The Hebrew Book.
Deriving its title from the name of its heroine, the book of Esther presents the story of an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Jews living in the Persian empire during the reign of a certain Ahasuerus, probably meant to be Xerxes (486–465 BCE). The threat was averted by the courage and shrewdness of Esther and her cousin Mordecai, with the aid of a series of fortuitous circumstances. Since it purports to explain the origin of the festival of Purim (see Feasts and Festivals), the book has been read aloud in the synagogue at that feast since antiquity.
Neither the date nor the location of the book's composition can be determined with any precision. While it is clearly one of the latest books in the Hebrew Bible, the absence of clear historical allusions or perspectives renders the questions uncertain; nor is there sufficient linguistic evidence to resolve them. It may be as late as the second century BCE, just before the Maccabean period, or as early as the late fifth century, from the Persian period. Doubtless, it contains traditions and information that go back to the Persian period. In part because of its lack of interest in Palestinian religious institutions and its concern with the problems of Jews in foreign lands, it is likely that the book was composed in the eastern Diaspora.
As a well‐constructed story that creates interest by developing and resolving tension, the book of Esther's plot structure includes the following elements:
- I. Exposition, or setting the scene (1.1–2.23)
- A. Life in the Persian palace: the king banishes Queen Vashti (1.1–22)
- B. Esther becomes queen, and her cousin Mordecai exposes a plot against the king (2.1–23)
- II. The crises and their resolution: the lives of Mordecai and of all the Jews are in jeopardy but they are saved (3.1–8.14)
- A. Haman plots to kill Mordecai and all the Jews (3.1–4.17)
- B. Esther and Mordecai take actions that avert the threat (5.1–8.14)
- III. The resolution and the results (8.15–10.3)
- A. The Jews celebrate the edict (8.15–17)
- B. The Jews' victory over their enemies (9.1–15)
- C. Date of the celebration (9.16–19)
- D. Mordecai's records and letter scheduling the feast of Purim (9.20–28)
- E. Esther's letter concerning the feast (9.29–32)
- F. Epilogue in praise of Mordecai (10.1–3)
Although the details of its setting are entirely plausible and the story may even have some basis in actual events, in terms of literary genre the book is not history. Nor is it legend, though the sequence of events is as unlikely as those in legends, and folkloristic traditions probably underlie the story. Missing are the conventional legendary features of the miraculous, as are characters who reveal the power of God in human affairs and thereby serve as models for future generations. Rather, because of the extended and well‐developed plot and its point of view, the book is best understood as a novella, a type that arose not as oral tradition but as a written composition. The closest biblical parallels are the story of Joseph (Gen. 37–50) and the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Tobit.
The author sacrifices characterization and, to a lesser extent, description of setting in order to emphasize the plot. Three main characters (Esther, Mordecai, and Haman) and two lesser ones (King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti) are set forth in the account; all lack depth and complexity. The author deals only in passing with the actors' motivations and feelings, drawing them in such sharp profile that they are almost caricatures. Haman is evil incarnate, while Esther and Mordecai are synonymous with beauty, wisdom, and the good. The storyteller gives us no opportunity to sympathize with Haman, nor to criticize or question Mordecai and Esther. The king is shown to be something of a buffoon, always acting on the spur of the moment, at the mercy of his emotions and whims.
Most of the action transpires in the palace, and is organized in series of scenes, with relatively clear markers indicating changes of time and location. The author takes pains to provide the reader with every reason to believe in the circumstances, giving particularly detailed descriptions of the palace and the king's frequent banquets.
By means of a relatively straightforward plot, the book of Esther tells the story of how the Jews were saved from persecution and death. It is a simple story of the triumph of good over evil, but the narrator takes some care to pace the tale, keeping the outcome in doubt as long as possible. Ironic twists appear—first, when Haman hears the king ask, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” and, assuming the monarch has him in mind, he answers only to discover that the king intends to honor Mordecai (6.6–11). The final irony for Haman is that he is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai (7.9–10). Moreover, the story is not without humor, and possibly satire as well, particularly in the portrayal of Ahasuerus.
As the outline above indicates, the first two chapters set the scene and mood for the events of the story itself. In chap. 1, though the main characters have not yet appeared, we learn how the king behaves capriciously, how much plotting and conflict there is in the court, and that when the king banishes Vashti he will need a new queen. Two events equally important for the outcome of the story are reported in chap. 2: after an empirewide search, the Jewish girl Esther becomes the queen; and her cousin Mordecai discovers a plot against Ahasuerus and reports it.
Two distinct but related threads run through the body of the story: the threat against Mordecai and the threat against the Jewish people as a whole. The first is set in motion when Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman (3.1–3), thus disobeying one of the king's laws. The story does not state directly why Mordecai puts his life in danger, but it implies that he does so because he is a Jew. When Haman learns this (3.4–6), he vows to kill all the Jews. Then Haman schemes to accomplish his goal, bribing the king to proclaim the destruction of the Jews (3.7–15) on a date set by the casting of a lot (Hebr. pûr; hence the festival is called Purim [the plural form]). The first thread of the plot is brought to a climax when Ahasuerus, finding Haman in what he takes to be a compromising position with Esther, decrees Haman's death (7.1–10). It was not just Esther's appeal but a chance encounter that brought the enemy's downfall.
Still, the terrifying danger hangs over the Jews, for the king's edict has gone out and cannot be recalled. As the book stresses more than once, royal proclamations cannot be changed (1.19; 3.12–15; 8.8). Ahasuerus can and does, however, promulgate another edict, this one authorizing the Jews to defend themselves. When this document is circulated (8.11–14), the main plot has reached its resolution. What follows, including the extermination of the Jews' enemies, is the denouement of the conclusion's results.
