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Esther

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Introductory Material

In the Hebrew Bible, Esther is one of five “scrolls” (with Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations) which are read at certain festivals. The connection of some with the relevant festival is not always clear, but Esther’s association with Purim is easily explained. This book tells the story which provides the foundation for the celebration, explaining the festival’s origins and name (Esth 9:23–32). The most basic purpose of the book is therefore to justify celebration of a festival not mentioned in the Pentateuch. Yet, the book cannot be reduced to this, not least because the explanation for the festival only occurs in the story’s closing parts, in the record of various letters sent to the Jews in the Persian empire. Purim provides one reason for the book, but it is far from the only one.

Any consideration of Esther must also reflect on how it is distinct from the rest of the Old Testament. Perhaps the best known point is that the book of Esther is the only book in the Old Testament which definitely does not mention God.1 Also, along with Daniel, it is one of only two books which are set entirely outside the land of Israel, and unlike Daniel it shows no interest in that land. Neither does it have any clear interest in Israel’s worship—indeed, it seems at points almost to go out of its way to avoid mention of God or religious practice. Complicating this somewhat is the fact that Esther is the only book of the Old Testament to have come down to us in three distinct forms, only one of which is commonly presented in English Bibles. The form normally presented in English Bibles derives from the standard Hebrew Masoretic Text (“MT Esther”), and it is this version for which the above observations are true. But there are also two Greek editions, one found in the main Greek translation known as the Septuagint (“LXX Esther”) and another known as the Alpha Text (“AT Esther”). LXX Esther follows MT Esther quite closely except that it includes six additions to the text. These additions can be seen in printed editions of the Apocrypha, though there they are treated as a discrete set of texts when in fact in LXX Esther they are integrated into the main text. That these six units are additions is easily seen because of how they break up the narrative’s flow. Moreover, all except one adds explicitly religious language, addressing a perceived gap in the story. Once these are recognized as additions that can be set aside, LXX Esther is basically MT Esther. AT Esther is the least known and most difficult to access. Our manuscript copies of it include LXX Esther’s Additions, but they have clearly been added to harmonize the Greek versions of the book. Once they are removed, AT Esther appears to be shorter than MT Esther, finishing at the end of Esther 8, and offering a translation into Greek that is independent of LXX Esther. It is possibly the oldest form of the story, and like MT Esther does not mention God, though it does mention prayer.2 However, historical events can be told for various purposes, and it is MT Esther which has become part of the canon. AT Esther shows that the story was told in various circles, and that a distinctive feature of the story in its earliest form was an avoidance of religious language. This has been taken slightly further in MT Esther, meaning we must understand it as a key element in the book’s composition. Nevertheless, for MT Esther, the material about Purim was essential, and this form is canonical and upon which the following comments are made.

We need to note that Esther clearly leaves space for God—otherwise there would be no mention of fasting—but is careful never to mention God. Understanding this requires us to appreciate that the book’s focus on life outside of the land of Israel is central to its message. It is addressing a world where mention of “God” would not necessarily be understood as meaning Israel’s God. Rather, its world is one where Jews are a religious minority, sometimes subject to extreme persecution. They must negotiate with a world of religious pluralism where they cannot always celebrate their faith as they wish. Often, this negotiation is managed by satirizing the Persian empire. In such a world, it is important to understand God via his work through his people. Esther celebrates God’s work, but it does so by telling the story of this deliverance from the Persians by alluding to other parts of the Old Testament. Through this short story, those who know the wider story can appreciate God’s work. The way the story is told invites those from outside the Jewish community to ask why the Jews are so important. Spaces left in the narrative for God are precisely the points that enable this conversation to take place and why the story matters. Moreover, Esther 8:17 mentions that many people became Jews. This explanation highlights the fact that although Purim is a celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews through the work of Esther and Mordecai, that deliverance had already incorporated many other people. This is why making reference to God explicit in the story (as in LXX Esther) misses the point. God’s presence and work are mysterious, and the book in its present form invites reflection on this. From this standpoint, we are invited to celebrate the God who saves, and Purim is a key instance of his saving work.

Purpose

Esther is addressed to believers who are a minority in the areas where they live, exploring how they are to see God at work, encouraging them to do so light of the larger story of the Bible as a whole.

