An overview of Esther
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The Book of Esther takes its name from its principal character, Esther, a young orphaned Jewess who had been brought up by her older cousin, Mordecai. The name Esther is Persian, and means ‘star’. Her Hebrew name, Hadassah, means ‘myrtle’. She has the role of a godly Jewish heroine who was enabled to deliver her people from annihilation during their exile in the Persian Empire. The book is listed last in the seventeen historical books of the English Bible, and eighth in the ‘Writings’ section of the Hebrew Bible, after Ecclesiastes and before Daniel. Chronologically, Esther is to be placed between Ezra chapters 6 and 7, that is, after the time of Zerubbabel, but before the time of Ezra. Its canonicity has been challenged because the name of God does not appear in it, although certain acrostics of the name of the Lord, Jehovah, have been noted in a few verses of the book. Although it is a very different book from those which are accepted by everyone as being canonical, yet the Jews have never doubted its right to be included in their Bible, because it relates the circumstances under which their Feast of Purim came to be celebrated annually in their month Adar, that is, February or March in our calendar. The Jews call the Book of Esther the Esther Scroll, because it is one of the five scrolls which are read at certain Jewish holidays.
Purpose of the book
This book relates how the Jews in exile in Babylonia were nearly annihilated by their enemies in the Persian Empire, and the means by which they were delivered. In a very providential way, a young orphaned Jewess called Esther was promoted to become the favoured queen of Xerxes I, whose Hebrew name was Ahasuerus, just prior to a plot by an Amalekite called Haman to massacre all the Jews within the Persian Empire. Esther used her influence with her husband to thwart this plot, to have Haman executed, and to permit the exiled Jews to defend themselves from attack on the days when this massacre had been planned to take place. Therefore, the book proves that God had been working behind the scenes to frustrate this outbreak of anti-Semitism during the Babylonian exile. It assures the Jews that their Lord God will always act to defend them as His chosen people, that no weapon formed against them shall prosper, Isa. 54. 17. Ever since this remarkable deliverance, the Jews have remembered its circumstances during their Feast of Purim on the anniversary of these events. The book also relates how a small Jew called Mordecai, who was Esther’s older cousin, encouraged Esther to seek the king’s help for her people, and how, after the death of Haman, he was promoted to high office in the Persian Empire under Xerxes. Thus, the Book of Esther is intended to encourage the Lord’s earthly people, Israel, with evidence that He is overruling in all their sufferings and persecutions, and will never allow them to be completely destroyed, so that He can eventually fulfil all His unconditional promises to them.
Analysis of the book
Chapters 1 to 2: The feast of Ahasuerus, the dethronement of Vashti, the rise of Esther to the throne, and the loyalty of Mordecai to the king.
Chapters 3 to 7: The rise of Haman, and his fall after his feasts with Esther and the king.
Chapter 3: Mordecai snubs Haman, and Haman plots to destroy both him and all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
Chapter 4: The Jews mourn, and Mordecai appeals to Esther to intervene for her people.
Chapter 5: Esther intercedes before the king in the presence of Haman, and Haman is filled with pride.
Chapter 6: Mordecai, not Haman, is rewarded for his loyalty to the king.
Chapter 7: At Esther’s second feast with the king and Haman, Haman is exposed, condemned, and executed.
Chapters 8 to 10: The rise of Mordecai, the deliverance of the Jews, and the establishment of the Feast of Purim.
Chapter 8: The second decree of Ahasuerus countering his first decree to destroy the Jews.
Chapter 9: The Jews are delivered, and the Feast of Purim is established in their calendar.
Chapter 10: Mordecai is promoted to high office in the Persian Empire.
Dates and historical setting of the book
- 486-465 BC: Ahasuerus, or Xerxes I, ruled Persia.
- 483-473 BC: The events of the Book of Esther probably took place during these years, after the return of the Jews under Zerubbabel, but before the return of the Jews under Ezra.
The Jew’s Feast of Purim dates from their years of exile under the Persian kings, and has been celebrated by them ever since that time. Note that the Book of Esther is not set in Babylon, but further east in Shushan, [Greek Susa] in Persia. Daniel chapter 11 verse 2 throws more light on Persian history under Ahasuerus, or Xerxes I, when he predicts that the fourth Persian king after Cyrus would be ‘far richer’ than all his predecessors, and ‘by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Grecia’. Darius I had invaded Greece in 490 BC, but had been defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. This explains why Xerxes, who was by far the richest emperor of Persia, also invaded Greece in 481-479 BC with a huge army of 2½ million men to avenge the earlier defeat. But he in his turn, at about the time when the events recorded in this Book of Esther took place, was decisively defeated by the Greeks in a famous naval battle in the Bay of Salamis in 480 BC, and again on land at Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC. Xerxes had to retreat in humiliation, and, after this, the Persian Empire was never so strong again. This, therefore, is the international background against which the story of Esther was played out. Clearly, the Ahasuerus of Esther was immensely rich, and ostentatious with it, but there is no hint of tragedy or defeat in the account given here. But that was the reality of the historical background of the book. The Persian Empire had reached its peak, and was now beginning to decline.
The Book of Esther gives no clue as to who wrote it, but whoever it was knew the Persian culture well. The account has all the hallmarks of an eyewitness. The author was most probably a Jew. Some commentators have attributed the book to Mordecai, on the basis of chapter 9 verses 20 and 32. Certainly, Mordecai’s royal records would have been a primary source for the author to use. Some have suggested that either Ezra or Nehemiah wrote the book, but no clear evidence supports that view. The book as it stands was probably written after 465 BC, since Esther chapter 1 verse 2 strongly implies that the reign of Ahasuerus has ended. Perhaps an otherwise unknown author wrote it during the reign of Artaxerxes I, that is, during the latter half of the fifth century BC. Beyond that we cannot be sure. It has always been considered to be anonymous.
The book’s message for today
The book illustrates the truth that God has always exercised complete providential control of human history, and overruled all the machinations of the enemy of our souls. He will bring to pass His divine purposes for His chosen people! Most of all, it proves that His chosen earthly people, Israel, can never be fully annihilated by their enemies, but will always be delivered to fulfil His purposes for them. The survival of the Jews, despite all the pogroms and holocausts which have been perpetrated against them, is certain, and assures us that God will one day fulfil all His unconditional promises to the believing remnant of them. In short, the survival of Israel to this moment of time is proof of the existence, almighty power, goodwill, and wisdom of God. It assures us today, members of His parallel heavenly people, the Church, that God is both willing and able to work together all things for our blessing. History is not going out of His control, but will result in His glory being maintained, and His people blessed with eternal life. What peace and assurance this book of Esther should give us as believers today!
There is also a lesson to be derived from the fact that God’s name does not occur overtly in the book. The reason why God is not mentioned may be that the Jews, who were still in exile, were regarded as under God’s discipline. This especially since none of them had responded to Cyrus’ call to return to Jerusalem, either to rebuild the temple, or to repair the city walls. Because of this failure, the Lord was, in measure, disowning them publicly, but still watching over them, and caring for them behind the scenes. He was ensuring that they would not come to serious harm, and silently preparing the way for the still future restoration of the faithful remnant. Thus, He is assuring us that, should we fall into sinful ways, like Israel, and need to be disciplined, He will still overrule all our circumstances to prevent us suffering final ruin, until such time as His discipline has done its work and we can be restored to full fellowship with Him and our fellow-believers. In judgement He remembers mercy. What a God of recovery He is!
[This article is extracted from Coming Back from Exile, Volume 7 of the Old Testament Overview series published by Precious Seed Publications].