Queen Esther, Esther Commentary

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. In January, 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 that most 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 also some small differences in the Greek version that may be of interest. Plus, I’ll 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.)

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 but, in the Hebrew Bible, Esther is included in the Ketuvim, the “Writings,” which include poetic and wisdom literature.[1]

Esther 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.[2]

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. The author wrote about a world he knew and was part of. The book was probably written sometime in the 300s BC, before Persia fell to the Greeks; 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.[3] (In the Septuagint and in Josephus’s account, however, the king is identified as Artaxerxes.)

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 Persian king had a cruel wife named Amestris.[4] There are also other elements in Esther that don’t match with what is known from historical records including what is known from Persian records.

For several reasons—the story’s structure with its focus on banquets,[5] the humour and caricatures of supposedly powerful Persian characters, certain elements that do not match historical records, and the clever and suspenseful story-telling—it seems Esther is a novel, a work of historical fiction, rather than a historical account of actual events. Perhaps because it is fiction, the author has been reluctant to mention God.

It is often noted that the author does not refer to God or to any Jewish religious practices.[6] “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.”[7] 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, is a principal person among the Jews.[8] Much of the book of Esther revolves around these two characters who are Jewish exiles[9] with Persian names[10] 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.[11] 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 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.”[12]

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.[13]

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.


Footnotes

[1] The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is divided into three sections: Torah, the “Law” (the first five books of the Bible); Neviʾim, the “Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and the major and minor prophets except for the book of Daniel); 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Xerxes 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).

[4] Herodotus may have mentioned Amestris (and no other wives) because she was the queen mother of Xerxes’ successor Artaxerxes I.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Karen H. Jobes, Esther (The NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan Academic) Kindle Edition, location 297.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] It seems that Mordecai has the name of Marduk the god of Babylon, and Esther has the name of the goddess Ishtar.

[11] 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 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.

[12] Michael V. Fox, “The Women in Esther,” TheTorah.com

[13] 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.

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Further Reading

Adele Berlin, “Esther as Comedy,” MyJewishLearning.com
Michael V. Fox, “The Women in Esther,” TheTorah.com

Queen Esther’s Story

(1) Setting the Scene (Introduction and Esther chapter 1)
(2) For such a time as this (Esther chapters 2-4)
(3) Esther in Action (Esther chapters 5-10)

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