Outline

I. One Queen’s Demise, Another’s Rise (1:1–2:23)

A. Royal Parties and the Removal of Vashti (1:1–22)

B. The Search for a Queen and Esther’s Rise (2:1–23)

II. Haman’s Plot Against the Jews (3:1–9:19)

A. Haman Plans to Destroy the Jews (3:1–15)

B. Mordecai Urges Esther to Intercede with the King (4:1–17)

C. Esther’s First Banquet (5:1–14)

D. Haman Goes before the King (6:1–13)

E. Haman’s Demise (6:14–7:10)

F. A Counter Decree (8:1–17)

G. The Jews Overcome their Enemies (9:1–19)

III. Inauguration of Purim (9:20–10:3)

A. Formalizing the Celebration (9:20–32)

B. Commendation of Mordecai (10:1–3)

One Queen’s Demise, Another’s Rise (1:1–2:23)

Royal Parties and the Removal of Vashti (1:1–22)

1:1–4 Esther’s first chapter establishes key aspects of the story, most importantly the time and place where it occurs. The opening indicates that the events to be recounted happened in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus. Many versions use the Greek form of his name Xerxes, but the same king is meant. What is stressed is the extent of his empire, covering roughly the area currently represented by the south of Pakistan to the north of Sudan. More commonly, the administrative regions within it are called ‘satrapies,’ of which there were twenty, but here the smaller provinces are mentioned, perhaps because the number 127 stresses its grandeur more. The third year of his reign is 483 BC, a point at which he had crushed opposition and was thus secure. At such a time, one can easily understand him holding a massive feast, and indeed this introduces a key motif in Ahasuerus’ characterization, his love of a feast. This feast was an extraordinary gathering that ran for six months and included the whole army, though presumably not all at the same time. It was intended as a massive display of royal glory and power, taking place in Susa, a major royal citadel which was the king’s winter residence and administrative center.

1:5–8 With the main feast completed, Ahasuerus immediately hosted a second feast for seven days. This feast was within the palace complex and was for those associated with it. The king’s extraordinary wealth is stressed here as we are given a series of impressions of the palace décor, all of which mention various luxury goods. His wealth is also evident in the abundant wine he provided. None of this can be separated from his power, because even the possibility of each person drinking what they wanted apparently required a royal decree! But including this point also introduces another key motif in the book since royal decrees will prove to be a major challenge.

1:9–12 Alongside the king’s feast, his queen, Vashti, held another for the women. The term “queen” probably refers in Esther to the principal member of the harem rather than the formal holder of the title. According to Herodotus, Ahasuerus’ official wife was called Amestris,3 but their relationship was not good, so Vashti seems to have functioned as queen, even if it was not her formal position. Whatever her status, she is seen here only in her relationship to Ahasuerus. On the feast’s seventh day Ahasuerus commanded seven eunuchs to bring her to his feast. The listing of these eunuchs is another typical feature of the book, here stressing the king’s power. What mattered was that Vashti’s beauty be shown, helped by her crown. Vashti, however, refused to come. We are not told why, but this simple refusal sets in chain a range of events, all of which show that Ahasuerus is less powerful than it had seemed.

1:13–22 A key feature in the book of Esther is that Ahasuerus never decides anything unless someone else advises him what to do, and that is evident here. This advice comes from his seven advisers, all of whom were his close associates and legal experts, though in fact their approach will show neither wisdom nor legal awareness. For Ahasuerus, Vashti’s decision must be a legal matter, and his question is phrased accordingly. But Ahasuerus is someone who receives the type of answer he wants, not what he needs. So Memucan, representing the advisers, offers an extended answer which greatly exaggerates the effects of Vashti’s act, claiming that her act will lead to every noble wife disrespecting her husband. Of course, these women will only know about her act because of the decree that he proposes, which is that she be removed and replaced with someone “better” than her. Presumably, this intended to mean someone who always does as the king wants, but this will open the way for Esther’s arrival at the court. The decree also introduces the motif of the irrevocability of Persian law, something unproblematic here but which later raises a significant challenge for Esther and Mordecai. The Persian court was equipped with a major postal service and it is immediately applied to the decree’s distribution.

The Search for a Queen and Esther’s Rise (2:1–23)

2:1–4 After an unspecified period, Ahasuerus’ anger has abated. But having issued a decree against Vashti, he cannot take her back. Where he previously accepted advice from his counsellors, this time he takes it from a youth who suggested gathering all the beautiful virgins in the realm to Susa. These women would be placed in the harem under the care of Hegai, and whichever one pleased the king would become queen. This represents an extraordinary expense to satisfy Ahasuerus’ sexual appetite; that he simply accepts it is consistent with his portrayal throughout.

