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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Esther - Introduction

The Book of Esther, or Scroll of Esther as it is called in Jewish tradition, is part of the third major section, known as the Writings, of the Hebrew Bible (OT). One of the two books in Hebrew Scripture to bear the name of a woman, its title is the name of the book's heroine. The name is not Hebrew, but its origin is uncertain. It may come from Persian stara (‘star’), Akkadian ištār (the goddess of love), or even a hypothetical Median word astra (‘myrtle’). The last possibility is related to the fact that Esther also has a Hebrew name (see 2:7 ), Hadassah, which means ‘myrtle’.

That the leading character has two names is indicative of the cultural situation that determines the setting and the plot of this exciting and fast-moving tale. The book of Esther is concerned with the often precarious situation of any minority people within a dominant majority culture. In this case, the Jews are dispersed within the Persian empire and face almost certain annihilation through the whim of a power-mongering bureaucrat (Haman). Only through the courageous and creative deeds of a Jewish woman, Esther, along with her mentor, Mordecai, do they escape harm and actually improve their status, though still remaining a subject people. The two names and identities of Esther—as both Jew and Persian—represent the political and ethnic problems facing people who live simultaneously in two cultures.

The ostensible reason for the inclusion of this book in the canon of the HB is that it purports to provide the historical origins for a festival known as Purim (‘Lots’), a popular and raucous Jewish celebration held on the 14th and 15th of Adar (Mar.–Apr.). Yet the book's historicity, as well as its legitimacy as a part of both the Jewish and Christian canon, have been the subject of serious disagreement since antiquity.

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