Multiple Faculty Contributors
Author and Date. The book of Esther was apparently compiled from several different sources. This is not to say that the book is exclusively the product of human activity, but rather that the writer-compiler(s) was superintended by the Holy Spirit to express the precise meaning that God intended. Evidence of this compilatory aspect of Esther (even if the compiling and writing were undertaken by one person) is suggested by: (1) the relating of the specific content and procedural enactment of royal decrees (3:12–15; 8:9–13); (2) the references to various events in the book being recorded in the royal "chronicles" (2:23; 6:1–2; 10:2); and (3) the references to Purim (the holiday commemorating the redemptive events in Esther) as a well-established, yearly "custom" (9:19, 27–28), implying the passing of some time since the initial recording of the events.
Nevertheless, several facts show that the book was compiled or written during the Persian period (559–330 BC). Although many scholars say that the book is primarily a fictional narrative written during the period of Greek rule over Judaea (330–63 BC), the following reasons argue for a date in the Persian period. (1) The writer-compiler(s) clearly had intimate knowledge of administrative practice and life in the Persian court. (2) The Hebrew of Esther is similar to that of the other Persian-period narratives in Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one book) and Chronicles. (3) More Persian loan-words are in Esther than in any other Bible book (i.e., about 60 Persian words for the book’s 165 verses. (4) The book has a few syntactical Persianisms, instances in which a Hebrew phrase is constructed in a manner reflective of either Old Persian or Persian Aramaic syntax, as in the expression "invited by her" (qaru’ lah) in 5:12, the omission of the definite article from "Pur" in 3:7, and the double entendre of Haman’s request in 6:8 (for the details, see comments there). According to early Jewish tradition, Esther (along with Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, and Daniel) was "written down" by "the men of the Great Synagogue" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava’ Batra’ 15a), a Persian-period institution traditionally ascribed to (i.e., founded by) Ezra.
Purpose. Most conservative scholars conclude that the purpose of Esther is to highlight the providence of God, that is, God’s sovereign ability to provide for His people. If, however, one takes the rest of Scripture into account, it becomes apparent that the goal, of the book is to express His faithfulness—all the more so, since the benefactors of His faithfulness, Israel, are in the land of their exile on account of their sins. God is faithful in upholding His unconditional covenant with Abraham, in blessing His people Israel (Gn 12:1–3; Jr 31:36; Zch 3:9; 12:10) and to "all families of the earth" (Gn 12:3; Gl 3:8). The latter is seen in the mass conversion by Gentiles from multiple ethnicities in Est 8:17: "And many among the peoples of the land became Jews" (without question describing a religious conversion). Of course, God’s providence is present in the book, but His providence is both founded on and directed toward the expression of His covenant faithfulness.
Background. The book of Esther is among the most—if not in fact the most—disparaged book in the Bible with respect to its canonicity and inspiration. That is due in no small part to Esther being the only book of the Bible that has no explicit reference to God. In the writings of the early church fathers Esther is often simply ignored. Yet among later writers appears the statement by Martin Luther (AD 1483–1546) in his De servo arbitrio (ed. Jena, 3:182) that, "though they [i.e., the Jews] have this (book) in the canon, in my judgment it deserves more than all to be excluded from the canon." And Franz Delitzsch stated that "in the book of Esther we perceive nothing of the impulses which the exile was to give to the people in the direction of the New Testament, nothing of prophetic afflation" (Old Testament History of Redemption [Edinburgh: Clark, 1881], 158–59).
The first piece of evidence that Esther was not yet considered canonical in the first century is derived from the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinic legal discussions (codified around AD 500). The evidence consists of two statements in which a dissenting opinion is given either about Esther’s canonicity (in B. Tal. Megilla 7a, by Rav Samuel—who nonetheless affirms Esther’s inspiration) or its sanctity (in B. Tal. Sanhedrin 100a—though this may also simply be a question of canonicity, not inspiration—by Rav Levi bar Samuel and Rav Huna bar Hiyya). In both instances, however, these dissenting opinions by ancient rabbis are clearly presented as unacceptable—in the first instance because it contradicts the established view of the older rabbinic majority, and in the second instance because it is immediately dismissed as heretical by the principal rabbi (i.e., Rav Judah bar Ezekiel). Moreover, both of these dissenting opinions, which stem from the third century AD, run contrary to the older (i.e., no later than the second century) talmudic statement explicitly listing Esther among the accepted canonical books in B. Tal. Bava’ Batra’ 14b (and by implication in the first-century sources represented by Josephus in his Against Apion i.37–43, and the apocryphal work 2 Esdras 14:45–46).
The second main piece of evidence suggesting Esther’s unestablished canonicity at the time of Christ is its absence from the biblical fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among which every other one of the 39 books of the Old Testament (enumerated as 24 books in Jewish tradition) is represented. However, in addition to the obvious weakness of such "evidence," a careful study of the parabiblical Scrolls (i.e., apocryphal and apocrypha-like works based on the figures and events contained in the canonical books) reveals that Esther was in all likelihood viewed as canonical by the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Among such parabiblical scrolls is a work that is apparently based on the book of Esther and intended to be read as a (fictional) "prequel" to it. Since such apocrypha-type works are based, as a rule, on recognized canonical books, the implication of such a "prequel" is that Esther was indeed viewed as canonical. These factors indicate that the book of Esther is inspired by God and deserves to be included in the Hebrew canon.
Finding God in the Book of Esther
A. Finding God in Hiding
The Mosaic foundation. As is well known, Esther is the only book of the Bible in which there is no explicit mention of God—either by name or title/common noun. Rather than a "drawback," however, this may well be an intentional reflection of one of the book’s central points. This omission should be understood as a device meant to underscore God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promise (i.e., threat) to hide His presence ("face," panim) in the place of Israel’s exile (cf. Dt 31:17; Is 59:2). Moreover, excluding God’s name is a literary strategy used to demonstrate that, even when Israel forgot their God (hence the exclusion of His name), God did not forget Israel, and acted covertly through His providence to show His covenant faithfulness.
