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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Esther

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 9


Book Overview - Esther

by William Nicoll

ESTHER

THE BOOK OF ESTHER: INTRODUCTORY

THERE is a striking contrast between the high estimation in which the Book of Esther is now cherished among the Jews and the slighting treatment that is often meted out to it in the Christian Church. According to the great Maimonides, though the Prophets and the Hagiographa will pass away when the Messiah comes, this one book will share with The Law in the honour of being retained. It is known as "The Roll" par excellence, and the Jews have a proverb, "The Prophets may fail, but not The Roll." The peculiar importance attached to the book may be explained by its use in the Feast of Purim-the festival which is supposed to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from the murderous designs of Haman, and their triumph over their Gentile enemies-for it is then read through in the synagogue. On the other hand, the grave doubts which were once felt by some of the Jews have been retained and even strengthened in the Christian Church. Esther was omitted from the Canon by some of the Oriental Fathers. Luther, with the daring freedom he always manifested in pronouncing sentence on the books of the Bible, after referring to the Second Book of Maccabees, says, "I am so hostile to this book and that of Esther, that I wish they did not exist; they are too Judaising, and contain many heathenish improprieties." In our own day two classes of objections have been raised.

The first is historical. By many the Book of Esther is regarded as a fantastic romance, by some it is even relegated to the category of astronomical myths, and by others it is considered to be a mystical allegory. Even the most sober criticism is troubled at its contents. There can be no question that the Ahasuerus (Ahashverosh) of Esther is the well-known Xerxes of history, the invader of Greece who is described in the pages of Herodotus. But then, it is asked, what room have we for the story of Esther in the life of that monarch? His wife was a cruel and superstitious woman, named Amestris. We cannot identify her with Esther. because she was the daughter of one of the Persian generals, and also because she was married to Xerxes many years before the date of Esther’s appearance on the scene. Two of her sons accompanied the expedition to Greece, which must have preceded the introduction of Esther to the harem. Moreover, it was contrary to law for a Persian sovereign to take a wife except from his own family, or from one of five noble families. Can Amestris be identified with Vashti? If so, it is certain that she must have been restored to favour, because Amestris held the queen’s place in the later years of Xerxes, when the uxorious monarch came more and more under her influence. Esther, it is clear, can only have been a secondary wife in the eyes of the law, whatever position she may have held for a season in the court of the king. The predecessors of Xerxes had several wives; our narrative makes it evident that Ahasuerus followed the Oriental custom of keeping a large harem. To Esther, at best, therefore, must be assigned the place of a favourite member of the seraglio.

Then it is difficult to think that Esther would not have been recognised as a Jewess by Haman, since the nationality of Mordecai, whose relationship to her had not been hidden, was known in the city of Susa. Moreover the appalling massacre of "their enemies" by the Jews, carried on in cold blood, and expressly including "women and children," has been regarded as highly improbable. Finally, the whole story is so well knit together, its successive incidents arrange themselves so perfectly and lead up to the conclusion with such neat precision, that it is not easy to assign it to the normal course of events. We do not expect to meet with this sort of thing outside the realm of fairy tales. Putting all these facts together, we must feel that there is some force in the contention that the book is not strictly historical.

But there is another side to the question. This book is marvellously true to Persian manners. It is redolent of the atmosphere of the court at Susa. Its accuracy in this respect has been traced down to the most minute details. The character of Ahasuerus is drawn to the life; point after point in it may be matched in the Xerxes of Herodotus. The opening sentence of the book shows that it was written some time after the date of the king in whose reign the story is set, because it describes him in language only suited to a later period-"this is Ahasuerus which reigned from India unto Ethiopia," etc. But the writer could not have been far removed from the Persian period. The book bears evidence of having been written in the heart of Persia, by a man who was intimately acquainted with the scenery he described. There seems to be some reason for believing in the substantial accuracy of a narrative that is so true to life in these respects.

