The heroine of the book named for her, Esther is a young Jewish woman living in exile in the Persian diaspora, who through her youth and beauty becomes queen of the Persian Empire, and then by her wits and courage saves the Jewish people from destruction. The message of the Book of Esther, a work of historical fiction written in the diaspora in the late Persian—early Hellenistic period (fourth century b.c.e.), gives encouragement to the exiled Jews that they, although powerless in the Persian Empire, can, by their resourcefulness and talents, not only survive but prosper, as does Esther.
Esther first appears in the story as one of the young virgins collected into the king’s harem as possible replacements for Vashti, the banished wife of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, reigned 485—465 b.c.e.). She is identified as the daughter of Avihail (Esth 2:15) and the cousin and adopted daughter of Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin (Esth 2:5–7). Not much is revealed about her character, but she is described as beautiful (2:7) and obedient (2:10), and she appears to be pliant and cooperative. She quickly wins the favor of the chief eunuch, Hegai, and, when her turn comes to spend the night with the king, Ahasuerus falls in love with her and makes her his queen. All this takes place while Esther keeps her Jewish identity secret (Esth 2:10, 20).
After Esther becomes queen, her cousin Mordecai becomes involved in a power struggle with the grand vizier Haman the Agagite, a descendant of an Amalekite king who was an enemy of Israel during the time of King Saul (1 Sam 15:32). Mordecai refuses to bow before Haman, and this so infuriates Haman that he resolves not only to put Mordecai to death, but also to slaughter his entire people. He secures the king’s permission to do this, and a date is set, Adar 13 (this episode determines the date of the festival of Purim, a popular Jewish festival). When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot, he rushes to the palace to inform Esther, weeping and clothed in sackcloth (Esth 4:1–3).
At this point in the story, Esther’s character comes to the fore. When she first learns of Haman’s plot and the threat to the Jews, her reaction is one of helplessness. She cannot approach the king without being summoned, on pain of death, and the king has not summoned her in thirty days, implying that she has fallen out of favor (Esth 4:11). However, following Mordecai’s insistent prodding, she resolves to do what she can to save her people, ending with the ringing declaration “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esth 4:16). The pliant and obedient Esther has become a woman of action.
She appears unsummoned before King Ahasuerus, who not only does not kill her, but promises to grant her request (the text here, as throughout, does not mention God, but God’s providence is clearly in the background). In a superb moment of understatement, Esther asks the king to a dinner party (Esth 5:4)! The king, accompanied by Haman, attends Esther’s banquet and again seeks to discover her request, which she once more deflects with an invitation to another dinner party. Only at the second dinner party, when the king is sufficiently beguiled by her charms, does she reveal her true purpose: the unmasking of Haman and his plot. She reveals, for the first time, her identity as a Jew and accuses Haman of the plot to destroy her and her people. The volatile king springs to the defense of the woman to whom he was indifferent three days earlier, Haman is executed, and the Jews receive permission to defend themselves from their enemies, which they do with great success (Esther 7–9). The book ends with Mordecai elevated to the office of grand vizier and power now concentrated in the hands of Esther.
Esther and her book have suffered much at the hands of interpreters through the centuries. Although very popular among the Jewish people, it was one of the last books to be accepted into the canon, and was accepted only because of its connection with the festival of Purim. The book has been taken to task for irreligiosity: God is not mentioned, and the only Jewish religious practice referred to is fasting (Esth 4:16). The rabbis were troubled by Esther’s failure to live as a Jew: she has sexual intercourse with and marries a Gentile, lives in the Persian court, and does not follow Jewish dietary laws (the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, tries to remedy this by adding prayers and repeatedly invoking God, as well as having Esther declare that she loathes her present lifestyle). In addition, Esther has been taken to task by both female and male commentators for her apparent willingness to participate in Persian harem customs, and by Christian commentators for her evident bloodthirstiness in destroying Gentiles (Esth 9:1–15). All these criticisms, however, fail to grasp the true purpose of the book.
The purpose of the Book of Esther is to demonstrate to Jews living in exile that it is possible to achieve success in the country of one’s exile without giving up one’s identity as a Jew. In this, the Book of Esther is similar to books such as Daniel or Tobit, or, in fact, to the historical character Nehemiah. However, the Book of Esther is unique in two important respects. First, the protagonist of the book, and the one with whom the audience should identify, is a woman, Esther (Mordecai is, of course, the other leading character and finishes the story at a very high rank, but this is basically because of his relationship to, and through the efforts of, Esther). This choice of a female hero serves an important function in the story. Women were, in the world of the Persian diaspora, as in many other cultures, essentially powerless and marginalized members of society. Even if they belonged to the dominant culture, they could not simply reach out and grasp power, as a man could; whatever power they could obtain was earned through the manipulation of the public holders of power, men. In this sense the exiled Jew could identify with the woman: he or she too was essentially powerless and marginalized, and power could be obtained only through one’s wits and talents. But, as the actions of Esther demonstrate, this can be done. By astutely using her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther saves her people, brings about the downfall of their enemy, and elevates her kinsman to the highest position in the kingdom. Esther becomes the model for the Jew living in exile.
The second unique aspect of the Hebrew Book of Esther is the absence of any overt religious element. (God is not mentioned in the book. There are no religious practices observed, with the minor exception of fasting.) Many commentators have argued that religious beliefs, such as a belief in God’s protection of the chosen people, are present (Esth 4:14). This argument may be valid; however, it remains true that the presence of God is conspicuously absent. Jewish identity seems to be primarily ethnic, not religious. It is who Esther is that makes her Jewish, rather than what she practices or believes. This indicates that the audience for the book was primarily in the diaspora, where certain religious practices, such as worship in the temple, were simply not possible, and Jewish ethnic identity was in danger of disappearing in the great melting pot of the ancient Near East. The Book of Esther shows that this does not have to happen; in fact, Jews can thrive as Jews (although the danger they may live in is also clearly acknowledged).
The character of Esther serves as a positive role model for Jewish women and men living in diaspora, both in the time the book was written and down through the centuries to the present day. The contemporaneity of the message helps to account for the enduring popularity of the book, and Esther herself, in the Jewish community.
Levenson, Jon D. Esther: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: 1997.
Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.
Moore, Carey A. Esther. New York: 1971.
White, Sidnie A. “Esther.” Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, 124–129. Kentucky: 1992; expanded edition, 1998.
Ibid. “Esther: A Feminine Model for Jewish Diaspora.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day, 161–177. Minneapolis: 1989.