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Friday Bible Blogging - Esther 1 to Esther 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleI apologize for this being the second week in a row where Friday Bible Blogging has become Saturday Morning Bible Blogging, but that's just the way the week went. I spent a bit too much time on other people's websites during my lunch breaks this week, so I just didn't have time to get this entry done in time. But at least it's less than a day late.

The book of Esther is another short one, just ten chapters long. And it happens to be the last of the Historical Books, marking another milestone in this series.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) had some interesting notes on this book. For one thing, there appears to have been some debate during the Bible's history as to whether or not this book should have been included as part of the Canonical literature. It's never alluded to in the New Testament, and it wasn't one of the scriptures contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Additionally, it never once explicitly mentions God. This debate occurred among both Jewish rabbis and in the early Christian church, but eventually, it was accepted by both groups by around the 3rd of 4th century AD (though even as late as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther stated he wished it had never been written).

The book focuses on the story of its heroine, Esther, who became queen of Persia, and used her position to the advantage of the Jews living there. Due to a variety of literary devices (and more than a handful of historical inaccuracies), the majority consensus among Biblical scholars seems to be that this book was written as a piece of historical fiction. In fact, I even read one account stating that it should be considered a comedy. It appears to have evolved over time, so that the version we have now incorporates an explanation for the origin of the Jewish holiday, Purim, that probably wasn't in the original version. And Purim itself appears to be a Jewish incorporation of a Babylonian or Persian holiday.

Esther, Chapter 1

The story starts off with a banquet, which turns into a recurring theme in the story. This particular banquet is hosted by the King of Persia, Ahasuerus (most likely the historical king, Xerxes I). At the same time, Queen Vashti gave a separate banquet for the women. I won't list all the historical accuracies in this book, but I'll note this as just one example. There is no record of a queen Vashti, especially not as a king's first queen. Xerxes' first queen was Amestris.

Seven days into this party, the king summoned the queen so that he could show off her beauty. The queen refused, which infuriated the king. This was in keeping with the attitudes of the time where women, even queens, were to be subservient to men. In fact, one of the king's advisors even says, "For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.."

So, Vashti was de-crowned, and forbidden to see the king again. The advisor believed that "when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honour to their husbands, high and low alike."

Esther, Chapter 2

A search was begun for a new queen. Of course, she had to be a virgin, though the NOAB notes this was partly for the practical reason of ensuring the royal bloodline. This is where the book introduced its title character, Esther. Like many Jews during the Babylonian exile, she went by two names - her Hebrew name, Hadassah, meaning myrtle, and her Babylonian name, Esther, derived either from the name of the Babylonian goddess of war and sexual allure, Ishtar, or from the Persian word for star, or possibly from both.

Esther's parents had died when she was young, so she had been raised by her uncle, Mordecai. She grew into a beautiful young woman, so she was chosen as one of the candidates for the new queen. After a year of "cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women", she was ready to be introduced to the king. She followed the advice of the eunuch in charge of concubines, and obviously made a favorable impression upon the king, as he picked her to be his new queen. And with the wedding, there was another banquet. Throughout her entire time in the palace, Esther kept her Jewish ethnicity a secret.

At the end of the chapter, Mordecai learned of a plot against the king's life. So, he told Esther, who in turn "told the king in the name of Mordecai". The men were found, tried, and executed by hanging on the gallows. According to the NOAB, this wasn't a rope and noose hanging like you might see in an old Western, but a particularly nasty form of execution - death by impalement.

Esther, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 introduced the villain, Haman. Haman was a descendent of King Agag the Amalekite, an enemy of Mordecai's ancestor, King Saul. So, the story was introducing an old ancestral conflict between Haman and Mordecai from the get go.

Haman was a high official, and expected everyone to bow down to him, but Mordecai refused to do so. The story isn't clear if this is because of the ancestral conflict between them, or simply because of Mordecai's pride. At any rate, this angered Haman, but rather than take it out on just Mordecai, Haman "plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus."

Haman went to Ahasuerus, and told him lies about the Jews being a disruptive people that refused to follow the king's laws, convincing the king to give him the money he needed to fund an attack on the Jews. Haman sent out letters to all parts of the nation, "giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods."

Esther, Chapter 4

When Mordecai learned of the plot, he "tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry." When Esther learned of the plot, after a bit of back and forth trying to figure out logistics (since she couldn't leave the palace and Mordecai couldn't enter it), she began communicating with Mordecai by sending messages back and forth through one of the eunuchs. Mordecai wanted Esther to approach the king to help the Jews, but Esther was afraid for her life, for "if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law--all alike are to be put to death." But Mordecai eventually convinced her to at least try - if she didn't, she would probably be killed, anyway, once somebody learned that she was also a Jew.

Esther, Chapter 5

Esther went to approach the king, and fate smiled upon her as the king summoned her as soon as he saw her. When he asked her what she wanted, she invited the king to a banquet, and asked that Haman also attend. At the banquet, the king asked her again what she wanted, "Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." But Esther delayed her true request again, asking the king back to another banquet the next day.

