Utley's You Can Understand the Bible Utley Commentary
by Dr. Robert Utley
INTRODUCTION TO ESTHER
I. NAME OF THE BOOK
A. It is named after the Persian Queen of the day.
B. Her name in Hebrew is Hadassah (BDB 213), which means “myrtle” (Esther 2:7; Nehemiah 8:15; Zechariah 1:8, Zechariah 1:10, Zechariah 1:11). This term is symbolic among the Jews for peace and joy (Zechariah 1:8). Myrtle branches are carried in procession during the Feast of Booths.
C. Esther's Hebrew name may have had a similar sound to the following Persian words:
1. star (Persian root, possibly because of the shape of the myrtle blossoms)
2. Ishtar (Queen of Heaven, cf. Jeremiah 7:18, from Babylonian root)
4. desired one
(the last two possibilities are from Joyce Baldwin, “Esther,” Tyndale OT Commentaries, p. 60)
A. This book had difficulty being included in the Hebrew canon:
1. probably because it does not mention
a. any name of God
b. the temple
c. the Law of Moses
d. sacrifice (the cultus of Israel)
f. prayer (although it is implied)
2. the Dead Sea Scrolls have copies (in whole or part) of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther
3. the book of Esther, like Ruth, is not quoted in the NT
4. it has gotten mixed reviews from commentators:
a. The Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 7a) says that the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew canon and the “Writings” section may come to an end, but not the Torah and Esther. They would never perish (taken from E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament).
b. Maimonides, a Jewish commentator of the Middle Ages (A.D.1204), said that it was next to the Law of Moses in importance.
c. Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, said it should be excluded from the canon because it was too Judaistic (he also rejected James and Revelation).
5. it was one of the disputed books discussed at Jamnia (A.D. 90) by the Pharisees after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
6. the author of “Ecclesiasticus,” also called “the Wisdom of Ben Sirah,” who wrote about 180 B.C., never mentions Esther at all (but he does not mention several others also)
7. it seems to have been included in the Jewish canon to explain the origin of the non-Mosaic feast of Purim (Esther 9:28-31). In II Maccabees 15:36 Purim is called “the Day of Mordecai.”
B. The book of Esther is part of a special list of five rolls/scrolls called the Megilloth. These five small booksRuth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations and Estherare part of the “Writings” section of the Hebrew canon. They are each read at different annual feast days. Esther is read at Purim.
C. The text of Esther varies greatly between the Masoretic Text (Hebrew) and the Septuagint (Greek) translations. The Septuagint is much longer and includes the prayers of Mordecai and Esther. These may have been added to help the book be accepted into the Jewish canon.
D. The church councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397) affirmed Esther's place in the Christian Bible (basically the church accepted the Hebrew canon).
A. It is historical narrative (cf. Esther 10:2, E. J. Young).
B. It has a historical core which was embellished ®. K. Harrison).
C. Some scholars would identify its genre as historical fiction (novel) to reveal spiritual truth through
1. use of irony
2. careful plot
3. main characters not being known from history
4. exaggerated items (cf. VIII. D.)
A. There have been many theories about the authorship of this anonymous book.
1. Rabbi Azarias says that Joiakim the High Priest wrote it during the reign of Darius I, in the late sixth century B.C.
2. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 15a, says the men of the Great Synagogue wrote the scroll of Esther. The Great Synagogue was apparently a group of leaders in Jerusalem, which traditionally was said to have been started by Ezra. It later became the Sanhedrin. Although the term “wrote” is used in Baba Bathra it seems to mean “edited,” “compiled,” or “collected.”
3. Iben Ezra, Clement of Alexandria, and Josephus (Antiq. 11.6.1) say Mordecai wrote it, but Esther 10:3 seems to contradict this (unless it was added by a later editor).
4. Isidore and Augustine both affirm that Ezra wrote it.
B. It is obvious that no one knows. It seems certain that it was a Jew in exile in Persia who was familiar with the Persian court.
C. This unknown author used sources:
1. the memoirs of Mordecai, Esther 9:20
2. Persian historical documents, Esther 2:23; Esther 3:14; Esther 4:8; Esther 6:1; Esther 8:13; Esther 10:2
3. possibly oral traditions, especially of what happened in the provinces
4. what “the book” of Esther 9:32 refers to is uncertain
A. This book mentions a Persian king named Ahasuerus (BDB 31, KB 37), which in Persian means “mighty man” or “mighty eye.” Most scholars agree that this is the king known in history by the Greek title Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.).
