Philippe R. Sterling
The Book of Esther presents an illustration of the preservation of Abraham’s physical seed even when in exile and unbelief.
The Book of Esther is named after one of its main characters. The events take place in the Persian period after the captivity of the Jews when many of them had returned to the land of Israel. An unknown author uses Mordecai’s record of the events and the Chronicles of the Persians to tell the story (2:23; 6:1; 9:20, 32).
The Book of Esther is an historical and theological short story that follows the events, plots and plans in the Royal Palace of Susa which relate to an attempt to exterminate the Jewish exiles remaining in Persia. It shows God working providentially to preserve the Jewish people even when they remained in exile and unbelief.
Literary Structure and Content
Historical Prologue (1:1-4)
Summary: In the 3rd year of his reign Ahasuerus celebrates his greatness for 180 days by inviting the civil and military officials of his kingdom to his palace in Susa.
Historical Background: Ahasuerus or Xerxes is the ruler of the Persian Empire which stretches from India to Ethiopia. He ascends to the throne in 486 B.C. – a hundred years after Nebuchadnezar destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took the Jews into exile to Babylon. The Jewish people spread throughout the empire. Xerxes wanted to go to war against Greece. His predecessor Darius had lost the battle of Marathon in his attempt to take Athens. In the 3rd year of his reign, Xerxes held a series of banquets for his nobles and army officers to show off his riches and majesty and garner support for a renewed war effort.
A – Glory of Ahasuerus (1:1-4)
Many commentators suggest that there is a reverse parallel flow to the story in which specific moments are balanced by corresponding later moments (ABCDEFGHG'F'E'D'C'B'A'). All moments have their counterpart except the central turning point. The underlying reverse parallel structure that I present here is adapted from the one by Jon D. Levenson in his commentary on Esther which focuses on banquets and plot reversals. There is also an episodic arrangement with different scenes that works with the reverse parallel structure.
Episode 1 – Palace Tension (1:5—3:6)
The first episode involves two interwoven story lines. The first concerns the conflict in the royal household prompted by the refusal of Queen Vashti to exhibit herself at Xerxes royal banquet and the eventual selection of a new queen. The second concerns the clash of two royal courtiers Mordecai and Haman. The clash of Mordecai and Haman provides the primary tension of the story but it is the appointment of the new queen that makes possible the eventual resolution of the crisis.
Scene 1 – Conflict in the Royal Household (1:5—2:20)
· Xerxes rejects Vashti for refusing to appear at his summons (1:5-22).
B – Two Persian Banquets
Xerxes and Vashti his Queen both give a banquet. Xerxes decides to display the beauty of Vashti and orders her appearance at his banquet. The text specifies that she was to wear her crown suggesting that she was to appear wearing only her crown. Vashti refuses to exhibit herself and arouses the fury of Xerxes. Xerxes asks his advisors for what is to be done with Vashti. They counsel that she should never appear before him again and that she be replaced by someone with a more compliant spirit.
· Xerxes selects Esther as his new queen (2:1-20).
When Ahasuerus begins to miss Vashti his attendants suggest that beautiful virgins from all the provinces of his kingdom be brought to Susa that he might chose one of them to be his new queen – He may be the prototype for the Bachelor show except instead of 28 women there were at least 127 and they all were taken into the fantasy suite – there’s nothing new under the sun. Esther is presented along with the other beautiful women and chosen as the new queen. The appointment of a new queen sets the stage for the resolution of the upcoming crisis concerning the Jews.
Esther is an orphan brought up in the family of her cousin Mordecai. Mordecai is a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of King Saul. Esther follows Mordecai’s instructions and does not reveal that she is a Jew.
C – Esther does not identify as a Jew – passes as a Gentile (2:10, 20)
Scene 2 – Clash of Two Royal Courtiers (2:21—3:6)
· Mordecai saves the King (2:21-23).
Soon after Xerxes selects Esther as his new queen, Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai is not rewarded for exposing the conspiracy but his act is recorded in the Chronicles.
· Mordecai clashes with Haman (3:1-6).
The king elevates Haman to authority over the princes. Haman is an Amalekite and descendant of Agag their king during Saul’s reign. Saul failed to follow God’s instructions to completely destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam 15; see Deut 25:17-19 and Exodus 17:8-16). The Book of Esther addresses that unfinished business.
Haman requests and receives a decree from the king requiring everyone pay him homage. Mordecai refuses and Haman fills with rage. The first episode ends with Haman’s decision to exterminate the Jews as a way to avenge Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him.
D – Haman’s Elevation (3:1)
Episode 2 – Palace Intrigues – Plot and Counter-Plan – Problem and Action
Scene 1 – Haman versus Mordecai
· Haman plots to exterminate the Jews (3:7-15).
Haman persuades Xerxes to issue a decree permitting the destruction of the Jews. He determines by the casting of the lot the best time to ask the king. He sends proclamations throughout the empire for the extermination of the Jews and the seizure of their property on the 13th day of the 12th month Adar.
E – Anti-Jewish Edict (3:12-15)
· Mordecai counter-plans to save the Jews (4:1-17).