The terminological allusion. This theme of God hiding His "presence" is borne out on a terminological level by the unmistakable similarity between the name of the book’s central protagonist—’ester ("Esther")—and the phrase by which God expressed His threat—’astir ("I will hide"; Dt 31:18; cf. Ezk 39:23–24). Moreover, the Hebrew consonants of these two terms makes them almost identical, as the name "Esther" was ’str and the phrase "I will hide," ’styr. This similarity, as a reminder that God (both in name and in deed) is meant to be hidden in the book, was recognized and affirmed early in Jewish interpretive history, as attested in the Babylonian Talmud Chullin 139b.
B. Finding God in Israel’s Deliverance
The Abrahamic foundation. The book’s central narrative event of the deliverance of the Jewish people from complete annihilation by Haman’s decree (3:13) is itself a testimony to God’s active involvement in the events described. The divine orchestration of Israel’s deliverance in Esther is also borne out by the clear, compelling, and unquestionably intentional parallels between the various elements, both textual and historical, surrounding that deliverance and those surrounding God’s first covenant-motivated deliverance of the nation as recorded in the book of Exodus.
The Exodus connection. The book of Esther has clear signs that it is meant to be viewed as a parallel to the deliverance narrative in Exodus.
The close parallels between Esther and the Exodus narrative show that the two were meant to be juxtaposed. Parallels are seen in content (including phraseology), and in the festal commemoration of the narrative events. Content parallels include the following:
• Both narratives concern the comprehensive deliverance of the entire Jewish people, set outside the promised land.
• In both narratives the deliverance comes through a specific Jewish individual strategically placed in the Gentile king’s own family (Moses and Esther) with the assistance of an immediate family member (Aaron and Mordecai).
• In both narratives the key protagonist is initially hesitant to mediate the deliverance (Ex 3:11; 4:13; Est 4:11–14).
• Both narratives are peppered throughout with references to either the key protagonist or Israel as a whole enjoying "favor" (hen) or "grace" (chesed) with the king, key officials, or the Gentiles at large—with the consistent difference that in Exodus God is explicitly identified as the one "granting" (natan) that favor (Ex 3:21; 11:3; 12:36), whereas in Esther it is always "found" (naśa’ or masa’) by the benefactor (Est 2:9, 15, 17; 5:2; 8:5).
• In both narratives the "turning point" from affliction to deliverance is initiated in the same month, apparently on the same day of that month (i.e., Nisan 14, underscoring as well the uniquely shared typology of these two events.
• In both narratives the deliverance of the Jewish people results in the large-scale evangelism and/or proselytism of Gentiles to faith in the true God (Ex 12:38; Est 8:17).
Festal parallels include the following:
• The feasts elaborated by the two narratives—i.e., Passover (Unleavened Bread) and Purim—are the only yearly feasts (of eight in the Hebrew Bible) commemorating past events of deliverance of the Jewish people.
• Passover (Unleavened Bread) and Purim are the only yearly feasts celebrated in the months of Nisan and Adar, which are juxtaposed by virtue of their being the first and last (12th) months, respectively.
• Passover and Purim are the only yearly feasts that are celebrated on the 14th day of any month (see Ex 12:18; Est 9:19).
Thus linked, the two feasts may be seen as "mirrored bookends," occurring as they do on the same day in the first and last month of the Jewish calendar, at opposite ends of Israelite biblical history (and of the traditional Jewish canon). In this way they call attention to the year-round—and hence "circular" or unending—faithfulness of God toward the people He has sworn eternally to preserve.
C. Finding God in Queen Esther
The typological starting point. There is no direct messianic prophecy in Esther, which is consistent with God’s promise/threat to "hide" His presence through a prophet or supernatural phenomena. This does not mean, however, that Esther has no contribution to the presentation of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. In fact it must have something to say about the Messiah, as is clear in Lk 24:27, that "He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (italics added). Since the Scriptures of Jesus’ day included Esther, it logically follows from this statement that there is something "concerning Himself" in the book of Esther. If it is not in the form of direct, or verbatim, prophecy, then it must be in the form of indirect or non-verbatim prophecy—what is designated by the expressions "shadows" (Heb 10:1) or "types" (Heb 11:19). The specific presence of such "shadows" or "types" in Esther is further indicated by Paul’s statement in Col 2:16–17 regarding all of Israel’s holy days: "Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to … a festival [heortes] or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow [skia] of what is to come, but the substance [soma; lit., "body"] belongs to Christ." Since Purim is one of Israel’s eight yearly "festivals" (to which the Gk. term heorte is clearly applied in the LXX, cf. Lv 23) so must the events underlying that feast as described in Esther contain prophetic "shadows" that outline the "substance" belonging to Messiah.
The typology. The "shadows" or "types" in the book of Esther that center on the protagonist herself may be summarily presented in the following seven pairs of "shadow" and "substance" (all of which, except the first pair, are discussed in detail by the present writer in Bibliotheca Sacra 154 , 275–84).
