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10. Esther

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I. Introduction.

LaSor, et al., say: “Esther is a remarkably different biblical book: neither the word for God nor the name Yahweh occurs in the Hebrew text; the scene is Susa, winter capital of Persia, not Israel; the book concerns the marriage of its Jewish heroine with a gentile king; it solves the problem of an incipient anti-Semitism (actually, anti-Jewish action) by a bloody self-defense, which—even worse—is so enjoyable that it is repeated by Esther’s request on the following day! Nevertheless, the scroll belongs in the canon, as Jewish scholars recognized after long discussion, and commands consideration.”1

Actually, LaSor’s assessment is too negative. The story of Esther shows God’s providential protection of His people in exile and explains the origin of the feast of Purim. Esther is presented in story form whereas the material we have covered so far is more historical narrative. More than story, it is drama and can almost be divided into scenes as we will do.2

The Ahasuerus of 1:1 is usually linked with Xerxes (485‑465 B.C.). Ahasu-erus is also mentioned in Ezra 4:6. Xerxes was defeated by the Greeks at Salamis and Plataea in 480 B.C. The events of Esther 2 and following are usually linked with those events. Vashti is linked by Wright with Amestris, Xerxes’ wife and the situation of Esther 2 is linked with Herodotus’ story of Amestris’ vengeance on her husband by mutilating the mother of a girl with whom he had a dalliance.

II. Outline of Esther.

A. Scene 1: The Great Banquet (Preparation for the Greek War?) (1:1‑22).

1. The historical background for the book is given (1:1‑2).

India to Ethiopia is the vast Persian territory known from the Greek sources. The 127 provinces are not to be confused with the Satrapies. Judah was a province under the Satrap of Abar Nahara. (Herodotus says there were 20 Satrapies.) The setting is in the capital of Susa (one of three).

2. The king throws a party for all his important invited guests (1:3‑9) (N. B. his third year).

The first one lasts for 180 days (1:3‑4). The second one for even more people lasts seven days (1:5‑8). Vashti/Amestris has a banquet for the women (1:9).

3. The king demands an appearance of Vashti (1:10‑22).

The king, in a drunken stupor, decides to show off his wife (1:10‑11). Vashti refuses (perhaps he wanted some lewd performance from her; Wright thinks she might have been pregnant) (1:12). The king consults with his counselors to determine the proper punishment for his wife (1:13‑15). They advise the king to depose his wife and to inform all the people of his provinces of his act so that every man may be master in his house (1:16‑22).

B. Scene 2: Four years later—the introduction of Esther and Mordecai (2:1‑23).

1. The lapse of four years (1:1 with 2:16) is probably to be accounted for by the years of preparation for the Greek war and the war itself.

Wright links the replacement of Vashti/Amestris with Xerxes’ desire to get rid of his wife after she had mutilated the wife of Xerxes’ brother. He says the vow at the banquet now becomes an excuse for him to replace her.

2. The king is advised to seek out young virgins and to choose a new queen from among them (2:1-4).

3. Mordecai and Esther are now introduced to the story (2:5‑7).

a. Mordecai is probably a corruption of Babylonian Marduk, a Babylonian deity.

Kish was Saul’s father; Shimei was the one who cursed David when he fled. These may be presented as ancestors, not immediate relatives. The question arises about the age of Mordecai: if he were carried away even as a baby, he would be over 120 years old. The answer may be that the “who” of v. 6 refers to Kish (assuming this is not Saul’s father, but a later man who was Mordecai’s actual father).

Wright equates him with a Martakas, a eunuch who was very close to the king in his campaign against the Greeks and with a Marduka, a high official at Susa during the early years of Xerxes. He may have had a political set‑back (did he side with Vashti/Amestris and lose ground?). He had to have some political clout to get Esther introduced and to ignore Haman’s demands to bow to him.3

b. Esther (her Hebrew name was Hadassah or “Myrtle”) has a Persian name related to the Greek word aster or “Star.” Mordecai, her cousin, reared her after the death of her parents.

4. Esther is chosen as the new queen (2:8‑18).

a. Esther gains favor with the eunuch in charge (2:8‑9).4 She does not reveal her Jewish identity as Mordecai had instructed her (2:10). Mordecai keeps in touch (2:11). Esther greatly pleases the king and he chooses her as his new queen (2:12‑18).

b. The reality of this situation must be faced. Esther is competing with other young women to become the queen and a part of the harem. She had sex with the king and was then selected to become the queen. This is hardly the Old Testament picture of virtue, but God uses the situation in spite of the “non-ideal” setting.

5. Mordecai shows loyalty to the king which will grant him favor in the days to come (2:19‑23).

The pace quickens as Mordecai is allowed to overhear a plot against the king’s life.5 Mordecai passed the word on to Esther who informed the king in Mordecai’s name and it became a part of court chronicles. This is important for the later situation. The plot was frustrated and the conspirators hanged.

C. Scene 3: Introduction of the enemy Haman (3:1‑15).

1. Haman the Agagite wants to destroy all Jews (3:1‑6).

a. Agag is the name of the Amalekite Saul spared (1 Samuel 15); is this intended irony that a descendent of Saul is pitted against a descendent of Agag? There is no way to prove any connection (3:1).

b. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman (because of implications of deity or other reasons?), and Haman is infuriated and decides to attack all Jews (3:2‑6).

