Esther (book of the Bible)

The Book of Esther is one of the “historical books” of the Old Testament and the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).

In Hebrew it is called Megillat Esther (מְגִילַת אֶסְתֵּר) .

It is named after its main character, Queen Esther of Persia . Faced with death, Esther and Mordecai (her foster father) put aside their fear and acted. Esther risked her life by asking King Ahasuerus to save the Jews. The Jews celebrate the Feast of Purim , which symbolizes the liberation of God. ” Purim ” means ‘to cast lots’, as Haman did to establish the date of the extermination of all the Jews of Persia.

Summary

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  • 1 Synopsis
  • 2 Outline of the book
  • 3 Author
  • 4 Date
  • 5 Historical framework
  • 6 Contribution to theology
  • 7 Canonicality
  • 8 Purim Feast
  • 9 Greek additions to the book
  • 10 Style and organization
  • 11 religious teaching
  • 12 Colophon of the historical books
  • 13 Characters from the Book of Esther
  • 14 1998 movie
  • 15 See also
  • 16 Sources

Synopsis

The narration that is included in the book of Esther is located in Susa (according to the Book of Nehemiah  1.1), one of the capitals of the Persian Empire , during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes I (according to the Book of Ezra  4.6) . The work presents the origin of the Feast of Purim (according to the Book of Esther  9.16-32), which celebrates the salvation of a Jewish community in a time of crisis and persecution.

In the midst of a great display of oriental luxuries, Ahasuerus repudiates his wife, Queen Vasti, and replaces her with Esther, a beautiful Jewish teenager, niece and pupil of Mordecai. Between him and the Amalekite Haman, the prime minister of the empire, a serious conflict arose that culminated in the royal order, issued to each of the provinces of Persia, “to destroy, kill and annihilate all Jews, young and old, children and women, and to seize their property, in the same day »( Book of Esther  3.13). But Mordecai, who had once saved Ahasuerus’ life (2.21–23), also now, with the help of Esther, manages to deliver his people from the decreed destruction. Mordecai, hearing of the royal edict, ordered Esther to intercede for the Jews.

Because if you are absolutely silent at this time, respite and liberation will come from somewhere else for the Jews; but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows if by this time you have reached the kingdom?

Esther’s Book 4.14

Haman, enemy of the Jews, was hanged; and then, with the edge of the sword, the Jews killed all those who hated them ( Book of Esther  9.5). Even Esther herself instigated the hanging of Haman’s ten sons (9.13-14) as well. After the triumph, Mordecai wrote again to the Jews to order the celebration of the Feast of Purim on the 14th and 15th of the month of Adar. The name of the festival is related to the luck that Haman cast to know the propitious day for the destruction of the Jews ( Book of Esther  3.7). That feast celebrates the salvation and liberation of the Jews with joy, banquet, and rejoicing ( Book of Esther  9.18).

The narrative ends by highlighting the prosperity of the Persian Empire during Mordecai’s role as second in the kingdom ( Book of Esther  10.3). In addition, the appreciation of the Jewish community to Mordecai is revealed.

Book sketch

  • Esther is chosen queen ( Book of Esther1–2.23)
  • Threats against the Jews ( Book of Esther1–4.17)
  • Esther intercedes for the Jews ( Book of Esther1–8.17)
  • Jews are set free ( Book of Esther1–10.3)

Author

Although the author’s name is unknown, the book was written by a Jew familiar with Persian customs and language. Mordecai or Ezra could have written it. The author remains anonymous through the narration, he must have been a Jew who knew well the Persian customs, traditions and language. At the same time, he was aware of the ancient traditions of Israel . Specifically, he must have known the stories of Joseph and of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt . His goal was to tell the Jewish community about the historical origin of the Purim Festival in an interesting and entertaining literary setting.

As in many other cases of books from this period, the author of the Book of Esther remains unknown, although tradition usually attributes it to the prophet Ezra. His style is modern (from the time of the Maccabees) and a true scholar in the historical affairs of the people to which he belongs. It is very well documented and does not make historical mistakes.

