Book Overview - Esther
by Joseph Exell
Characteristic features of the book
In considering the characteristic features of this work, it is necessary first to decide upon its date, lest we should get this book confused with the Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which immediately precede it in our Canon. Their historical range does not reach later than about 420 b.c. Ezra and Nehemiah both lived in the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus. Dean Stanley dates Ezra 459 b.c. and Nehemiah 445 b.c. But the story of Esther belongs to an earlier period, and to the reign of Xerxes, who was the king before Longimanus. Dean Stanley dates the story of Esther 485 b.c. It has therefore nothing to do with the restored Jews, who had at the time settled in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, but is wholly concerned with those scattered Jews who remained behind in the various provinces of the Persian Empire.
The date of the composition of this work and its author cannot possibly be known. It is but an effort to get out of a difficulty to affirm the authorship of Mordecai. It is quite possible--as we find historical records were preserved at the Persian Court of a previous attempt on the life of the sovereign--that official records were made of the incidents which led to the death of Haman and the preservation of the Jews from the scheme laid for their destruction, and that some Jewish officer, cup-bearer or other, found these records, and transcribed them.
Modern critics think the book was written as early as the third century, 300-200 b.c. In their view it is not an authentic historical writing. It is a question whether it contains a nucleus of facts, or is simply a romantic tale. In any case, its object is simply to commend the observation of the Feast of Purim.
The Book of Esther is distinctly Persian, and it must surely have been written in Persia. Its place is properly outside the characteristic Jewish literature. It classifies rather with the works that now form the Apocrypha. There is no feature more strongly marked in the whole Jewish literature than the association of God with every person and every event, every prophecy and every word. In this Book of Esther the very name of God is wanting, and the relativity of God to events is never indicated or suggested. “It is the one example in the sacred volume of a story of which the whole scenery and imagery breathes the atmosphere of an Oriental Court as completely and almost as exclusively as the ‘Arabian Nights.’ . . . Even the names which most closely connect the story with the history of Israel are not Hebrew, but Chaldaean or Persian. ‘Mordecai’ is ‘the worshipper of Merodach, the war-god of Babylon.’ ‘Esther’ is the ‘star of the planet Venus.’ The ‘Purim,’ from which the Festival of Deliverance took its name, is the Persian word for ‘lot,’ and has even been supposed to be the name for an ancient Persian solemnity.”
Ahasuerus has, with some confidence, been identified as Xerxes, whose other name, Achashverosh, sounds very similar to Ahasuerus; and whose character as known in history is in precise keeping with his conduct as described in this work. In his time Egypt revolted from the Persian rule, and was re-conquered; and some five years later occurred the battles of Thermopylae, Artemis, and Salamis. It may help to fix the period in our minds if we remember that 477 b.c. is given as the death of Confucius, and 476 as the death of Gautama, the Buddha. At this time Rome was quite a second-rate Italian commonwealth.
Verification of the story
It must be admitted that we have no verification of the story of Esther from any independent sources whatever. Neither such Persian annals as have been found, nor any Jewish memorials, contain any records of such a peril and deliverance of the scattered Jews in the Persian provinces as is narrated in this book.
But the fact remains that the Festival of Purim began to be observed about this time, and that tradition associated some remarkable deliverance with it, of which it was treated as a perpetual memorial. Probably the genesis of this festival needs some further research. It is quite possible that it really bears relation to the deliverances of the Maccabaean period, and the love of making mysterious origins for things led to the invention of a tale associated with earlier times. In the Second Book of Maccabees the festival is spoken of as the “day of Mordecai,” and Josephus also refers to it. In favour of its historical genuineness, mention may be made of the appeal of the writer to the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2), which certainly indicates that the author regarded his work as verifiable.
The Jews appear to have given the name Purim, or Lots, to this festival because Haman had thrown lots to ascertain what day would be suspicious for him to carry into effect the bloody decree which the king had issued at his instance. But the uncertainty of the origin, or even date of beginning, of this festival have led to a variety of conjectures in connection with it. Ewald, in support of his theory that there was, in patriarchal times, a religious festival at every new and full moon, conjectures that Purim was originally the full moon feast of the month Adar. Kepler identified the “feast of the Jews” in John 5:1, with the Feast of Purim, and in this he is supported by Alford and Ellicott. The Festival lasted for two days, and was regularly observed on the 14th and 15th of Adar. It was not a Divine institution, and there was no obligation to keep it at Jerusalem.
The contents of the book of Esther are so familiar to Bible readers thai they need not be even outlined. On the whole it may be safe to decide that the main facts of the story are genuinely historical, and that such a peril for the scattered Jews and such a deliverance did actually scour in the reign of Xerxes; but it may also be admitted that some later author, of the period of the Apocryphal books, has worked up the materials at his command into the elaborate and descriptive story which we now have in our hands..
Second Sunday after Epiphany