2:5–7 An immediate contrast is drawn as Mordecai is introduced. His status as a Jew is stressed by the Hebrew word order before a genealogy is provided. This indicates his importance, though the crucial point is that it echoes Saul’s genealogy (1Sam 9:1), even if the significance of this only emerges later. The Hebrew is awkward but is best understood as suggesting that his ancestor Kish had been among those exiled by Nebuchadnezzar a century earlier. Not all Jewish families had returned when Babylon had fallen, and his family was among them. Where Ahasuerus was prepared to gather every beautiful virgin for himself, Mordecai had taken responsibility for his orphaned cousin Hadassah, better known by her Persian name of Esther. Using her Hebrew name first stresses Esther’s Jewishness. Given the king’s plan to gather every beautiful virgin, the note of her own beauty means she was liable to be taken to the palace, especially since she was already in Susa.

2:8–11 Along with many others, Esther was taken to the palace and placed under Hegai’s control. There is no indication that Esther sought this. Rather, she is part of a general gathering of beautiful women. Indeed, throughout this section Esther is said to have done nothing other than obeying Mordecai in not disclosing her ethnicity, a first hint that the Jews may live under some threat. But though she does not act, Esther won favor from Hegai who advanced her to a prominent place in the harem. Why this happens is not stated, but it is part of a pattern where things happen to her that bring her to the heart of the empire. Mordecai meanwhile continued seeking Esther’s welfare, walking about in the palace gate. This was a large area where officials would congregate, so he is seemingly someone who is recognized in the area and who might pick up information.

2:12–18 The contrast between Mordecai’s care of Esther and Persian expense is stressed by noting the twelve-month period of beautification for each woman, a process involving expensive cosmetics. Each woman would spend the night with the king, making clear that this is about sexual gratification, and would then go to another part of the harem unless summoned again by the king. Esther’s position was hardly desirable. When Esther’s turn came (some four years after Vashti’s deposal) her family connection is again stressed—this is a Jewish girl caught in the machinations of the Persian court. She does nothing other than what Hegai suggested. But though she had done nothing to gain favor, she continued to find it, winning “grace and favor” from the king who made her queen in Vashti’s place. Suddenly, a Jewish woman is at the center of the court, though the king does not know she is Jewish. He does, however, do what he so often does, hosting another feast which also included the giving of gifts.

2:19–23 Apparently, the virgins not yet presented to Ahasuerus were gathered to be sent home, though this is not developed. Mordecai was still in the palace gate while Esther continued to obey Mordecai and not disclose her ethnicity. Just as Esther came to a place of prominence, so also information about a plot by two of the king’s bodyguards to assassinate the king came to Mordecai. He reported this, finding a way to pass the information through Esther, with the result that the bodyguards were hung, the first of several who meet that end. Mordecai’s deed was written into the Persian chronicles, but contrary to normal practice, no reward was given. The significance of this becomes clear in chapter 6.

Haman’s Plot Against the Jews (3:1–9:19)

Haman Plans to Destroy the Jews (3:1–15)

3:1–6 Mordecai’s actions for the king would normally have led to a reward, but instead the narrative leaves him aside to report the promotion of Haman, who became the king’s leading official. No reason for this is provided. Instead, his ancestry is noted, reporting that he was an “Agagite.” This indicates that he is descended from Agag, the Amalekite king that Saul had failed to destroy (1Sam 15:9). Mordecai’s connection to Saul was noted in his genealogy (Esth 2:5), so these notes establish that the long-held conflict between Israel and Amalek (see Exod 17:8–16) is again about to be worked out. Haman is presented as vain, perhaps someone lacking popular support since the king needed to command that people bow before him, something that routinely happened in that culture. Mordecai did not bow, though Haman seems not to have noticed. But the others in the gate did, asking Mordecai why he transgressed the king’s command. This happened over a period, and when Mordecai still did not bow, they reported this to Haman. Central to this is that Mordecai had indicated that he was Jewish. Ordinarily, Jews followed the custom of honoring those in power, so being Jewish would not of itself explain not bowing. But if Mordecai is participating in the enduring conflict with Amalek, then his decision can be understood. Haman only noticed Mordecai’s behavior after being told, but in a clear sign of both an age-old conflict and widespread anti-Jewish sentiment, Haman determined to destroy all the Jews in the empire. What Saul had not done to Agag, his descendant would do to the Jews.

