Book Overview - Esther
by Daniel Whedon
General Character of the Work.
THIS book takes its name from the distinguished woman who is the heroine of its narrative. It is called by the Jews the Megillah, (מגלה,) or Roll of Esther, from its being written on a special roll. In our Bibles it stands as the last of the historical books, but in the Hebrew Canon it is placed in the Hagiographa, between the Books of Ecclesiastes and Daniel.
The book belongs to the latest Hebrew literature of the Old Testament, and is to be classed, in respect to age, with the Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. But in character it is altogether unique. It reads like an oriental romance. The great king, sitting on “the throne of his kingdom,” holding the golden sceptre, revelling in every carnal luxury and pleasure, feasting thousands of nobles and princes, and knowing no bounds to extravagance and folly; the palace, the court of the garden, the various coloured awnings attached to marble pillars, the tessellated pavement, and the couches of gold; the magnificent robes and royal splendour of the chief ministers of State — all these pass before us like the visions of enchantment.
Though commemorating events of the greatest interest to the Jews, it is noticeably wanting in the high theocratic spirit which is so conspicuous in the other historical books of Israel. The name of God, it has often been remarked, is not once mentioned. No yearning for the fatherland of the exiles, as in Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah; no reference to temple, priest, or sacrifice, is to be found; but rather an effort on the part of both Mordecai and Esther to conceal their Jewish origin, in order to obtain favour and advancement in the Persian court.
These facts would naturally subject the Book of Esther to a vast amount of criticism; and the enemies of the Bible have not failed to make the most of them. They have also averred that the whole narrative breathes a revengeful spirit, that many of the acts attributed to Ahasuerus are incredible and absurd, and that the elevation of a Jew to be prime minister of Persia is without parallel or evidence in history. All objections based on particular parts of the narrative will be noticed in the textual notes; other questions involved in the criticism of the book may be more conveniently discussed in this Introduction.
The work is certainly characterized by a spirit different from that of the other sacred books, but this fact, instead of being an objection to its truly historical character, is rather an evidence in its favour. A writer born and bred at Shushan, the Persian capital, would not be likely to be very familiar with Jewish institutions, especially as they existed in Palestine and at Jerusalem; and in composing a history of the origin of the feast of Purim, he had no occasion to make mention of other Jewish institutions. The same reserve and policy which he describes in Mordecai and Esther, in concealing their Jewish origin, may have influenced him as a writer. He shows a reticence in treating of his religion, and an untheocratic spirit unusual for a Jew of any age or country; but this very fact is a weighty argument for the authenticity and genuineness of his work. This is the more strikingly seen when we compare his work with the later and spurious additions to it which are found in the Apocrypha. The author of these apocryphal additions seems to have felt the lack of the theocratic spirit in this ancient book, and aimed to supply what he supposed was wanting.
The feast of Purim, universally observed at the present day, is a monumental evidence of the truth of this history. It has been confessedly observed by the Jews since the times of the Persian empire. In 2 Maccabees 15:36 it is called Mordecai’s Day; and Josephus writes that it was carefully observed in his time. The name Purim admits of no other explanation than that furnished in this book. Here, then, is the same kind of evidence as the passover furnishes to the truth of the Exodus, or that our celebration of the fourth of July yields to the historical fact of the Declaration of Independence.
Another evidence of its credibility is, the intimate acquaintance which the author shows with Persian customs and the Persian court. The royal palace and its garden, to which so much interest has been given in recent years by the exhuming of the great hall at Susa, with its “pillars of marble,” the use of vessels and couches of gold, the levity and drinking at the feast, the “seven princes,” the many Persian names throughout the book, the eunuchs and the harem, the conspiracy against the king and its punishment, the impaling of offenders, the royal posts, the inviolability of Medo-Persian laws, and the capricious acts of the king — these and other things are all in perfect keeping with what we learn of Persian life and customs from Herodotus and other sources. No person writing at a later age, and far removed from the scenes he describes, could have incorporated all these things into a fictitious narrative with such an unconscious simplicity and accuracy. Then, too, the parts of the narrative which have been pronounced incredible and absurd a romance writer would have been careful to avoid. He would have seen their absurdity as quickly as any of his critics, and would never have ventured the publication of a work so full of falsehood and folly. Hence additional evidence of the credibility of this history may be found in the identification of the monarch who reigned at Shushan, and did the things ascribed to him in this book. We pass, then, to inquire —
Who was Ahasuerus?
