Introduction to Esther

INTRODUCTION TO ESTHER

The book of Esther concludes the section of the Bible that Protestants refer to as the Historical Books. Reflecting once again on David Platt’s Survey of the Old Testament, Esther is considered the “spotlight” book for the 3 books comprising the post-monarchy section of the Old Testament (Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther), detailing events that took place during the time of Ezra. However, Esther will be found in a different chronology depending on what type of Bible you’re reading- Jewish, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Protestant. But that’s not the only thing different about the book of Esther among these traditions. More on that in a moment.

Britannica’s section on Esther explains that in the Jewish Bible, Esther is a part of the third section of the Judaic canon which is known as the “Ketuvim” or the “Writings.” There it is placed after Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, which is near the end of the “Writings.” The same source notes that Esther is “one of the Megillot,” or “five scrolls read on stated Jewish holidays.” “Megillot is the plural of “Megillah,” meaning “scroll,” and Esther is read during Purim, as prescribed in the Mishna. In the Protestant canon, Esther comes between Nehemiah and Job. The Eastern Orthodox use the Septuagint, in which Esther is placed after the Wisdom of Sirach and before Judith, both of which Protestants consider apocryphal books. In the Roman Catholic canon, Esther will be found between Judith and Job. There are an additional 6 chapters present in the version of Esther found in the Septuagint and Roman Catholic Bibles which both Jewish and Protestant traditions consider apocryphal as well.

NET Bible includes a very informative section on the controversy surrounding the debate on whether or not Esther should be considered part of the canon in both the Jewish and Christian traditions:

The canonicity of the book was questioned by some in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. It is one of five OT books that were at one time regarded as antilegomena (i.e., books ‘spoken against’). The problem with Esther was the absence of any direct mention of God. Some questioned whether a book that did not mention God could be considered sacred scripture. Attempts to resolve this by discovering the tetragrammaton (YHWH) encoded in the Hebrew text (e.g., in the initial letters of four consecutive words in the Hebrew text of Esth 5:4) are unconvincing, although they do illustrate how keenly the problem was felt by some. Martin Luther also questioned the canonicity of this book, objecting to certain parts of its content. Although no copy of Esther was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, this does not necessarily mean that the Qumran community did not regard it as canonical. It is possible that the absence of Esther from what has survived at Qumran is merely a coincidence…”

ESV Study Bible mentions some additional factors in the debate over canonicity, “…certain features of the book have troubled both Jewish and Christian readers: it does not mention God, it promotes a festival not prescribed in the Law of Moses, and it has an apparently vindictive spirit that some have found offensive. As late as the Reformation, Martin Luther criticized it on the grounds that it was too aggressively Jewish and had no gospel content. Nevertheless, it was recognized as Scripture by the Jews well before the time of Christ- a long tradition clearly evident in Jewish writings just after the NT. For example, Josephus says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses ‘until Artaxerxes’ (Against Apion 1.40-41), and elsewhere he identifies Artaxerxes as ‘Ahasuerus’ in the book of Esther (Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore he apparently counts Esther as the last book written in the Jewish canon. And the Mishnah has an entire tractate (Megillah) that discusses the time and manner of reading Esther publicly on the Feast of Purim. The Jewish scholar Aquila included Esther in his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek around AD 130. In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the OT canon at the Council of Carthage in AD 397 but was widely and perhaps universally accepted in the Western church before that time (though doubts about its canonicity had persisted among some in the Eastern church).”

It should be noted, however, that the ESV Study Bible view that Esther was recognized as Scripture by the Jews long before the time of Christ, is debated. In his article Esther’s Rocky Journey to the Bible, Gary Michuta points out, “Troubles for the book of Esther started sometime between A.D. 100-135, when the Rabbinical Bible was formed. By adopting a single Hebrew text as their biblical norm, the rabbis naturally opted for the shorter Hebrew version of Esther. But we know this inclusion was not without opposition. Some rabbis continued to dispute Esther’s sacred status. In fact, several early Church fathers composed lists of the book of the Old Testament accepted in rabbinical Judaism, and some of these lists either omit Esther or note that it was disputed. It wasn’t until the late fourth century that Esther seems to be universally accepted in Judaism.”