|Esther was prepared as the mediator of deliverance before the need for it (i.e., before Haman’s promotion and ensuing decree) had arisen (Est 2:17–18).||Jesus was prepared as the mediator of salvation before the need for it (i.e., before man’s creation and ensuing sin) had arisen (Rv 13:8).|
|Esther’s three-day period of fasting began during the daylight hours of Nisan 14, the first day of Passover (Est 3:12).||Jesus’ three-day period of physical death, initiated on the cross, is identified in Scripture as the period of His "humiliation" or "affliction" (Php 2:8).|
|Fasting in general—and thus Esther’s fast—is identified in Scripture with "humiliation" or "affliction," and since mourning was involved, the fast may also be viewed as representing a temporary "state of death" (Lv 23:27–29).||Jesus’ three-day period of physical death, initiated on the cross, is identified in Scripture as the period of His "humiliation" or "affliction" (Php 2:8).|
|Esther’s period of "affliction" ended on the third day, Nisan 16 (Est 5:1).||Jesus’ period of "affliction" ended on the third day, Nisan 16 (Ac 10:40; 1Co 15:4).|
|At the end of her fast (i.e., after "arising" from her symbolic state of death), but before presenting herself before the king, Esther was clothed in royalty (Est 5:1; LXX: "glory").||At the end of His three-day period of death, but before presenting Himself before God the Father in heaven, Jesus was resurrected in royal "glory" (1Co 15:20, 43).|
|On the basis of her fast, Esther entered the king’s presence in "the inner court of the king’s palace" and was accepted into his presence with favor (Est 4:16; 5:2).||On the basis of His atoning self-sacrifice, Jesus entered the Father’s presence in the true holy of holies in heaven and was accepted into His presence to sit "at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 2:9–10, 14; 9:12, 24; 10:12; 12:2).|
|The result of Esther’s acceptance by the king was the salvation of her people Israel, with the further result that many among the Gentiles turned in faith to the true God and became one with the people of God (Est 8:17).||The result of Jesus’ acceptance by the Father was the salvation of His people Israel ("the lost sheep of the house of Israel"; Mt 15:24), with the further result that many among the Gentiles turned (and are turning) in faith to the true God to become one with the people of God (Rm 2:28–29; Eph 2:14–15; Col 2:11; Ac 2:10–11; 11:18; Gl 3:8).|
I. The Preparation of the Jewish People (1:1–2:23)
A. Vashti’s Removal (1:1–22)
B. Esther’s Elevation (2:1–20)
C. The King’s Debt to Mordecai (2:21–23)
II. The Crisis of the Jewish People (3:1–5:14)
A. Haman’s Elevation (3:1)
B. Haman’s Plot against the Jews (3:2–4:17)
C. Haman’s Plot against Mordecai (5:1–14)
III. The Deliverance of the Jewish People (6:1–10:3)
A. Neutralizing the Threat (6:1–8:14)
B. Strengthening the People (8:15–9:18)
C. Establishing the Commemoration (9:19–10:3)
COMMENTARY ON ESTHER
I. The Preparation of the Jewish People (1:1–2:23)
This first section lays the groundwork for the narrative. In accordance with His covenant faithfulness, God providentially prepares the circumstances so that the Jewish people will be protected and preserved when the attack comes against them. To set matters in motion to protect the Jewish people, God’s hand arranges for Vashti to be removed as queen, Esther to replace her, and the king to become indebted to Mordecai.
A. Vashti’s Removal (1:1–22)
1:1–8. The events in Esther are dated to the days of Ahasuerus (probably the same as in Ezr 4:6). This name is an English form of a Hebrew transcription of the Old Persian Khshayarsha, otherwise known by Greek transcription as Xerxes (the Great), who ruled the Persian empire from 485 to 465 BC. This was the Ahasuerus who reigned … over 127 provinces (v. 1). This distinguishes him from the Median (not Persian) ruler of the same name who was the father of Darius the Mede (Dn 9:1), ruler of Babylon from 605 to 562 BC, and whose empire was somewhat lesser in extent than that of the Ahasuerus in Esther, encompassing only 120 provinces (Dn 6:1). The reason for the banquet (lit., "drinking party," mishteh) that Ahasuerus gave in the third year of his reign (Est 1:3) is not stated. It may have been: (1) a celebration of the consolidation of his rule, or (2) a morale-boosting prelude to his military campaign against Greece in his fourth year (Herodotus, vii.20). Whatever the reason, it was managed by God to prepare the way for Esther (and Israel’s deliverance) by the ensuing dethronement of Vashti. As Solomon wrote, "The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes" (Pr 21:1).
1:9–22. Consistent with ancient and Middle Eastern custom, Queen Vashti and the rest of the women had their own banquet in a separate location (v. 9). This customary separation of the sexes was maintained across the ranks of society. That custom is further indicated in that the king’s command to display Vashti’s beauty to the men was given only on the seventh day of the banquet when his heart … was merry with (i.e., under the influence of) wine (vv. 10–11). To a certain degree, therefore, it must have been in adherence to this custom that Vashti refused to come at the king’s command (v. 12). In deciding on an appropriate response to this refusal, the king turned in his anger to his seven closest advisors (on which number see Ezr 7:14; Jr 52:25) who understood the times (i.e., what happened in past times, namely case law, based on precedent, and/or common law) as well as law and justice (i.e., statutory/legislative law; Est 1:13–15). However justified Vashti may have been in refusing the king’s unseemly command, concern over the precedent it might set for more general (and less justified) disobedience of their husbands by wives throughout the kingdom prompted the advisors to recommend that Vashti be permanently banned from the king’s presence and her royal position given to another (v. 19). The effect of this decree, when made known to the public, was that every man continued to be the master in his own house (v. 22).
B. Esther’s Elevation (2:1–20)
2:1–4. When some time had passed and the king’s anger … had subsided, his thoughts of Vashti took a more positive, loving turn, and his thoughts of what had been decreed against her took a more grievous turn. To console him and divert his attention from these thoughts the king’s attendants prompted him to implement the suggestion of his advisors recorded in 1:19, namely, that he have every beautiful young virgin in the kingdom brought to … Susa the capital and make the one who pleases him queen in place of Vashti.
2:5–7. Mordecai is described as a Jew (yehudi, which literally means "Judaean"). This term is used only in the later books of the Hebrew Bible (for the first time in Jr 32:12), when the northern kingdom and its Israelite ethnic majority had dissolved and those that remained of God’s people in the Abrahamic line of promise were represented in the southern kingdom of Judah alone. This is not to say, of course, that every "Jew" so-called in Scripture is descended from the tribe of Judah. Thus though described as a Jew (i.e., Judaean), Mordecai was ethnically a Benjamite (from the tribe of Benjamin), and was in fact born in exile, someplace in Babylon or Persia. This is indicated by three facts. First, he was described as Esther’s first cousin, and Esther herself was described as a "young woman" (na‘ara; Est 2:7), which typically denotes a woman between adolescence and her early 20s at the latest, and hence Mordecai could not have been much older. Second, the pronoun who at the beginning of v. 6, probably refers to Kish, not Mordecai, as the one who was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar with Jeconiah king of Judah. This conforms with the timing of Jeconiah’s exile in 605 BC, whereas the events of Esther took place between 485 and 465 BC. Third, Mordecai (a Babylonian name probably related to the Babylonian god Marduk) apparently had no given Hebrew name, since none is ever mentioned, as is Esther’s in v. 7. Had he not been born in exile he would certainly have had one. In Esther’s case, her Hebrew name was Hadassah. The writer added, that is Esther and referred to her afterward exclusively by this Persian name (which means "star"), since it was by this name that she would have been best known to the book’s readers.