3:7 The pivot to this chapter is the casting of lots called Pur (the plural of which is Purim). This process was intended to find a propitious day for an action. Finding this day takes the story forward by nearly a year, a period which will place the Jews under a serious threat. Although the exact date on which the lots were cast is not stated, doing so in Nisan means that this happens at the time of Passover, the time when Israel left Egypt (Exod 12) and entered the land (Josh 5:1–12). In the exodus, God had saved his people. Will he do so again?

3:8–15 With his date chosen, Haman approached the king to gain royal approval for his plan. His words are carefully chosen, a mixture of truth, half-truth, and deceit, all chosen to show that the king’s best interest was to destroy the Jews. The Jews were indeed scattered through the empire, though the laws that differed were largely religious. Since Haman has made an argument about profit, it is unsurprising that he offered a massive bribe too. The sum may be hyperbolic, and there is no clear way Haman could have paid it. But since Ahasuerus accepts any advice he receives, he passes his signet ring to Haman so a decree can be issued, the ring functioning like a royal signature. Although Ahasuerus’s response could be taken as declining the bribe, it is more likely a polite way of accepting the money. Accordingly, just as the scribal and postal system had earlier been called into action to send out the decree deposing Vashti, so here it issues the decree to destroy the Jews. Haman here receives the title “enemy of the Jews.” Given that the empire covered the known world, there was no way for the Jews to escape. Even as Ahasuerus and Haman drink in celebration, unsurprisingly the city of Susa (as the first to know of the decree) was thrown into confusion.

Mordecai Urges Esther to Intercede with the King (4:1–17)

4:1–3 As someone routinely in the palace gate, Mordecai would be among the first to know of the decree. His response, tearing his clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes, is typical for those in mourning, as is his “loud and bitter cry.” Since those in mourning could not approach the king, Mordecai seems to have used the gate to go as close as possible. His response was typical and was repeated across the empire.

4:4–11 That Esther and Mordecai had maintained some communication was hinted at previously, and that process is important here. By coming to the gate, Mordecai acted in a manner that would be noticed, and this was reported to Esther. Esther’s initial response was to send clothes, perhaps so Mordecai would not be at risk from dressing inappropriately in the palace complex. Her message was passed through her eunuch Hathach, and he presumably acts that way throughout the dialog reported here though he is not mentioned past the initial comments. Esther needed to know why Mordecai was acting this way. But clothes will not resolve the issue, so Mordecai reported what had happened, including the size of the bribe Haman offered for the destruction of the Jews. To confirm this, he provided Hathach with a copy of the decree, asking him to explain it to her, suggesting that Esther was illiterate. More importantly, Esther was urged to go before the king and beg his favor and plead for her people. Since Esther has previously found favor with the king, this might seem a straightforward proposition, even if it meant disclosing Jewish identity. But now Esther reveals that however much she had pleased the king before, theirs was not a strong relationship. She could only go to him when summoned, and Mordecai should already know that anyone going to the king without being called would be executed. Only if the king held out his scepter would the person live. And Esther had not been summoned for thirty days, so it was unlikely she would be called. She acknowledges Mordecai’s request, but effectively says it cannot be done.

4:12–17 Mordecai’s response to Esther provides a key point in the book. His message can be broken down into three main points. First, because Esther is Jewish, being in the palace will not protect her. She has not disclosed her identity, but enough people know her link to Mordecai, and his Jewishness is well known. Second, if she does not act, then deliverance will come from “another place,” but Esther and her family will perish. Mention of “another place” is sometimes taken as a direct allusion to God in light of the later Rabbinic practice of using “place” as a circumlocution for God. But if so, then “another place” is difficult to understand as God because it suggests more than one deity. But if taken more generally in understanding that there is something about the Jews that is distinctive, then it leaves space for God, even if the reference is more oblique than sometimes thought. How God might act is not specified, merely that there is some sense of providence at work. Finally, considering the previous points, he raises the question of why Esther has come to her place. This could be a sign of that providence, though Esther must decide whether this is true. Throughout, Mordecai has proposed a close link between divine providence and the commitment of God’s people. Esther was convinced and directed Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa to fast for her for three days, while Esther will do the same with her attendants, even though many of them were not Jewish. Normally, fasting is accompanied by prayer, though that is slightly too direct a reference for this book. Esther now takes on her part, agreeing to go to the king despite the risk she knew she faced. She will only know if God is with her if she takes the risk.

