The book of Esther is one that some have loved and others have hated, but also is one that is largely neglected by the church today. It stands apart from the rest of Scripture in many ways, although it also has its place among the Writings. The book does not answer many of the questions that we would like it to nor does it actually work for the ways many people like to use it. The purpose of the book is especially appropriate for this last of the five Megillot (scrolls) read at Jewish festivals. It is not an accident that Esther is the final book of this second section of the Writings, a placement that suggests we give it the attention it deserves.
The Purpose of Esther
The last of the five Megillot (scrolls) read at Jewish festivals each year was actually written to explain the origin of the festival at which it was read. The book of Esther was written, according to the end of the book (Esther 9:19-10:3), to show where Purim started and to explain its name. It comes from the Akkadian puru meaning ”lot” because of the lots that Haman cast (cf. Esther 9:24). Pur is interpreted as ”cast lots.” The plural Hebrew ending is -im. Hence the word Purim.
The Dillard-Longman introduction to the book of Esther gives an outline stressing the feasts of the book:
I. The Feasts of Xerxes (1:1-2:18)
II. The Feasts of Esther (2:19-7:10)
III. The Feasts of Purim (chapters 8-10).
What Genre is Esther?
The lack of explicit reference to God has long been noted about the book of Esther. This actually may be an indication that the book is meant to be understood in the tradition of wisdom as many of the Writings. After all, many themes of Proverbs are found in the book of Esther. Additionally, the book has an international focus since it is set in Persia. For these reasons it is no surprise that Esther is numbered among the Writings. The book is in the parallel position to Ruth, which opens the Megillot, another Jewish heroine. Moreover, the next book in the Hebrew Scriptures after Esther is Daniel. Esther and Daniel are very similar characters with much in common, except the obvious difference that Esther is female and Daniel is male. Thus we might say that Esther is the female Daniel.
The book is meant as a historical chronicle to explain Purim. This does not mean that we can hold it to the standards of history textbooks today, but it is a biblical history. Therefore, the book of Esther is much more a work of literary art than a history textbook is. Some important literary techniques noted by the Dillard-Longman introduction are the use of irony (which is all over the book), satire of Persians (especially Persian men), recurring motifs like ”drinking and banqueting” (as well as ”items of apparel,” and ”law and legality”), and how so many things are in pairs. The introduction gives long lists of examples of each of these. The author of Esther clearly chose the details he did not merely to write bland history but to write an artistic chronicle. And because we today in our culture think that things that are artistic are not true, I must clarify that this artistic chronicle is telling a true story. One important item of historical context to note is that the book shows that many did not return to Jerusalem from the places where they had lived in exile. The book is a postexilic story written to a postexilic audience.
Esther the Religious Heroine?
Karen Jobes argues that the book of Esther has only one textual link to the other books of the Hebrew Scriptures: the word ”Jews.” She says that if you substituted every time it says that word with some other people group then you would not even guess that it had anything to do with Scripture. Despite what we said earlier she notes some other apparent differences with Daniel – no one prays in Esther, no one has an apocalyptic vision in Esther, there are no miracles in Esther, and there is no concern for God’s law in Esther.
Jobes notes that Esther did not show any concern for the dietary laws of Scripture like Daniel and his friends. Long study of Daniel 1 has led me to a different conclusion about what they are doing there. Yet she is right to note that Esther hides her ”Jewish identity.” She also says, ”Esther loses her virginity in the bed of an uncircumcised Gentile to whom she is not married, and she pleases him in that one night better than all the other virgins of the harem.” She also notes that Esther was reluctant to go to the king and how she later asks for a massacre to go on for another day. Esther is clearly a Jewish heroine, but the question is whether she is a religious heroine. It is a fitting question for a book that many would say is clearly a Jewish book, but not a ‘religious’ book. Martin Luther wished it were not in the Bible.
Jobes notes that the book does not tell us what Esther or Mordecai’s motives were nor does it tell us whether or not they have done what is pleasing in the sight of God. This is pretty common in the narratives of Scripture. This also is the situation in which many a postexilic Jew found him or herself. Consider this – the Jewish believer, especially during the 400 years before the birth of Christ, did not have a prophet to come and tell them whether they were doing right or wrong. Instead, the Jewish believer had to figure out how to live faithfully in a new situation where much of the law could not be applied. In any case, and despite the absence of explicit reference to Him, the true hero of the story is not Esther but YHWH God. Of course, we should say the same of all ”heroes” and ”heroines” in the Bible and out of the Bible. Thus the most important theme on display in this book is the theme of God’s providence. Very important in that respect is the way that God would preserve the Jewish people so that the Messiah would come.
In this respect Jobes introduction on the book offers many helpful ways that the book points us to Jesus. She notes the ”reversal of destiny” theme and says that like the Jews of Persia we ”should expect only death and destruction,” that is, ”because of our sin.” Our reversal of destiny then was the death of Jesus Christ. The story of His death and resurrection is an obvious example of this theme. Also the book shows how God will fulfill through providence all His covenant promises. And Jobes tells us that He continues to do so today.
Jobes gives the example from her own life of thinking that she needed some kind of ‘sign’ to know what God’s will was for her life when instead His will was being unfolded for her in the course of ordinary events. This was an important lesson for the Jewish person living in the time between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as it is for us today. Thus many have noted that it is helpful to explore just how divine sovereignty and human responsibility interplay in this book. We also live in a very analogous situation today – she was living in pagan Persia and we also are living in a pagan world. And like Esther and Mordecai we have to figure out what to do in difficult political situations. Yet despite appearances and no matter how bad our destiny might increasingly look we wait for the great reversal of the final resurrection.
Yet there is another theme that I would want to highlight for your consideration as to applying Esther. It is the huge theme of drinking and banqueting/feasting. Remember that this is a huge theme of Scripture: we have been invited to the Lord’s banquet or feast. He has invited His bride (Esther being a type of this bride) to this wedding banquet. Iain M. Duguid compares and contrasts Ahasuerus’ invitation to Queen Vashti with that we have from the Lord. These lines of thought are worth further exploration too. Warren Gage has written about how Esther is a type of the bride of Christ.
And then there is the antagonist of the story: Haman. Haman we are told is an Agagite. We learn the story of Agag in the book of Samuel. Saul defeated the Amalekites and took their king Agag alive. He was supposed to devote them all to destruction but Saul spared Agag. This was the incident that caused Saul to be rejected as King of Israel by God. So the prophet Samuel came and confronted him about it and then Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before YHWH in Gilgal. Unfortunately someone from this family survived and they were the ancestor of Haman. Haman is the seed of the serpent in the book. Thus just as important in this book is the idea that the enemies of Christ will be defeated and Christ will be victorious. This compliments what we said earlier about a reversal of ‘destiny.’
Further Note of Introduction
So that you are aware – Ahasuerus is not the name by which most people would recognize this king today. He is better known by his Greek name Xerxes I. King Ahasuerus is also mentioned in Daniel 9:1 and Ezra 4:6. I will include some additional historical background as we proceed in the coming weeks through the book, but reading those verses will be helpful for you to situate the book into its historical context.