Book of Esther

Book of Esther
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The Book of Esther is a book in the Ketuvim ("writings"), the third section of the Jewish Tanakh (also called the Hebrew Bible) and is part of the Christian Old Testament. The Book of Esther or the Megillah is the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. Its full text is read aloud twice during the celebration, in the evening and again the following morning.



The biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia. The name Ahasuerus is equivalent to Xerxes, both deriving from the Persian Khashayarsha, thus Ahasuerus is usually identified as Xerxes I (486-465 BCE), though Ahasuerus is identified as Artaxerxes in the later Greek version of Esther (as well as by Josephus, the Jewish commentary Esther Rabbah, the Ethiopic translation and the Christian theologian Bar-Hebraeus who identified him more precisely as Artaxerxes II [1]). The Book of Esther tells a story of palace intrigue and genocide thwarted by a Jewish queen of Persia.

Plot summary

Ahasuerus, ruler of a massive Persian empire, holds a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of the capital city Shushan. Ahasuerus orders the queen Vashti to display her beauty before the guests. She refuses. Worried all women will learn from this, Ahasuerus removes her as queen and has a royal decree sent across the empire that men should be the ruler of their households and should speak their own native tongue. Ahasuerus then orders all beautiful young girls to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is Esther, who had no parents and is being fostered by her cousin Mordechai. She finds favor in the king's eyes, and is made his new queen. Esther does not reveal that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordechai discovers a plot by courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to assassinate Ahasuerus. The conspirators are apprehended and hanged, and Mordechai's service to the king is recorded.

Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his prime minister. Mordechai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman's disfavor as he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordechai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordechai but all the Jews in the empire. He obtains Ahasuerus' permission to execute this plan, against payment of ten thousand talents of silver, and he casts lots to choose the date on which to do this—the thirteenth of the month of Adar. On that day, everyone in the empire is free to massacre the Jews and despoil their property. When Mordechai finds out about the plans he and all Jews mourn and fast. Mordechai informs Esther what has happened and tells her to intercede with the King. She is afraid to break the law and go to the King unsummoned. This action would incur the death penalty. Mordechai tells her that she must. She orders Mordechai to have all Jews fast for three days together with her, and on the third day she goes to Ahasuerus, who stretches out his sceptre to her which shows that she is not to be punished. She invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordechai and consults with his friends. At his wife's suggestion, he builds a gallows for Mordechai.

That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court records are read to him to help him sleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordechai in the previous plot against his life. Ahasuerus is told that Mordechai has not received any recognition for saving the king's life. Just then, Haman appears, to ask the King to hang Mordechai, but before he can make this request, King Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the man that the king is referring to is himself, Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse, while a herald calls: "See how the king honours a man he wishes to reward!" To his horror and surprise, the king instructs Haman to do so to Mordechai. After leading Mordechai's parade, he returns in mourning to his wife and friends, who suggest his downfall has begun.

Immediately after, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther's second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus leaves the room; meanwhile Haman stays behind and begs Esther for his life, falling upon her in desperation. The king comes back in at this moment and thinks Haman is assaulting the queen; this makes him angrier than before and he orders Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordechai. The previous decree against the Jews cannot be annulled, but the king allows the Jews to defend themselves during attacks. As a result, on 13 Adar, five hundred attackers and Haman's ten sons are killed in Shushan, followed by a Jewish slaughter of seventy-five thousand Persians, although they took no plunder. Esther sends a letter instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people's redemption, in a holiday called Purim (lots). Ahasuerus remains very powerful and continues reigning, with Mordechai assuming a prominent position in his court. [2]

Authorship and date

Scroll of Esther (Megillah)

Esther is usually dated to the third or fourth century BCE. Jewish tradition regards it as a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text written by Mordecai.[3]

The Greek additions to Esther (which do not appear in the Jewish/Hebrew; see "Additions to Esther" below) are dated to around the late 2nd century or early 1st BCE.[4]

  • The primary source relating to the origin of Purim is the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), which became the last of the 24 books of the Tanakh to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly. It is dated to the 4th century BCE[5] and according to the Talmud was a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text by Mordecai.[6]
  • The Greek Book of Esther, included in the Septuagint, is a retelling of the events of the Hebrew Book of Esther rather than a translation and records additional traditions, in particular the identification of Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes and details of various letters. It is dated to the second to first century BCE.[7] The Coptic and Ethiopic versions of Esther are translations of it instead of the Hebrew Esther.
  • A Latin version of Esther was produced by Jerome for the Vulgate. It translates the Hebrew Esther but interpolates translations of the Greek Esther where the latter provides additional material.
  • Several Aramaic targums of Esther were produced in the Middle Ages of which two survive - the Targum Rishon ("First Targum") and Targum Sheni ("Second Targum")[8][9] dated c. 500 - 1000 CE.[10] These were not targums ("translations") in the true sense but like the Greek Esther are retellings of events and include additional legends relating to Purim.[8] There is also a 16th century rescension of the Targum Rishon sometimes counted as Targum Shelishi ("Third Targum").[9]