Esther’s First Banquet (5:1–14)

5:1–8 After three days, Esther went before the king. Commitment can include wisdom, and Esther wisely understands the king’s pleasure in an attractive woman. Although previously fasting, she dressed in her royal robes to stand where the king could see her while not going into him. Again, she won favor with the king who extended his scepter to signify this. Esther had overcome the problem of needing an invitation, but she was still careful to follow court protocol by touching the scepter. The king’s favor is hinted at when he calls her “Queen Esther” before asking what she wants, offering up to half his kingdom. This is hyperbole that is never meant to be taken seriously, but it provides Esther with an opening she will carefully explore. Rather than making her request directly, Esther invites Ahasuerus to a special feast she has prepared, asking only that he bring Haman. Ahasuerus cannot resist a feast, and so orders Haman to come too. During the drinking, Ahasuerus again asked Esther what her request was, repeating the offer of “up to half” his kingdom. Esther’s response may seem puzzling since instead of asking for the Jews’ deliverance, she asked Ahasuerus and Haman to attend another feast the next day. But her words are carefully chosen because, if the king attends the feast, he will have committed himself to granting her request. Since we know she has found favor with the king, and the king cannot resist a feast, it seems at this point that Esther has resolved the problem, and she simply needs to hold one more feast where Ahasuerus must grant her “up to half the kingdom.”

5:9–14 But the situation quickly becomes complicated, though neither Esther nor Mordecai know this. As a drunk Haman leaves the feast his joy from his royal dinner is soured as he sees Mordecai in the palace gate. Despite everything, Mordecai still did not bow nor show any fear, and so Haman was “filled with wrath against Mordecai.” This time, Haman shows enough restraint to get home where he called his friends and Zeresh, his wife, to hear about the splendor of his riches, all his sons, and the status the king had given. One presumes that Zeresh knew these things, and his friends would know most of Haman’s accomplishments as well. But this is simply background to his main boast, that only he had been invited to the feast Queen Esther was preparing for the king. All this should give him great satisfaction, but instead he confesses that Mordecai’s continued practice of sitting in the palace gate completely offsets it. His moment of triumph is undone because he cannot destroy one foe. But Zeresh has a simple, if blood-chilling, solution—Haman should erect a gallows fifty cubits high (about seventy-five feet) and then approach the king in the morning to have Mordecai executed on it (perhaps impaling him on it). Such an execution would be a very public statement of what happens to Haman’s enemies. With the public destruction of his enemy virtually guaranteed, Zeresh tells Haman he can enjoy the feast. Just as the king routinely accepts the advice he is given, Haman is pleased by his wife’s advice, and orders that the gallows be built. Just when it seems Esther has resolved the challenge faced by the Jews, Haman has prepared for Mordecai’s death before Esther can make her request to the king. Everything now hangs in the balance.

Haman Goes before the King (6:1–13)

6:1–3 This is a chapter where timing is everything as each development happens just at the point that is necessary for the situation to change, another means by which the story is open to readers seeing God at work. While Haman built his gallows for Mordecai, Ahasuerus also had a sleepless night. Indeed, his sleep literally “fled from him.” No reason is given for this, but the important point is that on this very night his inability to sleep led him to request a reading of the chronicle, and one passage read to him recounted Mordecai’s act of reporting the assassination attempt planned by the king’s attendants (Esth 2:21–23). Persian kings prided themselves on rewarding loyalty, so the chronicle should have reported this too. Instead, Ahasuerus heard the act reported without a reward, something that would bring shame to him, hence his sudden question about the honor granted to Mordecai. But his shame was compounded when his attendants reported that no honor was given.

