Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Esther

The canonical status of the Book of Esther

The Book of Esther never mentions God, ends with excessive retributive violence, and has a very secular feel (see Theological Themes). For these reasons, the book has been, from antiquity, among the most disputed books canonically for both Jews and Christians. No part of Esther was found among the writings at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Some parts of the early Eastern Church did not include Esther in the canon. The Roman Catholic Church includes the Greek “Additions to Esther” as part of the book. These “Additions” include prayers and speech about God, ensuring that God is mentioned and that prayer is more directly included. These same theological issues continue to make meaningful interpretation of the Book of Esther difficult.

Literary importance of feasting and fasting

Drinking and eating is a frequent motif in biblical narration, from the narratives and laws of the Pentateuch to the meals in the Gospels, and finally to themes of communion. At issue is often who is host and who are guests, what and how much is eaten, abundance or scarcity, and who rises or falls on the occasion of the meal. Throughout the Book of Esther, the various groups and leaders feast (1:3-4, 5, 9; 2:18; 3:15; 5:4-6; 6:14-7:2; 9:22) or, in symbolic opposition, fast (4:3, 16; 9:31). King Ahasuerus entertains his courtiers with two lavish banquets matched both by Vashti’s own banquet and a banquet thrown in Esther’s honor when she becomes queen. After the issuing of Haman’s wicked decree, the city of Susa is thrown into confusion as the king and Haman sit down to eat and drink. This feasting is matched by Mordecai’s lamentation upon learning of Haman’s decree, as he sits in sackcloth and ashes, and Esther’s call for a fast, as she prepares to go unbidden to the king in hopes of saving her people. Esther’s two banquets are used to win the king’s favor and to rescue her people. The book ends with Jewish feasting (9:17-22), thus signaling through this important theme the hope and joy of celebration.

Poetic justice and the theme of reversal

Part of the humor of the Book of Esther is bound up in the precise reversals and the numerous doublets found throughout the book. Among the examples are these: Vashti is deposed from the throne, in contrast to Esther, who moves from orphan to queen. Esther obeys Mordecai (2:20), who then obeys Esther (4:17). Feasts occur in pairs and are matched by fasts, and then reversed. Those who rise then fall, and those who fall then rise. Haman, who seeks to execute Mordecai, is forced to honor him publicly instead (6:1-11). Letters sent are then rescinded, and their opposites are posted. The gallows intended for Mordecai are used to hang Haman (5:14; 7:9-10), and Haman’s ten sons are actually killed twice (9:7-14). The final grand reversal is the intended slaughter of the Jews that becomes the slaughter of their enemies (9:1), bringing the theme of reversal in line with an exaggerated theme of poetic justice and the workings of a hidden God.

Quotation of tradition

One indication of the late date of the Book of Esther is the clear reference to other biblical stories. Chief among these are the stories of Joseph and of Saul and the Amalekites. Joseph’s story, like Esther’s, takes place in a foreign royal court in which the ingenuity of the Jewish advisor is at issue. The portrait of Ahasuerus recalls Pharaoh who gives feasts (Genesis 40:20) and likes advice (Genesis 41:37). The signet ring, which King Ahasuarus first gives to Haman (Esther 3:10, 12) and later ends up giving to Mordecai (Esther 8:2, 8, 10), recalls the signet ring that Pharaoh gives to Joseph (Genesis 41:42). 

The relationship between Haman, the Agagite (Esther 3:1), and Mordecai, the Benjaminite (Esther 2:5), recalls the relationship between Saul, the Benjaminite, and his enemy Agag, king of the Amalekites, the sworn enemies of the Jews (1 Samuel 15; cf. Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Significantly, Saul’s fatal error of taking plunder from Agag is pointedly avoided by the Jews in Esther (compare Esther 3:13 and 8:11 with 9:10, 15-16). These allusions to earlier biblical stories are part of the clever and humorous way in which Esther is written and indicate, as well, a piety whereby the inherited, written tradition is held in high regard.

The rule of law

How law functions is of particular importance within the Book of Esther. Law is an important category for the Jewish people in the late postexilic period, with a variety of interpretations and uses under discussion and practice. Notably, neither Esther nor Mordecai is concerned with keeping the dietary or cultic aspects of Jewish law; for example, Esther doesn’t reveal her Jewish identity, breaks dietary laws, and marries a Gentile. The Book of Esther regularly spoofs the way law functions in the Persian empire with numerous references to law, commands, decrees, edicts, and authoritative writing (see particularly chapters 1, 3, 8, and 9). The king comically reacts to Vashti’s disobedience of his command by sending letters throughout the kingdom “declaring that every man should be master in his own house” (1:22). The advisors “who knew the laws” (1:13) speak of the unalterable law of the Medes and the Persians (1:19), and under such an understanding, Haman sends out royally binding letters that all of the Jews are to be destroyed (3:12-14). Yet, when Haman is brought into disfavor, Esther and Mordecai are told they may then write similarly irrevocable letters that say precisely the opposite of the letters sent out under Haman’s direction (8:8-14).

Women as heroines

Throughout the Old Testament and notably in the intertestamental period, named women emerge as heroines who save their families and/or the Jewish people. Among these women are Tamar, Deborah and Jael, Ruth and Naomi, Susanna, Judith, and here Esther. Often these stories both make reference to previous stories of women and mark their own telling with qualities uniquely needed for the time in which the story takes place. Esther is like Deborah and Judith, who both take on a leadership role when needed by their people. Esther, frequently referred to in the book as queen, takes on the mantle of leadership at the turning point in the book in 4:12-16. Through her courage and willingness to risk, her adaptation to her circumstances, her single-mindedness, and her leadership, Esther saves both her family and her people.