I mentioned earlier that even the contents of Esther vary across traditions. HCSB explains that there are “three principal Esther texts. These are the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) and two Greek texts: the LXX and another Greek text referred to as the ‘alternative Alpha text’ (AT).” The AT is also sometimes referred to as the Lucianic recension, or L. HCSB continues, “The AT is a Greek translation of an earlier Hebrew text. It is shorter than the MT, omitting a number of episodes and the concluding legislation regarding Purim. The LXX text is a translation of the MT text, with some additions. It is likely that the AT represents an early account of the events described in Esther, before Purim was well established. Once Purim became a prominent festival in the life of the Jewish people, the relationship between its observance and the events that led to it was explained, resulting in the MT.”

HCSB offers the following textual evidence for this theory: “Esther 9:20 states that Mordecai recorded what had transpired and sent letters to the Jewish people instructing them to observe the Festival of Purim. This might be the AT. What follows after 9:20 is an accounting of how things developed after this, which is the MT. It is likely that Mordecai first recorded events shortly after the first celebration (9:17; c 473 BC). If we allow at least a generation to pass for the festival to become an integral part of life in the Jewish communities, we should expect the text preserved in the MT to have been written some time after 433 BC.”

At this point we’ll turn to the usual introductory topics covered for each book: authorship, dating, setting, themes,etc. After this, we’ll circle back to the topic of the content and placement of Esther’s additional material.

NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “The text of Esther does not indicate who wrote the book or when it was written. Some early church fathers thought that Ezra wrote Esther, but Clement of Alexandria suggested Mordecai.” HCSB adds that, “Jewish tradition maintains that Mordecai wrote it. This tradition is plausible in the fact that Mordecai was an eyewitness or had access to all of the eyewitnesses to the events narrated in the book. As Ahasuerus’s prime minister, he may well have placed his account in the official Persian archives (9:32; 10:2).”

Regarding date, ESV Study Bible says, “Since the book of Esther is anonymous, it cannot be dated by the years of its author. However, it matches well the time period in which it is set (the reign of Ahasuerus, 486-464 BC); hence it is probably from this time or soon after.” NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes that, “Since there are many Persian words in the book and there is no Greek influence, the book was probably written between 460 BC (i.e., after the conclusion of Xerxes I’s reign) and 331 BC (i.e., before Alexander the Great conquered Persia).”

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible gives an excellent description of the setting:

“The book of Esther is set during the era when the Persians ruled over Judah, in the reign of King Xerxes (Hebrew ‘Ahasuerus’). The Jews became subjects of the Persian Empire when Cyrus the Great, king of Media and Persia, conquered Babylon in 539 BC. (Babylon had taken over Judah in 605 BC, and many Jews were deported to Babylon as captives from 605-586 BC). Even though Cyrus had issued a decree allowing the Jewish captives to return to their homelands, many had chosen to remain in Babylon. After living there for almost half a century, they had become well settled and prosperous. The thought of returning to the ruined and isolated land of Judah had little appeal to them. Some of these Jews made their way even father east, to the new seat of power in the Eastern world: Susa, the capital of Persia. There they again found that ambitious and capable individuals could attain positions of affluence and influence, as the case of Nehemiah, cupbearer for Artaxerxes I, demonstrates. Esther’s story is set in this community of Persian Jews- far from their homeland, yet true to their heritage.

“King Xerxes I (486-465 BC) is well known from the work of the Greek author Herodotus, who wrote The Histories, which includes a history of the Persian Wars, around 445 BC. Since the Greeks and the Persians were bitter enemies, Herodotus’s account must be read with a critical eye. But even so, with the aid of the 20 or so inscriptions attributed to Xerxes and with information from other classical authors, we can put together a descent profile of his early reign. Xerxes was the son of King Darius I and Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great. He was the fourth legitimate monarch of the so-called Achaemenid Dynasty, which ruled Persia from Cyrus until the coming of Alexander the Great in 335 BC.

“When Xerxes took the throne, he was confronted with insurrection: Egypt had begun to revolt during the days of Darius, and the province of Babylon revolted soon after Xerxes’ enthronement. Both revolts were put down efficiently. Xerxes dealt with Babylon harshly, destroying local temples and carrying away a large statue of the Babylon principal deity Marduk. It is apparent that Xerxes was not as pious, at least toward foreign deities, as his grandfather Cyrus the Great had been.

