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Book of Esther

The Book of Esther is a book of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and of the Old Testament. The Book of Esther or the Megillah is the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. Its full text is read aloud twice during the celebration, in the evening and again the following morning.

Setting

The Biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia who is identified as Artaxerxes in the Greek version of the book (as well as by Josephus, the Jewish commentary Esther Rabbah, the Ethiopic translation and the Christian theologian Bar-Hebraeus who identified him more precisely as Artaxerxes II ). It tells a story of palace intrigue and genocide thwarted by a Jewish queen of Persia.

Plot summary

The book commences with a feast organized by Ahasuerus, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of Shushan. Ahasuerus orders his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the guests. She refuses, and the King's advisors warn that, if unpunished, her actions would inspire other wives to disobey their husbands. Ahasuerus removes her as queen. (Jewish commentary states that she was executed). Ahasuerus then orders all young women to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is Esther, who was orphaned at a young age and is being fostered by her cousin Mordechai. She finds favor in the king's eyes, and is made his new wife. Esther does not reveal that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordechai discovers a plot by courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to assassinate Ahasuerus. They are apprehended and executed, and Mordechai's service to the king is recorded.

Ahasuerus appoints Haman the Agagite (understood in later Midrashic interpretation to be a descendant of Amalekite king Agag) as his prime minister. Mordechai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman's disfavor as he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordechai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordechai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire. He obtains Ahasuerus' permission to execute this plan, against payment of ten thousand talents of silver, and he casts lots to choose the date on which to do this - the thirteenth of the month of Adar. When Mordechai finds out about the plans he orders widespread penitence and fasting. Esther discovers what has transpired; she requests that all Jews fast and pray for three days together with her, and on the third day she seeks an audience with Ahasuerus, during which she invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordechai and builds a gallows for him.

That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court's records are read to him to help him sleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordechai in the previous plot against his life. Ahasuerus is told that Mordechai has not received any recognition for saving the king's life. Just then, Haman appears, and King Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man that he wishes to honor. Thinking that the man that the king wishes to honor is him, Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse. To his horror, the king instructs Haman to do so to Mordechai.

Later that evening, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus leaves the room; meanwhile Haman stays behind and begs Esther for his life, falling upon her in despricy. The king comes back in at this moment and thinks Haman is sexually assaulting the queen; this makes him angrier than before and he orders Haman hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai. The previous decree against the Jews cannot be annulled, but the king allows the Jews to defend themselves during attacks. As a result, on 13 Adar, five hundred attackers and Haman's ten sons are killed in Shushan. Throughout the empire an additional 75,000 are killed by the Jews (the Greek text says 15,000). On the 14th, another 300 are killed in Shushan.

Mordechai assumes a prominent position in Ahasuerus' court, and institutes an annual commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation.

Timeline of major events

Event Dates
Ahasuerus ascends the throne of Persia 369 BCE
Ahasuerus's 180-day feast; Queen Vashti exiled, Queen Vashti was replaced by king Ahasuerus(according to Christian Beliefs) (killed according to Jewish tradition) 366 BCE
Esther becomes queen Tevet, 362 BCE
Haman casts lots to choose date for Jews' annihilation Nissan, 357 BCE
Royal decree ordering killing of all Jews; Nissan 13, 357 BCE
Mordecai calls on Jews to repent; 3-day fast ordered by Esther Nissan 13-15, 357 BCE
Esther goes to Ahasuerus; hosts First wine party with Ahasuerus and Haman Nissan 15, 357 BCE
Esther's Second wine party; Haman's downfall and hanging Nissan 16, 357 BCE
Second decree issued by Ahasuerus, empowering the Jews to defend themselves Sivan 23, 357 BCE
Battles fought throughout the empire against those seeking to kill the Jews; Haman's ten sons killed Adar 13, 356 BCE
Celebrations everywhere, except Shushan where second day of battles are fought Adar 14, 356 BCE
Celebration in Shushan Adar 15, 356 BCE
Megillah written by Esther and Mordecai; Festival of Purim instituted for all generations 355 BCE

Authorship and date

Esther is usually dated to the third or fourth century BCE. Jewish tradition regards it as a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text written by Mordecai.

The Greek additions to Esther (which do not appear in the Jewish/Hebrew; see "Additions to Esther" below) are dated to the 2nd century BCE.

