My Understanding of Esther

The Book of Esther is the last of the five scrolls of the Jewish Hebrew Bible. In its present state it is a little confusing because of the different Greek and Hebrew texts. The Hebrew version of this story never explicitly mentions God, but the Greek additions to this story mention God a lot. However, fitting the Hebrew text with the so-called apocryphal Septuagint Greek text is a daunting challenge but it can be done.

The Book of Esther itself is the wonderful story of a Jewish girl named Esther who became the queen of Persia. In her role of queen she stopped the genocide of her people, the Jews, in one of the earlier forms of anti-Semitism. Thus it is like a historical novel, much like Tobit and Judith. Out of this story comes the classic Jewish feast day of Purim. This takes place during the time of captivity, much like Tobit. Like Judith, it is a woman Esther who here saved the Jews in Diaspora during the captivity. However, the time frame would be more around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when some Israelites would be returning to Jerusalem. Like Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites were on friendly terms with the Persian kings. Like Joseph in Genesis, chapters 37-50, Esther gained power in a foreign country. There have been a number of paintings and movies about this Jewish heroine Queen Esther.

The biblical setting is the third year of reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia who ruled from 465-424 BCE. However, the Hebrew text calls him King Ahasuerus so that it might be equivalent to the earlier Persian King Xerxes (486–465 BCE). Remember that King Artaxerxes had been very kind to Nehemiah. This Hebrew biblical book of Esther is usually dated to the 3rd or 4th century BCE, perhaps originally written by Mordecai. There are both accurate and inaccurate things about Persia. The Greek additions in the Septuagint version of Esther point to a final Greek version around the late 2nd century BCE.

The preliminary elements are only in the Greek text with the introduction of Mordecai, his dream, and how to interpret it. He then foiled a plot against the king. The Hebrew text begins with an explanation of the kingdom of King Artaxerxes.

King Artaxerxes, the ruler of a massive Persian empire, held a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries. Afterwards it was for all the inhabitants of the capital city of Susa. He held a seven day feast, while his wife Queen Vashti had her own banquet. When invited, Queen Vashti refused to come to the king’s party. He then ordered her to display her beauty before his guests, but she still refused to come to his party.  The king then agreed with his advisors that the queen had set a bad example. Worried that all the women in the kingdom would learn from this, King Artaxerxes removed her as queen. There is no indication where she was killed or not. He then sent a royal decree across the empire that stated that men should be the ruler of their households. King Artaxerxes then ordered all the beautiful young girls in the empire to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Queen Vashti.

One of these was the orphan Jewish girl named Esther. After the death of her parents, her cousin Mordecai took care of her. Esther then joined the king’s harem. Each beauty contestant in this harem, at this one man audition, went before the king. Esther found favor in the king’s eyes so that she became the new queen. However, she did not reveal that she was Jewish.

Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovered a plot by two eunuchs to kill King Artaxerxes. The conspirators were apprehended and hanged, so that Mordecai’s service to the king was recorded, much like in the Greek text preliminary story.

King Artaxerxes appointed Haman as his prime minister or second in command. Mordecai, who sat at the palace gates, refused to bow down to Haman. Once Haman found out that Mordecai was Jewish, he planned to kill not just Mordecai but all the Jews in the empire. He proposed his plan to the king. The king gave him his signet ring and sent Haman’s decree under his name. Thus he obtained King Artaxerxes’ permission to execute this plan. He cast lots to choose the date on which to do this, so that it ended up on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar. On that particular day, everyone in the empire would be free to kill all the Jews and take their property. The copy of this decree is only in the Greek text and not in the Hebrew text. There was a title with the insistence for the need to have peace and tranquility. Thus they had to get rid of this one group of disruptive people.

After the decree was posted, Mordecai found out what was going to happen. Then Mordecai and all the Jews mourned and fasted. Mordecai informed Queen Esther what was happening by sending a copy of the decree to her. He told her not to be silent as he wanted her to intercede with the king. She was afraid to break the law and go to the King unannounced, since this action would incur the death penalty. Mordecai insisted. She then ordered Mordecai to have all the Jews fast for three days. Then Queen Esther fasted for three days herself.

Here the Greek text has the prayers of Mordecai and Queen Esther, which the Hebrew text does not have. Mordecai prayed to God the creator. He explained in his prayer why he had not bowed down to Haman. He wanted God to save Israel. Meanwhile Queen Esther put away her normal clothes. She too prayed to God as she asked for courage. Then she dressed up to go to the king’s palace, where she fainted twice when she encountered the king.

The Hebrew text picks up the story from there. On the third day, Queen Esther went to King Artaxerxes. He stretched out his scepter to her, which showed that she was not to be punished. The law about not approaching the king only applied to the subjects of the kingdom, not his wife. Then she invited the king to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asked them to attend another feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman, although he was happy about the invitation, was again offended by Mordecai. He consulted with his friends. At his wife’s suggestion, he built a gallows for Mordecai.

That night, King Artaxerxes suffered from insomnia. When the court records were read to him to help him sleep, he learned what Mordecai had done to protect his life. King Artaxerxes was told that Mordecai had not received any recognition for saving the king’s life. The king remembered the work of Mordecai. Just then, Haman appeared to ask the King to hang Mordecai. However, before he could make his request, King Artaxerxes asked him what should be done for a man that the king wished to honor. Thinking that the man that the king was referring to was himself, Haman said that the man should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse, while someone called out before him. To his horror and surprise, the king instructed Haman to do so to Mordecai. Haman thus honored Mordecai instead of killing him.

After leading Mordecai’s parade, he returned in mourning to his wife and friends, who suggested his downfall was imminent as he realized that he was in trouble. King Artaxerxes and Haman attended Queen Esther’s second banquet. She revealed that she was Jewish and that Haman was planning to exterminate her people, including her. She asked the king to stop this genocide planned by Haman. Overcome by rage, King Artaxerxes left the room. Meanwhile Haman stayed behind and begged Esther for his life, falling upon her in desperation. The king came back in and thought that Haman was assaulting the queen. The king was even angrier. He ordered Haman hanged on his own gallows with his property going to Queen Esther.

Then Queen Esther asked for the revocation of the Haman decree.   However, the king said that it could not be revoked or annulled, but that Mordecai could write another decree about the Jews defending themselves during the attacks. The text of this new letter, like the original letter, is only in the Greek text, not the Hebrew text. This letter stated that he who had received much should be generous. Thus the past bad behavior of Haman had led to the decree to eliminate the Jews. However, the Jews were good people and should be allowed to defend themselves against the attackers on the thirteenth day of Adar. The sending of this royal edict favored the Jews, which led to the triumph of Mordecai and the Jews. The king, as written by Mordecai, said that this order should be followed carefully.

When the great day of execution arrived, the Jews kill 75,000 people in the provinces, while the Jews in Susa celebrated after two days of killing there. As a result, on the 13th of Adar, 500 attackers and Haman’s ten sons were killed in Susa. However, they took no plunder. Mordecai became the 2nd in command. He and Esther sent a letter instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people’s redemption, in a holiday called Purim (lots). From this occasion, the official institution of Purim took place among the Jews. The name Purim came for the idea of casting lots, or Pur. Queen Esther approved of the feast of Purim. Mordecai was greatly praised at his death.

This book ends with a Greek text using the words of Mordecai interpreting the dream that he had at the beginning of this Greek version of the story. This Greek text also explained how Purim came to be celebrated in Egypt in the 2nd century BCE, indicating the approximate date of this final Greek version of the Book of Esther.

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