The author also points out the remnant motive that recurs throughout the Bible (natural disasters, disease, war, and other calamities that threaten God’s people; those who survived constitute a remnant).

Date

The determination of the date of composition of the book of Esther, tradition basically bases it on the internal analysis of the book. From a linguistic perspective, based on the fact that the book of Esther was located in the Persian or early Hellenistic era, for three fundamental reasons: the Hebrew used in the book of Esther has very little in common with the one discovered in Qumran ; Esther’s text does not present the characteristic Greek influence of the Hellenistic period; and the books with which Esther has a certain literary and linguistic affinity relate to the Persian period.

To this linguistic argument they add that Esther’s book treats the Persian monarch with deference and sympathy. Furthermore, that a Jew reached a position of prestige and power within the empire. That affinity relationship is likely to have developed during the hegemony of Persia. It has been suggested between 490 and 470 BC as an approximate date for the composition of most of Esther’s book.

Historical setting

It takes its name from the beautiful orphan Jewish protagonist of the story who became the official wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus.

This is generally considered to be the monarch Xerxes I , who succeeded Darius I in 485 BC and ruled over 127 provinces for twenty years, from India to Ethiopia . Ahasuerus lived in Susa , the capital of Persia .

At this time, a number of Jews were still in Babylon , even though they had been declared free to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1; 2) more than fifty years ago. The story unfolds over a four-year period, beginning in the third year of Xerxes’ reign .

Contribution to theology

A very important and interesting aspect in the book of Esther is that she does not mention the name of God in the narration. This peculiarity is repeated in the Bible only in the book of Song of Solomon . Believers have traditionally reacted in two ways. The Greek translators of the book, realizing this situation, added a series of stories and sentences to respond to this literary and theological reality. Other believers, like Luther, have rejected the canonicity of the book and have relegated it to the background, in terms of its contribution to the life of the religious community. Both positions have been overcome by many through an analysis of the theological contribution of the book to the development of the Church’s faith. Specifically through the study of the contemporary implications of the narrative.

In the theological evaluation of Esther’s book, important values ​​have been discovered.

The narrative highlights divine providence. God intervenes in history and radically changes the future and the lot of the Jews. This saving and liberating act can be related to the great interventions of God in the history of Israel (Ex 3; 12–15; Jos 6; Jud 14–15).

In the narrative, the name of God is not explicitly mentioned, but his liberating action is revealed. In the midst of a crisis situation and mortal danger, God’s action transformed the environment of death and turned it into a celebration of life.

One of the most famous phrases in the book is said by Mordecai, in face of Esther’s ambivalence: «Because if you remain absolutely silent at this time, breathing and liberation will come from somewhere else for the Jews; but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows if by this time you have reached the kingdom? (? 4.14?). Mordecai obviously expected God to deliver his people. In that statement, it is emphasized that the salvation of the people is certain. It does not depend on Esther’s decision. According to Mordecai, it was the queen’s responsibility to intervene and intercede for her people. However, the salvation of the people was not questioned in the face of Esther’s passivity. Salvation would come from somewhere to the people.

It is very important to indicate that the Feast of Purim celebrates an act of liberation and salvation. The Jews rejoice in remembering that Haman, the representative of the hostile and ruthless forces that attack the people of God, was finally defeated.

Chapter 8. In it is presented the edict of King Ahasuerus in favor of the Jews. That narrative emphasizes the victory of wisdom over force, the triumph of prudence over bureaucracy. The story highlights the power of a minority sector over the forces of an empire. Solidarity triumphed over injustice.

Canonicity

Tomb on a cliff of the Persian king Xerxes I, the ruler who is usually identified with King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther (Est 1.1) .Photo by Gustav Jeeninga

Universally considered canonical in its original Hebrew , the only version accepted by the Jews; later additions in Greek are considered deuterocanonical for Catholics and Orthodox, and apocryphal for Protestants.

During the first century of the Christian era, the book of Esther was gaining recognition among the Jewish community. Both in the Talmud and in the works of Josephus, the book of Esther is referred to as part of the Jewish canon. At the Council of Jamnia, held in AD 90, Esther’s book must have been recognized with religious value for several reasons: it is presented as a historical work in a time of persecution; provides the raison d’être of a popular Jewish holiday; Furthermore, after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, the Jews were to view the lives of Esther and Mordecai as an example to follow in crisis situations.