6:4–11 Since Ahasuerus has never made an unguided decision, even when matters of honor should be relatively routine, he naturally asks who is available to counsel him. As he asked, Haman entered the court, ready to request Mordecai’s execution. The attendants reported Haman’s presence, and he was immediately summoned. Haman’s meeting with the king is a meeting of persons but not of minds as each is so focused on their own concerns that they do not really discover what the other is doing. Rather than the normal formalities, or even a query as to why Haman is present at a time when the king still expected to be asleep, the king immediately asked what was to be done for the one the king desires to honor. At this point the narrator provides guidance on Haman’s thinking, showing his fundamental vanity as he assumed the king was speaking obliquely of him. With Haman’s thoughts exposed, readers hear the irony as he outlines a fantasy where he is dressed in royal robes and led on a royal horse in the city square with an announcement of honor proclaimed before him. For most, this would be a pointless act, but given Haman’s wealth and status the only thing left was to be brought one step closer to the king in the public’s imagination. The king’s response suddenly undercut’s Haman’s pretensions, directing him to do this for “Mordecai the Jew.” The king knows Mordecai’s ethnicity, but is apparently unaware of his own decree. For Haman, things have suddenly reversed, and instead of executing Mordecai, there is a sense that he is losing control of the situation, especially as he is required to proclaim Mordecai’s honor. We do not know how Mordecai felt; the focus is solely on Haman.

6:12–13 While Mordecai returned to the palace gate, Haman again went home, mourning and with his head covered, the latter seemingly an aspect of mourning. Previously, the Jews had mourned (Esth 4:1–3), but in a first hint that the situation is changing, Haman now mourns. Just as Haman had reported the previous evening’s events to his wife and friends, so this time he reports the events of that morning. His wife and friends now take a more somber tone, indicating that because Mordecai was Jewish, then Haman would continue to fall—this morning was just the start. Haman had previously indicated that Mordecai was Jewish (5:13), but this now takes on an ominous note for him. Exactly why Mordecai’s Jewishness should be key to Haman’s fall is not stated, but these Persians recognize that there is something about the Jews. They may not be able to enunciate what that “something” is, but the timing of the events of this chapter indicate that there is a greater providence at work.

Haman’s Demise (6:14–7:10)

6:14–7:6 The pace of the narrative continues accelerating, and along with this comes a greater sense that Haman is losing control. While he was still talking with his wife and advisors the king’s eunuchs arrived to take him to the day’s feast: he was not ready but had to leave. Although Haman is present, once the feast begins, the focus is on Esther and Ahasuerus. Haman is a bystander who can only watch his position unravel. As before (5:6), during the wine course Ahasuerus asked Esther what she sought, offering up to half the kingdom. Ahasuerus’s question came in two parts, and Esther is careful to respond the same way. First, she ties the favor of Ahasuerus toward her to her own delivery before asking for her people’s life to be granted. She is careful not to accuse either Ahasuerus or Haman. But she does quote the decree’s language, while reference to her people being sold could allude to the bribe offered by Haman. Although the last part of verse 4 is difficult, the ESV catches the sense well, showing that it was only because of the severity of the situation that Esther has raised it with Ahasuerus. Esther’s long speech triggers two more short questions from Ahasuerus as he wonders who has done this and where they were. Although at one level Ahasuerus himself is responsible, Esther knows that the real adversary here is Haman, and she is careful to highlight this fact, calling him “a foe and an enemy.” He has placed the lives of all Jews at risk, and Esther has risked her life to expose him.

7:7–10 Ahasuerus has never made an unadvised decision and he now faces a quandary. His principal advisor has been accused by Esther and there is no other advisor present. Accordingly, he left in wrath for the garden while Haman stayed to beg for his life from Esther since he could see that even though the king could not formulate what he would do, it would be harmful for him. There is a profound irony here—the foe who wanted to destroy the Jews must now plead for his life from a Jewish woman. But again, Haman has spectacularly bad timing as he fell on Esther’s couch. This act could have been a simple expression of emotion, but it means he has touched someone who belongs to Ahasuerus, and at that very point the king returned. For Ahasuerus, this was tantamount to sexual assault, and the attendants act immediately to cover Haman’s face. Previously, this act had indicated a loss of honor (6:12), and Haman’s loss here is even greater. Ahasuerus has still not decided what to do, but one of the attendants pointed to the gallows at Haman’s house, conveniently noting that it had been built for Mordecai “whose word saved the king.” A solution was at hand, and Ahasuerus ordered Haman’s execution on the device he had intended for Mordecai. The observation that Haman would continue to fall because Mordecai was Jewish (6:13) has indeed happened, and faster than many might have imagined.