“Xerxes is most famous for his attempt to invade Greece, chronicled by Herodotus. In 481 BC, Xerxes’ forces marched inland and took the city of Athens, but they did not hold it for long. In 479 BC, the Greeks rallied and expelled the Persians from their land. Xerxes never attempted another invasion of Greece. Instead, he seems to have devoted the latter years of his reign to expanding Persepolis, a royal residence and Persian religious center.

“The events recorded in Esther span the first half of Xerxes’ career. Est 1, in which Vashti is deposed as queen, is dated to the third year of Xerxes reign (1:3), which would have been before he left on his Greek campaign. The next dated event in the book is Esther’s installation as queen (Est 2:16); it is dated to the tenth month of the seventh year of Xerxes’ reign, which would have been a few months after his return from Greece. (The preparations of the candidates for queen, which took a full year [Est 2:12], would have begun while Xerxes was away in Greece…”

The image above is from ESV Study Bible. “The Persian Empire at the Time of Esther c. 479 BC. Long before Esther’s time, the people of Israel and Judah (later called Jews) had been dispersed throughout the Near East by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Eventually the Persians absorbed nearly all of these lands into their empire, which reached its greatest extent during the time of Esther. Thus Haman’s plot to exterminate all Jews throughout the Persian Empire would have annihilated virtually all of the Jewish people, and Esther’s daring actions saved them from complete destruction.”

HCSB discusses that, “Many scholars doubt the historicity of the events described in the book because there is no evidence outside the Bible for some of the characters, events, and customs described in the book. Consequently these scholars prefer to designate the book as something other than history. Some have suggested that the book of Esther is a wisdom tale, a historical romance, a festival tale, a novel whose central characters are Jews living outside their homeland, a sermon with a moral, a Persian court chronicle, and even a comedy along the lines of Greek comedy.”

However, ESV Archaeology Study Bible counters that “there is no convincing reason to doubt its accuracy” and goes on to mention contributions from archaeology that support the book’s reliability. “The narrative takes place during the time of Ahasuerus…in the winter capital at Susa (Shushan in Hebrew). Thanks to extensive excavation by French archaeologists, this setting is well known. Interestingly, at least two inscriptions testify to Xerxes I residing there early in his reign.”

The same source continues, “Although the author is unknown, the story accurately reflects the contemporary conditions of the palace, customs, and history known from Greek sources, such as Herodotus (born early in the fifth century BC), thousands of fifth-century BC Persian tablets discovered by archaeology, and elsewhere in the Bible (cf Ezra 4:6)…The author of Esther is well informed about the royal residence and the character of the king. With regard to the palace, excavations have identified a throne room, a harem, and the location of the ‘garden,’ watered by the nearby river (cf Est 1:5; 7:7). According to the foundation deposit of Darius discovered at Susa, ivory was brought from Ethiopia and India (cf 1:1). The word puru was discovered on dice, reminding us of the origin of the feast of Purim and the notion of destiny being decided by ‘lots.’…There is plenty of evidence for Xerxes’ exploits with women, determination to have his own way, and willingness to dismiss a queen and choose another.”

ESV Study Bible generalizes the theme as follows, “The book of Esther tells how a Jewish girl became the queen of Persia and saved her people from a plot to destroy them. She is assisted in this by Mordecai, her cousin and guardian. It also explains how a special festival, called Purim, was established to recall and celebrate the deliverance that the Jews had expected.”

The same source goes on to list three more key themes:

“1. Divine providence. While God is never mentioned in the book, there are many hints of his presence…The deliverance experienced here in Esther is very different from the exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses. There are no signs and wonders, no special revelations, no prophet like Moses- and no one even mentions God! Yet the way the story is told makes it clear that, even when God is most hidden, he is still present and working to protect and deliver his chosen people.”

“2. Human responsibility. Although the story shows that the outcome is a divine gift rather than a human achievement, Esther and Mordecai do show great initiative and courage, and their actions are obviously significant…Esther and Mordecai both illustrate the fact that divine providence does not negate the responsibility of people to act with courage and resolve when circumstances require it.”

“3. The absurdity of wickedness. Ahasuerus and Haman were important people who wielded considerable power. But the story of Esther again and again evokes laughter at their expense. Ahasuerus rules over 127 provinces but cannot control his wife (Queen Vashti)…The reader is clearly meant to laugh at the way his [Haman’s] vanity traps him into having to publicly honor the very man he intended to kill…and his death on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai…is a classic case of a villain falling into his own pit…This is all obviously meant to teach that the arrogant of this world are not nearly as powerful as they think they are, and that when they oppose God’s people (and therefore God himself) they only succeed in bringing about their own destruction. God laughs at such people (Ps 2:4), and the story of Esther invites us to laugh with him.”