In the endeavour to answer this question, almost every king of Persia, from Darius the Mede down to Darius Nothus has had his claims urged by different writers and by a variety of arguments. The Book of Esther itself furnishes data which clearly exclude every Persian or Medo-Persian monarch before Darius Hystaspes. For of Ahasuerus it must be observed, 1) That his royal residence was Shushan; 2) His dominion extended “from India even unto Ethiopia,” that is, from the river Indus to the Upper Nile, 3) He reigned at least twelve years, (Esther 3:7;) 4) He reigned at a period when the Persians had pre-eminence over the Medes. This last is seen in the writer’s use of the term Persian and Medes, (Esther 1:3; Esther 1:14; Esther 1:18-19,) naming Persia first, and thereby implying Persian supremacy. The passage in chap. Esther 10:2, is no real exception, for there the book of national annals is mentioned, in which the records of Media doubtless chronologically preceded those of Persia. In the Book of Daniel, written earlier, and near the time when Darius the Median took the kingdom, we find this expression reversed, and written Medes and Persians, (Daniel 5:28; Daniel 6:8; Daniel 6:12; Daniel 6:15; Daniel 8:20.) In Daniel’s vision of the ram which had two horns, and symbolized the Medo-Persian empire, the Persian horn was higher than the other, and came up last. Daniel 8:3. The Persian kings, from Darius Hystaspes downward, made Shushan their principal residence; but Achmetha, (Ezra 6:2,) or Ecbatana, was the royal residence of the kings of Media. Ahasuerus, then, could have been no Median king, and no Mede ever ruled from India unto Ethiopia. Neither did Cyrus, the first Persian monarch, extend his dominion to Ethiopia. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, was the first to extend the Persian empire as far as Ethiopia, but he never returned alive from that expedition, and his whole reign was less than eight years. Smerdis, the Magian, reigned less than a year; so that all these kings who preceded Darius Hystaspes are excluded from further discussion. Neither is it possible to identify Ahasuerus with any Persian monarch later than Artaxerxes Longimanus, for with Darius Nothus the Persian empire seriously declined, and his reign of nineteen years was a constant scene of insurrections and revolts.
The discussion is thus narrowed to three Persian kings — Darius Hystaspes, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes Longimanus — each of whom had his royal residence at Shushan, reigned more than twelve years, and ruled from the Indus to the Upper Nile.
According to Josephus, Prideaux, and some recent critics, Esther’s Ahasuerus is to be identified with Artaxerxes, surnamed by the Greek historians Longimanus — the long-handed. This monarch was the patron of Ezra and Nehemiah, and it may seem plausible to suppose that Esther was the queen who sat by his side when Nehemiah sought permission to go to build the city of his fathers’ sepulchres. Nehemiah 2:6. But this opinion is quite generally rejected, and for the following reasons: 1. Artaxerxes was certainly not the first who reigned from India to Ethiopia. His two next immediate predecessors ruled over the same extent of country, and either of them was in other respects more illustrious than he. Hence it would hardly be proper to designate him as specially famous from the extent of his dominion. 2. He seems to have lived too late to be contemporary with Mordecai and Esther. According to Esther 2:5, Mordecai’s great-grandfather, Kish, was taken captive to Babylon with Jeconiah (that is, Jehoiachin) in the eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar. Compare 2 Kings 24:12. From that date to the beginning of Artaxerxes’ reign was about one hundred and fifty years, too long a period to be naturally measured by four generations. Esther may easily have been a youthful virgin at the beginning of Xerxes’ reign, or during the reign of Darius Hystaspes; but she must have been far advanced in life in Artaxerxes’ time, and Mordecai could scarcely have been living. Then, 3. The general character of Artaxerxes for clemency and magnanimity, and his attitude toward the Jews, are very incompatible with what is recorded of Ahasuerus. It is hardly credible that the king who, in his seventh year, sent a colony of Jewish exiles to their fatherland, and issued for their benefit a decree so comprehensive and favourable as that recorded in Ezra 7:11-26, would, in his twelfth year, yield, without a word, to Haman’s infamous proposal for the universal massacre of this same race of people. 4. It is also difficult to understand why the sacred writer should call Artaxerxes Ahasuerus. The names are not cognate, and if they were different names of the same individual, the sacred writer would have been very likely to have said so.