The book of Esther falls under the category of Writings, one of three parts of the Jewish canon.[11] Some modern scholars suggest the book of Esther to be a historical novella.[11][12] That is, while the events may not be historically accurate the book itself was written to tell a story of a time in history, in this case the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim.[11]

There are a number of reasons some scholars question the historicity of the book of Esther. As noted by biblical scholar Michael D. Coogan, the book of Esther contains specific details regarding certain subject matter (for example, Persian rule) which are historically inaccurate. Coogan also discusses an apparent inaccuracy regarding the age of Esther’s cousin, or, according to others, uncle, Mordecai. In Esther chapter 2, Mordecai is identified as having been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE (Esther 2:6).[11][12] If this were the case, Mordecai would have had to live over a century to have witnessed the events described in the book of Esther.[11] However, the verse is alternately read as referring not to Mordecai as being exiled to Babylon, but to his great grandfather, Kish.[13][14][15]

In her article “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” biblical scholar Adele Berlin discusses the reasoning behind scholarly concern of the historicity of Esther. Much of this debate relates to the importance of distinguishing history and fiction within biblical texts, as Berlin argues, in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the history of the Israelite people.[16] Berlin quotes a series of scholars who suggest that the author of Esther did not mean for the book to be considered as a historical writing, but intentionally wrote it to be a historical novella.[17] The genre of novellas under which Esther falls was common during both the Persian and Hellenistic periods to which scholars have dated the book of Esther.[11][16]

There are certain elements of the book of Esther that are historically accurate. The story told in the book of Esther takes place during the rule of Ahasuerus, who has been identified as the fifth-century Persian king Xerxes (486-465). The author also displays an accurate knowledge of Persian customs and palaces.[14] However, according to Coogan, considerable historical inaccuracies remain throughout the text, supporting the view that the book of Esther is to be read as a historical novella which tells a story describing historical events but is not necessarily historical fact.[11]

Historical reading

The Feast of Esther (Feest van Esther) by Jan Lievens, 1625, North Carolina Museum of Art.

Those arguing in favour of an historical reading of Esther, most commonly identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes II (ruled 405–359 BCE) although in the past it was often assumed that he was Xerxes I (ruled 486–465 BCE). The Hebrew Ahasuerus is most likely derived from Persian Khshayarsha, the origin of the Greek Xerxes. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Xerxes sought his harem after being defeated in the Greco-Persian Wars. He makes no reference to individual members of the harem except for a domineering Queen consort named Amestris, whose father, Otanes, was one of Xerxes's generals. (In contrast, the Greek historian Ctesias refers to a similar father-in-law/general figure named Onaphas.) Amestris has often been identified with Vashti, but this identification is problematic, as Amestris remained a powerful figure well into the reign of her son, Artaxerxes I, whereas Vashti is portrayed as dismissed in the early part of Xerxes's reign. Alternative attempts have been made to identify her with Esther, although Esther is an orphan whose father was a Jew named Abihail.

As for the identity of Mordecai, the similar names Marduka and Marduku have been found as the name of officials in the Persian court in thirty texts from the period of Xerxes I and his father Darius, and may refer to up to four individuals, one of which might after all be Mordecai.

The Septuagint version of Esther translates the name Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes, a Greek name derived from the Persian Artakhshatra. Josephus too relates that this was the name by which he was known to the Greeks, and the Midrashic text, Esther Rabba also makes the identification. Bar-Hebraeus identified Ahasuerus explicitly as Artaxerxes II. However, the names are not necessarily equivalent: Hebrew has a form of the name Artaxerxes distinct from Ahasuerus, and a direct Greek rendering of Ahasuerus is used by both Josephus and the Septuagint for occurrences of the name outside the Book of Esther. Instead, the Hebrew name Ahasuerus accords with an inscription of the time that notes that Artaxerxes II was named also Arshu, understood as a shortening of Achshiyarshu the Babylonian rendering of the Persian Khshayarsha (Xerxes), through which the Hebrew Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) is derived.[18] Ctesias related that Artaxerxes II was also called Arsicas which is understood as a similar shortening with the Persian suffix -ke that is applied to shortened names. Deinon related that Artaxerxes II was also called Oarses which is also understood to be derived from Khshayarsha.[18]

Another view attempts to identify him instead with Artaxerxes I (ruled 465–424 BCE), whose Babylonian concubine, Kosmartydene, was the mother of his son Darius II (ruled 424–405 BCE). Jewish tradition relates that Esther was the mother of a King Darius and so some try to identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes I and Esther with Kosmartydene.