2:8–18. The gathering of the virgins began sometime just after the middle of the king’s third year (see 1:3–4 and 2:1–4). Esther—who lived in the same city as the king himself—is taken to the king’s palace only toward the end of his sixth year (i.e., more than three years later). This is implied by her audience with the king having been in the tenth month of his seventh year, after twelve months of cosmetic preparation (v. 12) This timetable suggests either that Esther had just attained adolescence when she was taken (though this is unlikely in view of her description as a "young woman" in v. 7, see comment there), or, as deduced by many medieval commentators, that Mordecai, not wanting her to be taken into a pagan’s harem, did his best to "hide" her for as long as he could. In the end, however, Esther was taken (lit., "seized") along with the other young ladies. Nonetheless, consistent with His plan in preparing Israel’s deliverance, God ensured that Esther found favor with her custodian Hegai (vv. 8–9) and all who saw her (v. 15), including ultimately the king himself (v. 17). Then he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
2:19–20. These two verses constitute one complex sentence; v. 19 contains two dependent clauses (lit., "During the period when the virgins were being gathered," [and] while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate). Verse 20 contains the main clause (properly: "Esther would not make known her kindred or her people …"). This functions as a narrative "flashback" that serves three purposes: (1) It smoothly transitions from the previous section that focuses on Esther to the following section that focuses on Mordecai (vv. 21–23, in which the wording of the first verse is precisely parallel to v. 19b): while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. (2) It clarifies how Mordecai would have found out the plot of the king’s personal chamberlains. He was an established court official himself (he was sitting at the king’s gate). (3) It clarifies the extent of Esther’s concealment of her family information, which led in turn to the natural inference that she continued to conceal this information. The later revelation of this information (in chap. 7) ultimately played such a crucial, climactic role in the downfall of Haman and consequent deliverance of the Jews. Mordecai may have enjoined this concealment because he anticipated some future benefit to his people (consistent with his characterization in 10:3). Yet it is more likely, as often advanced by traditional Jewish commentators, that by such concealment Mordecai intended that Esther be able to follow the ritual-legal precepts of her faith without harassment or interference from the Gentiles among whom she lived.
C. The King’s Debt to Mordecai (2:21–23)
2:21–22. The reference to Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate constitutes a quasi-technical statement indicating that he filled an official role in the king’s court—just like Daniel, to whom the corresponding expression is applied in Aramaic (Dn 2:49; see also Xenophon’s use of "gate" [Gk., thyras] in the technical sense of "court" in the context of Old Persian royal history in his Cyropaedia viii.1.6, 16, 33, 34; viii.3.2; viii.6.10; viii.8.13, and Anabasis i.9.3). Probably because of his privileged position at the royal court, compounded by his relative "inconspicuousness" as a regular presence there for several years (at least four, as implied in Est 2:19), Mordecai was able to uncover the plot of Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s officials [i.e., his chamberlains or personal attendants] … who guarded the door.
2:23. Mordecai then warned the king through the mediation of Esther, rather than bringing the news to him directly (which he may not have been permitted to do) or through another court official. This course of action attested to Mordecai’s wisdom, righteousness, and paternal solicitude, since it would have ensured that: (1) the plot was accurately relayed to the king, as others in the court may also have been involved (similar intrigues were not uncommon among the Persians, and in fact later conspirators did succeed in murdering Ahasuerus/Xerxes, on which see Herodotus, iii.118); and (2) the king’s faith in—and favor for—Esther would be strengthened, thus ensuring his readiness to believe any future unfavorable report she might bring to him, such as that of Haman’s own plot. Indeed, the divine hand at work in the management of this event, preparing His people’s deliverance from upcoming danger, is further borne out by its similarity to the circumstances of the OT Joseph who, like Mordecai, was also "forgotten" until the opportune time, so that he could affirm in retrospect what was hidden from him in the past: "God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gn 45:5; see also 50:20).
II. The Crisis of the Jewish People (3:1–5:14)
A. Haman’s Elevation (3:1)
3:1. Israel’s danger is here introduced with the promotion of Haman, the son of Hammedatha approximately five years after the events of the previous two chapters. This chronology is implied in that those previous events took place no later than the king’s seventh year (2:16). At the beginning of the king’s 12th year Haman issued his decree to annihilate the Jews because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him according to "the king’s command." The issuing of this decree coordinated with Haman’s promotion over all the other princes (i.e., to a rank second only to the king—the same role that Mordecai later filled after Haman’s downfall; 10:3). The additional reference to Haman as an Agagite has been explained by many scholars in connection with Agag, king of the Amalekites at the time of Saul (1Sm 15:8). This connection implies that Haman was a descendant of Agag. Thus the conflict between him and Mordecai represents the final "playing out" of the ancient conflict between Agag and Saul. Alternatively, Haman has been identified not as a descendant of Agag, but rather as one of the same kind of notorious biblical archfoes of Israel. In this case, the term Agagite is applied to Haman by association (i.e., as an alternate name). Most likely, however, the term Agagite refers to Haman’s origin in a certain region of Persia or Media, that is the district of Agag, the existence of which is affirmed by an archeological inscription from the time of the Assyrian king Sargon (725 BC). This in turn enhances all the more the theological magnitude of Mordecai’s/Israel’s victory over Haman/Israel’s enemies. The victory indicates that Israel’s God is not only sovereign over the gods of the Amalekites, a minor Canaanite tribe, but over the gods of the most powerful empire on earth at that time, the Persians and the Medes. The theological significance of the victory helps explain the unprompted conversion to Israelite faith by "many among the peoples of the land" (Est 8:17).