Mr. Tyrwhitt devotes a large work to the discussion of this question, and argues that Ahasuerus must be identified with Darius Hystaspes. He urges that Darius was the first of the Persian kings who ruled from India to Ethiopia, and that his generation was contemporary with that of Esther, so that he neither died too early nor was born too late to have seen her in her bloom of youth. The tribute laid, after his twelfth year, “upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea,” (Esther 10:1,) could not have been laid after the twelfth year of Xerxes, or of Artaxerxes, because at that date “the isles of the sea” had become free from Persian control. Hence Darius Hystaspes was the only Persian monarch who could have exacted such a tribute subsequent to the twelfth year of his reign. This writer also labours to show that Esther is to be identified with Atossa, whom Darius married after his accession to the throne of Persia. Herodotus 7:2. He regards Hadassah (Esther 2:7) as the court name of the queen, and urges its identity with Atossa. To the objection that Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus, and widow of Cambyses, he replies by the supposition that “daughter of Cyrus” is a regal title of the principal wife, and equivalent to “daughter of the sun.”
But this hypothesis, and the whole argument of Mr. Tyrwhitt, fails to meet the following objections: 1) The first six years of his reign Darius could hardly be said to rule from India to Ethiopia. Those years were one continued scene of revolts, and the new king was kept constantly employed in reducing the provinces, one after another, to submission. 2) The supposition that “daughter of Cyrus” is only a regal title is inadmissible in face of Herodotus’ explicit statement, (Bk. 3:88,) that Atossa was not only daughter of Cyrus, but sister of Cambyses, and had been married to her own brother, and also to the Magian usurper, previous to her marriage with Darius. These facts utterly forbid her identification with the Jewish maiden Hadassah, even though the names seem to be exact equivalents. 3) Another insuperable difficulty in identifying Ahasuerus with Darius is the noticeable contrast in their characters. Darius Hystaspes was distinguished for persevering energy, caution, sagacity, and prudence — qualities entirely wanting in the capricious and passionate tyrant presented to us in the Book of Esther. We find it difficult to conceive such a warlike and sagacious monarch as Darius manipulated and controlled by such a rash and unprincipled favourite as Haman. 4) Add to all this, that under the favourable rule of Darius the Jews resumed and completed the building of their temple at Jerusalem, and the king issued a most memorable decree in their interest, warning and admonishing the enemies to refrain from all interference with their affairs. Ezra 6:5) It is also difficult to give any reason why this king should be called Darius in the Book of Ezra, and Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. If these names belonged to the same person we certainly should expect to find some intimation of it in one or the other of these books.
We seem from the above argument to be shut up to the conclusion that Ahasuerus was Xerxes, the son and successor of Darius Hystaspes. None of the objections we have urged against Darius and Artaxerxes can be made against Xerxes. We notice, 1) The resemblance in name. The form of the name is in Hebrew Akhashverosh, and in Persian, as it appears in the cuneiform inscriptions, Khshayarsha. This latter the Greeks would very naturally abridge and express by Xerxes. 2) It is generally agreed among all expositors that Xerxes is the fourth king described in the prophecy of Daniel, (Daniel 11:2,) “There shall stand up yet three kings in Persia; and the fourth shall be far richer than they all: and by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Grecia.” This corresponds very noticeably with what is said of the extent of Ahasuerus’ empire, and “the riches of his glorious kingdom.” Though his father Darius, and his son Artaxerxes, ruled over the same territory, neither of them possessed it so securely, or made such a world-wide display of power and riches, as did Xerxes. 3) But especially is it to be observed of Xerxes that his capricious temper, passionate violence, ostentatious prodigality, and unblushing licentiousness, find a complete parallel in the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther.