The simplest way out of the dilemma is to suppose that the story of Esther stands upon a historical basis of fact, and that it has been worked up into its present literary form by a Jew of later days who was living in Persia, and who was perfectly familiar with the records and traditions of the reign of Xerxes. It is only an unwarrantable a priori theory that can be upset by our acceptance of this conclusion. We have no right to demand that the Bible shall not contain anything but what is strictly historical. The Book of Job has long been accepted as a sublime poem, founded on fact perhaps, but owing its chief value to the divinely inspired thoughts of its author. The Book of Jonah is regarded by many cautious and devout readers as an allegory replete with important lessons concerning a very ugly aspect of Jewish selfishness. These two works are not the less valuable because men are coming to understand that their places in the library of the Hebrew Canon are not among the strict records of history. And the Book of Esther need not be dishonoured when some room is allowed for the play of the creative imagination of its author. In these days of the theological novel we are scarcely in a position to object to what may be thought to partake of the character of a romance, even if it is found in the Bible. No one asks whether our Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son was a true story of some Galilean family. The Pilgrim’s Progress has its mission, though it is not to be verified by any authentic Annals of Elstow. It is rather pleasing than otherwise to see that the compilers of the Jewish Canon were not prevented by Providence from including a little anticipation of that work of the imagination which has blossomed so abundantly in the highest and best culture of our own day.

A much more serious objection is urged on religious and moral grounds. It is indisputable that the book is not characterised by the pure and lofty spirit that gives its stamp to most of the other contents of the Bible. The absence of the name of God from its pages has been often commented on. The Jews long ago recognised this fact, and they tried to discover the sacred name in acrostic form at one or two places where the initial letters of a group of words were found to spell it. But quite apart from all such fantastic trifling, it has been customary to argue that, though unnamed, the presence of God is felt throughout the story in the wonderful Providence that protects the Jews and frustrates the designs of their arch-enemy Haman. The difficulty, however, is wider and deeper. There is no reference to religion, it is said, even where it is most called for, no reference to prayer in the hour of danger, when prayer should have been the first resource of a devout soul; in fact no indication of devoutness of thought or conduct. Mordecai fasts; we are not told that he prays. The whole narrative is immersed in a secular atmosphere. The religious character of apocryphal additions that were inserted by later hands is a tacit witness to a deficiency felt by pious Jews.

These charges have been met by the hypothesis that the author found it necessary to disguise his religious beliefs in a work that was to come under the eyes of heathen readers. Still we cannot imagine that an Isaiah or an Ezra would have treated this subject in the style of our author. It must be admitted that we have a composition on a lower plane than that of the prophetic and priestly histories of Israel. The theory that all parts of the Bible are inspired with an equal measure of the Divine Spirit halts at this point. But what was to prevent a composition analogous to secular literature taking its place in the Hebrew Scriptures? Have we any evidence that the obscure scribes who arranged the Canon were infallibly inspired to include Only devotional works? It is plain that the Book of Esther was valued on national rather than on religious grounds. The Feast of Purim was a social and national occasion of rejoicing, not a solemn religious ceremony like the Passover, and this document obtains its place of honour through its connection with the feast. The book, then, stands to the Hebrew Psalms somewhat as Macaulay’s ballad of the Armada stands to the hymns of Watts and the Wesleys. It is mainly patriotic rather than religious; its purpose is to stir the soul of national enthusiasm through the long ages of the oppression of Israel.

It is not just, however, to assert that there are no evidences of religious faith in the story of Esther. Mordecai warns his cousin that if she will not exert herself to defend her people, "then shall there relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place." [Esther 4:14] What can this be but a reserved utterance of a devout man’s faith in that Providence which has always followed the "favoured people"? Moreover, Mordecai seems to perceive a Divine destiny in the exaltation of Esther when he asks, "And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" [Esther 4:14] The old commentators were not wrong when they saw the hand of Providence in the whole story. If we are to allow some license to the imagination of the author in the shaping and arrangement of the narrative, we must assign to him also a real faith in Providence, for he describes a wonderful interlinking of events all leading up to the deliverance of the Jews. Long before Haman has any quarrel with Mordecai, the disgusting degradation of a drinking bout issues in an insult offered to a favourite queen. This shameful occurrence is the occasion of the selection of a Jewess, whose high position at court thus acquired enables her to save her people. But there is a secondary plot. Mordecai’s discovery of the conspirators who would have assassinated Ahasuerus gives him a claim on the king’s generosity, and so prepares the way, not only for his escape from the clutches of Haman, but also for his triumph over his enemy. And this is brought about-as we should say-"by accident." If Xerxes had not had a sleepless night just at the right time, if the part of his state records selected for reading to him in his wakefulness had not been just that which told the story of Mordecai’s great service, the occasion for the turn in the tide of the fortune of the Jews would not have arisen. But all was so fitted together as to lead step by step on to the victorious conclusion. No Jew could have penned such a story as this without having intended his co-religionists to recognise the unseen presence of an over-ruling Providence throughout the whole course of events.

