriage to Xerxes’ is believed to be unlikely.
(5) The practice of making the decrees of the king irrevocable is unknown in any of the extrabiblical texts from the period.
Karen H. Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary)
Photo by Unviajesinmaleta via Pexels
Adele Berlin, “Esther as Comedy,” MyJewishLearning.com
Michael V. Fox, “The Women in Esther,” TheTorah.com
Frederic W. Bush, “The Book of Esther: Opus non gratum in the Christian Canon,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998): 39-54. ( pdf)