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An Introduction to the Book of Esther

By: David Malick 

I.   TITLE: The book is named after the character "Esther"
     A.   In Hebrew the title is rtsa which may be derived from
          the Persian word for star, stara1
     B.   In Greek the title is transliterated to ESQHR2
II.  AUTHOR: Unstated and Unknown (Mordecai or Nehemiah?)
     A.   External Evidence:
          1.   The Babylonian Talmud attributes the writing of
               Esther to the men of the Great Synagogue3
          2.   Josephus affirmed that Mordecai wrote the book of
          3.   Some Rabbinic circles also affirmed that Mordecai
               wrote the book of Esther5
     B.   Internal Evidence:
          1.   The mention of Mordecai and his benevolence in
               Esther 10:3 may argue against Mordecai as the
               author of the book, but it need not completely
               eliminate him
          2.   The author seems to have been a resident of Persia
               rather than Palestine (but see Nehemiah below)
               a.   He had intimate knowledge of Persian customs
               b.   He had intimate knowledge of the layout of
                    Susa and the royal palaces6
          3.   Sources of the author include:
               a.   The writings of Mordecai (Esther 9:20)
               b.   The books of the Chronicles of the Median and
                    Persian kings (Esther 2:23; 6:1; 10:2)
               c.   Probably some oral traditions
          4.   The focus of the book implies that the author was
               a Jew interested in Jewish nationalism
     C.   A Possible Candidate--Nehemiah:
          1.   Nehemiah served Artaxerxes Longimanus I (465-424
               B.C.), the successor of Xerxes (Ahasuerus, 486-464
               a.   Nehemiah may have either known, or known of
               b.   Nehemiah would have known of the event of
                    Purim proclaimed in Esther either through
                    living through it or hearing of it by his
          2.   Nehemiah was familiar with the palace and the
          3.   Nehemiah was literate and had access to royal
          4.   Nehemiah may have written this book to reassure
               his people in Palestine of God's sovereign
               protection and provision for their lives8
III. DATE: Mid-to-Late Fifth Century B.C. (464-415 B.C.)
     A.   Internal Evidence:
          1.   It seems that the book was written after the death
               of Ahasuerus when His official state history had
               been compiled (1:1; 10:1-2)9
          2.   The Hebrew "Ahasuerus" is usually identified with
               Xerxes I (486-465/64 B.C.)
               a.   The Persian was khshayarsha
               b.   The Elephantine papyri spell the name
                    kshy'resh which is close to the Greek Xerxes
          3.   The book reflects the background of the Jewish
               a.   Intimate knowledge of Persian customs
               b.   Intimate knowledge of the topography of Susa
                    and the Persian royal palaces10
               c.   Persian names and loan-words throughout the
          4.   The events of the book of Esther occurred between
               those found in Ezra 6 and Ezra 7 extending over a
     B.   External Evidence:
          1.   The LXX and Joseph read "Artaxexes" throughout;
               some have affirmed that this implied an
               identification with Artaxerxes II (404-359 B.C.),
               but traditionally the references was identified
               with Xerxes I"12
          2.   Those who identify a late date for Esther (c. 135-
               104 B.C.) understand the book to be a description
               of the Maccabean struggle under Antiochus IV
               Epiphanes (Haman)
               a.   But this allegorical identification defies
                    the historical clues which are in the text
               b.   But the fighting in Esther is not for
                    religion (as with the Maccabean era), but for
                    the very existence of the people
               c.   But the local of the book is Persia and not
               d.   But the manuscript discoveries mitigate
                    against a Maccabean date13
               e.   But Esther shows no evidence of the
                    legalistic Judaism of the Maccabean era
                    (Torah, prayer, Jewish feasts etc.)14
               f.   But the book does not have apocalyptic
                    elements (Michael, angelic beings, Satan,
                    dualism, etc.)
     C.   Conclusions:
          1.   If Ahasuerus is identified with Xerxes I, than
               that book was not written before 465/4 B.C.