On the surface, the book's theme is a simple one, that good triumphs over evil. The more specific form of this theme is one of the favorites of oppressed and persecuted people everywhere, that their persecutors are defeated by their own hostile plans. Moreover, the good triumph over the evil so long as they are shrewd, courageous, and fortunate. More significant, the story encourages those who see themselves threatened by hostile oppressors, and teaches those who wield authority over the weak how contemptible they are in the eyes of the powerless.
Although the story proceeds as the conflict between a Jewish minority and others bent on genocide, the book's attitudes toward foreigners and toward power are by no means unambiguous. Neither the Persians in general nor the Persian authorities are evil, but only the “enemies of the Jews” (9.1), epitomized by Haman. On the one hand, the capricious king and the immutable Persian laws are ridiculed, but on the other, Esther and Mordecai work through the channels of power to save their people. As in the book of Ruth, intermarriage between Jews and gentiles is not only condoned but even approved.
One of the major issues in the book concerns the relation between law and justice. Mordecai disobeys the law, and on that basis he and all his people are jeopardized; Esther likewise violates the law by entering the king's presence (4.11; 5.1). But the storyteller leaves no doubt in the minds of the readers that these laws are unjust, and not simply by the standards of the Mosaic Law—which is never mentioned—but by common sense. Haman is held in contempt for his self‐serving legalism; the king's laws are shown to be petty and capricious. Thus, the book criticizes a narrow legalism with neither heart and soul, nor justice.
Behind the story stand certain views of how human history moves. The book is optimistic about the future, for history moves in a beneficent direction. Moreover, the development of events is viewed as the interaction of human wills with chance or destiny (and the latter is not a hidden reference to the will of God, who is never mentioned in the book). On the one hand, the Jews, through the hero and heroine, take care of themselves; on the other hand, they are fortunate, as is seen most clearly in Haman's downfall, when his foolish attempt to plead with the queen is misinterpreted by the king (7.7–8). These two forces, destiny and human initiative, are explicitly linked in Mordecai's words to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (4.14). In the right time and place, human individuals can hold the destiny of their people in their hands.
Additions to the Book.
Jerome, in preparing his Latin Vulgate, recognized some 107 verses as additions to the book of Esther. Since the passages in question appeared in his Greek text but not in the Hebrew, he removed them from the body of the book and placed them at its end. A further step was taken during the Protestant Reformation, when the Apocrypha was created by placing in a separate part of the Bible those books found in the Greek Old Testament but not in the Hebrew. It was then that the Additions to the Book of Esther became a separate book (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha).
The traditional Greek text (Codex Vaticanus) of Esther contains six additions not found in the Masoretic Hebrew text. One appears at the beginning, another at the end, and the others are interspersed through the book at appropriate points in the narrative. Their versification is somewhat confusing because when Jerome moved the additions to the end, he left the last one in place as the book's conclusion, thus disrupting the chronology of the closing passages.
The six additions, with their traditional English chapters and verses, are:
A (11.2–12.6): The beginning of the Greek version, before Hebrew 1.1. The first unit (11.2–12) reports Mordecai's dream of what will transpire in the Esther story, and the second (12.1–6) is a variation on the account of Mordecai's discovery of the plot against the king (Esther 2.19–23).
F (10.4–11.1): Following Hebrew 10.3, this addition tells how Mordecai recalls his dream, which has now come true, and interprets the meaning of the figures in it; 11.1 is a colophon validating the copy of the book, called here “The Letter of Purim,” brought to Egypt in the time of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.
Four of the additions, A, C, D, and F, generally are considered to rest upon a Hebrew original, but B and E, the proclamations of the king, were composed in Greek. Therefore, if one considers only the textual differences between the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic Text) and the Septuagint B (Vaticanus), there were three clear stages of composition: the short Hebrew text, the Hebrew with four additions, and the Greek with two further expansions. The process of the text's growth and composition would have been even more complicated than that, for another Septuagint text (A [Codex Alexandrinus]) appears to rest on a different Hebrew tradition.
It follows, then, that the Additions to the Book of Esther were composed at different times and by different persons. The original book would have been written perhaps as early as the late fifth century BCE but no later than the early second century BCE. The fullest form of the book, represented in the two Greek editions, probably was written not long before when it claims to have been brought to Egypt in the “fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra” (11.1), probably 114 BCE. In any case, the additions show that the book of Esther did not stabilize until relatively late.
The additions make the book of Esther a dramatically different work, and indicate that some of those who transmitted it were uneasy with the original. What had been a tale of the triumph of good over evil through the skills and courage of the hero and heroine, assisted by fortuitous circumstances, becomes a religious story stressing piety and the will of God. Whereas the book of Esther does not mention God, the additions constantly refer to the deity, to prayer, and to the sacred traditions and practices of Judaism.
The important human qualities are not shrewdness or power or royal position, but piety and humility. If Esther is eloquent before the king, it is because God has answered her prayer (14.1–9). The exercise of genuine religion leads to the salvation of the people. The authors of the additions must have been offended by all the story's pomp and circumstance, for they present Esther belittling her royal position and apologizing for her royal garb.
In the additions, one finds a significantly different understanding of history. In the first place, the story is now set between Mordecai's almost apocalyptic dream and its interpretation. This framework tells the reader that God not only knows the future but reveals it to the elect. Second, it is not chance or heroic actions that saves the Jews from extermination, but divine intervention. To be sure, that intervention was not by means of a dramatic miracle, but through influencing the human heart. Ahasuerus issued his second proclamation because “God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness” (15.8).
Gene M. Tucker