Leslie J. Hoppe
Esther and Judith
The central character in both Esther and Judith is a beautiful Jewish woman whose bravery and wiles save her people from certain destruction. The Hebrew text of Esther mentions neither God nor any religious institutions or practices except fasting, while the book of Judith is filled with allusions to God and numerous religious beliefs and practices. But it was the book of Esther that came to be included in the Jewish canon. Though rabbis recognized Esther's canonicity after a long debate, there is no evidence that Judith was ever considered canonical in Palestine.
A Threat to the Jewish Community
Like the book of Judith, the central concern of the book of Esther is the survival of the Jewish minority in the midst of a world that is growing more hostile to it. This book tells the story of one threat to that survival and the removal of that threat by relating the tale of Mordecai, a Jewish courtier in the service of the Persian emperor. The book of Esther makes it clear that God will act in order to preserve the Jewish community. God does not intervene directly to resolve the problem but, though this divine action may be hidden, it is nonetheless real.
The Additions to the Book
An Element of Confusion
A perplexing aspect of the shape of this book in the New American Bible is the order and numbering of its chapters and verses. There are six chapters that have alphabetic identification scattered in the midst of ten chapters that have the more familiar numerical identification. This is a result of the way the book of Esther has come down to us. The introduction (OT, pp. 569–70 ) notes that the book of Esther has survived in two forms: a shorter Hebrew text and a longer Greek one. The Greek text has about 107 verses more than the Hebrew. Jerome did not believe that the additional verses of the Greek Esther were inspired, so when he produced his Latin translation, he took the additional verses in the Greek Esther out of their proper context and put them in an appendix to the book. When chapter and verse numbers were given to biblical texts during the Middle Ages, these additions received their numbers according to the position they had in Jerome's Vulgate rather than according to their proper position in the Greek version of the book.
The canonical status of the Greek additions was not settled for Catholics until the Council of Trent decided in their favor. (The Protestant churches do not accept the additions to Esther as canonical.) The arrangement of the text of Esther in the NAB reflects the attempts to follow the order of the Greek version of Esther while preserving the traditional numbering of chapters and verses following Jerome's arrangement. This seems to be the best solution possible in the circumstances. It allows the reader to find the additions in their proper contexts, and it preserves the numeration of chapters and verses that is universally followed.
The Purpose of the Greek Additions
The function of the Greek additions to the Hebrew version of Esther is clear. First, the additions introduce explicit religious elements (for example, the prayers of Mordecai and Esther in addition C, 1–30). The Hebrew version lacks a single reference to God except for the possible allusion in 4, 14 . Hebrew Esther is not overtly religious. It is a tale about how Jews used their wits to outsmart their enemies. Second, by introducing “documents” (B, 1–7; E, 1–24), the additions lend an air of authority and authenticity to the book. The additions make the book read as if it were a historical work. This probably was done to encourage the celebration of the Feast of Purim with which the story of Esther became associated.
At first the story sounds like a typical tale of palace intrigue. Two royal officials, Mordecai the Jew and Haman the Agagite, vie for power and position in the court of the Persian emperor. They do not hesitate to hatch plots against each other in order to secure a more important status for themselves. But in chapter 3 the story takes an ominous turn. It is no longer a tale about personal enmity between rival courtiers. Haman's plots threaten not only Mordecai but also the entire Jewish community of the Persian empire. Additions A and F (Mordecai's dream and its interpretation) with their imagery of the two dragons and the phenomena in heaven and earth (A, 4–10) transport the conflict to a cosmic level. Addition F makes it clear that it was God who saved Israel (F, 5–9).
The story that the introduction summarizes (OT, p. 569 ) takes place in the Diaspora (the Jewish settlements outside of the land of Israel), and it contains no references at all to the homeland of the Jews. The tension in the story revolves around the rivalry of Haman and Mordecai, but soon all the Jews find themselves swept up in the conflict because of the specifically Jewish patterns of behavior ( 3, 8 ). When Esther joins Mordecai in a plan to frustrate Haman's murderous plots, the tension is resolved. What was to be a pogrom, an officially organized massacre, against the Jews becomes a celebration of the Jews because Haman and his conspiracy fail.