A Counter Decree (8:1–17)

8:1–8 Haman’s execution did not resolve the challenge faced by the Jews since the decree for their destruction still stood. A first step in resolving this occurred when Haman was executed as his estate was given to Esther, while Mordecai came before the king as Esther finally revealed their relationship. This time Mordecai was honored for his actions as he received the royal signet ring, meaning he could act on the king’s behalf. But Esther knew they needed the king’s support in changing the situation and approached him again to ask that the plan be averted since at this point only Esther and Mordecai were safe. It seems she again approached the king uninvited since she again touches his scepter (5:2), indicating that her relationship with Ahasuerus was far from secure. But once accepted by Ahasuerus, Esther made her case. Once more, she focuses on the favor she has with Ahasuerus, perhaps because she is known to him whereas other Jews were not, as she asked that he issue a decree revoking the one devised by Haman for the destruction of the Jews. In closing, she stresses the pain this destruction would cause her, building once more on the favor she has with the king. Ahasuerus’s response is directed to Esther and Mordecai. It is slightly disingenuous, noting that he had hanged Haman and given his estate to Esther because “he intended to lay hands on the Jews.” He executed Haman for assaulting Esther, but, typical of his characterization, he reshapes the past to suit his own position. But he does permit them to issue a new decree and seal it with the royal signet, casually noting that such a decree cannot be revoked.

8:9–14 The king’s observation on the irrevocability of royal decrees highlights the problem faced by Esther and Mordecai. They could not simply issue a decree revoking the prior edict. But the scribes are gathered once more, the date here indicating that over two months have passed since Haman’s decree. The importance of this decree is stressed by noting the extent of the empire once more (cf. Esth 1:1–2), while provision of the new decree in the empire’s languages also repeats the earlier pattern (1:22, 3:12), except that this time the language and script of the Jews is particularly mentioned. That Mordecai wrote in Ahasuerus’s name and had the decree sealed with the royal signet ring is recorded, as also is the further use of the empire’s postal service (3:13). Only then are we told the decree’s content, allowing the Jews to gather and defend themselves against all who attacked them. The edict draws on the language of Haman’s decree and is intended to show that it is an exact reversal of Jewish fortunes. Importantly, the new decree is wholly defensive—the Jews cannot attack but can only defend themselves against any attack on the day Haman specified. Plunder is permitted, but not required. The initial decree could not be revoked, but it could be balanced by another. Once more, the decree was sent throughout the empire, starting with Susa.

8:15–17 The new decree was well received: where Haman’s decree caused confusion (3:15), Mordecai’s brought joy. This joy is particularly symbolized by Mordecai—previously he had worn sackcloth, but now he is arrayed in royal robes. What had seemed a momentary change in Esther 6:11 is now his normal status. As with Esther 4:1­–3, Mordecai’s status is reflected in the experience of the Jews across the empire, and instead of Jewish fasting (4:3) there is now feasting. Moreover, many declared themselves Jews. Whether they became Jews or identified themselves with the Jews is uncertain, and perhaps both were true to some extent. Identifying with the Jewish people meant accepting that they could be attacked on the day of Haman’s decree, so either way such an association was potentially dangerous. But this was the preferred option because dread of the Jews had fallen upon them, another hint that there was something more about this people than could be explained in normal ways.

The Jews Overcome Their Enemies (9:1–19)

9:1–10 After the compressed chronology of the previous chapters, the narrative moves on nearly nine months to the day of Haman’s decree. The widespread anti-Jewish sentiment that has been hinted at previously is made explicit as the Jews’ enemies gathered to attack them. Haman had been removed, but the attitudes he embodied were still very much present as they hoped to gain mastery over the Jews. But there is a central note here, which is simply that “the reverse occurred.” One passive verb here conveys so much—the Jews did not reverse the situation, simply the situation was reversed. Esther does not mention God, but this is a clear hint of his presence. Given the presence of the two decrees, the Jews still acted to defend themselves, but just as had happened when Israel entered the land under Joshua, no one could resist them (Josh 21:44). Once more, dread of the Jews fell upon the people, something that extended throughout the empire’s power structures as senior figures also helped the Jews because the dread of Mordecai had fallen on them. As a result, like Joshua when attacked by more powerful figures (Josh 10–11), the Jews defeated their enemies, inflicting heavy casualties on them. Although plunder was permitted, they did not take any, aligning their actions with those of Joshua at Jericho, where plunder was not taken. Haman’s ten sons are listed among the casualties, making it clear that what Haman had intended had been completely reversed.

