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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Esther
The Book of Esther is entitled by the Jews, “the volume of Esther,” or simply “the volume.” In ancient times, it was always written on a separate roll, which was read entirely at the Feast of Purim. The Greek translators retained only “Esther,” which thus became the ordinary title among Christians.
1. There is much controversy concerning the date of “Esther.” The extreme minuteness of the details and vividness of the portraits in “Esther” certainly suggest the hand of a contemporary far more decidedly than any occasional expressions suggest a composer who lived long after the events commemorated. And the tone of the book is in accord with the history which it narrates, and is not unlike that of Zechariah. Therefore, on the whole, there is no sufficient ground for placing the composition of Esther later than that of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, or the time of Artaxerxes Longimanus. On the other hand, there is no ground for regarding Esther as earlier than the other post-captivity historical books - much less for placing it in the reign of Xerxes. Assuming Ahasuerus to be Xerxes (see point number 3 below), it may be said that both the opening sentence and the conclusion of the work indicate that the reign of Xerxes was over. Consequently, the earliest date that can reasonably be assigned to the book is 464 B.C.; and it is, on the whole, most probable that it was composed 20 or 30 years later (444-434 B.C.).
2. There are no means of determining who was the author of “Esther.” He was not Ezra. He may have been Mordecai, or, more probably, a younger contemporary of Mordecai’s.
The author, whoever he was, almost certainly wrote in Persia, where he had access to the royal archives, which contained an account, more or less full, of the transactions he was desirous of recording. Much also must have been derived from personal observation, and from communications with Mordecai and (perhaps) Esther. The book is more of a purely historical book than any other book in Scripture. Its main scope is simply to give an account of the circumstances under which the Feast of Purim was instituted. The absence of the name of God, and the slightness of the religious and didactic elements are marked characteristics. The author’s Persian breeding, together probably with other circumstances, has prevented his sharing the ordinary Jewish spirit of local attachment, while at the same time, it has taught him a reticence with respect to the doctrines of his religion very unusual with his countrymen.
The narrative is striking and graphic; the style remarkably chaste and simple; and the sentences clear and unambiguous. The vocabulary, on the contrary, is, as might have been expected, not altogether pure, a certain number of Persian words being employed, and also a few terms characteristic of the later Hebrew or “Chaldee” dialect.
3. The authenticity of the history of Esther has been inpugned; but the main circumstances of the narrative, which at first sight appear improbable, are not so if the especially extravagant and capricious character of the Persian monarch be taken into account. Etymologically, the name Ahasuerus is identical with the Persian “Khshayarsha” and the Greek “Xerxes”; and it is to this particular Persian monarch that the portrait of Ahasuerus exhibits a striking similarity. The chronological notices in the work also exactly fit this monarch’s history; and the entire representation of the court and kingdom is suitable to his time and character. That we have no direct profane confirmation of the narrative of Esther must be admitted, for the identity of Mordecai with Matacas (see Esther 2:5) is too doubtful to be relied upon; but that we have none, is sufficiently accounted for by the fact that the accounts of the reign of Xerxes after his 6th year, and more particularly, of his domestic life, are scanty in the extreme, the native records being silent, and the Greek writers concerning themselves almost entirely with those public events which bore upon the history of Greece. “Esther” is, in fact, the sole authority for the period and circumstances of which it treats; if untrue, it might have easily been proved to be untrue at the time when it was published, by reference to the extant “book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia,” which it quotes Esther 2:23; Esther 10:2. It has, moreover, always been regarded by the Jews as an authentic account of the great deliverance which they celebrate annually by the feast of Purim.
4. In the Septuagint version occur “additions” to Esther consisting of five principal passages.
Their unauthentencity is very evident. They contradict the original document, and are quite different in tone and style from the rest of the book.
The principal intention of the “additions” is clear enough. They aim at giving a thoroughly religious character to a work in which, as originally written, the religious element was latent or only just perceptible. On the whole we may conclude that the Greek book of Esther, as we have it, was composed in the following way:
1. First, a translation was made of the Hebrew text, honest for the most part, but with a few very short additions and omissions;
2. Then, the markedly religious portions were added, the opening passage, the prayers of Mordecai and Esther, the exordium to Esther 5:1-17.5.14, the religious touches in Esther 6:1, Esther 6:13; and the concluding verses of Esther 10:1-17.10.3.
3. Finally, the “letters of Ahasuerus” were composed by a writer more familiar than most Hellenists with the true spirit of the Greek tongue, and these, being accepted as genuine, were inserted in Esther 3:1-17.3.15 and Esther 8:0.
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