Based on the view that the Ahasuerus of the Book of Tobit is identical with that of the Book of Esther, some have also identified him as Nebuchadnezzar's ally Cyaxares (ruled 625–585 BCE). In certain manuscripts of Tobit, the former is called Achiachar, which, like the Greek Cyaxares, is thought to be derived from Persian Akhuwakhshatra. Depending on the interpretation of Esther 2:5–6, Mordecai or his great-grandfather Kish was carried away from Jerusalem with Jeconiah by Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 BCE. The view that it was Mordecai would be consistent with the identification of Ahasuerus with Cyaxares. Identifications with other Persian monarchs have also been suggested.

Jacob Hoschander has argued that evidence of the historicity of Haman and his father Hamedatha is seen in Omanus and Anadatus mentioned by Strabo as being honoured with Anahita in the city of Zela. Hoschander argues that these were not deities as Strabo supposed but garbled forms of "Haman" and "Hamedatha" who were being worshipped as martyrs. The names are indeed unattested in Persian texts as gods, however the Talmud (Sanhedrin 61b) and Rashi both record a practice of deifying Haman and Josephus speaks of him being worshipped. [18] Attempts have been made to connect both "Omanus" and "Haman" with the Zoroastrian term Vohu Mana; however this denotes the principle of "Good Thoughts" and is not the name of a deity.)

Whenever the book was written and whatever the historicity of the events recounted in it, clearly by the time it was written the term "Yehudim" (יהודים - Jews) already gained a meaning quite close to what it means up to the present—i.e. an ethnic-religious group, scattered in many countries, organised in autonomous communities and the target of intense hatred by fanatic groups.

Allegorical reading

There are many classical Jewish readings of allegories into the book of Esther, mostly from Hasidic sources. They say that the literal meaning is true but that hidden behind this historical account are many allegories.

Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, some Christians believe that his influence during the story is implied.[19]

Some Christian readers consider this story to contain an allegory, representing the interaction between the church as 'bride' and God. This reading is related to the allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon and to the theme of the Bride of God, which in Jewish tradition manifests as the Shekinah.

Relation to the rest of the Bible

Esther is the only book of the Tanakh that is not represented among the Dead Sea scrolls. It has often been compared to the first half of the Book of Daniel and to the deuterocanonical Books of Tobit and Judith for its subject matter.

The story is also the first time that the word Jew (יְהוּדִי) was used, thus denoting a distinction between the Hebrews, the Israelites, and their Jewish descendants in the diaspora.[citation needed] Moreover, whatever the historical validity of the specific events depicted, the book clearly reflects a situation in which Jews were an ethnic-religious minority - scattered in many countries, organised in self-contained, self-governing communities and subjected to intensive and sometimes violent hatred by some members of the surrounding society. Clearly, whenever the book was actually composed, a phenomenon which can already be identified as a kind of antisemitism was in existence - whether or not Haman is an actual historical character.

Additions to Esther

Additional six chapters appear interspersed in Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation, which then was noted by Jerome in compiling the Latin Vulgate; additionally, the Greek text contains many small changes in the meaning of the main text. Jerome recognized them as additions not present in the Hebrew Text and placed them at the end of his Latin translation as chapters 10:4-16:24. However, some modern Catholic English Bibles restore the Septuagint order, such as Esther[20] in the NAB.

These additions include:[21]

  • an opening prologue that describes a dream had by Mordecai
  • the contents of the decree against the Jews
  • prayers for God's intervention offered by Mordecai and by Esther
  • an expansion of the scene in which Esther appears before the king, with a mention of God's intervention
  • a copy of the decree in favor of the Jews
  • a passage in which Mordecai interprets his dream (from the prologue) in terms of the events that followed

By the time Esther was written, the foreign power visible on the horizon as a future threat to Judah was the Macedonians of Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian empire about 150 years after the time of the story of Esther; the Septuagint version noticeably calls Haman a "bully" (βουγαῖον) where the Hebrew text describes him as an Agagite.