9:11–15 Attention now turns to events in Susa, with details reported to the king who passed this information to Esther, noting not only the five hundred men killed but also the death of Haman’s ten sons. This information leaves Ahasuerus bewildered, wondering what had happened throughout the empire. But as further evidence of the dread of the Jews, Ahasuerus again asked Esther for her request (cf. Esth 5:3, 7:2) except that this time there is no offer of half the kingdom. Esther’s request may seem strange, asking for a second day to repeat the events of that day, as well as requesting that Haman’s sons be hanged. The assumption is that one day’s defeat had not stopped the anti-Jewish sentiment, so that they should be allowed to gather and defend themselves one more time. This could only happen in Susa since there would not be time for this information to reach the rest of the empire. The fact that a further three hundred were killed in Susa the following day indicates that her approach was wise. Again, no plunder was taken.

9:16–19 Turning from Susa, these verses provide a summary for the rest of the empire. Here too, the Jews gained relief, killing some seventy-five thousand (this may mean seventy-five of the largest military units which were known as a “thousand” but may have had considerably less people). Like the Jews in Susa, the Jews throughout the empire also refrained from taking plunder. Because the events in the rest of the empire happened on Adar 13, Adar 14 was their day of rest and hence the day of celebration, while the additional day in Susa meant their celebration was Adar 15. It became a day of gift-giving and feasting, celebrating that the situation had been reversed.

Inauguration of Purim (9:20–10:3)

Formalizing the Celebration (9:20–32)

9:20–28 The book’s close moves away from fast-paced narrative to provide summaries that explain Purim’s celebration. This is done through records of letters sent by Mordecai and Esther. Although not listed as part of the Persian chronicles, Mordecai’s record of the events seems to have functioned as an equivalent for the Jews and provided the basis for his letters requiring all the Jews to celebrate these events as the days of relief, marked by feasting, sharing food, and sharing with the poor. Unlike Haman’s decree, Mordecai’s was accepted because they knew about Haman casting Pur (the lot) to destroy them. The summary of events in verse 25 is compressed, omitting any mention of Esther or Mordecai, perhaps to allow for God’s role to be recognized. All this explains why these days were called “Purim,” and why this act of remembering not only looked back, it looked out to those in need. For this reason, these days needed to be commemorated annually.

9:29–32 Along with Mordecai, Esther also wrote, adding her voice to confirm Purim’s celebration. She too drew on the Persian postal service to speak peace and truth, two things that were conspicuously absent before. Esther’s letter joins Mordecai’s to establish this festival on the testimony of two witnesses, ensuring that all know to celebrate.

Commendation of Mordecai (10:1–3)

10:1–3 After the chaos caused by Haman, this chapter indicates that routine life has resumed as Ahasuerus levies tax (possibly forced labor) across the empire, perhaps to cover the costs that Haman’s decree incurred. More importantly, Mordecai’s greatness is now recorded in the Persian chronicles since he was second in rank to the king. In an empire that had tried to destroy the Jews, a Jew is now the most important person after the king. But where Haman brought chaos, Mordecai sought the welfare of the Jews. Although the tendency is for the king to be as acquisitive as ever, Mordecai continued to show that an alternative was possible.

Bibliography

Berlin, A. Esther. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001.

Day, L. M. Esther. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

Firth, D. G. The Message of Esther: God Present but Unseen. Nottingham: IVP, 2010.

Fox, M. V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Grossman, J. Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

Lau, P. H. W. Esther: A Pastoral and Contextual Commentary. Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2018.

Levinson, J. D. Esther: A Commentary. London: SCM Press, 1997.

Reid, D. Esther: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham: IVP, 2008.

Endnotes & Permissions

1. The same may be true of Song of Songs, depending on how Song 8:6 is understood.

2. AT Esther 5:11, roughly MT Esther 4:16.

3. The Histories, 9:112.


This commentary is part of The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary series (general editor, Phil Thompson). This commentary is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This edition (version 1.0) was published 07/02/2021 and may be cited in print works as follows: Firth, David G. Esther. TGCBC. Austin, TX: The Gospel Coalition, 2021.

This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Esther 1

ESV

The King’s Banquets

1:1 Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods1 and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus.

Queen Vashti’s Refusal

10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown,2 in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.

13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14 the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt,3 since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19 If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people.

Footnotes

[1] 1:6 Or rings

[2] 1:11 Or headdress

[3] 1:17 Hebrew to disdain their husbands in their eyes

(ESV)

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