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An Introduction to the Book of Esther

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I. TITLE: The book is named after the character “Esther”

A. In Hebrew the title is rtsa which may be derived from the Persian word for star, stara1

B. In Greek the title is transliterated to ESQHR2

II. AUTHOR: Unstated and Unknown (Mordecai or Nehemiah?)

A. External Evidence:

1. The Babylonian Talmud attributes the writing of Esther to the men of the Great Synagogue3

2. Josephus affirmed that Mordecai wrote the book of Esther4

3. Some Rabbinic circles also affirmed that Mordecai wrote the book of Esther5

B. Internal Evidence:

1. The mention of Mordecai and his benevolence in Esther 10:3 may argue against Mordecai as the author of the book, but it need not completely eliminate him

2. The author seems to have been a resident of Persia rather than Palestine (but see Nehemiah below)

a. He had intimate knowledge of Persian customs

b. He had intimate knowledge of the layout of Susa and the royal palaces6

3. Sources of the author include:

a. The writings of Mordecai (Esther 9:20)

b. The books of the Chronicles of the Median and Persian kings (Esther 2:23; 6:1; 10:2)

c. Probably some oral traditions

4. The focus of the book implies that the author was a Jew interested in Jewish nationalism

C. A Possible Candidate--Nehemiah:

1. Nehemiah served Artaxerxes Longimanus I (465-424 B.C.), the successor of Xerxes (Ahasuerus, 486-464 B.C.)7

a. Nehemiah may have either known, or known of Mordecai

b. Nehemiah would have known of the event of Purim proclaimed in Esther either through living through it or hearing of it by his parents

2. Nehemiah was familiar with the palace and the government

3. Nehemiah was literate and had access to royal archives

4. Nehemiah may have written this book to reassure his people in Palestine of God’s sovereign protection and provision for their lives8

III. DATE: Mid-to-Late Fifth Century B.C. (464-415 B.C.)

A. Internal Evidence:

1. It seems that the book was written after the death of Ahasuerus when His official state history had been compiled (1:1; 10:1-2)9

2. The Hebrew “Ahasuerus” is usually identified with Xerxes I (486-465/64 B.C.)

a. The Persian was khshayarsha

b. The Elephantine papyri spell the name kshy’resh which is close to the Greek Xerxes

3. The book reflects the background of the Jewish dispersion:

a. Intimate knowledge of Persian customs

b. Intimate knowledge of the topography of Susa and the Persian royal palaces10

c. Persian names and loan-words throughout the book

4. The events of the book of Esther occurred between those found in Ezra 6 and Ezra 7 extending over a decade11

B. External Evidence:

1. The LXX and Joseph read “Artaxexes” throughout; some have affirmed that this implied an identification with Artaxerxes II (404-359 B.C.), but traditionally the references was identified with Xerxes I”12

2. Those who identify a late date for Esther (c. 135-104 B.C.) understand the book to be a description of the Maccabean struggle under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Haman)

a. But this allegorical identification defies the historical clues which are in the text (2:5-6)

b. But the fighting in Esther is not for religion (as with the Maccabean era), but for the very existence of the people

c. But the local of the book is Persia and not Palestine

d. But the manuscript discoveries mitigate against a Maccabean date13

e. But Esther shows no evidence of the legalistic Judaism of the Maccabean era (Torah, prayer, Jewish feasts etc.)14

f. But the book does not have apocalyptic elements (Michael, angelic beings, Satan, dualism, etc.)

C. Conclusions:

1. If Ahasuerus is identified with Xerxes I, than that book was not written before 465/4 B.C.

2. Most conservatives think that the author lived during the end of the fifth century B.C. or the close of the Persian Period (539-333)15

3. If Nehemiah was the author (above), then this would provide collaborating evidence for a mid-to-late fifth century date (464-415 B.C.)16


A. Although Esther 2:5-7 has been considered a problem in that it was thought to affirm that Mordecai was carried into captivity in 597 and the story of Esther occurred 124 years later; but it is better understood that Kish was the one taken into captivity and that Mordecai was born within Persia17

B. Some have objected that Amestris was a powerful wife of Ahasuerus, and her name cannot be connected with either Vashti’s or Esther’s name:18

1. This may be explained by the fact that Ahasuerus had a large harem from which he may have changed wives several times

2. This may be explained by the fact that it was not uncommon for nobles to have several names in those days (e.g., Xerxes/Ahasuerus)

C. Some have objected to Xerxes sending decrees in different languages, but this may have well be due the tolerance of the Persians towards those people whom they had conquered19

D. Some have objected to the number of people who were killed on the day of Purim:

1. But large massacres occurred before this time in the Ancient Near East20

2. When 75,000 is extended into the many cities of the Persian empire, it is not implausible

3. The background of the book of Esther is so full of accurate Persian detail that it may be assumed that this number is also true21

