Exposition ( 1:1–2:23 )

( 1:1–22 ) The Vashti Incident

The opening four verses provide the setting for most of the book: the sumptuous court of the Persian ruler Ahasuerus (Xerxes), the only historical figure in the book. The exaggerated vastness of the kingdom (‘over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia’, v. 1 ) and of the initial banquet, which lasts for the improbably long period of 180 days, emphasizes imperial power and thus prepares the way for the enormity of the reversal that will take place at the end of the book, when Persian political privilege becomes accessible to a subject people. The Hebrew root m-l-k (‘to rule’) appears for the first time in the first verse in designating the king's rule; except for the introductory term ‘happened’, ‘ruled’ is the first verb in the book and establishes a major theme. The word appears in various noun and verbal forms some 250 times in Esther, thereby emphasizing the royalty of the governing power, a dominant motif in the book (Berg 1979: 59–72).

The initial use of the term ‘banquet’ also appears at the beginning of the book (vv. 3, 5, 9 ). That word (mišteh) appears 20 times in Esther but only 24 times in the entire rest of the HB. The importance of official feasts, of which there are eight altogether in Esther (three called by the king, one by Vashti, two by Esther, and two by the Jews), is thus introduced. The symmetry of the book, with feasts at the beginning, middle, and end, is also thereby established. The two feasts called by the king at the outset, with the second one (vv. 5–8 ) described in exceptionally lavish detail, are mirrored at the end by the two Jewish feasts. In the first instance the imperial power indulged its wealth; and in the second instance, after a series of breathtaking reversals, the Jews in all 127 provinces celebrate their survival.

Another important feature of Esther emerges in the language of the first chapter. The importance of law and the related issue of obedience versus disobedience is obvious from the repeated use of the term dāt (vv. 13, 15 , etc.). This Persian word, meaning ‘law’ or ‘decree’, appears about 20 times in Esther (elsewhere only twice in the HB). Other words for edicts, orders, customs, commands, and proclamations abound. The frequent use of dāt and other such terms introduces the problem of Jews adhering to an external legal and cultural system while remaining faithful to Jewish tradition. The recurrent vocabulary of governance highlights the continual tension experienced by any subject group, with its own codes of behaviour, struggling to survive in a land not its own, in a culture with codes and procedures at variance with its own.

Although the king's royal power and palace munificence are important introductory themes of the first chapter, the book's plot is initiated by an incident involving the queen, Vashti, who gave her own banquet at the same time as the king's second one. The announcement (v. 9 ) of the queen's feast, which appears almost as an aside, establishes the legitimacy of official banquets being offered by the queen of the realm and anticipates the meals to be hosted later by Esther at a critical point in the tale. Certainly the fact of Vashti hosting a banquet for women does not seem essential for the incident that next occurs—except that it may indicate that Vashti was too busy to respond to her husband's request that his beautiful queen be paraded before the king, his officials, and all the people in attendance at the king's second banquet. She survives her disobedience by losing only her position (v. 19 ). The calm assertion of autonomy by Vashti results in royal rage and then a ridiculous royal decree—that all men should be master in their own homes—which adds a comic touch in that it could hardly be enforced, and indicates that men were not actually dominant in their households.

( 2:1–23 ) Esther's Accession to the Throne

When Ahasuerus' anger abates, he again takes action, authorizing the search for a new queen. The idea of his ire dissipating occurs once more, using the same verb (š-k-k), in 7:10 , when the king is calmed after another royal order is carried out. In both cases his wrath emerges from a spouse problem; in the first case the queen (Vashti) threatens his authority, whereas in the second case, his chief officer threatens the queen (Esther). The king apparently experiences intense anger only in matters of the heart.

In introducing Esther, the narrator informs us of her relationship to Mordecai, her cousin, adoptive father, and mentor. Mordecai's name, which is probably a Hebraized form of a Babylonian name with the theophoric element Marduk, contains an idolatrous element; but he may have had (as did Esther) a true Hebrew name as well (Moore 1971: 19). If his name is suspect, his lineage is not. The genealogical information in vv. 5–6 puts him in the family of Saul, the first Israelite ruler. This brief genealogy accomplishes three things. First, it gives Mordecai a royal identity, fitting his eventual high position in the Persian court ( 8:2, 8, 10, 15; 9:4 ). Yet, as a Saulide rather than a Davidide, his royal heritage poses no threat to Persian dominance; it is the Davidic line and not the Saulide one that is expected one day to regain power. Second, it sets up the opposition between Mordecai and his nemesis Haman, the king's chief official. Haman is an Agagite ( 3:1 ), a descendant of the Amalekite king who opposed King Saul (1 Sam 15:32 ). Mordecai and Haman thus echo the historic confrontation between Saul and Agag. Third, it gives a sense of Jewish continuity in presenting Mordecai's family as having survived since the days of Saul. Saul the Benjaminite preceded David the Judahite, and his descendant Mordecai now outlasts Davidic rule.

The beautiful Esther is chosen for the king's harem and receives special food and seven serving maids. These two benefits anticipate an important reversal at the turning-point of the story, when Esther and her maids fast for three days ( 4:15 ). Obeying Mordecai's charge, though later she will disobey even the king, Esther does not reveal her Jewish identity (vv. 10, 20 ). It is not that her identity would have disqualified her from the harem; rather it would preclude the plot development that will enable her to act on behalf of her people. The king must not know her national or ethnic origins (‘her people or kindred’).

Esther's beauty wins the approval of the king, who crowns her queen (v. 17 ) even though she requests no special attire or adornment (see vv. 13, 15 ) when she first enters the king's presence. Her role in saving the king's life in this opening section of the book is just as important as is her beauty in sealing her favoured position. Through her informant Mordecai, she learns of a plan to assassinate the king and warns him of it (vv. 21–2 ). The would-be assassins die on the gallows, and the motif of the hanging of the king's enemies enters the narrative. All the elements necessary for the central problem of the story are now in place, and the plot begins to unfold in ch. 3 .