Lesson 1 of5
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Summary of Esther

SUMMARY

Ahasuerus, all powerful king of Persia, banishes his queen Vashti for failing to appear before him when bidden. The new chosen queen is Esther, cousin and adopted daughter of Mordecai, the Jew. Mordecai’s bitter enemy at court is the wicked Haman, the king’s right-hand man. Because Mordecai fails to bow before him, Haman plots not only Mordecai’s death but also the extermination of all the Jews. Mordecai calls on Queen Esther to save her people. Esther heroically risks the king’s wrath by appearing unbidden before him. She invites King Ahasuerus and Haman to two banquets where she persuades the king both to save her people and also to hang Haman on the very gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. The king’s edict to kill the Jews is reversed, and the Jews instead get revenge on their would-be persecutors and celebrate, initiating the festival of Purim.

SO WHAT?

The book of Esther teaches indirectly rather than directly four lessons: (1) Maintaining community and religious identity in foreign territory is a tricky but terribly important task. (2) Through wisdom, wit, and courage, people can live productively in a foreign land, even when subject to the whims of a foreign power. (3) Even when God remains hidden, unnamed, and seemingly absent, as in the book of Esther, one can detect the presence of the divine in favorable coincidences and in the bravery of leaders who step up when needed. (4) All of this is taught through irony and humor, which provides the book’s final lesson: laughter gives life.

WHERE DO I FIND IT?

Esther is the seventeenth book of the Bible. It follows Nehemiah and precedes Job.

WHO WROTE IT?

The book of Esther gives no real hint as to who wrote the book. It was possibly written by a Jew living in the Diaspora, perhaps in a foreign court, as a way of entertaining and inspiring his or her Jewish community and establishing the festival of Purim.

WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN?

The book of Esther describes events that purportedly took place during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus, probably a reference to Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.E) or possibly Artaxerxes I or II (465-358 B.C.E.). Given the language used, certain factual discrepancies, and the opening verse of the book that looks back in time, the book was probably written sometime between 400 and 150 B.C.E. This makes the book of Esther one of the latest writings of the Old Testament, close in time to two intertestamental books about women: Judith and Suzanna.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The book of Esther tells the story celebrated at Purim of how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai saved the Jewish people from the plot of the wicked Haman, who was advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus and who tried to have the Jews destroyed.

HOW DO I READ IT?

The book of Esther is best read as a satiric melodrama to be recited or dramatized each year during the Jewish festival of Purim, which this book both establishes and celebrates. The story is filled with entertaining reversals, ironies, parodies of the great Persian court, and exaggerations that invite the reader to cheer on the heroes Esther and Mordecai, to laugh at the foolish king Ahasuerus, and to boo the wicked villain Haman. Esther can also be read as a wisdom tale that teaches people how they might live in a foreign land, subject to the whims of a foreign power, and how to discover the presence of God when God appears to be absent.

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