Overview of the Book of Esther

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Overview of the Book of Esther
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Overview of the Book of Esther

Author: The author is unknown.

Purpose:

To establish the feast of Purim as a remembrance of God's deliverance of his people and as a reminder to remain faithful to him even when living under oppression.

Date: c. 460-350 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • The people of God will suffer severely at times at the hands of God's enemies.
  • God will preserve his people in their times of oppression.
  • The Lord will reverse the fortunes of those who oppress his people and will exalt his people from their humble state.
  • The people of God must seek help from God and remain faithful to him despite the trials of suffering.
  • The people of God should regularly commemorate the wonders of God's deliverances in the past for courage in their present trials.

Author:

Although the author of the book of Esther is unknown, his interest in the origin and observance of the festival of Purim, his intense nationalism and his intimate knowledge of the Persian court, customs and geography suggest that he was a Persian Jew living in Susa.

Time and Place of Writing:

The earliest possible date for the book's composition is some time after the events described in the book, during the fifth century B.C. (cf. the writer's perspective in Esther 9:19), and the latest possible date is the first century B.C. A late-fifth-century or early-fourth-century date is generally preferred by scholars, who point to linguistic evidence as well as to such factors as the author's favorable attitude toward the Persian king and to Gentiles in general as evidence for an early date. Some scholars believe that the lack of influence from the Greek language strongly suggests a date before 331 B.C., when the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The writer of Esther clearly intended the book to explain the origin of the celebration of Purim, to institutionalize it as a commemoration of the great deliverance of the Jews during the Persian period (see note on Esther 9:20-32).

The book of Esther is renowned for its literary artistry, which functions as the principal vehicle for the book's religious meaning. It is a tightly woven and detailed narrative that focuses on the actions and roles of its characters. The author created narrative tensions by recording reversals or sharp contrasts in fortunes, as well as frequently ironic expectations and roles. Notice particularly:

  • The descriptions of the banquets of Xerxes and of Vashti, the first in such detail and the second so terse (cf. Esther 1:1-8 with Esther 1:9).

  • The striking contrast between the initial portrait of the king as a pompous and mighty potentate (Esther 1:1-8) and the subsequent revelation of his incompetence and lack of power (see note on Esther 1:13-14).

  • The contrast between the king's response to Vashti's failure to appear and to Esther's unbidden appearance (Esther 1:11-21; 5:1-3).

  • The intensely ironic reversal in the anticipated and actual fortunes of Haman (Esther 6:4-12).

  • The pathetic scene in which Haman pleads for Esther's mercy - only to be accused of attempted rape (Esther 7:7-9).

  • The specific reversals that take place between Haman's (Esther 3:12-4:3) and Mordecai's decrees (Esther 8:9-17).

  • The poetic justice in Haman hanging on the very gallows he had gleefully prepared for Mordecai (Esther 7:9-10; 8:1-2; 9:25).
Such reversals are clearly beyond coincidence and reveal that this story is about God's hand in the salvation history of his people (see 1 Sam. 2:1-10).

The writer also used the compositional technique of repetition or duplication to weave together the various parts of the story. Notice:

  • The symmetrical positioning of the three references to annals in the book (Esther 2:23; 6:1; 10:2).

  • The three sets of paired banquets marking the beginning (by Xerxes; Esther 1:3-4; 5-8), middle (by Esther; Esther 5:4-8; 7:1-10), and end (the two celebrations of Purim; Esther 9:18-32) of the book. See more of the banquet motif in Esther 1:9; 2:18; 3:15; 8:17; 9:17.

  • The threefold mention of the size of Xerxes' empire (Esther 1:1; 8:9; 9:30).

  • The repeated promise to Esther of "even up to half the kingdom" (Esther 5:3,6; 7:2; cf. Esther 9:12).

  • The repeated insistence that the Hebrews did not plunder their enemies (Esther 9:10, 15, 16).

  • The two accounts of Esther's hidden identity (Esther 2:10, 20).

  • The two times the virgins were assembled (Esther 2:8, 19).

  • Haman's two interchanges with his wife and friends (Esther 5:10-14; 6:13-14).

  • The two coverings of Haman's head (Esther 6:12; 7:8).

