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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Esther

- Esther

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

The title of this book comes from its principal character, Esther. In this it is similar to many other Old Testament books (e.g., Joshua, Ruth, Samuel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, et al.).

WRITER AND DATE

The writer did not identify himself in the text. References in the book show that he was familiar with Persian culture and literature (Esther 2:23; Esther 10:2). The writer also wrote as though he was an eyewitness of the events he recorded. He was pro-Jewish and was probably a Jew. It is possible, though not certain, that Mordecai wrote the book. [Note: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 11:6:1.] The idea that the writer was Esther has not found support mainly because female writers were uncommon in ancient patriarchal societies such as Israel. This book would have been a source of encouragement to the Jews who had returned to the Promised Land after the Exile. Consequently, many scholars believe a Jew may have written it for this purpose. Perhaps he was a Jew who had returned to the land from Susa, the site of the events recorded in the book.

The writer could have written it any time after 473 B.C., the year the Jews defended themselves and instituted the Feast of Purim, the last historical events in the book (Esther 9:27-28). If a contemporary of these events composed it, he probably did so within a generation or two of this date. The first extra-biblical reference to the book is in 2 Maccabees 15:36, which dates from late in the second century B.C., so we know it was written before then.

CANONICITY

"In the English Bible Esther appears adjacent to Ezra-Nehemiah with the historical books, but in the Hebrew Bible it is one of five short books (the so-called Megillot) that appear toward the end of the biblical writings. The canonicity of the book was questioned by some in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. It is one of five OT books that were at one time regarded as antilegomena (i.e., books ’spoken against’). The problem with Esther was the absence of any direct mention of God. Some questioned whether a book that did not mention God could be considered sacred scripture. Attempts to resolve this by discovering the tetragrammaton (YHWH) encoded in the Hebrew text (e.g., in the initial letters of four consecutive words in the Hebrew text of Esther 5:4) are unconvincing, although they do illustrate how keenly the problem was felt by some. Although no copy of Esther was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, this does not necessarily mean that the Qumran community did not regard it as canonical. More recently, Martin Luther questioned the canonicity of this book. Although the book does not directly mention God it would be difficult to read it without sensing the providence of God working in powerful, though at times subtle, ways to rescue his people from danger and possible extermination." [Note: The NET Bible note on 1:1. See also David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, pp. 315-16.]

No other Old or New Testament book refers to Esther, either.

GENRE

"From the literary point of view, the book ranks high as an outstanding example of narrative art." [Note: Robert Gordis, "Studies in the Esther Narrative," Journal of Biblical Literature 95:1 (March 1976):44. For a very interesting article that points out many artistic literary features of the book as well as showing how the literary structure illuminates the theology revealed in it, see Francis C. Rossow, "Literary Artistry in the Book of Esther and Its Theological Significance," Concordia Journal 13:3 (July 1987):219-33.]

"The genre of the Book of Esther is historical narrative. As such, biblical narrative is characterized by the cooperation of three components: ideology (socioreligious perspective), historiography (use of historical persons and events in a narrative), and aesthetic appeal (its influence and persuasion of the reader). [Note: M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, pp. 41-57.] Each of these three elements can be readily seen in Esther. The ideology is the orthodox faith of ancient Israel. The book is theological in that its primary purpose is to teach about God and his continuing relationship with his people. It is historiographical in that it is an account of historical persons and historical events as they occurred. It is aesthetic because it is full of drama and suspense and draws its readers to anticipate happenings and events that often are the reverse of what the reader expects." [Note: Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, p. 287. See also Forrest S. Weiland, "Historicity, Genre, and Narrative Design in the Book of Esther," Bibliotheca Sacra 159:634 (April-June 2002):151-65; and idem, "Literary Conventions in the Book of Esther," Bibliotheca Sacra 159:636 (October-December 2002):425-35.]

