The Book of Esther

From a Jewish Perspective

To my daughter Erin, who would surely go before the king without an invitation and risk her life to protect her family. She has the heart, the courage and the wisdom of a queen.

Everyone loves a good story. If it tells of one’s own ancestry, shows them in a good light, gives evidence of ADONAI at work in their lives to secure their future, so much the better. All this is true in the book of Esther. Though no mention is made of the providence of the LORD, it is obvious that He is orchestrating everything behind the scenes. The dramatic reversal of a horrendous fate that seemed poised to wipe out the entire Jewish race so impressed the human author that he wrote a story for the ages. It continues to be the number one favorite among Jewish families and, as a traditional custom, is read every year at Purim. But it nevertheless raises many questions. Is God still in control? Is He still active in the lives of His people and working out His plan, or has He abandoned Isra'el? The teller of this epic story answers those questions for his own generation.

The Historical Setting

The book takes place in the Persian period (539-331 BC) after many Israelites had returned from the Babylonian Exile to the land of Palestine to rebuild the Temple and set up the sacrificial system. Most Israelite captives, however, chose not to return to their homeland. They should have returned because both Isaiah and Jeremiah had urged the pre-exile nation to leave Babylon (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8 and 51:6) after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10) so that ADONAI could bless them (Deuteronomy 28). Esther and Mordecai had not returned to the Land and did not seem interested in doing so. The name Xerxes is a Greek derivation from the Persian khshayarshan, but the Jews called him Ahasuerus. He succeeded his father Darius I to the throne in 486 BC and was a strong and effective leader. The events in Esther occur between Ezra 6 and 7, and extend over a period of at least ten years – from 483 BC, Ahasuerus’ third year (Esther 1:3) to the end of his twelfth year (Esther 3:7). At the time that Ahasuerus ascended to the throne, Persia was in conflict with the Greeks on their western frontier. The kings father Darius I had been defeated in his attempt to take Athens. The Persian Empire was resting in preparation for its next campaign against the Greeks.

King Ahasuerus

The Greek historian Herodotus, who was born around the time Ahasuerus ascended to the throne, wrote a history of the wars between Greece and Persia. About a third of his book dealt with the reign of Ahasuerus. Herodotus described him as bold, ambitious, handsome, stately and self-indulgent in every way. At one point he was attracted to his brother Masistes’ wife. When she rebuffed him, Ahasuerus married her daughter Artaynte to his son Darius II then seduced Artaynte himself! The king allowed his wife to take revenge on Artaynte’s mother, and when Masistes fought back, Ahasuerus had his own brother and nephews executed along with their army.

This was the same king who ordered a bridge to be built over the Hellespont. But on learning that the bridge had been destroyed by a sea storm just after its completion, he was so blindly enraged that he commanded three hundred strokes of the scourge be inflicted on the sea, and a pair of shackles to be thrown into it at the Hellespont. Then the unfortunate builders of the bridge were beheaded.

He was either your best friend or your worst enemy. After being offered a sum of gold equivalent to tens of millions of dollars by Pythius of Lydia toward the expenses of a military campaign, the king was so pleased that he returned the gold, along with a generous present. But shortly afterwards, when the same Pythius made a request for Ahasuerus to spare his eldest son, his only support in his old age, from execution, the king furiously ordered the son to be cut into half and the army to march between the halves. In short, Herodotus’ portrayal of Ahasuerus is exactly what we find in the book of Esther, as incredible as his deeds may seem to us.1

Unique Characteristics

Just as Esther’s Jewishness was hidden for most of the book, the name of God is also hidden. As if written in a code specifically designed for the Jews, the name of ADONAI is hidden four times in the Hebrew text for those who would care to look for it. As will be explained further in the commentary itself, the name YHWH is hidden in 1:20, 5:4, 5:13 and 7:7. Other unique characteristics are seen in the fact that the New Covenant does not quote from the book of Esther, nor have copies of it been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Torah or its sacrifices are also never referred to in the book. There is no mention of even one tiny miracle in the book. Prayer is never mentioned, although fasting is. In other postexilic books prayer is very important to the main characters (Ezra and Nehemiah are good examples), but in Esther nothing is said about it. I think it is fair to say that both Esther and Mordecai seem to have lacked spiritual awareness except in their assurance that God would protect His people.

Intended Audience

Knowing who the original recipients of Esther are help us to interpret the book. Esther includes a number of dates that tie the account to a particular time in the Persian Empire, but no explicit evidence about its intended audience. Some believe that the book was written in Persia and taken back to Palestine, where it was added to the collection of biblical books. More likely, however, the author lived in Palestine and wrote his account of the events that he had seen transpire in the Persian Empire for the benefit of the Jews who lived both inside and outside the Land.

At the time of the writing the Jews in Palestine were going through difficult times in their struggle to rebuild their nation and to re-establish Temple worship. The people were not in good spiritual shape. Of course, both Ezra and Nehemiah noted the reason for the nation’s lowly condition: the Israelites had not been following God’s Word and, therefore, were under His curse rather than His promise of blessing (Deuteronomy 28-30). The book of Esther, then, would have been a great encouragement to those struggling Jews. It would have helped them realize that the surrounding enemies that seemed so overwhelming could never conquer them.2

Author and Date

The author of Esther is unknown, but he was almost certainly a Jew living in the Persian Empire, perhaps even Susa, for he had as accurate a knowledge of Persian customs and terms as modern archaeologists have. The Talmud says the men of the Great Synagogue were its authors (see my commentary on The Life of Christ  Lg - The Great Sanhedrin). But more than likely, the author was a single person, and not necessarily a famous one at that. His description of the citadel of Susa was very precise. The account has all the characteristics of a person who was actually there, for he described the events as an eyewitness. On the one hand, he probably wrote after the death of Ahasuerus in 465 BC, when such an unflattering description of the king would not have endangered either himself, Mordecai or Esther. On the other hand, he almost certainly wrote before Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 BC, for he used Persian words frequently, but never Greek ones.

Purpose of the Book

Esther was written to encourage the returned Jewish exiles by reminding them of the faithfulness of ADONAI who would keep His promises to the nation. The author was describing God’s unfailing preservation of His people, even disobedient people such as Esther and Mordecai, who had not returned to the land of Palestine. The human author also explained how the feast of Purim began. Each time the book of Esther was read, it would encourage Jews either in the Land or in the Diaspora.

The book of Esther is still treasured by Jews today and read annually in the synagogues on Purim because they find in it the reassurance that they will survive as a people against the powers that want to destroy them. Its contemporary significance for the Jewish people is captured in the words of Robert Gordis:

Anti-Semites have always hated the book, and the Nazis forbade it’s reading in the crematoria and the concentration camps. In the dark days before their deaths, Jewish inmates of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, and Beergen-Belsen wrote the book of Esther from memory and read it in secret on Purim. Both they and their brutal foes understood its message. This unforgettable book teaches the Jewish resistance and annihilation, then as now, represents the service of God and devotion to His cause. In every age, martyrs and heroes, as well as ordinary men and women, have seen in it not merely a record of past deliverance but a prophecy of future salvation.3

 

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