The Personalities in the Story
Haman and Mordecai
The story refers to Haman as an Agagite ( 3, 1 ), i.e., a descendant of Agag, who was the king of the Amalekites whom earlier traditions remembered as the most dangerous of ancient Israel's opponents (Ex 17, 14; Dt 25, 17–19 ). Mordecai's genealogy ( 1, 1 ) makes him a descendant of Kish, the father of Saul (see 1 Sm 9, 1 ). At the conclusion of his conflict with Agag, Saul wanted to spare the life of this enemy of Israel and is criticized for it (1 Sm 15, 8f ). Mordecai makes no such mistake regarding Haman (Est 7, 9f ).
Vashti and Esther
The story of Esther begins with the deposition of Vashti, the queen of Persia. Vashti lost her position as queen because she refused to obey the command of her husband, Ahasuerus, the king of Persia. During a banquet he gave, the king became drunk and ordered his wife to “display her beauty” before his male courtiers ( 1, 11 ). Because she declined to submit to this indignity, the king's officials advised the king to remove her as queen. They feared that their wives might imitate her example and refuse to be submissive and obedient ( 1, 16–18 ). The king then issued “an irrevocable royal decree” deposing Vashti and insisting that “every man should be lord in his own home” ( 1, 19–22 ). Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl who was the ward and cousin of Mordecai, won the beauty contest that determined Vashti's replacement ( 2, 1–10 ). The name Esther was a Mesopotamian name; her Jewish name was Hadassah (see note to 2, 7; OT, p. 573 ). Unlike Judith, Esther is hardly a model for feminists. She participates in the process to replace Vashti, who is the real heroine in this story according to a feminist reading of the text. Vashti refuses to become an “object” and insists on her dignity as a person, even though this means that she loses her position as queen. In a sense, Esther betrays Vashti by seeking to replace her.
The Historical Character of the Book
The author of Esther shows a familiarity with the royal court and administrative system of Persia. That is why interpreters favor a date toward the end of the Persian period for the bulk of the text (see the introduction, OT, p. 570 ). While the author describes the Persian court accurately, still the story of Esther is fictional. It is a novella on the theme of the persecuted righteous and their deliverance. The story does have a historical flavor, but it does not intend to report an actual event. (See notes to A, 1, OT, p. 570 , and 1, 9, OT, p. 571 , for two historical problems with the story of Esther.)
The Book of Esther and the Feast of Purim
According to F, 10, God wished the Jews to celebrate a feast on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar (February/March) to celebrate their deliverance. This is the Feast of Purim. The name of the feast (Purim) means “lots” and is a reference to 3, 7 and 9, 24.26. The Bible mentions this feast nowhere else except in a possible allusion in 2 Mc 15, 36 that mentions “Mordecai's Day.” The relationship between Purim and the book of Esther is not absolutely clear. Did the feast come first and the story later, or did the feast come from the book?
It may be that the Jews in the Persian diaspora adopted a local spring festival and attached a story of deliverance to it. Passover, the principal Jewish spring festival, shows a similar origin since Passover was a festival celebrated by nomads as they changed grazing areas in the spring. The Israelites attached the story of the deliverance from Egypt to this celebration. Since the Torah did not mandate the observance of Purim, the story of Esther served to promote its observance. In time, the Jews of Palestine came to observe this feast, as Josephus (a first‐century AD Jewish historian and apologist) reports.
It is a mistake, however, to regard Esther 9, 20–32 as nothing more than an addition to the book that justifies the celebration of Purim. It is true that this portion of the book does make an institution of the feast and requires that future generations of Jews celebrate the festival. The text fixes the exact time and manner of its celebration. The effect of these verses is to transform the story of a frustrated pogrom and the victory of the Jews over their enemies into a religious observance.
The Jews are to observe the Feast of Purim by mourning and fasting, by the giving of gifts— especially to the poor—and by remembering the story of (Esther 9, 22 ). These prescriptions give a religious dimension to a urely secular story. For succeeding generations the observance of Purim is to be a religious experience. The Jews are to understand their survival not just in nationalistic terms but as a religious obligation. Thus, 9, 20–32 reinterprets the book of Esther for its readers. Even though the Hebrew version of the book makes no reference to God, celebration of Mordecai's victory as a religious feast makes it clear that the victory came from God.
The Theological Horizons of the Book
Like the Joseph story (Gn 37–50 ) and the Succession Narrative (1 Sm 9–20; 1 Kgs 1–2 ), God remains in the background in the book of Esther. The Hebrew version of the story never mentions God except for what may be an oblique reference in 4, 14 (see note to 4, 14 OT, p. 576 ). The rise of Esther to the position of queen of Persia allowed her to defend the Jews, just as Joseph's rise to the position as second only to the pharaoh in Egypt (Gn 41, 37–43 ) placed him where he could save his family (Gn 50, 20f ). Similarly the succession of Solomon to David's throne was according to the divine will (2 Sm 12, 24f ), but it occurred without direct divine intervention. Solomon ascended the throne of David following the successful machinations of his mother, Bathsheba, and courtiers who supported his accession (1 Kgs 1 ).