According to Joyce Baldwin, most biblical scholars today regard the Book of Esther as a historical novel. [Note: Joyce G. Baldwin, Esther, pp. 33-34.] However, most scholars are not conservative in their view of Scripture.

"I believe it would be true to say that a study of literary themes has done more to promote an understanding of the book than all the discussion about historicity, which so occupied scholars earlier this century." [Note: Ibid., p. 29.]

While Esther is primarily theological history, at least one writer observed similarities with wisdom literature. [Note: S. Talmon, "’Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther," Vetus Testamentum 13 (1963):419-55.] This should not be surprising since Esther is one of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible: the section that contains poetic and wisdom literature.

SCOPE

The events of the Book of Esther took place during the Persian period of ancient Near Eastern history (539-331 B.C.) and during the reign of King Ahasuerus in particular (486-464 B.C.). [Note: See Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 215-17, for discussion of the problem of extrabiblical dating.]

Chronology of the Book of Esther
483Ahasuerus’ military planning session in Susa
482The deposition of Vashti
481The beginning of Ahasuerus’ unsuccessful expedition against Greece
480Esther’s arrival in Susa
479Ahasuerus’ return to Susa
Esther’s coronation
478
477
476
475
474The issuing of Ahasuerus’ decrees affecting the Jews
473The Jews’ defense of themselves
The establishment of the Feast of Purim

The first historical event to which the writer alluded seems to be Ahasuerus’ military planning session at which he plotted the strategy for his ill-fated campaign against Greece (Esther 1:3-21). The king held this planning session in the winter of 483-482 B.C. The last recorded event in Esther is the institution of the Feast of Purim that took place in 473 B.C. Therefore the events recorded in the book span a period of about 10 years. [Note: Cf. Leon J. Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p. 406. See Steven Horine, "Esther’s Organizing Metaphor: The Feasting Motif," a paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nov. 15, 2000, Nashville, TN.]

By the time Esther opens, many Jews had returned from the Exile to Palestine to reestablish the institutions of Judaism (Ezra 1-6). The first wave of repatriates numbered about 50,000. Most of the Jews in exile did not return, even though their law (Deuteronomy 28) and the prophets (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; Jeremiah 51:6) encouraged them to do so. They preferred the comfort and convenience of life, as they had come to know it outside the Promised Land, to the discomfort and privation involved in obeying God. Esther and Mordecai were among those who chose not to return. In 1893 the Babylonian expedition of the University of Pennsylvania discovered some extra-biblical documents that show how wealthy and influential some of the Jews who remained in Babylon were. [Note: See Siegfried H. Horn, "Mordecai, A Historical Problem," Biblical Research 9 (1964):22-25.] The events of Esther fit chronologically between chapters 6 and 7 of Ezra.

PURPOSE

There seem to be at least two primary purposes for the book. First, it demonstrates God’s providential care of His people even when they were outside the Promised Land because of disobedience. A corollary of this purpose is to show that God can use ordinary individuals to accomplish His saving plan. [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 366.] Second, it explains the origin of the Feast of Purim with a view to commending its observance to the Jews (Esther 9:24-28). [Note: Breneman, p. 289.] Ancient histories, the Greek history by Herodotus being one, were often written "for public recitation at private gatherings or public festivals." [Note: Baldwin, p. 19.] Esther was evidently written for the same purpose. The Jews retold the story of Esther at Purim each year.

"The importance of the book for modern historians can be gauged by the fact that, whereas Josephus included the Esther story in his Antiquities of the Jews, Martin Noth in his History of Israel makes no mention of it, and Geo Widengren dismisses it in thirteen lines. ’It is without much historical value.’ [Note: J. H. Hayes and J. M. Miller, eds., Israelite and Judean History, p. 493.] John Bright mentions the book by name but that is all. [Note: John A. Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 417, 420, n. 16.] Whatever others say, in practice historians ignore the book of Esther. Whatever the reason for this neglect of the book may be, we are justified in assuming that present-day historians do not take seriously the threat it records to the very existence of the Jewish race." [Note: Baldwin, p. 24.]