  • The conflicting edicts regarding the fate of the Jews (Esther 3:12-14; 8:9-14; cf. Esther 1:22).

  • The two references to the subsiding of Xerxes' anger (Esther 2:1; 7:10).

  • The double reminder of the permanency of the laws of the Medes and Persians(Esther 1:19; 8:8).

  • The recurrence of the number seven (Esther 1:5, 10, 14; 2:9, 16).

  • Esther's repeated receiving of and desire for favor (Esther 2:9, 15, 17; 5:2, 8; 7:3; 8:9).

  • The rehearsal of the entire story in Esther 9:24-25.
The literary technique of foreshadowing is also employed in the book of Esther. Most striking is the prediction by Haman's wife that he would "surely come to ruin" because Mordecai was a Jew (Esther 6:13). The author was a master of suspense and paced the narrative well (e.g., Esther's postponement of her request [Esther 5:4], which heightened the tension). The continual references to time not only present the events as history (Esther 1:1-2) and underscore the theme of God's providential working in history, but also keep the story moving (e.g., "later" [Esther 2:1]; "when" [Esther 2:15]; "now" [Esther 2:17]; "when" [Esther 2:19]; "during" [Esther 2:21]; and "after" [Esther 3:1]).

The writer of Esther creatively connected the names of two of the main characters, Haman and Mordecai, to emphasize the conflict between them and those they represented (see notes on Esther 2:5-6; 3:1), specifically the Amalekites and the Jews, respectively. Similarities in phraseology, setting, plot and emphases also suggest that the Joseph story provided an important model for the author as he structured this account (note, e.g., the similarities between Esther 2:2-4 and Gen. 41:34-37; 3:10 and Gen. 41:42; and Esther 8:6 and Gen. 44:34).

A number of important themes are interlaced throughout the book:

  • Feasting or banqueting sets the scene for each primary action in the narrative, leading up to the ultimate celebration of Purim and contrasting with the theme of fasting (Esther 4:3, 16; 9:31).

  • Conflicting loyalties and obedience versus disobedience run through the book. The initial disobedience of Vashti, in chapter 1, sets the stage for the challenges set before Esther with regard to obeying Mordecai (Esther 2:10, 20; 4:8-16) and standing up against the law (Esther 4:11, 16; 5:1-2); for Mordecai's noncompliance with Haman's command, which was construed as disobedience on the part of all Jews (Esther 3:2-8); and for Mordecai's willingness to carry out Esther's instructions (Esther 4:17) to serve both the Persian king and the best interests of the Jews.

  • The inviolability of the Jews, most explicitly stated in Esther 4:14, is both foundational to the narrative and a reason for the book's continuing significance among the community of faith.

  • The rest and relief from enemies that the feast of Purim commemorates (Esther 9:16, 22, cf. Deut. 25:19).

Christ in Esther:

The subtle theological style of Esther does not diminish the importance for Christians of seeing the events narrated in this book in the light of Christ and salvation in him. The people of God were in exile, separated from the seat of their faith, Jerusalem, with its Temple and king. Even so, the Lord cared for them, bringing safety and deliverance that have been commemorated through the feast of Purim from that time forward.

These features of the narrative point in the first place to the life of Christ himself. In his state of humiliation, he too suffered under the rule of God's enemies. His faithful service, even to the point of death, brought salvation for all who follow him (Acts 2:36).

Beyond this, the narrative reminds Christian readers that during the present time, when they are separated from their King and Temple, Jesus (John 16:7; Acts 1:7-9), they should expect to suffer for their identification with Christ (Acts 14:22; Rom. 8:35; 1 Pet. 4:16). Even so, while followers of Christ endure pain innocently as they wait for the new Jerusalem to descend from heaven, they are not alone. Jesus promised his presence, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to be with the church until the end of the church age (Matt. 28:20; Eph. 1:13-14). Christians today should not wage spiritual or religious conflict with political might or with instruments of physical death. They are to rely instead on spiritual armor for protection as they take the gospel into a hostile world (Eph. 6:10-20). The courage and faith of Esther, Mordecai and the Jews reveal for believers today how they are to follow Christ until he returns in glory.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Historical Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).