The canonicity of these Greek additions has been a subject of scholarly disagreement practically since their first appearance in the Septuagint –- Martin Luther, being perhaps the most vocal Reformation-era critic of the work, considered even the original Hebrew version to be of very doubtful value.[citation needed] Luther's complaints against the book carried past the point of scholarly critique and may reflect Luther's antisemitism, which is disputed, such as in the biography of Luther by Derek Wilson, which points out that Luther's anger at the Jews was not at their race but at their theology.

The Council of Trent, the summation of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, declared the entire book, both Hebrew text and Greek additions, to be canonical. While modern Roman Catholic scholars openly recognize the Greek additions as clearly being additions to the text, the Book of Esther is used twice in commonly used sections of the Catholic Lectionary. In both cases, the text used is not only taken from a Greek addition, the readings also are the prayer of Mordecai, and nothing of Esther's own words is ever used. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of Esther, as it does for all of the Old Testament. The additions are specifically listed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI, of the Church of England:[22] "The rest of the Book of Esther".

Esther Rabbah includes all of Additions to Esther save the "letter texts". It is these "letter texts" that contain the ahistorical assertions that Haman was a Greek.[citation needed]

Reinterpretations of the story

The 2006 film One Night with the King is a reenactment of the biblical story of Esther.

The classic 1960 Hollywood film version of the story, Esther and the King was directed by Raoul Walsh starring Joan Collins and Richard Egan.

The novel Hadassah by J Francis Hudson (Lion Publishing 1996) retells Esther's story from her own viewpoint, focussing on the dilemma she faces when compelled to choose between her own survival and that of her people..

In 1992 a 30-minute, fully animated video, twelfth in Hanna-Barbera's bestselling The Greatest Adventure series, titled Queen Esther features the voices of Helen Slater as Queen Esther, Dean Jones as King Ahasuerus, Werner Klemperer as Haman, and Ron Rifkin as Mordecai.[23][24]

There are several paintings depicting Esther, including one by Millais.

VeggieTales also made an animated version entitled Esther… The Girl Who Became Queen.

There was a British production entitled "Luv Esther", putting it in the form of a pop opera. [25]


  1. ^ E A W Budge, The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus, Gorgias Press LLC, reprinted 2003
  2. ^ Esther chapters 9-10
  3. ^ Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra 15a
  4. ^ Freedman, David Noel; Allen C. Myers; Astrid B. Beck Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000 ISBN 978-0-8028-2400-4 p.428
  5. ^ NIV Study Bible, Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Esther, Zondervan, 2002
  6. ^ Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra 15a
  7. ^ George Lyons, Additions to Esther, Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 2000
  8. ^ a b Prof. Michael Sokoloff, The Targums to the Book of Esther, Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat Tezaveh/Zakhor 5764 March 6, 2004
  9. ^ a b S. Kaufman, CAL TARGUM TEXTS, Text base and variants, The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
  10. ^ Alan J. Hauser, Duane Frederick Watson, A History of Biblical Interpretation: The Ancient Period, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Coogan, Michael David Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 396.
  12. ^ a b Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther,” in The New Interpreters Study Bible New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, ed. Walter J. Harrison and Donald Senior (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 689-690.
  13. ^ New King James Version, translation of Esther 2:6
  14. ^ a b Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Editor), International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume II, 1982, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 159 (entry: Book of Esther)
  15. ^ Wiersbe,Warren W., Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament History, David C Cook, 2004 p. 712
  16. ^ a b Adele Berlin, “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120. no. 1 (Spring 2001): 3-14.
  17. ^ Adele Berlin, “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120. no. 1 (Spring 2001): 6.
  18. ^ a b c Jacob Hoschander, The Book of Esther in the Light of History, Oxford University Press, 1923
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ see the NAB online for the passages
  22. ^ Article VI: Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation
  23. ^ Hanna-Barbera's Greatest Adventure Series Videos – Queen Esther
  24. ^ The Greatest Adventure Stories From The Bible
  25. ^

External links

Text and translations

Introduction and analysis

Modern scholarship

Commentaries and other books

  • Esther (Judaica Press) translation [with Rashi's commentary] at
  • Clines, David J.A. The Esther Scroll. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 30. Sheffield, England: Sheffield, 1984.
  • Cumming, Rev. J. Elder DD The Book of Esther : Its spiritual teaching London: The Religious Tract Society, 1913
  • Fischer, James A. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther. Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986.
  • Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Hudson, J. Francis Esther: For Such a Time as This. From Character and Charisma series. Kingsway, 2000.
  • Levenson, Jon D. Esther. Old Testament Library Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • McConville, John C.L. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.
  • Moore, Carey A. Esther. Anchor Bible, vol. 7B. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
  • Paton, Lewis B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1908.
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