That night, Haman left the banquet "in good spirits", but his mood was soured on the way home when he passed by Mordecai. He continued on his way home, and called for his wife and friends. He began bragging about his reputation with the king and queen, and went on to complain about Mordecai. Their group came up with a plan to punish Mordecai - building a gallows fifty cubits high that very night, and then Haman would approach the king the next morning to request that Mordecai be executed on it.

Esther, Chapter 6

As I've written before, I think the NOAB is a fantastic resource for understanding the Bible. But, in describing the next two chapters, I think it got a little over-enthusiastic, "This masterpiece of ironic narrative uses alliteration, repetition, understatement, and reversal..." Having read these sections myself, I'm not sure I would call it a 'masterpiece', though it is good compared to what I've read of the Bible up to this point.

At any rate, by another quirk of fate, the king came down with insomnia that night, so "he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king." The record of Mordecai informing the king about the plot on his life was read, and the king decided that he had to do something to honor him. So, still ignorant of the personal conflict between Mordecai and Haman, the king summoned Haman to ask for advice on how to honor somebody. But, in a scene that could almost be on a sit-com, when the king asked Haman about it, he never mentioned by name who was to be honored. And of course, Haman jumped to the conclusion that the king was talking about him (Haman), and so he told the king that the man should be honored by wearing the royal robes, donned with a royal crown, and led around on horseback through the city by one of the king's officials. When the king said, "Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king's gate," you can practically imagine a TV show cutting to Mordecai to watch his jaw drop in reaction.

Haman honored Mordecai in the manner he had suggested to the king, then in a bit of foreshadowing, "hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered." While he was still discussing this new turn of events with his friends and family, the king's eunuchs arrived to take him to Esther's next banquet.

Esther, Chapter 7

This was the chapter where Haman finally got what was coming to him. This time at the banquet, when the king asked Esther what her request was, she finally told him. Interestingly, it was the third time he'd made the request, which according to the NOAB, is a common motif in folklore. Esther explained the edict that had gone out under the king's seal against her people. When the king asked who it was who was responsible for this, I again see it in my mind's eye as a scene from TV, only this time from a soap opera, imagining Esther pointing at Haman with an evil eye while and a dramatic sound effect as she shouts, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" The king left "in wrath" for a minute while "Haman stayed to beg his life". He threw himself on the couch where she was reclining, and when the king returned, he mistook Haman's begging for an attack, exclaiming, "Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?" With that, the kings guards immediately grabbed Haman and covered his face. According to the NOAB, this covering of the face may have been to "protect the king from ritual pollution by association with a condemned criminal". They took Haman out of the palace, and executed him on the very gallows he'd had built for Mordecai.

Esther, Chapter 8

With Haman dead, the king gave his signet ring to Mordecai, and put Mordecai in charge of "the house of Haman". But the decree against the Jews was still outstanding, and according to this story, at least (though there's no historical reason to believe this to be the case), "an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked." So, the previous decree couldn't be revoked, but a new one could be written, authorizing the Jews to defend themselves. (I wonder if they would have just allowed themselves to be massacred, otherwise.) The decree was sent out to all corners of the kingdom, and "In every province and in every city, wherever the king's command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday."

Esther, Chapter 9

With the new decree from the king and the Jews now prepared for an attack, nearly everyone was afraid of them, or even allied themselves with them. But there were a few groups with so much hatred for the Jews that they still went through with the attack. "So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them." The chapter listed the numbers slaughtered in several cities. And to make the revenge against Haman even more thorough, his ten sons were captured, executed, and their bodies hung on public display, while the Jews in one region, Susa, were allowed an additional day of slaughtering their enemies.

This, then, is the explanation for Purim, and why it was celebrated somewhat differently in different regions. As far as the etymology of the word, it's because "Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur--that is, 'the lot'--to crush and destroy them."

The chapter closed with charging the Jews to remember these events and to continue on with the celebration of Purim "throughout every generation".

The NOAB notes that the previous chapter may have been the original ending of this story, and this chapter and the next were tacked on later. One obvious point in favor of this is the plot summary from verses 24 and 25 being slightly different than the story just told.

Esther, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 was a brief post script, just a few sentences long, extolling the power and deeds of Ahasuerus and Mordecai. It's a bit interesting in a book where a woman was the heroine, that it would close praising the men from the story, and not her. It seems to be a little bit of a reminder to keep women in their place.


Due to its origins as a short story, rather than being cobbled together from different sources or different oral traditions, Esther had a coherence lacking in other Biblical books. And reading Esther knowing that it was probably originally intended as fiction made it a bit easier to enjoy and look past the slaughterings typical of Biblical stories. No real people were dying here - they were props like in a Hollywood action movie. It's not quite so off putting to have an intentionally fictional story with so much killing, as opposed to people revelling in slaughter in a story that they believe to be real.

With the historical books now behind me, next week will be on to the Wisdom books, starting with Job.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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