E. Some have objected that the feast of Purim is not to be identified with the “lot” but with other systems of celebration like the Persian spring festival, the Babylonian feast, or the Greek pithoigia or “cask-opening” season marked by drinking and giving gifts22, but it has been demonstrated that the term for Purim comes from the Assyrian word puru meaning a “die” or “lot” describing the Persian method of throwing dice which was similar to the Jewish practice of “casting lots”23

F. This work is a theological treatise of history in narrative form24


A. The theme of triumph of Judaism over her enemies made Esther immediately popular

B. There have been protests about including Esther in the canon of scripture before and after the Council of Jamnia which pronounced it canonical25

C. In A.D. 120 Esther was basically secured in the canon with the Christian church accepting it overall26


A. To provide the historical background for the feast of Purim27

B. To emphasize the continuing, ongoing, religious significance of the Jewish people28

C. To encourage the Babylonian/Persian Jews and those who had returned to Palestine (if Nehemiah is the author) of God’s providential ability and willingness to preserve them29 against their enemies30

1 Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 425.

2 Hill and Walton write, In the Greek translation, the book has over a hundred additional verses. This longer version was available as early as Jerome in the fourth century A.D. and already had a long tradition by then. In this expanded form the story included such passages as a dream of Mordecai that reveals to him the plot against the king, letters from Mordecai and Xerxes, and prayers of Mordecai and Esther. These additions served the function of inserting God more obviously into the plot, but they have no claim to authenticity (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 238-239).

3 Baba Bathra 15a.

4 Antiquities XI.6.1, but the ending of the book gives the impression that Mordecai's career was over.

5 See R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1087, n. 1.

6 See illustrations in Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 241; John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God's Sovereignty, 6-9; LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 625.

7 John Bright, A History of Israel, 379; F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, 14-16.

8 Derickson writes, Having returned to Judah to restore Jerusalem and being involved with the reconstruction of the people both nationally and spiritually (alongside Ezra), he would have had a personal interest and seen a need for the Palestinian Jews to be reassured of God's protection and provision for their well being. Thus (I speculate) upon his return to Persia following his tour as governor of Judah he very likely interviewed eye witnesses and/or researched the records and wrote the Scroll of Esther (Gary W. Derickson, An Argument of Esther, [paper submitted for the course 372 Seminar in Old Testament Historical Literature, Spring 1989], 2).

9 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1087. The epilogue in Esther 10:1-2 is understood to be a reference to his death like those in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

10 Ibid., 1097-98.

11 John A. Martin, Esther, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 699.

12 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1088.

13 Ibid., 1090. Hill and Walton affirm that analysis of the Hebrew language used in the book indicates that it is older than the second century B.C. (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 238). This is because the Greek additions were already in the LXX (second century at the latest) and they were not part of the original Hebrew (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 628). The Hebrew of Esther is not like that found in the Dead Sea Scrolls concerning which Esther is the only canonical book not found at Qumran (Ibid.).

14 LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 628.

15 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1088.

16 Derickson writes, The arguments for early writing all fit well for Nehemiah as its author. He would have been literate in Hebrew and could have incorporated the Persian loan words easily since he would have also been fully literate in their language. Finally, his position within the Persian court could well account for his intentional silence concerning the name of God or any references to prayer. He would have been sensitive to court attitudes concerning non-state religions. His own memoirs (the Book of Nehemiah), on the other hand, would have been more personal and could have been left in or sent to Judah without needing to be presented before the king or another of his officials for approval (Gary W. Derickson, An Argument of Esther, [paper submitted for the course 372 Seminar in Old Testament Historical Literature, Spring 1989], 4).

17 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1090.

18 Ibid., 1091.

19 Ibid., 1092.

20 Ibid.

21 La Sor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey, 626.

22 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1093-95.

23 Ibid., 1095; LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 625, n. 3.

24 Hill and Walton write, Defending the accuracy of the book, however, does not obligate the interpreter to postulate that the book's primary intention is to record history. The literary style and features of the book do not commend it as belonging to a genre that is intended only to chronicle history. On the contrary, it possesses many of the characteristics of the modern short story, with fast-paced action, narrative tension, irony, and reversal. The blend of these literary features with a historical setting and a theological purpose, however, suggest that the genre of the book of Esther is unique to itself. There is nothing like it in ancient literature, and in the Bible, only the story of Joseph comes close (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 240).

LaSor et al call the work a historical novella or short story, but by saying such they question the truthfulness of the book (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 626, 629).

25 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1100; The Jerusalem Talmud questioned the books canonicity because it introduced a new feast (Meg. 70d; cf. LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 627, n. 7).

26 For a history of critical challenge see R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1100. LaSor et al affirm that Esther was not officially recognized as Scripture by Christians until A. D. 397 at the council of Carthage (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 627, n. 7).