When Mordecai realizes what has happened he mourns, fasts, and sits in sackcloth and ashes. Esther hears about Mordecai and sends to find out what is wrong. Mordecai relates the problem, sends a copy of the edict, and asks that Esther go to the king and implore his intervention. Esther sends back word that she might lose her life if she goes to the king without having been summoned. Mordecai replies to Esther that she will none the less perish if she remains silent and that deliverance would arise from another place for the Jews, but she may have come to her position as queen for such a time as this – this is a slightly veiled reference to the providence of God. Esther requests that all the Jews fast for her as she tries to intervene. She will risk her life – “If I perish, I perish”.
F – Fateful Dialogue between Mordecai and Esther
Scene 2 – Esther’s 1st Intervention (5:1-14)
Esther presents herself to the king who receives her. She requests that he and Haman come to a banquet. At this first banquet she requests that they attend a second banquet on the next day.
G – Esther’s First Banquet for the King and Haman (5:6-8)
Haman is pleased but is again angered when he sees Mordecai. He is pleased when his wife suggests that he build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai.
Scene 3 – Providential Intervention – Royal Decree to Honor Mordecai (6:1-14)
H – Turning Point – Decree to Honor Mordecai
The plot turns on the insomnia of the king, the reading of the Chronicles detailing the service of Mordecai to the king, and the resulting decree to honor Mordecai by having Haman parade him through the streets. Haman’s wife’s comment reinforces this as a pivotal moment, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him” (6:13). Haman must then quickly go to Esther’s second banquet.
Scene 4 – Esther’s Second Intervention (7:1-10)
G’ – Esther’s Second Banquet for the King and Haman (7:1)
F’ – Fateful Dialogue between Ahasuerus and Esther (7:2-6)
Esther at the second banquet pleads for her life and the life of her people. Ahasuerus asks that Esther tell him who has planned such a plot. Esther reveals that Haman is the man. On the suggestion one of the eunuchs, Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
Episode 3 – Jewish Deliverance – Resolution and Celebration (8:1—9:19)
The final episode resolves the crisis by Ahasuerus giving the Jews the right of self-defense against their enemies and elevating Mordecai to the royal position previously held by Haman. The Jews take action against their enemies and celebrate with a festival commemorating their victory.
Scene 1 – Resolution of Crisis (8:1—9:17)
Esther discloses to the king her relationship to Mordecai who then receives the king’s signet ring. Esther sets Mordecai over the house of Haman. Esther requests and receives a decree to permit the defense of the Jews.
E’ – Pro-Jewish Edict (8:9-14)
D’ – Elevation of Mordecai (8:15)
C’ – Gentiles Identify as Jews (8:17)
The Jews strike their enemies throughout the emplire in the 12th month of Adar on the 13th day. Esther requests and receives from the king another day to complete the destruction of their enemies in Susa and hang the ten sons of Haman.
Scene 2 – Celebration (9:18-19)
The Jews in the provinces celebrate their victory on the 14th day while the Jews in Susa celebrate on the 15th day.
Institution of Purim (9:20-32)
Mordecai records these events and commands the Jews to celebrate the feast of Purim every year on the 14th and 15th day of Adar. Esther also writes a letter to confirm and establish the celebration.
B’ – Two Jewish Banquets
Historical Epilogue – (10:1-3)
The accomplishments of both Ahasuerus and Mordecai are written in the book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia. Mordecai was second in command to Ahasuerus and great among the Jews because he looked out for the welfare of his nation.
A’ – Glory of Ahasuerus and Mordecai (10:1-3)
God providentially preserves his unfaithful people who remained in the land of Persia. He directs the outcome of events from behind the scenes. Vashti’s refusal to attend the king’s banquet leads to Esther’s selection as Queen. Haman’s casting of the lot (3:7) delays his intended attempt at the eradication of the Jews. The king cannot sleep and just happens to read the section in the Chronicle about Mordecai. At the very moment that Haman shows up to request the hanging of Mordecai, the king searches for a way to honor Mordecai. Even though God’s name does not appear in the Book of Esther, we see His “fingerprints”.
The Jews are portrayed in unbelief. They are prosperous and remain in Persia. Esther per Mordecai’s instructions keeps her Jewish identity secret. She is a willing concubine to the king. Mordecai and Esther use the religious ritual of fasting, but don’t combine it with prayer. Purim is a secular not religious festival. Though his people are unfaithful, God remains faithful.
Throughout their history in the Diaspora the Jews have been vulnerable. God has preserved the Jewish people down through the ages though at times with great suffering. The Book of Esther prepares God’s people for their precarious existence in every Diaspora. God preserves them. This includes Jews who are in unbelief and belief in any age and the church scattered throughout the world in this age. Esther challenges us to consider how God has prepared us “for such a time as this” and what that “time” might be in each of our lives.
God’s name is never mentioned in the Hebrew text. The Septuagint adds several texts that names God and describes his intervention, reports a dream of Mordecai and its interpretation, quotes prayers of Mordecai and Esther, and gives more details of the edicts. The Catholic Bible includes these later additions.
Esther provides a picture of Christ. She is willing to give up her life to save her people (4:10-17). Jesus willingly gave up his life to save the world (Matthew 26:36-46). Esther receives the king’s approval. Jesus received the Father’s approval. The greatest reversal in human history is the reversal from death to life though the death and resurrection of Christ.