B. The Septuagint and Josephus, however, call him “Artaxerxes,” which is the title of Xerxes' successor, Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.)
C. Esther, chapter 1, may reflect a Persian planning session to invade Greece. There is a considerable gap between Esther 1:3 and 2:16 (i.e., 483-480 B.C.). We know from the historian, Herodotus (Esther 2:8), that Persia invaded Greece and was repulsed in 480 B.C. He says that the Persian king returned home and spent much more time with his harem (9.108). Xerxes I was defeated by the Greek army at
1. Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
2. Salamis in 480 B.C.
3. Plataea and Mykale in 479 B.C. (cf. Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars VII-IX).
D. As for a Biblical chronology this would put the book between Ezra 6:0 and 7. There is a 57-year gap in Ezra's account at this point. The man Ezra is not introduced until chapter 7.
E. Esther 10:1-3 implies a time after Xerxes I's death. He was assassinated in 465 B.C.
F. A date in the late fifth century B.C. seems convincing because
1. the form of the Hebrew in Esther is like that of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah
2. of the presence of Persian loan words
3. of the author's knowledge of Persian customs and court life. An example would be Esther 1:6-8, Esther 1:10.
VI. SOURCES CORROBORATING THE HISTORICAL SETTING
A. The cuneiform tablets from Nippur, written during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.), confirm the presence of a large Jewish population in Mesopotamia after the return allowed by the decree of Cyrus II in 538 B.C.
1. Herodotus' history about Xerxes I seems to fit the story line of Esther:
a. called an assembly to plan the invasion of Greece (Herodotus 7.8)
b. after his defeat he spent much more time with his harem (Herodotus 7.7)
c. describes Xerxes as capricious, despotic, and passionate
2. This, however, cuts both ways. Herodotus also names and describes Xerxes I's wife. Her name was Amestris, and she had to be from the “family of the seven” (inner circle of counselors, cf. Esther 1:14). The Persian King had seven close counselors (Esther 1:14; Ezra 7:14). Herodotus mentions that Amestris accompanied Xerxes I on his Greek campaign (9.108-113).
C. The Elamite tablets of Persepolis (during the reigns of Darius I and Xerxes I) list the name Mordecai as an official of the gate.
VII. LITERARY UNITS (context)
The NIV Study Bible outline is very helpful (cf. p. 719). It uses the three feasts in Esther as the structure to follow the story line:
A. Feast of the King, Esther 1:1-18
B. Feast of Esther, Esther 2:19-10
C. Feast of Purim, Est. 8-10
VIII. MAIN TRUTHS
A. Obviously the book explains the origin of the annual non-Mosaic feast of Purim (Esther 9:28-32). The only other annual non-Mosaic Jewish feast is Hanukkah. There is a good chart on p. 176 of the NIV Study Bible.
B. It was an encouragement to faithfulness to God during times of persecution (especially for those who remained in exile).
C. It clearly demonstrates God's guiding hand in history, not only of Israel but also Persia. The absence of any name of God and any reference to the normal Jewish spiritual practices (except an allusion to fasting and prayer) was a literary foil to emphasize God's mysterious influence and guidance of all human history (cf. Esther 4:14, i.e., the unseen hand).
D. It is interesting that The Jewish Study Bible asserts that the book is “best read as a comedy” (p. 1623). This is based on
1. preposterous rabbinical embellishments
2. the book itself has embellishments
a. the size and length of the first banquet (Esther 1:4)
b. the time to prepare the virgins (Esther 2:12)
c. the large amount of money (Esther 3:9)
d. the size of the gallows or impaling stake (Esther 5:14)
e. the large number of people killed in one day (Esther 9:16)
Adele Berlin's final analysis is that the book is purely literary and not historical (p. 1624), mentioning Esther's similarity with Joseph and Daniel.
It must be admitted that genre and authorial intent are the key in biblical interpretation. This book does have some surprising aspects, but I am reluctant to jettison the historical in this book (as I am with Joseph and Daniel).
E. Some see this book as another attempt by Satan to destroy the covenant community (cf. Esther 3:6, Esther 3:13) and, thereby, the promised Messiah!
1. Adam's fall (Genesis 3:0)
2. Angels mixing with men (Genesis 6:0)
3. Abraham and Isaac giving away their wives
4. destruction of the Jewish people in Esther