B. Haman’s Plot against the Jews (3:2–4:17)
3:2–4. The reason Mordecai neither bowed down nor paid homage to Haman, even though the king had commanded all his servants who were at the king’s gate (thus including Mordecai) to do so, was not because of some alleged personal or Jewish pride, but rather because these actions were intended expressions of worship and not just respect. Five facts support this point: (1) Mordecai himself explained that he refused to bow down and pay homage to Haman because he [Mordecai] was a Jew. Of course, Jews were permitted to bow down to other people out of simple respect (Gn 23:7; 33:3; 1Sm 24:8), but they were forbidden to worship more than one God (Dt 6:13–14). (2) The Hebrew verbs here translated bowed down and paid homage, when used together, are attested only in the sense of worship (2Ch 7:3; 29:29; Ps 95:6); (3) That Mordecai would be sinning is implied by the almost exact literal phraseological parallel between Est 3:4b (Now it was when they had spoken daily to him [that] he would not listen to them) and Gn 39:10 ("As she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not listen to her"). Just as Joseph resisted the temptation to listen to Potiphar’s wife, so Mordecai resisted the temptation to bow down. (4) Herodotus stated that a custom among the ancient Persians was that "if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and does worship [proskyneei] to him" (Herodotus, i.134). (5) Such worship is entirely consistent with the Zoroastrian (Mazdean) religion. This dualistic religion was founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster in the late seventh or early sixth centuries BC, based on the concept of a continuous struggle between Ormazd [or Ahura Mazda], the god of creation, light, and goodness, and his archenemy, Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness, and it was well established by the time of Ahasuerus/Xerxes. In the words of a 10th-century Jewish commentator and native of Persia, it was believed of an accomplished individual, like Haman, "that something of the Divine Light existed within him, and so they would deem fit to worship him in a special fashion."
3:5–15. In response to Mordecai’s continued refusal to bow down and pay Haman homage, Haman determined not only to lay his hands on (i.e., "kill," the same idiom used in 2:21) Mordecai, but in fact to destroy all the Jews. The most reasonable explanation for this seemingly unbalanced response (the extermination of an entire nation for one man’s disobedience) is that Haman, who clearly had some knowledge of the Jewish faith (v. 8), correctly recognized that Mordecai’s refusal, was symptomatic of the Jewish mindset at large. So since Mordecai refused to worship Haman because of his faith, so too would every Jew, thereby constituting a potentially grave threat to Haman’s authority and status in a culture where appearances and outward protocol were so highly regarded (cf. 1:11–12; 5:1–2; 6:7–12).
This theological-religious substratum of the ensuing conflict, and of Haman’s response in particular, is still further borne out by his immediate appeal to the Pur, an Old Persian term that means the lot. The reason for using the Persian term must lie in some feature of the Pur other than its mere physical nature as "something that is cast." In surveying the use of the lot (Hb., goral) and lot-casting (happalat goralot) in Scripture, it becomes evident that this distinction must have been theological, for in Israelite culture "the lot is cast into the lap, and [not "but," as in some translations] its every decision is from the Lord" (Pr 16:33; cf. Lv 16:8; Jos 18:6; Neh 11:1). Haman, however, was certainly not appealing to "the Lord" ("Yahweh"), Israel’s God, by casting lots, but rather, by the implied juxtaposition of the Persian "Pur" with its Hebrew counterpart, the goral, to his own god(s). This is perfectly consistent with the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia, in which all the days of the year were regarded as either favorable and propitious, or unfavorable and unpropitious. Hence the lot was cast before Haman (probably by a magus, one of the Zoroastrian sacerdotal caste) as a religious act intended to divine the will of Ahura Mazda, the one creator-god of Zoroastrianism, in selecting the most auspicious day for destroying the Jews. On Zoroastrianism, see comments on Est 3:2–4.
Once that day was determined (Adar 13, cf. v. 12), Haman wasted no time in moving his plot forward. He immediately secured the king’s approval by painting the Jewish people as a potentially serious source of sedition, especially since they were spread throughout all the provinces of his kingdom. At the same time he sought to portray himself as deeply committed to the welfare of the king and his kingdom. He was even willing to pay ten thousand talents of silver from his own pocket. This enormous sum was perhaps intended to offset the loss of tax revenue for the government resulting from the genocide. Once the king’s permission was given, Haman summoned the king’s scribes to produce copies of the official edict, which was then immediately published throughout the kingdom by government couriers (v. 13). The first location to hear of this decree was the city of Susa, which surrounded the royal compound or "fortress of Susa" (see 1:2; 2:8). The city reacted with confusion (or "agitation," "aimless wandering," the reference probably being both to the Jews of Susa as well as the Gentiles with whom they had regular social and economic interaction). Later on, by contrast, the city of Susa was also the first location to hear of Mordecai’s decree, to which the Jews reacted with glad shouting and rejoicing (8:15).
4:1–17. The opening syntax of v. 1 is circumstantial rather than sequential, and is thus properly translated not, when Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore, (NASB; ESV; HCSB), but rather, "Now Mordecai was aware of all that had been done, and so he tore" (NET). In other words, as an established official in the king’s own court, Mordecai would have learned of the plot to destroy the Jews almost as soon as it went beyond the private counsel of Haman and the king. Hence this chapter shows Mordecai’s immediate reaction on the same day the decree was issued. That, in turn, further clarifies the messianic typology surrounding Esther’s fast and its chronology (see section C. in Introduction). Interestingly, the first thing Mordecai did—and in which he was joined by many of the other Jews in Susa (as eventually those in every province when they learned of the decree)—was to put on sackcloth and ashes, and wail loudly and bitterly. These actions are characteristic of an appeal to God in response to potential danger and impending calamity (cf. Jdg 20:26; Ezr 8:21).