2. Haman makes plans to destroy the Jews (3:7‑15).

He casts lots to find a lucky day. In the twelfth year of the king (451 B.C.) he convinces the king to kill the Jews in the various provinces and take their money (3:8‑11).6 The official letters are drawn up and sent out (3:12‑15).

D. Scene 4: Haman is defeated by Mordecai and Esther (4:1—7:10).

1. Mordecai forces Esther’s hand to help the Jews (4:1‑17).

Mordecai fasts and wails in the midst of the city, and there is mourning in all the provinces (4:1‑3). Esther tries to comfort him, but he tells her of the imminent threat and asks her to appeal to the king (4:4‑8). Esther tells him there is nothing she can do, but Mordecai warns her she will not escape. She agrees to approach the king if the Jewish community will fast for her (4:9‑17).

2. Esther approaches the king with prudence and sets her trap (5:1‑14).

a. She is received by the king, and at his bidding requests a banquet with Haman present (5:1‑4).7

b. Haman comes to this feast, and the queen asks that he come again the next day to another feast (5:5‑8).

c. Haman is thrilled and recounts all his good fortune to his family. However, his enthusiasm is dampened by the fact that Mordecai refuses to honor him (notice the irony building up). His wife and friends suggest that he prepare a high gallows on which to hang Mordecai (5:9‑15).8

3. The first step in Haman’s downfall is the elevation of Mordecai (6:1‑14).

a. The king’s insomnia leads him to promote Mordecai (6:1‑9).

The chronicles are read to put him to sleep, and he is reminded of Mordecai’s act that saved his life (6:1‑2). The king wants to honor him and calls for the first person in the court who happens to be Haman (6:3‑4). (He had come to ask about having Mordecai hanged.) Haman is asked for suggestions to honor someone, and he happily complies, thinking he is the someone (6:5‑9). (Notice more irony building up.)

b. Haman is humiliated by having to carry out the honor he hoped would be his but is given to Mordecai (6:10‑14).

He leads an ornately attired Mordecai on a horse proclaiming his honor (6:10‑11). He goes home completely embarrassed and receives his summons to appear at the banquet (6:12‑14). (When it rains, it pours.)

4. The final step in Haman’s downfall comes at the banquet (7:1‑10).

The king asks Esther to make her request. Esther tells him of an enemy of her people, and when the king asks who, she tells him it is Haman (7:1‑6). The king walks away in his anger, and Haman falls on Esther’s couch to plead mercy. The king orders his execution, and he is hanged on the tree designed for Mordecai (7:7‑10).

E. Scene 5: Disaster is averted by Mordecai and Esther’s action (8:1—9:19).

1. The king’s original edict cannot be rescinded, but it is negated (8:1‑17).

Esther tells the king she is Mordecai’s cousin, and Mordecai is given Haman’s job (8:1‑2). Esther pleads for her people (8:3‑6). The king allows Mordecai to write the Jews allowing them to defend themselves (8:7‑14).9 The Jews in Susa and all the provinces rejoice (8:15‑17).

2. The Jews gain the victory over the enemies (9:1‑19).

The Jews defend themselves and kill 500 people in Susa alone in addition to Haman’s ten sons (9:1‑10). Esther requests an extension of one day to allow the Jews to take further vengeance (9:11‑15). (This seems quite vindictive.) The Jews in the other provinces have equal success (9:16‑19).

F. Scene 6: Mordecai and Esther establish the feast of Purim (9:20‑32).

1. Mordecai records these events (is he the author of the book of Esther, and did he avoid the mention of Yahweh to avoid offending Xerxes who was a worshipper of Ahurrmazda?) (9:20‑29). Since Haman was looking for a lucky day by casting lots (pur), they called these days Purim.

2. Mordecai and Esther sent out letters establishing this feast officially (9:30‑32).

G. Scene 7: Mordecai is exalted (10:1‑3).

1. The Persian chronicles are being quoted which close this section with a mention of tribute imposed by the king (10:1).

2. The next section of the chronicles mentions the greatness of Mordecai (10:2‑3).

He was second to the king, esteemed among the Jews, and in favor with the multitude of his kinsmen.

1LaSor, et al., Old Testament Survey, p. 624.

2The historicity of Esther is questioned by critical scholars, but see Wright, “The Historicity of Esther.” pp. 37‑47.

3See Wright, “The Historicity of the Book of Esther.”

4Cf. Daniel in Daniel 3.

5Gordis, “Studies in the Esther Narrative,” JBL 95 (1976): 183, says that Esther immediately had Mordecai promoted to a minor magistrate.

6This would have been seven years after Ezra returned to Jerusalem—how would it have affected the group in Judah?

7Cf. the request of the daughter of Xerxes’ brother’s wife for his robe. Herodotus, Histories, Book IX.

8Fifty cubits—75 feet—may just mean very high gallows.

9Gordis, “Studies in the Esther Narrative,” pp. 43-48. He is probably correct when he argues that 8:11 uses the phrase “women and children” as part of the direct object of “attack.” The Jews thus were not enjoined to kill women and children but to protect them from their attackers.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Teaching the Bible

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