Among Christians, the doubts regarding the canonicity of the book of Esther have been several: it presents a story with a vague and superficial religious value; the name of God is absent in the narrative (the Greek text includes a number of important additions that not only add the name of God, but develop the religious value of the book); and the relationship and association between the books of Esther and Judith (deuterocanonical).

Esther’s book is not cited in the New Testament , and is absent from several old lists of canonical books. Ultimately, the goal of Esther’s book is to present “the historical foundation” of the Feast of Purim , which is not included or celebrated in the Christian calendar. All of these factors contributed to Esther’s slow acceptance into the canon of the eastern churches. From the fourth century, the western churches accepted the canonicity of the book.

Purim party

In the writings of Josephus the feast that was celebrated on the 14th and 15th of the month of Adar (February, March) is mentioned to commemorate the salvation of the Jews in the time of Mordecai in the Persian Empire . In 2 Maccabees (see 15.37) reference is made to the feast of Nicanor which was celebrated on the 13th day of Adar, “the eve of the day of Mordecai.” In addition, the ceremonial details of the Purim Feast are presented in the Talmud. This celebration included expressions of enthusiasm, joy and carnival festivals; banquets, drinks, gift exchanges between family and friends; and, in addition, the book of Esther was read. Purim was a feast with a double character: profane and religious.

Attempts to discover the Jewish origin of the Feast of Purim have been unsuccessful. The name of the party itself betrays its non-Jewish origin. The word Purim, which comes from the singular pur, means luck and, possibly, is related to the Babylonian word puru, which has the same meaning as the main meaning.

Various theories have been put forward regarding the historical origin of the Feast of Purim. Some scholars have related Esther’s history to various Babylonian myths and festivals. Mordecai and Esther are related to the divinities Marduk and Istar; and Haman and Vasti with the Elamite gods Humman and Mashti. However, a more probable theory identifies the origin of this holiday with the New Year celebrations in the Persian Empire. The narration of the book of Esther presents various rites and traditions that are common in New Year celebrations in Persia and other ancient cultures.

Greek additions to the book

Royal Titles of King Xerxes, the Biblical Ahasuerus of Esther 1.1. Found at his palace in Persepolis, Persia. Howard Vos photo

An important characteristic of the book of Esther is that it has a series of additions to the Greek text that are unparalleled in the Masoretic text. These Greek additions to Esther’s text add 107 verses to the 167 of the Masoretic text and can be cataloged in six sections.

  • Mordecai’s dream: (11.2–12.6). This passage includes two major incidents: Mordecai’s apocalyptic dream; and the discovery of the plot to kill the king.
  • Ahasuerus’ decree: (13.1–7). This section includes the text of the decree that Ahasuerus sent, against the enemies of the empire, at the instigation of Haman.
  • Mordecai’s and Esther’s prayers: (13.8–14.19). These prayers highlight the religious aspect of the book. They are in favor of the liberation of the Jews.
  • Esther appears before the king: (15.1–16). This narration describes how Esther presented herself to the king and adds an important theological statement:

“God made the king become kind” (Popoular Version).

  • Ahasuerus’ decree in favor of the Jews: (16.1–24). This text includes the content of the royal decree issued in favor of the Jews.
  • The interpretation of Mordecai’s dream: (10.4–11.1). This portion relates Mordecai’s dream to the narration of the book of Esther. In addition, this addition includes a colophon with details about the origin of the book and the date of composition of the Greek version.
  • Of the Greek additions to the book, the one identified with the letter C has a particular religious value. Possibly, a Greek-speaking Jewish reader added these prayers to explicitly include the religious element in the work. Those prayers affirm God’s goodness to Israel and include references to Abraham and the liberation from Egypt (4.17). The other additions are stories to satisfy the reader’s curiosity and add some mystery to the story. They highlight the power of God manifested in history.