          2.   Most conservatives think that the author lived
               during the end of the fifth century B.C. or the
               close of the Persian Period (539-333)15
          3.   If Nehemiah was the author (above), then this
               would provide collaborating evidence for a mid-to-
               late fifth century date (464-415 B.C.)16
     A.   Although Esther 2:5-7 has been considered a problem in
          that it was thought to affirm that Mordecai was carried
          into captivity in 597 and the story of Esther occurred
          124 years later; but it is better understood that Kish
          was the one taken into captivity and that Mordecai was
          born within Persia17
     B.   Some have objected that Amestris was a powerful wife of
          Ahasuerus, and her name cannot be connected with either
          Vashti's or Esther's name:18
          1.   This may be explained by the fact that Ahasuerus
               had a large harem from which he may have changed
               wives several times
          2.   This may be explained by the fact that it was not
               uncommon for nobles to have several names in those
               days (e.g., Xerxes/Ahasuerus)
     C.   Some have objected to Xerxes sending decrees in
          different languages, but this may have well be due the
          tolerance of the Persians towards those people whom
          they had conquered19
     D.   Some have objected to the number of people who were
          killed on the day of Purim:
          1.   But large massacres occurred before this time in
               the Ancient Near East20
          2.   When 75,000 is extended into the many cities of
               the Persian empire, it is not implausible
          3.   The background of the book of Esther is so full of
               accurate Persian detail that it may be assumed
               that this number is also true21
     E.   Some have objected that the feast of Purim is not to be
          identified with the "lot" but with other systems of
          celebration like the Persian spring festival, the
          Babylonian feast, or the Greek pithoigia or "cask-
          opening" season marked by drinking and giving gifts22,
          but it has been demonstrated that the term for Purim
          comes from the Assyrian word puru meaning a "die" or
          "lot" describing the Persian method of throwing dice
          which was similar to the Jewish practice of "casting
     F.   This work is a theological treatise of history in
          narrative form24
     A.   The theme of triumph of Judaism over her enemies made
          Esther immediately popular
     B.   There have been protests about including Esther in the
          canon of scripture before and after the Council of
          Jamnia which pronounced it canonical25
     C.   In A.D. 120 Esther was basically secured in the canon
          with the Christian church accepting it overall26
     A.   To provide the historical background for the feast of
     B.   To emphasize the continuing, ongoing, religious
          significance of the Jewish people28
     C.   To encourage the Babylonian/Persian Jews and those who
          had returned to Palestine (if Nehemiah is the author)
          of God's providential ability and willingness to
          preserve them29 against their enemies30
     1 Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament
Introduction, 425.
     2 Hill and Walton write, "In the Greek translation, the book
has over a hundred additional verses. This longer version was
available as early as Jerome in the fourth century A.D. and
already had a long tradition by then. In this expanded form the
story included such passages as a dream of Mordecai that reveals
to him the plot against the king, letters from Mordecai and
Xerxes, and prayers of Mordecai and Esther. These additions
served the function of inserting God more obviously into the
plot, but they have no claim to authenticity" (Andrew E. Hill and
John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 238-239).
     3 Baba Bathra 15a.
     4 Antiquities XI.6.1, but the ending of the book gives the
impression that Mordecai's career was over.
     5 See R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament,
1087, n. 1.
     6 See illustrations in Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A
Survey of the Old Testament, 241; John C. Whitcomb, Esther:
Triumph of God's Sovereignty, 6-9; LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old
Testament Survey, 625.
     7 John Bright, A History of Israel, 379; F. Charles Fensham,
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, 14-16.
     8 Derickson writes, "Having returned to Judah to restore
Jerusalem and being involved with the reconstruction of the
people both nationally and spiritually (alongside Ezra), he would
have had a personal interest and seen a need for the Palestinian
Jews to be reassured of God's protection and provision for their
well being. Thus (I speculate) upon his return to Persia
following his tour as governor of Judah he very likely
interviewed eye witnesses and/or researched the records and wrote
the Scroll of Esther" (Gary W. Derickson, "An Argument of
Esther," [paper submitted for the course 372 Seminar in Old
Testament Historical Literature, Spring 1989], 2).
     9 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1087.
The epilogue in Esther 10:1-2 is understood to be a reference to
his death like those in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
     10 Ibid., 1097-98.
     11 John A. Martin, "Esther," in The Bible Knowledge
Commentary, 699.
     12 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1088.
