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.
|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|
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.
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:
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:
These arguments were subsequently shown to be flawed:
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.
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.
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.
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.