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by John Dummelow
1. Character and Contents. The book of Esther is one of a group of writings known as the Five Rolls (the other four being the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes). Its contents fall within the period embraced by the book of Ezra, namely, the reign of Xerxes (485-464b.c.), when the Jews were under Persian rule, and when, though a large body had returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, yet numbers of them were still scattered over the Persian empire. The events recounted are put forward as those which led to the institution of the Jewish feast of ’Purim,’ held on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar (=February-March), and preceded by a fast on the thirteenth (called the Fast of Esther). The author is quite unknown, but his familiarity with Persian customs and Persian words makes it probable that he lived in Persia itself. He was not, however, contemporaneous with the events he relates, for Xerxes is described in language which implies that his reign was past; and his work is perhaps to be placed in the fourth century b.c. The book came to be held in very high esteem by the Jews; it was called par excellence ’the Roll’; it was read annually at the Feast of Purim; and Maimonides is reported to have said that in the days of the Messiah the only Scriptures left would be the Law and the Roll. In the Apocrypha there are certain additions to the book, called the ’Rest of Esther,’ which are probably later in date than the original work, and are certainly different in style and spirit.
2. Sources. In the course of the narrative allusion is made to Persian state-records (Esther 2:23; Esther 6:1; Esther 10:2), as well as to documents written by Mordecai, upon which some of the facts related may be based.
3. Value. That the account contained in the book has some historical foundation is probable for several reasons. It offers an explanation of a well-established Jewish festival; reference is made in 2 Maccabees 15:36 to the fourteenth day of Adar as being ’the day of Mordecai’; and acquaintance is shown throughout with Persian customs (see Esther 1:19; Esther 3:13). A certain parallel to the destruction inflicted by the Jews upon their enemies, and the institution of a feast to commemorate it, is afforded by the slaughter of the Magi by the Persians and the festival by which it was celebrated. The extraordinary conduct of Xerxes in countenancing a general massacre of his subjects is in keeping with his irrational behaviour on more than one occasion, as described by Herodotus. And finally, the interval of time between the disgrace of Vashti in Xerxes’ third year (Esther 1:3), and the elevation of Esther in his seventh year (Esther 2:16), agrees with his absence from Persia on his expedition against the Greeks, the battle of Salamis taking place in 480 b.c., after which engagement the king returned to Asia. On the other hand, certain features in the narrative suggest that the writer has sought to enhance the effectiveness of his recital by striking contrasts, embellished descriptions, and large figures. It is not likely that either Vashti or Esther was Xerxes’ queen; according to Herodotus it was Amestris who held that position, and Vashti and Esther were probably nothing more than favourite concubines. The six months’ feast (Esther 1:4), the ten thousand talents of silver (Esther 3:9), the gallows (or stake) 50 cubits high (Esther 5:14), and the 75,000 (LXX 15,000) slain (Esther 9:16), are probably all exaggerations. And there is some lack of plausibility in the statements that orders were issued for the slaughter of the Jews and of their enemies eleven and nine months respectively before the massacres were to be carried out (Esther 3:12-13; Esther 8:9).
4. The moral instructiveness of the book centres in the character of Esther, who, as depicted in the narrative, appears as virtuous as she was fair, being dutiful to her foster-father, faithful to the king, loyal to her people, and pious towards her God. Her story breathes the spirit of truest patriotism, for she is represented as willing to face death to save her countrymen. It also illustrates the working of Divine Providence, for though the name of God does not appear in the book (at least in the original Hebrew, in the LXX it is introduced freely), the whole history implies the belief that it was as an instrument in His hand that Esther wrought her people’s deliverance. And whilst prayer is likewise not actually mentioned in the book, yet the fast of Esther and her countrymen (described in Esther 4:16) presumes the practice, and the sequel of the narrative is meant to attest its efficacy.
the Fifth Week after Epiphany