In seeking Esther’s intervention, Mordecai needed first to inform her (Est 3:8), of Haman’s decree. She was unaware of it because of her seclusion in the women’s quarters of the palace. He communicated through the eunuch Hathach, who was appointed to attend her. At the same time Mordecai exhorted her to implore the king’s favor and to plead with him for her people (v. 8). Esther was initially recalcitrant—recalling the similar response of Moses in Ex 3:11 and 4:13, and she sought to excuse herself by pointing out that the king had not summoned her for the past thirty days (Est 3:11). Though the point of her citing this number was to imply that the king’s interest in her was apparently waning, it also served as yet another subtle testimony to the historical veracity of the book, for 30 days prior to this conversation (which took place on Nisan 13) she would indeed have been in the king’s presence for the royal observance of the important Zoroastrian Farvardigan (welcoming the spirits of the dead) festival, celebrated at that time from Adar (Old Persian Viyahna) 11–15 (mid-April in our calendar).
Mordecai, however, was not dissuaded, and he again exhorted Esther to intercede with words intended both to reprove and to encourage her. The reproof was that she, though the queen, should not imagine that she can escape any more than all the Jews (v. 13) and, moreover, should she remain silent, the Jews would still be delivered whereas she and her father’s house will perish (v. 14). The encouragement was that the Lord is sovereign in all circumstances to preserve His people from destruction—as is unquestionably implied by Mordecai’s confident expectation, not mere hope or wish, that relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place. His confidence can be explained by his faith in God’s promise to bless Israel and preserve them forever as a people before Him (Gn 12:1–3; Jr 31:35–37). Also he was certain that God had already been at work by ensuring that she attained royalty for such a time as this. Esther thus acquiesced and enjoined a preparatory fast (again as a specific appeal to God) on her behalf that was to be undertaken by all the Jews … in Susa … for three days, night or day. Allowing Mordecai the minimum amount of time necessary to assemble the Jews of Susa for this fast, as well the urgency of the situation, it is reasonable that this fast began on Adar 14 (cf. Est 3:12). This was either later that night per biblical-Jewish reckoning in which days began at sunset, or, at the latest on the following morning (dawn was in fact the usual time when public fasts began, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 2b)—both possibilities would still have been Adar 14. Esther’s fast was thus observed during the first three days of Passover, an observation that is central to an appreciation of the book’s typology.
C. Haman’s Plot against Mordecai (5:1–14)
5:1–8. Implicit in the statement that Esther put on her royal robes is that, until then, she had been dressed in the vesture that often accompanies fasting, similar to that of Mordecai and the other Jews (cf. 4:1–3), which in turn brings Esther’s fast more clearly into focus as a type. Fasting, in other words, and its outward accompaniment by disgraceful attire (such as sackcloth and ashes), is intended throughout the Bible as an expression of self-denial and self-affliction. This is reflected, for example, in God’s command that on the Day of Atonement "you shall humble [lit., "afflict"] your souls" (Lv 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Nm 29:7). In this respect Esther’s fast both anticipated and paralleled the self-denial and affliction of Christ Himself, the One who, "although He existed in the form of God humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Php 2:6, 8). This typological aspect of Esther’s fast may also have been recognized by the first-century church father Clement of Rome, who wrote of Esther that "by fasting and self-affliction she besought the Master [and] seeing the affliction of her soul, delivered the people for whose sake she put herself in jeopardy" (1 Clement. 55:6). Like that of Christ, moreover, so too Esther’s affliction ended on, not after, the third day (Ac 10:40).
As to the reason Esther deferred her request until the following day (Est 5:8), see comments on 7:1–10.
5:9–14. On his way out from Esther’s banquet, Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, from which it may be deduced that Mordecai, like Esther, had ceased wearing sackcloth and ashes, since no one thus clothed was permitted in the king’s gate (i.e., court, cf. 4:2). This further underscores the strength of Mordecai’s faith and spiritual maturity. Having made his appeal to God he left the matter in His hands and moved on, confidently trusting in God’s absolute sovereignty and covenant faithfulness. Indeed, Mordecai’s confidence is further borne out by his refusal to even tremble before Haman, despite Haman’s apparent power and "sealed" plan to destroy the Jews. The verb tremble (za) is employed elsewhere in Scripture to denote the trembling produced by fear (see Ec 12:3; Dn 5:19; 6:26 [Hb., v. 27]).
The role and actions of Haman in these verses attest a clear symmetry with those of the king in chap. 1, serving as testimony to (1) the narrative’s high degree of literary sophistication, (2) the underlying facts of Haman’s status and circumstances as a preeminent courtier, and (3) Haman’s implicit thirst for emulation, perhaps even eventually to replace the king himself. The individual components of this parallel with the king are as follows: (1) The great wealth of both Ahasuerus and Haman is explicitly emphasized (1:4; 5:11). (2) Both men were characterized at the outset by feeling "merry of heart" from wine (1:10; 5:9). (3) Both were described as having (or intending to have) their wives "brought" to them (1:11; 5:10). (4) Both were refused the obedience of another member of the royal court (1:12; 5:9). (5) The immediate reaction of both was that they were filled with "anger" (1:12; 5:9). (6) Both immediately sought the counsel of those closest to them (1:13–14; 5:10). (7) In both instances the advice was to permanently remove the offender (1:19; 5:14). (8) In both instances "the advice was pleasing" to the men and they "did" accordingly (1:21; 5:14).
III. The Deliverance of the Jewish People (6:1–10:3)
A. Neutralizing the Threat (6:1–8:14)
6:1–14. The deliverance that God had prepared for the threat of Haman’s decree now began to unfold in the first of a series of reversals ("return on his own head," 9:25) hearkening back to God’s promise/threat in Gn 12:3 to curse the one "who curses" [lit., belittles] Israel. The impetus for this first reversal is the king’s insomnia—implicitly effected by God, the giver of sleep (see Ps 127:2). So the Persian book of records was brought out and read before him (to both dispel boredom and induce sleep). When the reader comes to the record of Mordecai’s good deed in reporting the plot of Bigthana and Teresh (see Est 2:21–23) and made no mention of his being rewarded (as implied by the king’s question in v. 3a), the king naturally became preoccupied with correcting his oversight at once. At that precise moment, by divine appointment, Haman entered the outer court to request permission to execute Mordecai. Haman’s conceited drive for advancement was emphatically demonstrated both by his assumption that the king’s question in v. 6a (What is to be done for the man?) concerns himself, as well as his response to that question, which entailed the public bestowal of royal accoutrements—things that had so far been outside Haman’s grasp. Then the king commanded that these things be given to Mordecai by Haman, who was to lead Mordecai about on horseback while walking before him and proclaiming his honor (vv. 10–11).