     13 Ibid., 1090. Hill and Walton affirm that "analysis of the
Hebrew language used in the book indicates that it is older than
the second century B.C." (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A
Survey of the Old Testament, 238). This is because the Greek
additions were already in the LXX (second century at the latest)
and they were not part of the original Hebrew (LaSor, Hubbard,
and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 628). The Hebrew of Esther is not
like that found in the Dead Sea Scrolls concerning which Esther
is the only canonical book not found at Qumran (Ibid.).
     14 LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 628.
     15 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1088.
     16 Derickson writes, "The arguments for early writing all
fit well for Nehemiah as its author. He would have been literate
in Hebrew and could have incorporated the Persian loan words
easily since he would have also been fully literate in their
language. Finally, his position within the Persian court could
well account for his intentional silence concerning the name of
God or any references to prayer. He would have been sensitive to
court attitudes concerning non-state religions. His own memoirs
(the Book of Nehemiah), on the other hand, would have been more
personal and could have been left in or sent to Judah without
needing to be presented before the king or another of his
officials for approval" (Gary W. Derickson, "An Argument of
Esther," [paper submitted for the course 372 Seminar in Old
Testament Historical Literature, Spring 1989], 4).
     17 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1090.
     18 Ibid., 1091.
     19 Ibid., 1092.
     20 Ibid.
     21 La Sor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey, 626.
     22 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1093-
     23 Ibid., 1095; LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament
Survey, 625, n. 3.
     24 Hill and Walton write, "Defending the accuracy of the
book, however, does not obligate the interpreter to postulate
that the book's primary intention is to record history. The
literary style and features of the book do not commend it as
belonging to a genre that is intended only to chronicle history.
On the contrary, it possesses many of the characteristics of the
modern short story, with fast-paced action, narrative tension,
irony, and reversal. The blend of these literary features with a
historical setting and a theological purpose, however, suggest
that the genre of the book of Esther is unique to itself. There
is nothing like it in ancient literature, and in the Bible, only
the story of Joseph comes close" (Andrew E. Hill and John H.
Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 240).
     LaSor et al call the work a historical novella or short
story, but by saying such they question the truthfulness of the
book (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 626, 629).
     25 R. K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament, 1100;
The Jerusalem Talmud questioned the books canonicity because it
introduced a new feast (Meg. 70d; cf. LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush,
Old Testament Survey, 627, n. 7).
     26 For a history of critical challenge see R. K. Harrison.
Introduction to the Old Testament, 1100. LaSor et al affirm that
Esther was not officially recognized as Scripture by Christians
until A. D. 397 at the council of Carthage (LaSor, Hubbard, and
Bush, Old Testament Survey, 627, n. 7).
     27 This includes explaining the two days when Purim was
celebrated (cf. 9:20-27).
     Childs writes, "The festival celebrate the days of rest when
the Jew got relief from their enemies (v. 22). It is, therefore,
not to be understood as a victory celebration, but a rejoicing
over the relief from persecution, a celebration of rest" (Brevard
S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 604).
Continuing he writes, "What is the canonical effect on the book
of Esther which this appendix in 9.20-32 provides? The original
story of the persecution and rescue of the Jews is retained as
normative scripture along with its intrigue, brutality,
nationalism, and secularity, but the story has been given a new
theological interpretation within the worship of Israel. The
celebration is set in the framework of fasting and mourning, the
full religious meaning of which has been carefully defined
throughout the rest of Israel's sacred tradition. The manner of
the celebration in all its original 'secularity' is unchanged,
but the object of the hilarity is redefined. All Israel shares in
the joy of rest and relief which is dramatized by the giving of
gifts,especially to the poor. It is a time to remember by hearing
again the story of Purim. The effect of the reshaping of the
festival is not to make a secular festival into a religious one,
but to interpret the meaning of Purim in all its secularity in
the context of Israel's existence, which is religious. The very
language by which the festival is now regulated as the 'appointed
seasons', 'gifts to the poor', 'rest from enemies', 'remembrance
throughout every generation ... forever', draws Purim within the
orbit of Israel's religious traditions" (Ibid., 604-605)..