Conservative scholars usually give the book more consideration. A third purpose may be to warn readers against anti-Semitism (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). Much that is in the book deals with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles.

"Esther says to the Christian that anti-Jewish hostility is intolerable to God." [Note: Breneman, p. 297.]

"It is easy to see why the book is valued by Jews, who have suffered so much through the ages and have clung to the assurance implied by Purim that, however severe the threat upon their race, they have a future." [Note: Baldwin, p. 37.]

LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS

Esther demonstrates quite a bit of irony, satire, and recurring motifs. These motifs include drinking and banqueting, fasting, items of apparel, law and legality, and conflicts. The writer delighted in setting things forth in pairs. Esther twice concealed her identity. There are three groups of banquets: two given by Xerxes, two by Esther, and two celebrations of Purim. There are two lists of the king’s servants, two gatherings of women, two houses for the women, two fasts, two consultations by Haman with his wife and friends, and two unscheduled appearances by Esther before the king. There are also two investitures of Mordecai, two times Haman’s face was covered, two references to Haman’s sons, and two appearances of Harbona. Twice the king’s anger subsided, twice the writer said the Persian laws were irrevocable, the Jews took revenge on their enemies on two days, and two letters announced the commemoration of Purim. [Note: Longman and Dillard, pp. 219-20.]

OUTLINE

I.    God’s preparations Esther 1:1 to Esther 2:20

A.    Vashti deposed ch. 1

1.    The king’s feast Esther 1:1-9

2.    The queen’s dismissal Esther 1:10-22

B.    Esther elevated Esther 2:1-20

1.    The plan to replace Vashti Esther 2:1-4

2.    Esther’s selection Esther 2:5-11

3.    The choice of Esther as queen Esther 2:12-20

II.    Haman’s plot Esther 2:21 to Esther 4:3

A.    Background considerations Esther 2:21 to Esther 3:6

1.    Mordecai’s loyalty Esther 2:21-23

2.    Haman’s promotion Esther 3:1-6

B.    Haman’s proposal Esther 3:7-15

1.    The casting of lots Esther 3:7

2.    Haman’s request Esther 3:8-9

3.    The king’s permission Esther 3:10-15

C.    Mordecai’s reaction Esther 4:1-3

III.    Esther’s intervention Esther 4:4 to Esther 9:19

A.    Mordecai’s instruction Esther 4:4-17

B.    The plot exposed chs. 5-7

1.    Esther’s preparations ch. 5

2.    Mordecai’s exaltation ch. 6

3.    Haman’s fall ch. 7

C.    The Jews’ deliverance Esther 8:1 to Esther 9:19

1.    The rewarding of Esther and Mordecai Esther 8:1-2

2.    Esther’s request for her people Esther 8:3-8

3.    The royal decree Esther 8:9-14

4.    The joy of the Jews Esther 8:15-17

5.    The Jews’ self-defense Esther 9:1-19

IV.    The Jews’ rejoicing Esther 9:20-32

V.    Mordecai’s greatness ch. 10

Conclusion

The personal relationship that Esther and Mordecai enjoyed with Yahweh is a very interesting subject of study. The answer to this puzzle explains why God’s name does not appear in the book and what God’s purpose was in preserving this book for us. [Note: For helpful insights into the writer’s reasons for omitting God’s name in this book, see Michael V. Fox, "The Religion of the Book of Esther," Judaism 39:2 (Spring 1990):135-47; and Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Rhetorical Use of Point of View in Old Testament Narrative," Bibliotheca Sacra 195:636 (October-December 2002):413-14.]