Mordecai’s ascendancy over Haman became clearly manifest, leading his wife and his friends to say to Haman afterward that he had begun to fall before Mordecai (v. 13). Haman’s actual fall or derogation of status is referred to in their ensuing declaration that he (i.e., Haman) will surely fall before him (Mordecai). This declaration, based on Mordecai’s Jewish origin, may at first seem completely out of place as coming from pagans—especially those who just advised that he be put to death (5:14). Yet their reasoning may be explained by the Zoroastrian preoccupation with signs and omens, and their attendant belief that the beginning of an event is often a reliable portent of its end (for more on Zoroastrianism, see comments at 3:2–4). Thus, Mordecai’s temporary exaltation over Haman signified a final (permanent) exaltation, in which position Mordecai would certainly do all he could to remove "the enemy of the Jews" (3:10) from power.
7:1–10. Haman’s fall, as anticipated by his wife and "wise men" in the previous chapter, took place in quick and complete fashion. At the same time it provided a vivid biblical example of the "reversal" principle that so often characterizes God’s retribution of the wicked in general and Israel’s enemies in particular. At the second banquet, when the king reiterated his intention to grant Esther anything she might request, even to half of the kingdom, she implored the king to let her life be given her (i.e., preserved) along with the lives of her people. She immediately proceeded to give the reason for her request—for we have been sold … to be destroyed. By this she paved the way for the king’s response in v. 5 (Who is he?). She also cleverly and bravely implied a certain measure of culpability on the part of the king himself, since the selling is an obvious reference to the transaction of 3:9: Haman filling the role of purchaser (by his offer to "pay ten thousand talents of silver" for the genocide) and the king filling the role of seller. Afterward the king would have realized a degree of his own culpability, motivating him to make restitution). When the king then asked who and where the culprit is, Esther pointed to Haman as the foe and the enemy. In reaction, just as the Jews in every province were "in mourning" at Haman’s decree in 4:3, so now in clear reversal Haman was terrified before the Jewish queen and her king. This reversal was brought to a dramatic conclusion when, after misconstruing Haman’s attempted appeal as an attempt to assault the queen, the king had Haman hanged (i.e., "impaled," as was the Persian practice; Ezr 6:11) on the very gallows (actually, "stake") which he had prepared for Mordecai.
Why did Esther defer her petition until the second banquet? This was not due to trepidation, indecisiveness, or fear on her part, because she had committed for her people to intercede regardless of the cost to herself, as expressed in Est 4:16: "and if I perish, I perish." Her deferment, rather, was perhaps because she was possibly waiting for a sign of God’s involvement in the denouement. This sign was in the event which took place between the two banquets, that is, Mordecai’s public elevation over Haman. This clear reversal—and hence its eventual culmination in Haman’s execution and Mordecai’s taking his position (8:2)—would be viewed by the Jews as a sign of encouragement that God was still as faithfully concerned for them as ever. Gentiles (especially in Persia) would view the reversal as a sign that the God of Israel is indeed the true God, since He is sovereign over even the gods of the dominant Persian Empire. And Mordecai’s public elevation over Haman in chap. 6 was logically affirmed by the ensuing confidence of the Jews in gaining "mastery over those who hated them" (9:1) as well as by the ensuing conversion to faith in Israel’s God by "many among the peoples of the land" (8:17).
8:1–14. The theme of reversal appears in five places in this chapter: (1) The king took off his signet ring which he had taken away from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai (v. 2a). This represents yet another parallel to the Joseph narrative (see Gn 41:42 and Est 8:15). (2) Mordecai was placed over the house (i.e., property) of Haman (v. 2b). (3) Esther further petitioned the king to revoke (le-hashib) the letters devised by Haman (v. 5). (4) Mordecai issued a second decree giving the Jews the right to defend their lives and to destroy, to kill and to annihilate any who might attack them (v. 11). This effectively reversed the first decree of Haman, which gave the Jews’ enemies the right "to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the Jews" (3:13). Though Persian laws were irrevocable (v. 8; 1:19; Dn 6:8), the king’s favor clearly lay with Mordecai’s decree. (5) As with Haman’s decree (Est 3:15), so too with Mordecai’s did the couriers go out impelled (v. 14). On the famously fast and efficient Persian postal system see Herodotus, viii.98.
B. Strengthening the People (8:15–9:18)
8:15–17a. Once the thorn at the center of Israel’s affliction (i.e., Haman) was removed, God’s salutary plan for His people continued to unfold with their consequent strengthening in three vital areas: psychological well-being, numeric growth, and physical security. The first of these, Israel’s psychological well-being, was emphatically represented (vv. 15–17a) not only by Israel’s jubilant response to Mordecai’s decree, but also by its clear juxtaposition with their opposite psychological response to Haman’s decree. Thus whereas the immediate response to Haman’s decree was that "the city of Susa was in confusion" (3:15), the immediate response to Mordecai’s promotion was that the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced (v. 15). When Haman’s decree was issued, "there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, and weeping and wailing" (4:3). But the response to Mordecai’s decree was that in each and every province … wherever the king’s commandment and his decree arrived, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a feast and a holiday (v. 17a).
8:17b. This half-verse offers a profound picture of Israel’s numeric growth, for it is the only time that Scripture refers to a historical event in which many among the peoples of the land became Jews. This was accomplished by the substantial increase, not simply of the populace of Israel, but specifically the populace of believing Israel. For a Gentile to "become a Jew" is not simply to join oneself to an ethnic community, but also to a spiritual one. In practical terms this entailed circumcision on the part of males (Gn 17:10; Ex 12:48). This understanding is reflected in the Septuagint translation of the expression became Jews in this verse as "were circumcised." On the typological significance of this event see section C. in Introduction.