Mr. Tyrwhitt seeks to invalidate this evidence for Xerxes by a variety of arguments, all of which, however, are easily shown to be inconclusive. 1) He attempts to prove that Esther could not have been a youthful virgin in the seventh year of Xerxes, but he seems not to have observed that his argument assumes that the members of the fourth generation from Kish were all of the same age. Mordecai was Esther’s cousin, and also her foster-father. He “brought her up;” and it is easy to understand that of these, as of other cousins, one might have been a mere child when the other had attained mature manhood. 2) A greater difficulty in identifying Xerxes with the husband of Esther is the fact that before and after the seventh year of his reign his wife was the cruel and licentious Amestris. No one would now think of identifying Esther with Amestris, and there is no need of supposing that Vashti and Amestris were the same. It is not necessary to suppose that either Vashti or Esther was the principal wife of the king. They may have been only favourite and highly-honoured concubines, on whom the king at times delighted to set the royal crown. It is a well-known fact that the Persian kings had many wives and many concubines. But the wives were selected from royal houses, (Herod., 3:84,) not indiscriminately from the virgins of the provinces. Hence the gathering of fair young virgins from all parts of the empire shows that it was not a queen consort that was sought, but a favourite concubine. It is no more strange that such a favourite should be honoured with a royal crown, and allowed to preside at feasts in the royal house, than that a favourite officer of the court should be clothed with the royal apparel, and ride on the king’s horse, and have a noble prince lead him through the streets and cry, “Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour.” 3) Again, Esther was introduced to Ahasuerus in the seventh year of his reign. But according to Herodotus, the seventh year of Xerxes must have been the year he returned defeated into Asia. For he spent the second year of his reign in subjugating a rebellion in Egypt, (Herod., 7:7-8,) and was four years making his preparations to invade Greece, (Herod., 7:20,) so that it must have been in the sixth year of his reign when he set out on the expedition, and he could not well have returned to his capital within less than two years. This would bring us to the close of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth year of his reign. Moreover, Esther and the other maidens were required to go through a twelve months’ preparation before they saw the king. Thus, according to the chronology of Herodotus, it would seem that the earliest date at which Esther could have been introduced to Xerxes was near the close of the eighth year of his reign.
Here, indeed, is a difficulty, but a few considerations will show that it is far from weighty, and affords no conclusive objection to identifying Xerxes with Ahasuerus. 1) The order for gathering the virgins from all the provinces unto Shushan was probably made before Xerxes set out on his Grecian campaign, and during the two years of his absence they were being sought out and brought under the custody of the king’s chamberlain. See notes on Esther 2:1) The chronology of Herodotus is not to be assumed as absolutely correct. His dates may be often considerably out of the way. 3) And especially should we bear in mind in such an argument that Jewish and Greek writers might easily have adopted different methods of reckoning, so that the seventh year of one would be the eighth year of another.
The objection that no isles of the sea were subject to Xerxes after the twelfth year of his reign is sufficiently noticed in the note on Esther 10:1.
We conclude, then, that Esther’s Ahasuerus was no other than Xerxes, the son and successor of Darius Hystaspes. The difficulties in the way of this identification are few and of little weight, while the arguments in its favour are many and striking. But the objections to identifying Ahasuerus with any other monarch seem to be insuperable.
This identification is a weighty argument for the historical truth of the Book of Esther. Even De Wette admits that the summoning of Vashti to a carousal, Esther’s marriage with the king, though not of the families of the seven princes, Haman’s edict, to destroy the Jews, and Mordecai’s counter edict, are all possible under Xerxes’ rule; and Rawlinson well remarks: “Had the work been composed by a Jewish romancer, at the distance of a century and a half or two centuries from the events, and been merely based upon traditional recollections of a great danger and a great deliverance, (which is the hypothesis of De Wette and Davidson,) it is inconceivable that the character of Xerxes should have been hit off so exactly, and that the picture of Persian manners should have been at once so vivid and so correct.”
Date and Authorship.
The rationalistic critics have generally assigned a late date to the book, and supposed it to be the work of some unknown writer in the times of the Seleucidae and the Ptolemies. All the arguments, however, for such a late date are weak and futile. The language used in Esther 1:1; Esther 10:2 naturally indicates that the reign of Ahasuerus was past, but it would be perfectly natural and appropriate for a writer living under the reign of his immediate successor. The intimate acquaintance with the Persian court and customs, and the vivid descriptions of various events, indicate that the author was a contemporary of Mordecai and Esther, and an eye-witness of many things which he narrates. These facts, in the absence of any thing of weight to the contrary, seem sufficient to fix the date somewhere in the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, the son and successor of Xerxes the Great.
