Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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. 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 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. He wrote about a world he knew and was 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.[3] In the Septuagint and in Josephus’s account, however, 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 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.

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,[5] 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.[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, was a principal person among the Jews.[8] Much of the book of Esther revolves around uncle and niece 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 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.”[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: 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.

[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 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).

[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 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.

[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)

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

13 thoughts on “Esther’s Story (1): Setting the Scene

  1. The lack of mention of God is a puzzling feature of Esther. I have a short file I can send you on some creative ways some have tried to address this by finding hidden mentions. Esther means secret or hidden and so the title of the book suggests that some details might be hidden.

    I think Esther having no explicit mention of God is a hint that we are supposed to read it in 2 distinct ways: 1) As if God does not exist and some things happen just by coincidence and 2) As if God exists and God plans the ways of his people. I think both readings are valid and intended, that is, the author intends the reader to be able to choose how to read it.

    I have more but will leave those comments to a more appropriate later post.

    1. Thanks, Don.

      I’ve seen different sources that say Esther means “star” or “secret” or is the name of the goddess Ishtar. I’d like to read your file.

      I’m definitely going with the 2. Edwin Yaumachi may be correct when he said, “The fast moving events that seem to be under the control of Xerxes and Haman prove in the end to have been directed by God for the benefit of his people.” The Expositers Bible Commentary, vol. 4, (1988), 794.

  2. I have to admit that I am surprised to hear that the story of Esther might be fiction. Isn’t there a Jewish holiday that celebrates what she did? Do they celebrate something fictitious?

    On the other hand, there certainly is something fairy-tale like to the story.

    I don’t know what you are planning in the next posts; but for me, Esther is a type of Christ. Indeed, she is the clearest type of Christ in the OT. She willingly puts her life on the line in order to save her people, although, in the end, she doesn’t actually have to give it. Her fasting and praying can be likened to Jesus’ praying in Getsemane.

    And although not explicitly mentioned, God is implicitly present through it all.

    1. Hi Knut,

      I was surprised too, but it seems to be a widely accepted idea among scholars. Some scholars broach the idea circumspectly, so as not to upset people who believe the book of Esther is a historical record, but the story certainly reads like fiction. I was also surprised to learn the book of Judith was also fiction. But in Judith there are lots of historical and geographical inaccuracies.

      I mention the festival of Purim briefly in footnote 2. I will mention it a bit more in part 3.

      There is still a lot of theology in Esther even though God is not mentioned. 🙂

  3. Hi Marg, thankyou again for great teaching. I have not had time to read it yet. But of course I know the story and read the book more than once. Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know it was the only manuscript not to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Do you think there is a reason for this? Or am I looking too deeply into it?

    1. Hi Leslie,

      To date, there is no mention of Esther among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here is a satirical article about a piece of parchment found in Qumran that is all about the story of Esther. It’s an indication of the merry-making that is typical of the festival of Purim.

      1. Umm…this “discovery” seems to be satirical? I am highly entertained by the thought of Jews eating laffy taffy and found out millennia later by magic mushroom eating scholars. Or am I mistaken?

        1. I’m sorry, I meant “…ancient Jews eating Laffy Taffy…” It was a fun read, still.

          1. I love this line near the end of the article:
            “As scholarship continues to unravel the mysteries of the ancient Qumran community, we can expect additional discoveries at the nexus of the fields of biblical archaeology and applied psychedelics.”

  4. Oh wow, you nearly had me there in that article about finding a manuscript in Qumran!

    I cannot recommend enough “Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought” by Aaron Koller. (I reviewed it here: https://www.workthegreymatter.com/esther-in-the-bible-surprisingly-political/)

    Koller not only posits why the manuscript wasn’t at Qumran (because, amongst other things, the story has intermarriage) but also frames the whole book as a political work written in protest and/or contrast to the movement of Ezra and Nehemiah. The very fact that Mordecai is introduced as a “Yehudi” is telling, because he doesn’t live in Judah. Meanwhile, Esther’s introduction structurally mirrors that of Saul in 1 Samuel 9. Esther is the new Saul and her story needs to be read as a redemption of the house of Saul (to contrast against the pro-Davidic narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah).

    Koller also pretty much assumes that Esther is historical fiction, given that it was likely written over a hundred years after the events it describes, its tight structure, and its very deliberate literary choices (such as words and omission of words). Esther is a book that challenges the previously accepted wisdom that all bad things happen as God’s righteous punishment for sin. Hence Xerxes is repeatedly presented as an incompetent a buffoon, albeit a deadly one.