Style and organization

It shows a rough and furious nationalism, with a dry and direct language , little given to metaphors. Unlike other biblical books, Esther does not bother to cite sources, nor does she bother to approach strict doctrine, the concept of the Covenant, or God as the source of the spirituality and religious life of the Jewish people .

The story of Esther is a drama, not in the Greek sense (the struggle of man against fate) but in Hebrew: A story that shows the providence of God .

Religious teaching

Esther is much more neutral (religiously speaking) than the other historical books . However, just as Judit tried to prove God’s intervention in the Jewish victory over Assyria , here Esther tries to instill in the warriors the confidence in the final victory of Judaism thanks to the help of God .

Permanently use the logical Hebrew mechanisms: if God loves the righteous, the righteous must ultimately triumph over the wicked (Mordecai’s admonition to Esther: cs. 13-17; characters’ understanding that God guides events: 1: 14-16 ). Furthermore, God’s action always operates according to his own Law.

Colophon of the historical books

Except for King Ahasuerus, none of the main characters that appear in the book (the two queens Vasti and Esther, Mordecai, and Minister Haman) appear in any known historical source. Nor is any of the events that are narrated documented, and we do know on the contrary that the Persian Empire was very tolerant of the religious practices of its subject peoples (the Bible itself praises King Cyrus on several occasions ) and it would be strange to him the extermination of the Jews that Haman intended.

Finally, it is not plausible that the slaughter so exaggeratedly high at the end, nor the good humor with which the king approves of the brutal slaughter of his Persian subjects, which, like many other episodes in the Old Testament , is quite unpleasant for modern sensibility.

The reasoning of the Jewish historical authors is as follows: some readers will miss the data, sources, and lengthy historical discussions. Others, on the other hand, will meditate on the causes and consequences of the facts and look for their reasons, at the end of which there is always God . These texts are intended for them.

Characters from the Book of Esther

In this biblical book mention is made of:

  • Ahasuerus: Great King of Persia, unanimously identified with the historical Xerxes . This king ruled from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces (Est 1: 1). Ahasuerus proclaimed Esther queen in place of Queen Vasti, who had refused to go out to show her beauty “to the peoples and princes” (Est 1:11) as the Bible says that Vasti “was beautiful in appearance” (Est 1:11).
  • Mordecai: he was “the son of Yair, the son of Semei, the son of Chis, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Est 2: 5). The Biblementions in Esther 2: 7 that “he had brought up Hadasah, who is Esther, daughter of his uncle, because he had neither father nor mother; and he was a girl of beautiful form and good looks; and how his father and mother died Mordecai had taken her as his daughter. “
  • Esther: she was “daughter of Abihail, uncle of Mordecai” (Est 2:15). Having been orphaned by her parents, her cousin Mordecai adopted her and raised her as if she were his daughter. She was “a young woman of beautiful form and good looks” (Est 2: 7). Its Hebrew name was Hadasá (which means myrtle ) but it was changed to Esther who is of Babylonian origin and means ‘star’. She was proclaimed queen in place of Queen Vasti because she won “the grace of all who saw her” (Est 2:15).
  • Haman: He was “the son of Hamdathá, of the country of Agag” (Est 3: 1). King Ahasuerus raised him to power and gave him a position above all his other servants. Haman began to hate Mordecai because Mordecai did not kneel or bow before him, as “the king had commanded” (Est 3: 2). So it was that she sought to destroy the Jews, not knowing (and that would be the final cause of their downfall) that Queen Esther herself was Jewish. Haman is also a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek, who was killed by Samuel, who was a Jewish priest (1 Samuel 15:33). Since then, the descendants of King Agag have vowed to annihilate all the Jews.

1998 film

Esther the Queen of Persia (1998).

In 1998 , Antena 3 television from Spain along with other European televisions such as the Italian Rai produced a film titled Ester: the queen of Persia . It was in a collection of movies about the Bible that were broadcast on that date. This movie was directed by Raffaele Mertes. The script was written by Sandy Niemand. Performers: Louise Lombard , F. Murray Abraham , Jürgen Prochnow , Thomas Kretschmann , Ornella Muti , Frank Baker , John Hollis and Umberto Orsini

 

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