The authorship has been attributed variously: to the men of the Great Synagogue; to Joiachim the high priest; to Ezra the scribe; and to Mordecai. The question cannot be decided with certainty, but it is very probable that Mordecai either wrote the book himself, or caused it to be written by one of his contemporaries. With the death of Xerxes, or soon after, he doubtless lost his high position in the Persian court, and then it would be a solace and pleasure for him to write, or procure the writing, of his history as presented in the Book of Esther.
Sacred Character and Worth.
While it is admitted that this book exhibits the spirit of Jewish vindictiveness toward enemies, and is noticeably secular or untheocratic as compared with the other historical books of the Old Testament, we must not fail to see that it has also a sacred character and worth. The very reticence on religion and Judaism, which has been thought so strange, may have its lessons. The caution of the writer has its perfect parallel in Mordecai and Esther. They, too, are very reticent about their race and religion. They even concert together to conceal their Jewish affinities.
Here, then, we doubtless have a truthful portraiture of many of the Jews of the dispersion. They lost, by their long exile and familiarity with other races and customs, their ancient national spirit; and while they remained true to the great principles of their religion, they were usually very cautious about making them known. Whatever may be thought of this kind of caution, it is evidence of the writer’s historical fidelity. When the sheep are scattered in the wilderness, and often hear the stranger’s voice, and know the wolf is near, they may do well to keep silent.
We must not overlook the fact that the book bears evidence of the faith and piety of Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai will not compromise his religion by bowing down to a mortal, (note on Esther 3:2-3,) and when his nation is threatened with destruction he is confident that Divine help will come from some place. Esther 4:14. And before Esther will hazard her life, and seek the salvation of her people before the king, she and her maidens, and all the Jews of Shushan, observe a solemn fast for three days. Esther 4:16.
The lessons of Divine Providence, as exhibited in this book, are striking. Though the name of God is not expressed, his presence and power are everywhere felt. We trace the Divine hand in all the events that conspire to elevate Esther and Mordecai to positions of power just at the moment when there seemed no earthly power to help the Jews. The follies of Xerxes and the wickedness of Haman were not caused or sanctioned by God, but they were divinely overruled. The divorce of Vashti prepared the way for Esther. The favour which the latter received, both at the hand of Hegai and of the king, is to be ascribed to Him who “brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs.” Daniel 1:9. The sleepless night which led to the discovery of Mordecai’s unrewarded services was no less ordered of God than the dreams of Pharaoh, (Genesis 41:25,) or of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 2:28. The sudden fall of Haman, and his execution upon the very post he had erected for Mordecai; the promotion of the Jew, and the edict that nullified the device of Haman and saved the Jews from helpless massacre — all showed most strikingly that “promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” Psalms 75:6-7.
The Book of Esther is an invaluable counterpart to the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These latter show how God was careful to open the way for the restoration of Israel to the fatherland. They show the zeal and love that led so many of the exiles to return and build again the temple and the holy city. But this book shows the character of many who were not disposed to return from exile. No doubt there was in them a want of love for Zion. Multitudes preferred the lands of exile to the land of Israel. And the result of this may be discerned in the tone and spirit of our book. Its secular style, as compared with Ezra and Nehemiah, may have for us profound suggestions. “There is inspiration in silence,” says Wordsworth. “If we loiter in Persia when we ought to return to Jerusalem; if we love the courts of earthly princes more than the Church of the living God; if we prefer earth to heaven, and time to eternity, then our moral and religious tone will infallibly decline.” But while the reformed and restored Church at Jerusalem receives great blessings, and shows a purer faith, the Church of the dispersion, the twelve tribes still scattered abroad, though they do not “prefer Jerusalem above their chief joy,” are yet not without Divine oversight and care.
The Royal Feast at Shushan Esther 1:1
Divorce of Vasht Esther 2:10 -
Esther made Queen Esther 2:1 -
Mordecai Exposes a Court Conspiracy Esther 2:19 -
Haman’s Promotion and the Edict against the Jews Esther 3:1 -
The Mourning and Fasting Esther 4:1 -
Esther’s Reception and the Banquet Esther 5:1
Haman’s Indication at Mordecai Esther 5:9 -
Mordecai Honoured Esther 6:1 -
Haman Convicted and Hanged Esther 7:1 -
Mordecai’s Promotion and the Edict in behalf of the Jews Esther 8:1 -
The Two Days of Vengeance Esther 9:1 -
The Feast of Purim Esther 9:20 -
Mordecai’s Greatness Esther 10:1
the Second Week after Epiphany