Posted by Josh Kirby on June 11, 2012
Esther is the final Old Testament history book in our English Bibles, though it is not the last chronologically. The events of Esther fall between Ezra 6 & 7 – after the first wave of returnees rebuilt the temple under Zerubbabel and Jeshua and before the second wave of exiles returned with Ezra.
Esther can be outlined around three occasions of feasting – the feasts of Xerxes, the feasts of Esther, and the feasts of Purim:
- The feasts of Xerxes (Ahasuerus) (1:1-2:18)
- Vashti deposed (1:1-22)
- Esther made queen (2:1-18)
- The feasts of Esther (2:19-7:10)
- Mordecai uncovers a plot (2:19-23)
- Haman’s plot (3:1-15)
- Mordecai persuades Esther to help (4:1-17)
- Esther’s first banquet (5:1-8)
- A sleepless night (5:9-6:14)
- Esther’s second banquet (7:1-10)
- The feasts of Purim (8:1-10:3)
- The king’s edict on behalf of the Jews (8:1-17)
- The institution of Purim (9:1-32)
- The promotion of Mordecai (10:1-3)1
The book of Esther is set in the capital city of the Persian Empire, Susa, east of the Promised Land and covers a period of about 10 years. The main characters of the book are Ahasuerus, known to history as Xerxes 1, a Persian official named Haman, an exiled Jewish man living in Persia called Mordecai, and Mordecai’s cousin and adopted daughter Hadassah, whose is also called Esther.
The story opens with a royal banquet hosted by Xerxes for his military, noblemen, and servants. At the end of this feast the king wants to show off his wife so he calls for Vashti to come before the officials. Vashi refuses and is forever banished from the king’s presence, setting the stage for another queen to take her place.
The king’s servants suggest he hold an Empire-wide beauty pageant to find a new wife, so all the beautiful young women throughout the empire are brought before the king one by one. The king ultimately chooses Esther. Esther has a secret – she is a Jew. Mordecai commands Esther not to reveal her identity to the king and sits constantly outside the king’s gate to watch over and advise her.
While outside the king’s gate Mordecai discovers a plot of two of the king’s servants to assassinate the king. Through Esther, Mordecai informs the king of the plot and the conspirators are executed. The king’s servants record the event in the chronicles of the king.
After Mordecai saves the king’s life, Haman, the Agagite, is made a high official of Persia. The king commands Haman should receive homage, but one day Haman is passing by the king’s gate and Mordecai refuses to bow before Haman. When Haman finds out Mordecai is a Jew, Haman hates him, a hatred that likely can be traced back to the days of King Saul, when the prophet Samuel killed Haman’s ancestor, king Agag, the Amalekite.
Haman’s hatred of Mordecai, and the Jews, in general, motivates him to plan to destroy them. He casts lots (in Hebrew, “purim”) to determine when he will carry out his holocaust and manipulates Xerxes into approving a royal decree calling for the deaths of the Jews.
Mordecai pleads with Esther to use her position to save her people. Esther cleverly devises a plan to convince Xerxes to overturn his decree at a feast hosted in honor of the king and Haman. In the meantime Haman’s hatred of Mordecai builds, so he decides to have Mordecai hanged, and builds a gallows.
One night the king cannot sleep so he calls for his servants to read before him the book of memorial deeds, the chronicles of his reign. The servants read the record of Mordecai’s discovery of the assassination plot and when the king learns Mordecai has not been rewarded for his service he calls Haman into his throne room and asks what Haman thinks should be done for the man the king wants to honor. Haman assumes the king is talking about rewarding Haman, so Haman tells the king to call for a procession in honor of the man. In an ironic turn of events the king commands Haman to organize this procession for Mordecai.
That evening, at her feast for the king and Haman, Esther reveals her identity and pleads with the king to save her people. The king has Haman hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The king then overturns the decree against the Jews and lets Mordecai and Esther write a new decree which not only saves the Jews, but allows them to take vengeance on their enemies. After the decree is executed, Mordecai institutes the feast of Purim to commemorate the reversal of fortunes for the Jews.
The book of Esther contains a wonderful story with a delightful literary structure. The story contains many instances of irony, in which particular actions or states of affairs often result in the opposite of the expected result, such as Haman intending to hang Mordecai, but being hanged on his own gallows, Haman wanting to destroy the Jews, but the Jews being vindicated, and Haman writing the script for his own glorification, only to watch it go to Mordecai. The author also appears to take particular delight in satire toward the Persians, the Persian men in particular.
“In some respects the book of Esther may well be the most unusual book in the Old Testament. We ordinarily think of the Bible as preeminently a book revealing to us the nature of God, both through his attributes and through his deeds. Yet in the book of Esther God is not mentioned…”2
Esther is one of only two books in the Old Testament not to mention God’s name (Song of Solomon). The book of Esther is also silent regarding the institutions and practices of Israel’s faith, including the law, the covenant, the temple, prayer, and sacrifice.
“The book of Esther has provoked a wide range of responses in the history of interpretation. It has been denounced as a secularized, sub-Christian (or sub-Jewish) book at one extreme, and it has been elevated to a status essentially equal to the Torah’s on the other.”3
Esther is a challenging and puzzling book. The book’s composition, purpose, historicity, and theology have been vigorously debated. For a discussion of the debate surrounding Esther, please listen to the full audio of the Route 66 Esther message.
Despite the question marks, most historians agree the book of Esther bears the mark of historical accuracy. The primary purpose of the book is usually thought to be an explanation of the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim (3:7; 9:18-10:3). Purim is the only biblical festival not mentioned in the Law of Moses, thus the author may be seeking to legitimize the festival from a historical and legal perspective. The name for this festival comes from a Hebrew word meaning “lot.” In the book of Esther Haman casts lots (“purim”) against the Jews but the lot of death eventually falls on Haman, who is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai. Purim is a celebration of this reversal of fortunes for the Jews.
With only hints as to what motivated Esther as an individual, we are left to speculate as to the role of faith and faithfulness in her heart and life. Some have concluded Esther was not a woman of faith, but a Jewish nationalist used by God to preserve his people. Others view Esther as a stalwart of faith, an example of a young woman in a tough situation trusting God to deliver her. At the very least, Esther was a woman of great courage, loyalty, and selflessness. She defended and protected her people, the Jews. She risked her life to stand before king Xerxes. She proved women can make a difference in a misogynistic society.
The story of Esther either can be viewed as a series of incredible coincidences or as the product of a divine plan. Each scene in the story can be thought of as a link in a chain. If one link is removed, the entire story falls apart. If Vashti had not refused Xerxes’ request Esther would not have been queen. If Esther was not queen, Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews would have been executed.
If viewed as the product of a divine plan, the book of Esther is not about the faith, or lack thereof, of Esther or Mordecai. It is about the faithfulness of God. We have seen time and again on our journey through the Old Testament that God provides for and protects his people. He is faithful to his covenant promises. He sees his people through difficult and trying times, even when his involvement cannot easily be seen. The book of Esther can be viewed through the lens of the greater Old Testament narrative, which details the faithfulness of God to preserve his people. God’s side ultimately wins. May the book of Esther remind God’s people to align themselves with God’s plan and purpose.
1Longman, Tremper, Raymond B. Dillard, and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Print.
3 Howard Jr., David M. An Introduction To The Old Testament Historical Books. Moody, 1993. Print.
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