Debate over historicity

As early as the eighteenth century, the lack of clear corroboration of any of the details of the story of the Book of Esther with what was known of Persian history from classical sources led some scholars to doubt that the book was historically accurate. It was argued that the form of the story seems closer to that of a romance than a work of history, and that many of the events depicted therein are implausible and unlikely.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, several scholars explored the theory that the Book of Esther actually was a myth related to the spring festival of Purim which may have had a mixed West-Semitic/Akkadian/Canaanite origin. According to this interpretation the tale celebrates the triumph of the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar over the deities of Elam or more likely the renewal of life in the spring and the casting out of the scapegoat of the old year. Although this view is not widely held by the religious scholars today, it remains well known. It is explored in depth in the works of Theodor Gaster.

Traditionalists like Joyce G Baldwin, a principle of Trinity College, Bristol, have fought back, arguing that Esther can be seen to derive from real history. For example, some historians occasionally give strong credence to the narrative based upon the traditions of a people. Thus, because the feast of Purim (which is a retelling of the book of Esther) is integral to Jewish history, there is strong reason to believe this story is indeed based upon a true, though obscure, historical event.

Also, based on the derivation of "Ahasuerus" from "Xerxes", identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes I is common and parallels between Herodotus' account of Xerxes and the events in Esther have been noted. Others have argued for different identifications, particularly noting traditions referring to Ahasuerus as "Artaxerxes" in Greek. In 1923, Dr. Jacob Hoschander wrote The Book of Esther in the Light of History, in which he posited that the events of the book occurred during the reign of Artaxerxes II Mnemon, in the context of a struggle between adherents of the still more-or-less monotheistic Zoroastrianism and those who wanted to bring back the Magian worship of Mithra and Anahita.

For the last hundred and fifty years, critical scholars have seen the Book of Esther as a work of fiction, while traditionalists argue in favor of the story being historical.

Some Christian readers have also tried to see the story as a Christian allegory, in the same vein as the Song of Solomon. The various major readings are considered separately in the sections that follow:

Esther and Babylonian mythology

The History of Religions school of thought, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, argued against the historicity of the Bible by drawing comparisons between Biblical narratives and pagan myths.

The fact that the events of the Book of Esther give rise to the spring festival of Purim was a reason for scholars arguing that the story emerged from seasonal myth. As the 19th/early 20th century scholars did not have the benefit of the Ugaritic texts, they sought an origin in Akkadian tradition rather than the more local West Semitic cultures. In particular, these scholars drew comparisons between individuals in the Book of Esther and various real and alleged Babylonian and Elamite gods and goddesses:

  • Esther was equated with the similarly sounding Ishtar. Her original Hebrew name Hadassah was compared with Akkadian hadashatu said to be a title of Ishtar meaning "bride".
  • The custom of preparing homentashn at Purim is reminiscent of a description of Ishtar in Jeremiah 7:18, when it was customary "to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven."
  • Mordecai was equated with Marduk. Marduk is a cousin of Ishtar in Chaldean mythology, as was Mordecai a cousin of Esther.
  • Vashti was said to be an Elamite goddess named Mashti.
  • Haman was said to be an Elamite god named Uman or Human (or other variations) or alternatively a Babylonian demon.
  • The festival of Purim was equated with various real and conjectural pagan festivals, including an alleged Elamite or Babylonian festival marking the victory of Ishtar and Marduk over Uman and Mashti similar to the triumph of Esther and Mordecai over their rivals Haman and Vashti. Other suggestions were: the Babylonian New Year festival (Sumerian Zagmuk, Akkadian Akitu, called Sacaea by Berosus) honouring Marduk - it was suggested that purim ("lots") originally referred to a belief that the gods chose one's fate for the year by lots; the Persian festival of Farvardigan; or the Greek festival of Pithoigia ("wine flask opening") - it was noted that Hebrew for wine press is purah resembling purim.

These arguments were subsequently shown to be flawed:

