Background of Esther
The Book of Esther invites the reader into the world of the powerful and wealthy Persian royal court. The Persians came into power throughout the ancient Near Eastern world under Cyrus the Great (560-530 BCE) and continued their dominance until the conquest of the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 333 BCE. Under Persia, the Jews were subject to yet another powerful empire, as they had been subject to the earlier empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon prior to the Persians, and as they would soon be subject to the later empires of Greece and then Rome. The Persian court as described in Esther is rich and powerful beyond imagining, and, as with all empires, the people must deal with palace intrigues, with the whims of power and foreign law, and with the inevitable scapegoating of foreign peoples. The book is written with irony and humor for the purpose of encouraging the Jewish people in such a situation. The Jews at this time were a people largely in Diaspora–that is, scattered throughout the ancient world–and the Book of Esther provided inspiration (and a bit of fun) as they tried to discern how to live in a foreign land. They had to balance the call to assimilate and to serve the capital city of Susa, where they lived, with the continued need to maintain their own separate identity as a people. And in all of this, the Book of Esther helped them to discern the presence of God in a time and place where God seemed quite absent.