Without question Mordecai was a man of great ability and admirable character. He also demonstrated faith in the Abrahamic Covenant and in God’s providential care of His people (Esther 4:13-14). Esther, too, showed some dependence on God for His help (Esther 4:16). However, these qualities characterized many Jews who, Jesus Christ in His day said, were not pleasing to God (cf. Matthew 3:9; Matthew 6:16; John 8:39). Mordecai and Esther, it seems, were eager to preserve their nation and their religion, but they give little evidence of desire to do God’s will personally. In this respect they contrast with Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

No one forced Esther into Ahasuerus’ harem. [Note: See my comments on 2:7-11.] She evidently ate unclean food for months (Esther 2:9; cf. Daniel 1:5; Daniel 1:8). Furthermore, the king did not know she was a Jewess for five years (Esther 2:16; Esther 3:7).

"For the masquerade to last that long, she must have done more than eat, dress and live like a Persian. She must have worshipped like one!" [Note: Carl A. Baker, "An Investigation of the Spirituality of Esther," pp. 21-22. See also Bush, p. 322, for other morally indefensible actions of Mordecai and Esther.]

We cannot excuse her behavior on the ground that she was simply obeying Mordecai’s orders (Esther 2:20). Her conduct implicates him in her actions.

"The Christian judgment of the Book of Esther has been unnecessarily cramped through our feeling that because Mordecai is a Bible character, he must be a good man. . . . Like Jehu he may have been little more than a time-server. The Bible makes no moral judgment upon him, but it expects us to use our Christian sense. He was raised up by God, but he was not necessarily a godly man." [Note: Wright, p. 45. Cf. Henry, pp. 785-88.]

The Book of Esther shows how God has remained faithful to His promises, in spite of His adversaries’ antagonism and His people’s unfaithfulness.

"The lovely story of Esther provides the great theological truth that the purposes of God cannot be stymied because He is forever loyal to His covenant with His eternally elected nation." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 205.]

The writer did not omit God’s name and references to Israel’s theocratic institutions because God’s presence was absent. He did not do so because thousands of Gentiles died at the hands of Jews, nor because the Jewish hero and heroine were personally self-willed, as some commentators have suggested. I believe he left them out because they were of little concern to Esther, Mordecai, and the other Jews who did not return to the land.

"In His providence He [God] will watch over and deliver them; but their names and His name will not be bound together in the record of the labor and the waiting for the earth’s salvation." [Note: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1949 ed., s.v. "Esther, Book of," by John Urquhart. Cf. Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 377-79; and Archer, p. 417.]

"The early Jews sought to remedy the lack of explicit references to God and religious observances by attaching six Additions to Esther (107 verses) in the Greek version, including a dream of Mordecai, and prayers of Mordecai and of Esther. These sections form part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which was declared to be canonical for the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent in 1546 in reaction to Protestant criticisms [of the Book of Esther]." [Note: Yamauchi, "The Archaeological . . .," p. 111.]

 

"There are few books of the Old Testament more relevant to life in a society hostile to the gospel." [Note: Breneman, p. 370.]

Bibliography

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Armerding, Carl. Esther: For Such a Time as This. Chicago: Moody Press, 1955.

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Baldwin, Joyce G. Esther. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

_____. "The Message of Esther for Today." Evangel 5:3 (Autumn 1987):9.

Baxter, J. Sidlow. Explore the Book. 6 vols. London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1965.

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Bush, Frederic W. Ruth, Esther. Word Biblical Commentary series. Dallas: Word Books, 1996.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. "A Rhetorical Use of Point of View in Old Testament Narrative." Bibliotheca Sacra 195:636 (October-December 2002):404-14.

Clines, David J. A. The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story. JSOT Supplement 30. Sheffield, Eng.: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1984.

_____. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. New Century Bible Commentary series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1984.

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Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 1991.

_____. "The Religion of the Book of Esther." Judaism 39:2 (Spring 1990):135-47.

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_____. "Literary Conventions in the Book of Esther." Bibliotheca Sacra 159:636 (October-December 2002):425-35.

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