  • Ishtar was well known to the Jews who officially opposed her worship. Her name in Hebrew scriptures is Ashtoreth which is phonetically unrelated to Esther despite the superficial similarity when transliterated into English (consonantal root vs ). Although the vowelization of the Hebrew name is thought to be a deliberate mispronunciation reflecting the vowels of the word bosheth denoting a shameful thing, the consonants accurately reflect the original name. "Esther" is most commonly understood to be related to the Persian word for star (cognate with English star) and the Median word for myrtle. (See Esther for a discussion of the meaning of the name.)
  • Akkadian hadashatu was not a standard title of Ishtar. It occurs once in a description of Ishtar as a "new bride" and its meaning is "new" not "bride". It is a cognate of Hebrew hadash (with a guttural h) and is phonetically unrelated to "Hadassah" (consonantal root vs ).
  • Hamantaschen originated amongst Jews of Eastern Europe in relatively recent times.
  • The name Mordecai is indeed most commonly connected with that of the god Marduk. It is considered equivalent to Marduka or Marduku, well attested in the Persepolis texts as a genuine name of the period. The Talmud relates that his full name was Mordecai Bilshan (Megillah 15a). This has been understood as the Babylonian Marduk-bel-shunu ("Marduk is their lord"). Similar accounts of Jews in exile being assigned names relating to Babylonian gods is seen in the Book of Daniel. Babylonian gods and goddesses are indeed organized into families making many including Marduk and Ishtar some form of cousins but this is never a point explicitly stated in Babylonian texts.
  • An Elamite goddess named Mashti is purely conjectural and unattested in sources, whereas "Vashti" can be understood as a genuine Persian name meaning "beautiful".
  • Elamite theophoric elements such as Khuban, Khumban or Khumma are known but are pronounced with an initial guttural consonant and not as Uman or Human, and are phonetically unrelated to the Persian name Haman meaning "magnificent". The Babylonian demon is named Humbaba or Huwawa also pronounced with an initial guttural consonant kh and unrelated to Haman.
  • An Elamite or Babylonian festival marking a victory of Ishtar and Marduk over alleged Uman and Mashti is purely conjectural and unattested in sources. The Babylonian New Year occurs at a very different date to Purim (in the month of Nisan not Adar). A decision of fate by lots by the gods is not attested in any sources. Farvardigan was a five day commemoration of the dead bearing no resemblance to Purim. Pithoigia also occurs at a different time to Purim and although Purim is celebrated with wine drinking this is not its focus; moreover the plural of the Hebrew for wine press is puroth not purim.

Historical reading

Those arguing in favour of an historical reading of Esther, most commonly identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes II (ruled 405 - 359 B.C.E.) although in the past it was often assumed that he was Xerxes I (ruled 486 - 465 B.C.E.).

The Hebrew Ahasuerus is most likely derived from Persian Khshayarsha, the origin of the Greek Xerxes. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Xerxes sought his harem after being defeated in the Greco-Persian Wars. He makes no reference to individual members of the harem with the exception of a domineering Queen consort Amestris, a daughter of one of his generals, Otanes. (Ctesias however refers to a father-in-law and general of Xerxes named Onaphas). Amestris has often been identified with Vashti in the past. The identification is problematic however - Amestris remained a powerful figure well into the reign of her son, Artaxerxes I while Vashti is portrayed as dismissed in the early part of Xerxes's reign. (Alternative attempts have been made to identify her with Esther, although Esther is an orphan whose father was a Jew named Abihail.) The name Marduka or Marduku (considered equivalent to Mordecai) has been found as the name of officials in the Persian court in thirty texts from the period of Xerxes I and his father Darius, and may refer to up to four individuals with the possibility that one of these is the Biblical Mordecai.

The Septuagint version of Esther however translates the name Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes - a Greek name derived from the Persian: Artakhshatra. Josephus too relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks and the Midrashic text, Esther Rabba also makes the identification. Bar-Hebraeus identified Ahasuerus explicitly as Artaxerxes II. This is not to say that the names are equivalent: Hebrew has a form of the name Artaxerxes distinct from Ahasuerus and a direct Greek rendering of Ahasuerus is used by Josephus as well as in Septuagint occurrences of the name outside the Book of Esther. Rather the Hebrew name Ahasuerus accords with an inscription of the time that notes that Artaxerxes II was named also Arshu, understood as a shortening of Achshiyarshu the Babylonian rendering of the Persian Khshayarsha (Xerxes) through which the Hebrew Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) is derived. . Ctesias related that Artaxerxes II was also called Arsicas which is understood as a similar shortening with the Persian suffix -ke that is applied to shortened names. Deinon related that Artaxerxes II was also called Oarses which is also understood to be derived from Khshayarsha.

Another view attempts to identify him instead with Artaxerxes I (ruled 465 - 424 B.C.E.) - the latter had a Babylonian concubine, Kosmartydene, who was the mother of his son Darius II (ruled 424 - 405 B.C.E.). Jewish tradition relates that Esther was the mother of a King Darius and so some try to identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes I and Esther with Kosmartydene.

Based on the view that the Ahasuerus of the Book of Tobit is identical with that of the Book of Esther, some have also identified him as Nebuchadnezzar's ally Cyaxares (ruled 625 - 585 B.C.E.). In certain manuscripts of Tobit the former is called Achiachar which like the Greek: Cyaxares is thought to be derived from Persian: Akhuwakhshatra. Depending on the interpretation of Esther 2:5-6, Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish was carried away from Jerusalem with Jeconiah by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 B.C.E. The view that it was Mordecai would be consistent with the identification of Ahasuerus with Cyaxares. Identifications with other Persian monarchs have also been suggested.