     28 Childs writes, "W. Visher saw the theological
significance of Esther to lie in the manner in which it posed the
'Jewish question'. E. Bickerman denied that there ever was such
an issue in the book. Perhaps the basic theological issue at
stake in this disagreement has been more clearly formulated by R.
Gordis: 'It is fundamental to the Jewish worl-outlook that the
preservation of the Jewish people is itself a religious
obligation of the first magnitude' (Megillat, 13). In my
judgment, Gordis' assertion holds true for Christian theology if
kept within the critical guidelines which have been fixed by the
canonical context of Esther.
     On the one hand, the book of Esther provides the strongest
canonical warrant in the whole Old Testament for the religious
significance of the Jewish people in an ethnic sense. The
inclusion of Esther within the Christian canon serves as a check
against all attempts to spiritualize the concept of Israel--
usually by misinterpreting Paul--and thus removing the ultimate
scandal of biblical particularity. On the other hand, the
canonical shape of Esther has built into the fabric of the book a
theological criticism of all forms of Jewish nationalism which
occurs whenever 'Jewishness' is divorced from the sacred
traditions which constitute the grounds of Israel's existence
under God" (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament
as Scripture, 607).
     29 Hill and Walton write, "The book of Esther has very
particular points to make about the saving acts of the Lord.
Israel's history was replete with the marvelous interventions of
the Lord on behalf of his covenant people. The mighty plagues,
the deliverance fro Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the
crumbling of the walls of Jericho were classic examples of
Yahweh's miraculous deliverance of Israel. More recently, the
return of the exiles from their Babylonian captivity was evidence
of God's continuing ability to accomplish the impossible.
     But God is not so visible in the book of Esther. Where
others may see coincidences, Israel saw the Lord at work. A
king's insomnia could just as easily bring deliverance as
receding waters. In the course of this book it therefore becomes
evident that the well-known themes of prophecy and wisdom were
still viable expressions of God's intentions even though Israel
was scattered among the nations. The prophetic theme of God's
protection of Israel and the judgment of her enemies (e.g., Zech.
1:21) was operating as the plot unfolded. Even more evident is
the wisdom theme that God would prosper the righteous and bring
to naught the schemes of the wicked (cf. Ps. 37:12-15).
     The message comes through clearly: God's methods may vary,
but his purposes do not. His workings may be obscured to skeptics
by the disguise of coincidence, but the people of God recognize
his sovereign hand in the ebb and flow of history. His name is
not mentioned, but his influence is unmistakable" (Andrew E. Hill
and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 241).
     30 Martin does not think that the book was written in
Persia, but in Palestine to encourage Israelites that God was
working on their behalf (John A. Martin, "Esther," in The Bible
Knowledge Commentary, 699). Concerning its setting he writes, "At
the time of the writing of the book ... the Jews in Palestine
were going through difficult times in their struggle to rebuild
their nation and to reestablish temple worship. It had taken the
nation 21 years to complete the building of the temple (536-515)
and, as is evident from the last half of the Book of Ezra, the
people were not in good spiritual condition during the reign of
Artaxerxes (464-424). Of course both Ezra and Nehemiah noted the
reason for the nation's lowly condition; the people had not been
following the Deuteronomic Covenant and therefore were under
God's curse rather than under His promise of blessing. The Book
of Esther, then, would have been a great encouragement to thee
struggling Jews. It would have helped them realize that the
surrounding peoples which seemed so awesome could never conquer
the unique people of God. Israel was protected by God even though
a large number of them was outside the land. The Book of Esther
would also encourage them to worship the God of Israel, though He
is not mentioned by name in it" (Ibid., 699-700).
     Childs notes the typology which the writer uses in
identifying Haman and Mordecai through genealogies when he
writes, "Haman, the enemy of the Jews, is portrayed as the son of
Hammedatha, the Agagite  (3.1). He is thus linked to Agag, the
king of the Amalekites (I Sam. 15.32), and to the long tradition
of enmity with this tribe (Ex. 17.8ff.; Deut. 25.17ff.; I Sam.
15.17ff). Conversely, Mordecai is described as a descendant of
Kish, the father of Saul. The effect of the introduction of these
genealogies is, of course, to typify the characters, a move which
the later midrashim exploited to the fullest" (Brevard S. Childs,
Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 605).

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