The story of Esther describes the Byzantine‐like intrigue and plots by the antagonists and counterplots by the protagonists. The biblical text does not approve the actions of either Esther or Mordecai but only their result. What God intended was the survival of the Jewish community. God did not dictate the means to insure that survival; the human personalities involved determined these. The absence of any explicit references to God in the story may have been a deliberate attempt to emphasize the importance of the Jews taking the matter of their survival into their own hands. The additions to the Hebrew version show that some people saw this reticence as something that needed correction. These additions make the religious dimensions of the story more explicit:
Additions A and F. The story of Mordecai's dream and its interpretation make it clear that God controls the final destiny of Israel. Esther is the deliverer that God chose in answer to the prayers of the Jews.
Addition B. The decree of the Persian monarch against the Jews shows how some Gentiles regarded specifically Jewish observances as evidence of their disloyalty to the king (especially 4–7 ).
Addition C. This addition contains the prayers of Mordecai and Esther. The text makes it clear that the deliverance of the Jews is in response to those prayers. C, 26–29 answers any objections that readers might raise about the propriety of Esther's marriage to a non‐Jew. The reference in C, 20 to the Temple is an anomaly, given the setting of the story in the Diaspora.
Addition D. Verses 2 and 8 assert that the king's change of opinion regarding the Jews resulted from God's response to the prayer of Esther.
Addition E. God condemns the enemy of Israel (vv. 2–6 ). The king finds the Jews innocent of all the accusations that Haman brought against them (vv. 15–16). The king acclaims the God of the Jews as sovereign over all (v. 21).
A Christian Reading of the Book
The presence of this book in the Christian Old Testament is a problem for some readers because of its supposed Jewish nationalism. One way to deal with this problem is to “excuse” the book's story of revenge on the enemies of the Jews by observing that the command to love one's enemies had not yet been taught by Christ (see introduction, OT, p. 570 ). In effect, people will dismiss the book's message because it is supposedly “sub‐Christian.”
The message of the book of Esther, however, has an important and positive role in the Christian canon. It offers an opportunity to check the tendency to spiritualize the people of ancient Israel and their contemporary descendants. The biblical text moves Christians beyond the statements made about the Jews in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non‐Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), article 4. The Council affirmed that there is a spiritual bond between Jews and Christians, that the Church received the revelation of the Old Testament from the Jews, and, above all, that the Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus. The book of Esther asserts that the preservation of the Jewish people is a religious obligation. The presence of this book in the Christian canon is a statement of the religious significance of the Jewish people as an ethnic group, and it implies the abiding validity of Judaism. It makes the sin of anti‐Semitism even more reprehensible than the irrational injustice that most Christians understand it to be today, and it undercuts the claim made by some Christians that God's covenant with the Jews has been replaced or superseded by Christianity.
Tales from the Diaspora and Today's Migrants
Stories about life in the Diaspora (Est, Tb, Dn 1–6 ) suggest that fidelity to Jewish religious traditions is not easy for Jews living outside Palestine. The special circumstances that come from living outside the Promised Land and apart from the community of faith contribute to a special feeling of vulnerability. They experience their new surroundings as hostile to the maintenance of their very identity as Jews. They see political authorities as potential or real threats to their religion and very existence. These stories show how people cut off from their roots can feel lost and menaced.
With the greater mobility that is characteristic of our age, there are more and more people who can identify with the Jewish characters in these tales from the Diaspora. Immigrants sometimes feel that they must choose between economic and political security and their own cultural and religious identities. Aware of those needs, Pope Paul VI issued his Instruction on the Pastoral Care of People Who Migrate (1969). Responding to the pope's initiative, the bishops of the United States issued The Church and the Immigrant (1976) and established the Bishops' Committee on Migration to respond to the needs of immigrants to this country. One of the main duties of this committee is to help today's immigrants adjust to their new life in a new and sometimes threatening cultural milieu. Specifically, the committee concerns itself with immigration laws, the problems of undocumented immigrants, economic and social discrimination experienced by people on the move, and pastoral initiatives to help people who feel the dislocation that comes with being an immigrant. One of the achievements of this committee was the preparation of Together, a New People, a pastoral statement on migrants and refugees published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1986.