But the gravest charge has yet to be considered. It is urged against the Book of Esther that the moral tone of it is unworthy of Scripture. It is dedicated to nothing higher than the exaltation of the Jews. Other books of the Bible reveal God as the Supreme, and the Jews as His servants, often unworthy and unfaithful servants. This book sets the Jews in the first place, and Providence, even if tacitly recognised, is quite subservient to their welfare. Israel does not appear as living for the glory of God, but all history works for the glory of Israel. In accordance with the spirit of the story, everything that opposes the Jews is condemned, everything that favours them is honoured. Worst of all, this practical deification of Israel permits a tone of heartless cruelty. The doctrine of separatism is monstrously exaggerated. The Jews are seen to be surrounded by their "enemies." Haman, the chief of them, is not only punished as he richly deserves to be punished, but he is made the recipient of unrestrained scorn and rage, and his sons are impaled on their father’s huge stake. The Jews defended themselves from threatened massacre by a legalised slaughter of their "enemies." We cannot imagine a scene more foreign to the patience and gentleness inculcated by our Lord. Yet we must remember that the quarrel did not begin with the Jews, or if we must see the origin of it in the pride of a Jew, we must recollect that his offence was slight and only the act of one man. As far as the narrative shows, the Jews were engaged in their peaceable occupations when they were threatened with extinction by a violent outburst of the mad Judenhetze that has pursued this unhappy people through all the centuries of history. In the first instance, their act of vengeance was a measure of self-defence. If they fell upon their enemies with fierce anger, it was after an order of extermination had driven them to bay. If they indulged in a wholesale bloodshed, not even sparing women or children, exactly the same doom had been hanging over their own heads, and their own wives and children had been included in its ferocious sentence. This fact does not excuse the savagery of the action of the Jews, but it amply accounts for their conduct. They were wild with terror, and they defended their homes with the fury of madmen. Their action did not go beyond the prayer of the Psalmist who wrote, in trim metrical order, concerning the hated Babylon-

"Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones

Against the rock." [Psalms 137:9]

It is more difficult to account for the responsible part taken by Mordecai and Esther in begging permission for this awful massacre. The last pages of the Book of Esther reek with blood. A whole empire is converted into shambles for human slaughter. We turn with loathing from this gigantic horror, glad to take refuge in the hope that the author has dipped his brush in darker colours than the real events would warrant. Nevertheless such a massacre as this is unhappily not at all beyond the known facts of history on other occasions-not in its extent; the means by which it is here carried out are doubtless exceptional. Xerxes himself was so heartless and so capricious that any act of folly or wickedness could be credited of him.

After all that can be said for it, clearly this Book of Esther cannot claim the veneration that we attach to the more choice utterances of Old Testament literature. It never lifts us with the inspiration of prophecy; it never commands the reverence which we feel in studying the historical books. Yet we must not therefore assume that it has not its use. It illustrates an important phase in the development of Jewish life and thought. It also introduces us to characters and incidents that reveal human nature in very various lights. To contemplate such a revelation should not be without profit. After the Bible, what book should we regard as, on the whole, most serviceable for our enlightenment and nurture? Since next to the knowledge of God the knowledge of man is most important, might we not assign this second place of honour to the works of Shakespeare rather than to any theological treatise? And if so may we not be grateful that something after the order of a Shakespearian revelation of man is contained even in one book of the Bible?

It may be best to treat a book of this character in a different manner from the weighty historical work that precedes it, and, instead of expounding its chapters seriatim, to gather up its lessons in a series of brief character studies.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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