Set after the exile but while a large number of Jews had not yet returned to Judah, the book of Esther tells the story of the deliverance of the Jews under Ahasuerus, the Persian king. Ahasuerus banished his wife Vashti for refusing to come into his presence when he summoned her and subsequently chose a new wife – Esther – who used her position as Queen to save her people (the Jews) from slaughter at the hands of Haman, the King’s right-hand man. Esther is the only book in the Bible which never mentions God.
For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. (Esther 4.14)
One of the more uncomfortable features of the story is that once the Jews had risen to power at the end of the book, they brutally slaughtered their enemies.
We know nothing at all about the author of Esther – neither tradition nor scholarship suggests a name.
Whether it was written near the time it was set, or later, the purpose of Esther is twofold:
Most people think that the King Ahasuerus referred to in the book was either King Xerxes (486–465 BC) or Artaxerxes (465–358 BC). Either way, the book is set well after Cyrus allowed the exiles to return home in 538 BC and therefore reflects a different scenario. These were Jews who remained in Babylon/Persia after the return from exile and had made a life there.
The book suggests that the Jews who were still living in Persia, probably by choice, still faced dilemmas and uncertainties about how to live as Jews in a foreign land.
Esther is one of the hardest books to assign to a genre in the whole of the Bible. It tells a story from history but isn’t quite history. There is a range of suggestions about it from ‘narrative history’ (i.e. a historical story) through to ‘satiric melodrama’. See what kind of a book you think it is as you read it.
1.1–22 The King banishes Vashti
2.1–18 Esther is chosen as queen
2.19–23 Mordecai, Esther cousin, saves the King’s life
3.1–15 Haman, the King’s right-hand man, plots to slaughter all Jews
4.1–17 Esther decides to try and save he people
5.1–8 Esther invites the King and Haman to a banquet
5.9–14 Haman builds gallows for Mordecai
6.1–13 Mordecai is honoured by the King
6.14–7.10 Esther appeals to the King and Haman is hanged
8.1–17 The edict to annihilate the Jews is reversed
9.1–10.13 The Jews take vengeance on their enemies and the feast of Purim is established
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Susa, Persia, Media, Babylon, Jerusalem, Judah, Persia, Tarshish
Benjaminite, Jeconiah, Medes, Nebuchadnezzar II, Persians
Purim, post exilic period, Nisan
One of the biggest discussions about the book is the question of what it is really about. See what you think as you read.
There are great heroes and villains in the story, and they can look a bit stereotypical. Notice this as you read and see if you think there is anyone who does not fit into the stereotypes.
A key theme in the book is poetic justice (Haman is hanged on his own gallows) – reflect on this theme as you read.
Esther’s decision to save her people, in the end, was a clear choice. Who might we be called on to save today and how would we make that choice?