27 This includes explaining the two days when Purim was celebrated (cf. 9:20-27).

Childs writes, The festival celebrate the days of rest when the Jew got relief from their enemies (v. 22). It is, therefore, not to be understood as a victory celebration, but a rejoicing over the relief from persecution, a celebration of rest (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 604). Continuing he writes, What is the canonical effect on the book of Esther which this appendix in 9.20-32 provides? The original story of the persecution and rescue of the Jews is retained as normative scripture along with its intrigue, brutality, nationalism, and secularity, but the story has been given a new theological interpretation within the worship of Israel. The celebration is set in the framework of fasting and mourning, the full religious meaning of which has been carefully defined throughout the rest of Israel's sacred tradition. The manner of the celebration in all its original 'secularity' is unchanged, but the object of the hilarity is redefined. All Israel shares in the joy of rest and relief which is dramatized by the giving of gifts,especially to the poor. It is a time to remember by hearing again the story of Purim. The effect of the reshaping of the festival is not to make a secular festival into a religious one, but to interpret the meaning of Purim in all its secularity in the context of Israel's existence, which is religious. The very language by which the festival is now regulated as the 'appointed seasons', 'gifts to the poor', 'rest from enemies', 'remembrance throughout every generation ... forever', draws Purim within the orbit of Israel's religious traditions (Ibid., 604-605)..

28 Childs writes, W. Visher saw the theological significance of Esther to lie in the manner in which it posed the 'Jewish question'. E. Bickerman denied that there ever was such an issue in the book. Perhaps the basic theological issue at stake in this disagreement has been more clearly formulated by R. Gordis: 'It is fundamental to the Jewish worl-outlook that the preservation of the Jewish people is itself a religious obligation of the first magnitude' (Megillat, 13). In my judgment, Gordis' assertion holds true for Christian theology if kept within the critical guidelines which have been fixed by the canonical context of Esther.

On the one hand, the book of Esther provides the strongest canonical warrant in the whole Old Testament for the religious significance of the Jewish people in an ethnic sense. The inclusion of Esther within the Christian canon serves as a check against all attempts to spiritualize the concept of Israel--usually by misinterpreting Paul--and thus removing the ultimate scandal of biblical particularity. On the other hand, the canonical shape of Esther has built into the fabric of the book a theological criticism of all forms of Jewish nationalism which occurs whenever 'Jewishness' is divorced from the sacred traditions which constitute the grounds of Israel's existence under God (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 607).

29 Hill and Walton write, The book of Esther has very particular points to make about the saving acts of the Lord. Israel's history was replete with the marvelous interventions of the Lord on behalf of his covenant people. The mighty plagues, the deliverance fro Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the crumbling of the walls of Jericho were classic examples of Yahweh's miraculous deliverance of Israel. More recently, the return of the exiles from their Babylonian captivity was evidence of God's continuing ability to accomplish the impossible.

But God is not so visible in the book of Esther. Where others may see coincidences, Israel saw the Lord at work. A king's insomnia could just as easily bring deliverance as receding waters. In the course of this book it therefore becomes evident that the well-known themes of prophecy and wisdom were still viable expressions of God's intentions even though Israel was scattered among the nations. The prophetic theme of God's protection of Israel and the judgment of her enemies (e.g., Zech. 1:21) was operating as the plot unfolded. Even more evident is the wisdom theme that God would prosper the righteous and bring to naught the schemes of the wicked (cf. Ps. 37:12-15).

The message comes through clearly: God's methods may vary, but his purposes do not. His workings may be obscured to skeptics by the disguise of coincidence, but the people of God recognize his sovereign hand in the ebb and flow of history. His name is not mentioned, but his influence is unmistakable (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 241).

30 Martin does not think that the book was written in Persia, but in Palestine to encourage Israelites that God was working on their behalf (John A. Martin, Esther, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 699). Concerning its setting he writes, At the time of the writing of the book ... the Jews in Palestine were going through difficult times in their struggle to rebuild their nation and to reestablish temple worship. It had taken the nation 21 years to complete the building of the temple (536-515) and, as is evident from the last half of the Book of Ezra, the people were not in good spiritual condition during the reign of Artaxerxes (464-424). Of course both Ezra and Nehemiah noted the reason for the nation's lowly condition; the people had not been following the Deuteronomic Covenant and therefore were under God's curse rather than under His promise of blessing. The Book of Esther, then, would have been a great encouragement to thee struggling Jews. It would have helped them realize that the surrounding peoples which seemed so awesome could never conquer the unique people of God. Israel was protected by God even though a large number of them was outside the land. The Book of Esther would also encourage them to worship the God of Israel, though He is not mentioned by name in it (Ibid., 699-700).

Childs notes the typology which the writer uses in identifying Haman and Mordecai through genealogies when he writes, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, is portrayed as the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite (3.1). He is thus linked to Agag, the king of the Amalekites (I Sam. 15.32), and to the long tradition of enmity with this tribe (Ex. 17.8ff.; Deut. 25.17ff.; I Sam. 15.17ff). Conversely, Mordecai is described as a descendant of Kish, the father of Saul. The effect of the introduction of these genealogies is, of course, to typify the characters, a move which the later midrashim exploited to the fullest (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 605).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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