    One thing that I didn’t appreciate until I read Koller was that the book doesn’t just not mention God, it doesn’t mention Torah, temple, judgement, sin, prayer (at least, not in the Masoretic Text). It doesn’t even mention Passover, despite the fact that Esther and her people fasted on Passover! This is far beyond the book being historical fiction, this is the author explicitly challenging the Jewish people that maybe they shouldn’t be pinning all their hopes on returning to Jerusalem and worshipping as they had before. In that sense, Esther is a book that prepares for diaspora life — and I think that was one of the reasons why it was canonised.

    1. Thanks for the link. Your review is very interesting, Christine. It sounds like an excellent book.

      There’s one thing I didn’t understand: the idea that Esther fasted during Passover. Passover is in the month of Nisan (March-April), the first month of the Jewish calendar. The text says that Haman cast the pur in the month of Nisan, and it says the royal secretaries wrote Haman’s edict out on the 13th of Nisan (Passover begins on the 14th), but it doesn’t say that Esther fasted straight away (Esth. 3:7, 12). She may have fasted later. Or have I missed something?

      I groaned when I read the Greek addition in Esther 5. It’s ridiculously soppy. The Greek additions detract from the story.

      The Hebrew version of Esther is a remarkable piece of literature. The author is very clever and I have no doubt he had a political agenda. I’ve chosen to limit my focus to the character of Esther for these articles.

      Yeah, I got taken in by the DSS article until I saw the word “satire” at the top. Papyrologists are always making new discoveries and are always trying new techniques, so I didn’t think it was that far-fetched.

      1. So, Koller says the exchange between Mordecai and Esther (time such as this) was on 13th Nisan as this “seems to be implied” by the text. Certainly, there is no indication that there is a passage of time between the issuing of the edicts and Mordecai’s mourning, or Esther’s concern for Mordecai’s wellbeing. Given the nature of these events, it would be reasonable to think they happened in quick succession. The fast must have happened soon after the edicts were issued because in chapter 8, we know the royal secretaries were summoned in the third month. I’ve always felt that there was a passage of time between Esther 8 verse 2 and verse 3.

        Koller says that Esther’s reference to “night and day” (the Jewish day beginning at sunset) may have implied that the fast was to begin on the beginning of the 14th Nisan. Whether it began in the evening or immediately, it would necessarily have coincided with Passover, if Esther and Mordecai corresponded on the 13th Nisan. Yes, there are other readings, though Gillis Gerleman analysed a number of thematic resonances with the Exodus narrative: foreign court, mortal threat, deliverance, revenge, establishment of a festival, Esther is adopted – like Moses, Esther’s ethnic origins are unknown to Xerxes – as Moses’s were to Pharoah, Esther is (initially) reluctant to help – as was Moses. Nina Collins also draws a link between Pharoah waking in the night in Exodus 12:30 to Xerxes waking in the night. Given that the book of Esther is deliberately not naming things like God, temple, prayer etc it makes sense that if the author wanted to allude to Passover they would do so indirectly — such as through the use of the dates.

        Yes, there are possibilities allowed by the grammar of the text, but fasting on Passover is consistent with the events as described, and deeply thematically resonant (as well as thought-provoking for the fact that Esther doesn’t end with an return-exodus). If the Jewish people didn’t fast on Passover, then the question has to be answered why would Esther have delayed corresponding with Mordecai and/or why would they have delayed in acting out their plan? I don’t think the fact that Haman’s lot fell to the 12th month would have in any way put them at ease given that the lives of their entire people were at stake and Xerxes was the kind of man who’d follow through on the edict.

        1. I’m not discounting that the fast happened on the Passover, I’m still just not 100% convinced. Still, it seems significant that the date when the secretaries are summoned is given, the day before Passover.

          But, even though Xerxes had hundreds of people at his disposal, it may have taken a while for the secretaries to assemble, a while for them to write the edict in the various languages/dialects, a while for couriers to be summoned and assembled and dispatched, and then a while for the word to get out. (Though, the people in Susa would have heard it fairly quickly.) All this may not have all happened on the 13th. And then there’s the toing and froing between Esther and Mordecai in chapter 4.

          And there’s no need to rush. Nisan is the first month, Adar is the 12 month. The planned slaughter of the Jews is months away.

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