9:1–18. The strengthening of Israel’s physical security is represented in these verses by the removal of hostile people and hence further potential threats in the places where the Jewish people lived. Some may be inclined to criticize the Jews for their supposed "vengefulness" killing upwards of 75,000 individuals (v. 16). But they killed only the worst of the worst throughout the entire Persian Empire—defending themselves not only against those who hated them (v. 1), but also against those who still decided to take advantage of the permission granted by Haman’s decree and actively sought the Jews’ harm (v. 2). The wisdom of Esther’s petition (v. 13) that the Jews who are in Susa be permitted to take up arms against their enemies on Adar 14 as well is evident in that Susa was the source of both influence and policy on matters pertaining to the Jews. She also asked that Haman’s ten sons (slain already on Adar 13; vv. 6–10) be hanged on the gallows (i.e., by the very stake on which Haman had been impaled). When viewed canonically, this action no more reflects excessive retribution than God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in such a way that they too might serve as a visible "example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter" (2Pt. 2:6). Also, whereas Mordecai’s decree (Est 8:11) granted the Jews permission to kill everyone among those "who might attack them, including children and women" as well as to "plunder their spoil" (parallel to Haman’s decree in 3:13), the text refers explicitly only to the Jews killing men (Hb. ’ish; vv. 6, 12, 15) and also states repeatedly that the Jews did not lay their hands on the plunder (vv. 10, 15–16). Undoubtedly Mordecai highlighted this contrast to what Haman intended and what the Jews’ enemies would have done (3:13). About 800 men "who hated" the Jews were killed in Susa (500 on Adar 13 + 300 on Adar 14; see vv. 6, 15), and about 75,000 were killed in the rest of the king’s provinces (v. 16).
C. Establishing the Commemoration (9:19–10:3)
9:19–32. Just as the festival of Passover was instituted as "a memorial" (Ex 12:14) to Israel’s deliverance recorded in Exodus, so too was a festival instituted to memorialize Israel’s deliverance recorded in Esther. These two deliverance events are connected by their being the only biblical events of comprehensive Jewish deliverance set outside the promised land (on the theological significance of this connection/canonical juxtaposition see further our discussion in section B. in Introduction). In the absence of a direct word from God (on which see ibid., and section A.), this feast is enjoined by Mordecai, with the further backing of Esther (Est 9:29), by means of letters that he sent to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. The divine "backing" of this festival is, of course, implied by the inclusion of this record in the biblical canon (an admittedly circular view, since it is based on the unempirical [i.e., faith-based acceptance of the canon as inspired]). Early Jewish tradition also supports the tradition recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla i.5) that the proto-Sanhedrin at the time of Esther, comprised of 85 elders, were enlightened by God Himself to accept the institutionalizing letters of Mordecai and Esther.
The name given to the festival is Purim, so-called after the name of the Pur (v. 26)—that is, the Persian lot that was cast before Haman (see 3:7 and comments there). Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, an early-modern Jewish commentator (known as the "Vilna Gaon"; 18th century), commenting on the choice of name, says, "The Pur was the pivotal axis of the miracle by which God overturned [Haman’s] calendrical divination." Moreover, in addition to its observance on the fourteenth day of the month Adar (v. 19), this festival was also observed on Adar 15 by the Jews of Susa to commemorate their additional day of "enemy-ridding" (see 9:15, 18). In early postbiblical tradition (and continuing up to the present) this additional day was enjoined more broadly upon Jews living in any city "encircled by a wall since the days of Joshua" (Mishna, Megilla i.1)—in practical terms today, only in Jerusalem.
To this day, Jewish people continue to celebrate their deliverance by God from the genocidal plans of Haman. The celebrations include reading the scroll of Esther in the synagogue, complete with noisemakers to drown out the name of Haman every time his name is read. It is also customary to deliver baskets of foods and sweets to neighbors (v. 22), to eat tri-cornered pastries reminiscent of Haman’s hats (or some say his ears), and to perform plays reenacting the defeat of Haman. In light of Hitler’s Holocaust, these celebrations have broadened their meaning to remember God’s care to preserve His people at other times, for as the Jewish Passover liturgy states, "In every generation, they rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, always delivers us from their hands."
10:1–3. These final three verses—which effectively constitute the book’s epilogue—contain a final commemorative reference not to the festival of Purim or the specific events leading up to it, but rather to the greatness of Mordecai in general, as fully written in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia (one of the possible sources utilized—under inspiration—by the writer, on which see Author and Date in the Introduction). In his position as second only to King Ahasuerus, Mordecai used his authority in the manner first exemplified by Joseph in the same position under Pharaoh. The same term "second" here [mishneh] is also used with reference to Joseph in Gn 41:43), namely, to seek the good (or "benefit") of his people and to speak for their welfare (lit., "peace"). Both of these activities, moreover, canonically describe a person who is motivated by the fear (i.e., slavish love) of the Lord (cf. Pss 34:11–14 [Hb. 12–15]; 85:8–9 [Hb. 9–10]; 122:8–9). Thus, the book ends with a sense of God’s enduring concern for His people Israel, and the expectation that He will sovereignly continue to manage both events and individuals, whether great or small, in ongoing demonstration of His faithful love—with the result that one day His people will see it and say, in the words of Malachi (Mal 1:5), "The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel!"
Anderson, Bernhard W. "The Place of the Book of Esther in the Christian Canon." Journal of Religion 30 (1950): 32–43. Reprinted in Carey A. Moore, ed. Studies in the Book of Esther. New York: KTAV, 1982.
Beckwith, R. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985. Esp. chap. 7, "The Identity of the Canonical Books."
Conti, M. et al, eds. 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Vol. 5 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008.
Huey, F. B., Jr., "[Commentary on] Esther." Vol. 4 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Ed. F. E. Gaebelein et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988.
Keil, F. C. "The Book of Esther." In Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Trans. S. Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966.
McClure, W. J. The Book of Esther: Prophetic Foreshadowings from the Book with No Divine Name in It. Kilmarnock: John Ritchie, 1990.
Walfish, B. D. Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993.
Wechsler, M. G. "Shadow and Fulfillment in the Book of Esther." Bibliotheca Sacra 154, no. 615 (1997): 275–84.
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