Jacob Hoschander has argued that evidence of the historicity of Haman and his father Hamedatha is seen in Omanus and Anadatus mentioned by Strabo as being honoured with Anahita in the city of Zela. Hoschander argues that these were not deities as Strabo supposed but garbled forms of "Haman" and "Hamedatha" who were being worshipped as martyrs. The names are indeed unattested in Persian texts as gods. (Attempts have been made to connect both "Omanus" and "Haman" with the Zoroastrian term Vohu Mana, however this denotes the principle of "Good Thoughts" and is not the name of a deity.)

Whenever the book was written and whatever the historicity of the events recounted in it, clearly by the time it was written the term "Yehudim" (יהודים - Jews) already gained a meaning quite close to what it means up to the present - i.e. an ethnic-religious group, scattered in many countries, organised in autonomous communities and the target of intense hatred by fanatic groups.

Allegorical reading

There are many classical Jewish readings of allegories into the book of Esther, mostly from Hasidic sources. They say that the literal meaning is true, however there is hidden behind this historical account many allegories.

Some Christian readers consider this story to contain an allegory, representing the interaction between the church as 'bride' and God. This reading is related to the allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon and to the theme of the Bride of God, which in Jewish tradition manifests as the Shekinah.

Relation to the rest of the Bible

Esther is (in the Hebrew version) one of only two books of the Bible that do not directly mention God (the other is Song of Songs). It is the only book of the Tanakh that is not represented among the Dead Sea scrolls. It has often been compared to the first half of the Book of Daniel and to the apocryphal Books of Tobit and Judith for its subject matter.

Additions to Esther

An additional six chapters appear interspersed in Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation, which then was noted by Jerome in compiling the Latin Vulgate; additionally, the Greek text contains many small changes in the meaning of the main text. The extra chapters include several prayers to God, perhaps because it was felt that the above-mentioned lack of mention of God was inappropriate in a holy book. Jerome recognized them as additions not present in the Hebrew Text and placed them at the end of his Latin translation as chapters 10:4-16:24. However, some modern Catholic English Bibles restore the Septuagint order, such as Esther in the NAB.

By the time Esther was written, the foreign power visible on the horizon as a future threat to Judah was the Macedonians of Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian empire about 150 years after the time of the story of Esther; the Septuagint version noticeably calls Haman a Macedonian where the Hebrew text describes him as an Agagite.

The canonicity of these Greek additions has been a subject of scholarly disagreement practically since their first appearance in the Septuagint –- Martin Luther, being perhaps the most vocal Reformation-era critic of the work, considered even the original Hebrew version to be of very doubtful value. Luther's complaints against the book carried past the point of scholarly critique, and reflect Luther's antisemitism.

The Council of Trent, the summation of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, declared the entire book, both Hebrew text and Greek additions, to be canonical. While modern Roman Catholic scholars openly recognize the Greek additions as clearly being additions to the text, the Book of Esther is used twice in commonly used sections of the Catholic Lectionary. In both cases, the text used is not only taken from a Greek addition, the readings also are the prayer of Mordecai, and nothing of Esther's own words is ever used. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of Esther, as it does for all of the Old Testament. The additions are specifically listed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI, of the Church of England: "The rest of the Book of Esther".

Some scholars suggest that Additions to Esther is the work of an Egyptian Jew, writing around 170 BCE, who sought to give the book a more religious tone, and to suggest that the Jews were saved from destruction because of their piety.

Esther Rabbah includes all of Additions to Esther save the "letter texts". It is these "letter texts" that contain the ahistorical assertions that Haman was a Greek.

Reinterpretations of the story

The 2006 film One Night with the King is loosely based on the Biblical story of Esther.

The classic 1960 Hollywood film version of the story, Esther and the King was directed by Raoul Walsh starring Joan Collins and Richard Egan.

In 1992 a 30-minute, fully-animated video, twelfth in Hanna-Barbera's bestselling The Greatest Adventure series, titled Queen Esther features the voices of Helen Slater as Queen Esther, Dean Jones as King Ahasuerus, Werner Klemperer as Haman, and Ron Rifkin as Mordecai.

There are several paintings depicting Esther, including one by Millais.

VeggieTales also made an animated version entitled Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen.

References

External links

Text and translations

Introduction and analysis

Early 20th century views

Modern scholarship

Commentaries and other books

  • Clines, David J.A. The Esther Scroll. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 30. Sheffield, England: Sheffield, 1984.
  • Fischer, James A. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther. Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986.
  • Fox, Michael V. GW was here. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Levenson, Jon D. Esther. Old Testament Library Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • McConville, John C.L. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.
  • Moore, Carey A. Esther. Anchor Bible, vol. 7B. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
  • Paton, Lewis B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1908.

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