Now let’s return to the subject of the additional Esther material and where it can be found.

Bible Gateway notes:

“The six passages making up the Additions to Esther are identified by letters. Each passage may be briefly summarized.

Addition A (11:2-12:6) is a dream of Mordecai in which two great dragons appear ready to fight. A tiny spring grew into a great river when the righteous nation cried to God. Mordecai later overheard two eunuchs plotting against the king. He reported them and was rewarded by appointment to a high office. All this precedes Esther 1:1.

Addition B (13:1-7) is the text of the edict of Ahasuerus (Gr. has Artaxerxes) against the Jews. It is to be inserted after 3:13.

Addition C (13:8-14:19) gives the prayers of Mordecai and Esther. It follows 4:17.

Addition D (15:1-16; Lat. 15:4-19) is an elaboration of 5:1, 2 and should be inserted before 5:3. This passage describes the anger of the king at Esther’s intrusion, but God changed the king’s heart and attitude toward Esther.

Addition E (16:1-24) gives the text of the edict of Ahasuerus in behalf of the Jews. This passage follows 8:12.

Addition F (10:4-11:1), which follows 10:3, is the interpretation of Mordecai’s dream. The two dragons are Mordecai and Haman, and the tiny spring is Esther. The ‘lots’ of Purim are two destinies, a ‘lot’ for the Jews and a ‘lot’ for the Gentiles.”

The Bible Gateway summary above provides a brief synopsis of the history of the location of this additional material:

“Whether all the additions were present in the text at the time of the tr. [translation] is a matter of debate. All the Gr.[Greek] recensions and the Old Lat. [Latin] text contain the additions in their proper place. When Jerome made his Vul. tr. [Vulgate translation], he removed these passages because they did not appear in the Heb.[Hebrew], and he placed them at the end of the book with explanatory notes indicating where they should be inserted. Subsequent editors removed the notes. Finally, when Stephen Langton (d. 1228) divided the Lat. Bible into chs., he numbered the additions, which had been placed at the end of the book, in consecutive order. This practice was followed by Luther and the Eng. VSS [English versions]. In The Jerusalem Bible these additions are in the text, but are printed in italicized type.”

Of course, if you’re reading one of the most common Protestant Bible versions, this

material will likely be completely absent. Most Protestant Bibles no longer contain the Apocrypha placed at the end of the Bible. However, the article How the Book of Esther Changed from My Jewish Learning notes that since, “The Additions make little sense at the end of the book since they are out of context.” For this reason, “…some modern Christian Bibles have reinstated them into their appropriate positions within the story.”

NLT Illustrated Study Bible provides the following outline for the book of Esther:

1:1 – 2:18 Xerxes Replaces His Queen

2:19 – 3:15 Haman Plots to Destroy the Jews

4:1 – 5:14 Mordecai and Esther Counter Haman’s Plot

6:1 – 7:10 Mordecai Honored, Haman Executed

8:1 – 9:19 Rescue for the Jews

9:20-32 The Festival of Purim

10:1-3 The Greatness of Xerxes and Mordecai

I am making no assertions on the canonicity of the additional material of Esther. However, Semitic scholar Dr. Michael Heiser explains in his short article, The New Testament Writers Had the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in their Heads:

“I often get the question of whether I think books like 1 Enoch are canonical. I tell people I don’t — and that the question doesn’t matter. A book doesn’t need to be canonical to be useful, or to inform theological thinking. It’s quite evident the NT writers had the content of 1 Enoch and other non-canonical books floating around in their heads. They read them, and those books at times helped them articulate some point in their own letters, or molded their thinking. By way of illustration, if I read Calvin’s Institutes and his commentary on Romans, and then wrote my own Bible study guide about the meaning of the book of Romans, it would be impossible to not have Calvin in my head (no matter how predisposed I was to what Calvin said). Saying the New Testament writers were intellectually divorced from, and uninfluenced by, this material is dishonest and, frankly, uninformed.”

Because I agree with the many Protestant scholars who see historical value in apocryphal works regardless of canonicity, I am going to include Esther’s additional material in its appropriate positions in the story. These additions will be clearly marked by their appropriate letter and the text will be italicized.

Click here to go to chapter 1