Intro notes to Esther
Sometimes stories in life go wild, for real. And we couldn’t write them any better even if we were free to take a left turn at fiction and go a little crazy. Esther reads like the flipped side of that pancake, some scholars suggest.
They say it’s just a little too wild and crazy to file under “history.” Yet, the anonymous writer says this is the story behind how Jews started celebrating the most party-hearty holiday on their religious calendar: Purim.
It’s on the house
The story starts with King Xerxes the Great on a seven-day drunk. It’s a party with his officials, honoring himself.
This is the same Xerxes whose army, about one year before his marriage to Esther, crushed King Leonidas’ Spartan warriors at a narrow mountain pass in the Battle of Thermopylae, in 480 BC. Xerxes sailed on to capture Athens and conquered much of Greece. He would, however, return to Persia with only half his army.
At the end of his seven-day drunk, when Xerxes is “juiced and happy” (Esther 1:10), he calls his number one wife, Queen Vashti, to come and show the guys how pretty she is.
She kindly says the dickens with that.
The king consults his lawyers who say the queen, by her refusal, offended men everywhere. On their recommendation, he fires her—banning her from ever coming to see him again. He may have killed her. It’s hard to tell. And if it’s fiction, it probably doesn’t matter.
Also on legal advice, he makes a decree by royal executive order: “He declared every man the boss of his own family. Period” (Esther 1:21).
Persian beauty contest
Later, he starts thinking about Vashti and perhaps what he’s missing. He may have needed a good hug because his staff recommends a beauty contest. They say he’ll be able to pick a gorgeous substitute for Vashti—maybe even a younger model upgrade with shinier fenders.
He tries out a lot of contestants, spending a night with each one. But a Jewish orphan named Esther wins. She had what the king wanted. But it could sound like she cheated. She got a little help from a eunuch: “advice” (Esther 2:15).
Two men with egos
The cousin who raised her, Mordecai, refused to bow to the king’s top official, Haman, who hated him for it. Haman is such a poor excuse of a human that even today when Jews read this story aloud, they make noise when it’s time to drown out his name.
He’s a man who seemed to have it all: murderous influence and power, a fragile ego, and the bad timing of a bank robber with a flat tire.
He plots to kill Mordecai and all Jews in the empire. With what could sound like a caricature of a bribe— one-third of a million tons of silver (Esther 3:9)—he convinces the king to decree the genocide and to schedule it. All the king seems to know about these people is what Haman told him: “there’s a group of people among us who follow their own laws instead of yours” (Esther 3:8).
Surprise, the queen is a Jew, too
Too bad Haman didn’t know Mordecai was a Jew who had recently saved the king from assassination, or that Queen Esther was Jew to the bone.
The pretty, young Esther asks her lover the king to please save her and her relatives from this mean man.
Xerxes can’t revoke his first decree. It’s apparently against Persian law. But he could and did make a new one, allowing Jews to defend themselves.
By the story’s end, Haman and his 10 sons are hung on stakes, possibly impaled, a Persian preference. The story wraps with Jews escaping the holocaust by fighting back and killing 75,000 enemies. Mordecai takes Haman’s job as Xerxes’ number one man.
That’s a happy ending for Jews and an ending for Haman.
Possibly history—in part or in full, some say:
“Writers preserved the stories about Mordecai and his achievements. They’re recorded in the History of the Kings Medes and Persians” (Esther 10:2). Still looking for that book.
Unknown. And that’s too bad. This short story delivers a drunken king, a beauty contest, and a planned holocaust—all before wrapping up with a good laugh or two. In Hebrew lit, there are few stories that can hold a reader’s interest better than Esther.
Possible writers: Ezra and Nehemiah are a couple names scholars mention, since the writing style is similar. Yet Esther has all the umph of Ezra and Nehemiah, but with an extra kick in the getalong.
Mordecai apparently knew how to write, too (Esther 9:31). He’s certainly a fair guess.
The story takes place during the reign of King Xerxes, known in the Bible by his Hebrew name, Ahasuerus. Esther became his queen in about 479 BC, 30 years before Ezra and Nehemiah left Persia for Jerusalem. Xerxes the Great reigned for 21 years, from 486 BC until his top bodyguard assassinated him in 465 BC.
Most of the story seems to take place in Susa, one of the main capital cities of the sprawling Persian Empire. Susa was in what is now Iran, near the border with Iraq.
The empire stretched 2,800 miles (4,500 km) from the Indus Valley on India’s border in the distant east, to Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia’s border in the southwest. That’s about Bangor, Maine to Los Angeles.
The anonymous writer tells the story of how Jews came to celebrate Purim, their happiest holiday of all. This celebration is as close as a Jew can get to dancing, singing, and partying like Mardi Gras, without going to Mardi Gras.
Jews in the Bible story are happy because their Queen Esther saved them from genocide—an empire-wide Jewish holocaust.
An evil guy named Haman, the king’s number one official, decided to kill all Jews. To pick a kill date, he threw “lots” which was something like throwing dice. “Lots” in the native language of Akkadian was pur, which is why the holiday became known as Purim.